Youth leaders providing encouragement for youth amid cancelations of prom, graduation
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
High school seniors, in particular, are dealing with the heartache of knowing that some of their most highly-anticipated events — prom, graduation and senior trips — are potentially going to be canceled.
For teenagers in Tennessee, the reality of the situation is starting to sink in, especially after the announcement from government officials that schools won’t likely be re-opening any time soon, and perhaps not at all for the remainder of the school year.
“It is hard for them right now,” said Christian Shipman, minister to families of students at The Church at Sugar Creek, Humboldt. “Our seniors are active students. They play ball and have many close friends in their classes. They are disappointed. … (At first), everyone felt like they were on spring break. But life has changed drastically since then.”
As the list of cancelations continues to pile up, youth leaders are being tasked with the difficult challenge of trying to help guide their teens through the obstacle course of emotions.
Shipman said the most therapeutic thing that he, and other youth pastors, can do for their students is simply be available.
“Right now, it’s just about letting them know that we are here for them,” Shipman said. “I have some awesome adult leaders in our student program, and they have been communicating with our students. … I really do stress that we are going through it together. We are not letting our students be alone outside of social distancing.”
Cody Greene, youth pastor and associate pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, Jonesborough, said being a good listener is perhaps the most important element in connecting with youth. He noted he will “not scold them for being self-centered, but genuinely listen to their complaints and let them be honest about how they are feeling.”
Greene said he uses these conversations to explain God’s province, and reminds the students of “the certain, concrete hopes we have set before us in Christ that nothing will change,” he said.
In addition to disappointment, there are other emotions in play for teenagers in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. Some teens are angry. Others are fearful.
Tennessee Baptist Mission Board youth specialist Jay Barbier said his hope is that students can be well informed about the virus without being consumed with worry. He knows there is a fine line between the two, but he thinks it’s possible to find a “sweet spot” in the middle.
“We want them to be aware of what’s going on, but we don’t want to increase their anxiety about this,” said Barbier. “We want them to be knowledgeable about it, but also to remain positive.”
With smart phones and social media deeply embedded in today’s culture, students are bombarded with information, some accurate and some not, about the pandemic.
“They are seeing it all unfold in the palm of their hand,” Shipman said. “They are not able to completely process it, (and they see that) the adults around them are not able to process it, either. So, I have stayed away from correcting students on their information and instead focused on encouraging them to be safe and love those they are around.”
Greene said he would characterize the overall mood and mindset of his youth as “annoyed.” He said they are frustrated about not really knowing what to believe in terms of the seriousness of the situation.
“There is so much information out there that it’s hard for them to distinguish what is hype and what is reality,” said Greene. “It seems like their parents are the ones constantly on social media sharing and reading articles, all with contradicting information, so the students look at their parents as overreacting. This, in turn, makes them downplay the whole thing, and feel superior in their simplistic ‘everybody chill out’ mindset.”
Barbier said he is trying to stay connected with youth ministers across the state during this time of uncertainty and uneasiness.
“I am trying to reach out to as many of them as I can, either with a call or a text,” said Barbier. “I just want to say, ‘hey, how are you doing with all of this? How are you coping with it? Is there anything I can do? I know this is a hard time, and you are dealing with some disappointed youth on many fronts.”
In addition to the cancelation of school events, many church gatherings — including camps and trips — are also being either postponed or canceled.
The annual Youth Evangelism Conference, one of the largest youth events of the year, was canceled in early March, as was the annual Student Conference at Ridgecrest, which was expected to host about 1,300 students in April.
But even in the midst of this seemingly gloomy situation, there have been victories. Gospel conversations have taken place and spiritual growth has been seen.
“We have had one student, in particular, that social distancing has been really tough for them,” said Shipman. “I have been encouraging him that we are going to get through this, and that they (youth) have a part in loving their family like God would want them to. I am trying to teach him that the sacrifices he’s making right now is showing the love of Christ for years to come.”
Green has also dealt with several from his group who are struggling with the situation.
“Students naturally ask questions during tough times because they want to understand,” said Green. “I got a phone call from a student who has been having a hard time understanding it all, and why things are the way they are. We had a good conversation and I let him know that God is not surprised by this. I (told the student) that this will pass, and that was enough to help him to stay calm.”
Barbier said be believes there are some good things that have emerged, and will continue to emerge, from this situation.
“Honestly, I think there are some families who have been really unplugged from each other who are going to be reconnecting during this ‘stay-home’ time,” he said. “For me, personally, I am grateful for the extra time that I am going to spend with my family. This past Sunday, we had an incredible time of worship together. And I think that is happening all across the country.”
Greene said he has been encouraged by “the mass amount” of preaching and singing he’s seen on social media.
“I believe the Lord is doing a great work in this,” he said, “and that He is going to use this to revive His church.” B&R