I found myself humming happily as I strolled out of the office, and smiling widely as I encountered a cluster of parents standing outside their children’s Sunday school classroom.

“How precious,” I thought to myself. “The kiddos are probably praying, and their parents don’t want to interrupt them. What a picture-perfect moment.”

As I sauntered up, all the parents looked at me with confused looks on their faces and said one of the few phrases that can strike fear in the heart of any youth leader:

“Where are our children?”

I peered into the classroom. Not there.

I looked in every classroom down the hall. Not there, either.

It’s one of those horrific moments that anyone who works with other people’s children has nightmares about–missing an entire classroom of Sunday school students, and being caught by their parents having no clue where they are.

I ended up tracking down my wayward class of kids on the playground with their teacher, and ushering them (quickly) back to their parents. And despite my chagrin over the whole situation, it got me thinking about those phrases that we never like to hear in our ministry roles.

So here it goes–my list of phrases youth leaders never want to hear:

1. “Oh, that was today? How come I didn’t hear anything about it?”

Want a fast way to get under the skin of every youth leader on the planet? This is it! As one friend put it, “You know, because having it on the church calendar, in the bulletin, shared during announcements, posted on Facebook and emailed to every family wasn’t enough.”

We get it. We live in a fast-paced culture that barrages us with messages, and we know people easily forget things. But good grief–most church workers aren’t in the marketing business, folks.

How can you respond to this? Be gracious and understanding, despite your frustration. Recognize that it is a world racing along, and sometimes they forget dates, permission forms and on occasion, their children.

2. “Hey, are you still awake?”

While those of us in youth ministry love the fact that our youth (and parents and co-leaders) trust us enough to confide in us, we don’t really like it when it happens in the wee hours of the morning while we’re sleeping.

Why? Because we instantly imagine the worst-case scenario that involves us having to bail someone out of jail or save a teen from jumping off the flaming roof of a house.

How should you handle this one? I feel that whenever a student is opening up and confiding, it’s a good thing. That being said, you’re an adult and you don’t need your schedule dictated by someone else. While it depends on the situation whether an immediate conversation is required or not, it’s also appropriate to respond with a kind explanation that, while you do care about the individual, you’d rather discuss it when you’re wide-awake.

3. “Actually, I can’t drive after all.”

This phrase is usually spoken to us when we’re elbow-deep in the last-minute throes of a complicated off-campus event, like a mission trip or retreat.

We’re hardly hanging onto sanity at that point, and then you tell us our transportation plans have to be reworked? Cue the crestfallen expression.

What’s the appropriate response to this? A short explanation of why you really need the driver and why need-to-know things like this in advance is probably merited. Sometimes people simply don’t realize how busy our jobs are, and how much we rely on others. And on occasion, this explanation alone will draw that driver back in to his or her commitment.

4. “I can tell you tried to plan this well, buuuuuut….”

Oh, so you’re going to be critical about our job performance when we’re wrangling teenagers for a living, attempting to take advantage of teachable moments while whiteboard markers soar across the room? Would you like to trade jobs?

Yeah…we thought so.

How can you take this in stride? Realize that sometimes, people criticize because they’re unhappy with situations that have nothing to do with you. If you’re working hard, planning properly and doing your job to the best of your ability with Jesus squarely at the focus of your ministry, then you’re probably doing just fine. Don’t let one comment tear you apart.

5. “You’re the one who gets paid the big bucks to do this.”

Uh huh. The reality is that many of the brave leaders in the realm of youth ministry don’t make a cent. Many youth leaders are quietly paying for supplies and snacks out of their own pockets without saying a word to anyone. And those of us who do get paid are hardly raking in the dough…unless you count Play-doh, which is plentiful in our cabinets.

How do you deal with this attitude? Don’t take this dismissive comment to heart. Understand that you’re doing your job as if you’re working for the Lord, not for men, as it says in Colossians 3:23. This verse also reminds us to “work at it with all your heart”. It’s not about the paycheck–it’s about humbly working in God’s Kingdom because you’re making an eternal impact.

6. “I hope you don’t mind, but I rearranged it for you.”

This is a comment often heard after someone else’s group has used your supplies or your youth room for their own purposes. Sure, we don’t mind dragging couches and arm chairs back to their proper places. And yes, let’s pretend that we actually enjoy taking down folding tables and chairs by the dozen–even though we hate it.

Let’s just hope you didn’t rearrange our files, too.

What’s a proper response to this? Be honest and clear that it’s not acceptable for someone else to be rearranging your things. Perhaps you need to point out that you would never come into their living room and rearrange their stuff, and that it’s the same feeling you get when they rearrange your supplies, furniture or paperwork. Often, those in youth ministry are improperly viewed as childish and immature (an extension of our teens, perhaps), but this is one way you can overcome that stereotype and prove your professionalism.

7. “A parent last night called me about…” (from your senior pastor)

Want to know a feeling that’s actually worse than the feeling you get when you see flashing red and blue lights behind your car and you realize you’re getting pulled over? This is it. It’s especially frustrating because it usually means people don’t feel like they can speak to us personally, face-to-face–which is always our preference.

How should you deal with this? Have that conversation with your senior pastor, and probably that parent, too. Explain that you desire an open, honest mode of communication with them, and seek to get to that point. While every case is different, I think speaking the truth in love is always the best solution to these tricky situations.

8. “Can you get the youth to do (insert task no one else wants to do)?”

We’re not sure if you’re aware of this, but we actually want kids to keep coming back to church. Doing things like trimming the hedges, scrubbing the bathroom floors, sorting through dirty donated clothing and repainting guardrails all over campus aren’t exactly anyone’s favorite chores to do.

I once served with a group that was asked to go on top of a roof and fix the air conditioning units, as well as repaint the handicapped parking lines under the blistering sun and scrub mold-covered refrigerators with bleach. As we worked, I took notes on how these simple service projects–and the obvious fact that we were asked to do it because no one else wanted to do it– could quickly drive even the most eager group to mutiny.

What’s a good comeback to this? Usually, I respond with a smile and thanks for thinking of us, and I’ll consider it before making a commitment. If someone continues to push, I think it’s acceptable to explain that while you believe teaching youth to serve and be humble is important, it’s also crucial to balance tasks that are age-appropriate and beneficial to your youth group…which probably precludes scrubbing bathroom floors and painting guardrails.

9. “I don’t care if he or she comes to church or not.”

Nothing tears at our hearts more than a phrase of indifference like this. As youth leaders, our education, careers and very lives are given over to one sole goal: to share the love, forgiveness and eternal hope found in our Savior, Jesus Christ. We daily strive to live by 1 Peter 3:15’s admonition, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

How should you handle this one? Engage in serious prayer. God can change hearts. Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, our heavenly Father can work miracles we can’t comprehend–even in people who don’t really seem to care about Him.

As a family of believers, we cannot afford to be apathetic about the salvation of those around us. And thus, the constant prayer of youth leaders around the world will always be that people are passionately consumed about sharing Jesus with their friends, family and co-workers.

And to that end, no matter how many maddening phrases people say to us, we’ll “fight the good fight of faith,” as 1 Timothy 6 encourages us to do.