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Ways for Congregations to Support Youth Facing an Abrupt End of the School Year

As students looked forward to spring break, few anticipated that their weeklong vacation would stretch into a month or longer. For many, a school year that still had three months has already ended abruptly. Families are practicing social distancing. How can pastors, staff and congregations respond?

  1. Show support for teens by sending them texts, messages and cards. Let them know you are thinking about them. Acknowledge their pain in the midst of this. Don’t pretend to know all of the answers; instead, offer care and compassion. Ask them for suggestions of how the pastor, staff and congregation can support them during this time. This allows them to share their needs.
     
  2. Many youth now must complete the school year through online classes, isolated from teachers and friends. Prepare weekly devotions for teens on Facebook and Instagram. Create YouTube Live/Facebook Live videos for youth to connect with on Sunday night. Ask the teens to submit specific questions for you to address. Do a live Zoom meeting on Sunday morning for youth to interact with each other as they study the Bible and share prayer requests. Teens who are into online gaming with a PC, an Xbox or a PlayStation might use gaming to have fun and engage others in conversations. If they just want it to be their group, you can set up private parties online. Then you can play, talk about life and see if they have any current needs.
     
  3. Focus on high school seniors who may not have graduation ceremonies and other year-end celebrations. It is hard not to say goodbye to teachers and other students. When social distancing is no longer required, consider having a recognition event for seniors. Include a banquet, slides of the seniors, fun awards and a poster-making activity where people can share fun memories and well wishes. Invite teachers and parents to share in the celebration. 
     
  4. Suspensions of state tournaments for sports and other activities is another hurdle for youth. Other teens are missing out on important choir concerts, band tournaments, debates, science Olympiads and other activities. While providing a substitute for these would be difficult, it is critical to listen to those who are personally dealing with these losses. Ask them how they are feeling, what thoughts they are dealing with and what the church could do to support them. Perhaps, when social distancing is no longer necessary, local schools and churches could come together to provide an Academic/Musical/Athletic “Olympics.” Seniors, followed by younger teens, could sign up for the events in which they want to participate.
     
  5. Be realistic. No church has to do everything. If you serve a small congregation, don’t be overwhelmed by what larger ministries or churches can provide. It is not a competition! We are on the same team, working together to connect with people in our world during a difficult time. In fact, some of the larger ministries are providing free resources so you do not have to make everything from scratch.
     

More important than programs is just being available to listen to those who struggle, whether that is through a phone call, a text, a message on Facebook, a card, a Zoom meeting, Facetime or another resource. It can be quite challenging to continue to care and love one another in community when we must be physically distant, but it can open our eyes to new ways to connect with one another. This time is causing us to get out of our normal routines and think of how can we engage one another. 

This time can open our eyes to people in our world who faced isolation before but our busy schedules kept us from seeing: single mothers working multiple jobs, older adults living in assisted-living facilities or homeless adults who receive meals at a local shelter but are otherwise ignored. How can our isolation now make us more aware of those who felt isolated before? How we might care for them in the future?

We may see more grief in the coming weeks. Some teens know already that their sports seasons are cancelled, but some are holding onto hope of going to prom or walking at graduation. This is unchartered territory, so it is OK to say “I don't know,” to listen to youth when they are trying to process their pain and to avoid judging them when they do so. 

 

The Rev. Dave Pettengill is pastor of student and family ministries at Epworth United Methodist Church, Toledo, Ohio.