Sometimes every possible thing that can go wrong does.
On the rare occasion, it even happens all at the same time.
Last summer, I experienced the perfect trifecta of awfulness while leading our youth on a mission trip in New Orleans.
In the course of our week there, we had two students throw up in the rental van. One of them puked so hard he shot his retainer right out of his mouth, and tearfully asked me to clean it up for him. I declined, and so he promptly threw up again after cleaning it up himself.
While cleaning up said vomit-covered van, a well-meaning kid locked us out of the vehicle—naturally, with the engine still on.
The next morning, a picnic table collapsed in an explosion of wood bits and rusty nails under two of my students.
As we attempted to laugh that off, a teenage driver slammed into our van while we were sitting at a stoplight.
The icing on the cake was three students being rushed to the emergency room with dog bites from a wild dog at the animal shelter we were serving at.
After experiencing this week of frustration, I learned a few lessons on handling the unexpected dilemmas that inevitably come up when you’re working with people.
Plan on Disaster
Before you do anything with youth, consider all the possible things that could go wrong. What happens if someone gets sick or injured? What if your credit card is suddenly declined while traveling across the country? What if you get lost without cell phone signal? What if you hit a traffic jam and run out of water or snacks for your participants? Are you prepared to handle an emergency situation?
As much as I’ve meticulously prepared before every youth event, things often go awry. Life’s messy and unpredictable, especially when you’re working with other people.
For me, standard protocol before youth events means collecting emergency contact information and a list of first and last names, as well as always having a fully charged cell phone and fully stocked first aid kit on hand at all times.
When it comes to youth trips, I’m even more careful to plan for the unexpected emergency. I prepare printed maps, pack extra cash, backup phone batteries, directions to closest emergency rooms and urgent cares, and boxes full of the little things that often come in handy (trash bags, antibacterial wet wipes, Pepto-Bismol, paper towels, bandaids, duct tape, and Febreeze are always staples for me).
Think carefully about every activity you’ll be doing, and plan how you would react if you experienced a kink in the plan. Research shows that visualization of handling a critical situation is often the most important step in ensuring a person handles it calmly and efficiently if it actually occurs. Talk through potential issues with your fellow adult leaders, families, and even students so you’re all on the same page if something does occur.
Handle The Serious Issues, Then Smile
It’s often incredibly stressful to deal with the issues that come up in working with kids. I’m astounded at the complex, emotional, and often tragic situations I’ve found myself in with student ministry. But I’ve learned the value of handling issues with proper seriousness, and then finding a reason to smile.
I once heard a charming quote from Mr. Rogers, who said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
It’s absolutely true, that in every unfortunate moment I’ve had, I’ve also seen students and leaders step up to care for and help each other in astounding ways.
Several years ago, I had to inform a student that his beloved cousin had died in an auto accident while he was on a mission trip with me. His sorrow reduced our entire group to tears, and the mood was somber. In a stroke of brilliance, one of our leaders suggested we have a squirt gun war to cheer up the kids. Sure enough, tear-stained faces soon were smiling as the leaders unexpectedly sprayed the entire group with squirt guns.
Human beings are resilient, and even the worst moments eventually pass. Handle problems, and then find a way to bring a sliver of joy and hope to those who are watching and learning from you. Thank God for the experiences you have that allow you (and others) to experience growth.
Make it a Bonding Experience
Most of the terrible situations that have occurred have created a strong sense of community with the youth who dealt with it. I’ve watched my youth grapple with almost every imaginable scenario—death, assault, disease, terror, and emergencies alike—and come out with life-long bonds together because of their shared experiences. We are a community of Christ-followers, and we share in the real ups and downs of life.
As an adult, it’s sometimes tempting to downplay a situation, or want to sweep it under the rug or forget it even happened because it brings pain. Understand, however, the value of your community sharing in the messiness of life together, learning from caring Christian adults how to process their emotions and reactions.
Seek opportunities to have real, honest conversations with your youth about how they’re feeling, and let these moments be times when you point them back to a Heavenly Father who understands every thought in their heads.
Let Yourself Grow
As the popular saying reminds us, practice makes perfect. That includes you constantly learning to deal with difficult situations, as you learn to navigate with wisdom and practicality. Allow yourself the chance to grow and gain perspective from every experience you have with leading youth, no matter how challenging they may be at the time.
Remember that you’re not alone in the struggles you’re facing. Godly men and women throughout history have faced trials and learned from them. As Paul says in Philippians 4:12-13, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
No matter what you’re wading through, what goes wrong, or where we end up, the Almighty God is with us every single step of the way.
And with that knowledge, we certainly can persevere through the puke and pain.