FOCUS by being Firm, Observant, Courteous, Understanding and Sincere
“We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:6b)
After serving for years as a correctional officer in detention facilities for juvenile delinquent boys, I was sure working with a church youth group would be a breeze. I was wrong.
The discipline in juvenile detention was strict. Taking a strong stand on minor issues usually kept major incidents from happening. Officers could boss kids around to restore order. There were clear consequences for infractions. In the worst cases, there were holding cells, handcuffs and shackles to fall back on. The rule was use the least force necessary, but use force.
A pastor can’t really do that in a youth group.
Making the transition from corrections to a congregation was tricky. I had to learn new tactics for keeping some semblance of control, but things kept getting out of hand. I found that teaching servanthood to teens at church was as difficult as any work detail I supervised in the department of corrections.
My problem was I was so concerned about using too much force and being too strict that I became too lenient. Some of the youth group kids quickly took advantage of that. I needed to learn anew how to apply the Law as well as the Gospel.
A hard lesson came after a youth group outing on a wintry night. Youth and adults were waiting outside for rides when a boy threw an icy snowball at another and drew blood by hitting him in the eye. I wanted the thrower to check his friend and apologize, but when I called his name he ignored me. I called again, and he defiantly turned and began walking away. By the time I caught up with him everyone was watching. Both the adults and youth present knew my background in corrections and everyone was wondering what I would do.
I explained to the boy that I wanted him to return to his friend and apologize. When he refused, my corrections training kicked in. If he wouldn’t walk willingly, I would escort him to his injured friend. I had done it dozens of times as a correctional officer. However, when I grasped this boy’s arm, he pulled back and hit his head on the glass of a storm door and began to scream. Though there was no damage to his head or the door, everyone was shocked. I immediately called the boy’s mother and the three of us had a heart-to-heart. I expressed my expectations of the boy, offered my apologies for the way the situation was handled and we reconciled. They forgave me, I forgave him and we all prayed for Christ’s forgiveness. Things went much better after that.
I’ve replayed that incident in my mind many times. I should have been more observant and seen the problem coming. I could have firmly dealt with the boy without using force. If I had been more understanding of his fears, I would have taught him how to care for his friend without losing face in front of his peers. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.
Those early years in ministry taught me a lot and prompted me to develop another “FOCUS” acronym that I use to help me deal with youth and adults alike. I approach incidents and events knowing that I need to FOCUS by being Firm, Observant, Courteous, Understanding and Sincere. That’s the manner that I try to use when dealing with confrontations or in teaching servanthood.
Service isn’t a natural act for anyone; it needs to be taught. But teachers can be firm without being coercive; spirit-led servanthood can’t be forced. Youth workers can watch for teachable moments without being watchdogs waiting to pounce. We can begin with courtesy and end with courtesy without being bossy. We can be understanding and sincere as we work together with our young people to overcome the challenges to servanthood that accompany adolescence.
Teenagers deal with similar issues whether in a corrections facility or in a youth group; they just deal with their issues differently. All teenagers need structure and guidance. The young people we care for are struggling with real problems presented to them by themselves, their parents and their peers. Natural self-absorption and the lack of experience skew their sense of reality. We as their youth workers need to develop strategies for helping them.
I left the department of corrections because I couldn’t address the kids’ real spiritual issues and many of the youth ended up returning to a life of crime once released. Now, as a church worker, I am able to speak freely about the power of God’s love in Christ. I am privileged to apply the Gospel to their hurts and concerns. I rely on God’s forgiveness to motivate young people to do what was right rather than forcing them to obey by the power of the law. I let the Holy Spirit work lasting changes in the lives of my young people by proclaiming the Word and offering God’s forgiveness through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.