A few years ago I had a misunderstanding with a student. But the difficult truth is that there wasn’t a misunderstanding at all. We had a silly gimmick to attempt to get more kids to come to youth group. For a month, every time a student came to youth group they got their name added to a raffle. For every friend they brought, they got to add their name twice to the raffle. At the end of the month we would draw a name and the winner would win a prize. A dramatic and costly prize. One of my seventh grade boys took this challenge to heart, igniting every competitive fiber of his being.
At the end of the month it was time for the raffle, and sure enough, our youth group had tripled in size. 80% of that growth was due to the hard work and never ending invitation of this one seventh grade boy. He was the sure favorite. He won the third place prize, he then won the second place prize, and when it was time for the grand finalle, a new kid won. And the second that other name was drawn my relationship with this young man was fractured.
Like many of us have done, I created an event that would bring life and excitement to our ministry. It was wildly successful too. I had no idea this event would crush the spirit of this 7th grader. Even to this day, I don’t think I did anything wrong. I set up a fair raffle, and this young man competed valiantly and even won two of the three prizes. But in the mind of a 7th grader I had committed an awful offense. He worked the hardest and deserved to win, and his victory was taken away from him by me.
Perception is Reality:
This simple misunderstanding has become an awful lesson that I learned the hard way in ministry. I thought that being right was the most important thing. And if I am in the right, then the truth will prevail and all will be made right in the end. But in the mind of an adolescent, perception is the reality, not reality itself.
I mistakingly assumed that time would heal wounds and mend broken hearts. In fact, the inverse has proven true. Time only solidified his perception that I have grieved him and only caused further separation.
In student ministry we have countless interactions with students and because we are human we will and often do have misunderstandings and hurt feelings. And more often than not, the misunderstanding is on the part of the student or the parent. This misunderstanding happens because, as leaders, we have to make choices and decisions that will benefit the entire group, and sometimes individual students don’t see the big picture. They don’t understand why we assigned cars or tents in a certain way, or why we changed up our program format, or picked on one student to lead something over an other.
For all the countless good reasons we have to make the decisions me make, the we must consider the emotional consequences of these decisions. This is because the perception of reality often as more power than reality itself. Through many mistakes, I come to realize three important things to help heal damaged perceptions.
Perceptions are very powerful:
Perceptions are our view of a situation. Because we live in a broken world, our view is always going to be tainted. Humans are strange because once we have a perception we begin to define a story line, and then all the additional information either confirms this story line, or we chuck it out.
In the church this is an awful reality. We have all come across countless people who have been wronged by individuals in the church. They then take that grievance and begin to retell that story that also includes the church and in turn all Christians. Every offense confirms how hurtful the church is and most competing information gets left out.
We must work with all our heart to repair those perceptions:
Because these minor offenses take root and dramatically shape the perception of the offended we must work hard to re-tell the story. The perceptions that students and parents have on you are their reality. This is the story that they will be telling their friends and peers about you and your ministry.
It is vital for the long term health for youth workers to put time and effort into fixing the wrong perceptions that develop. This means not blowing off people who disagree with you or putting people in boxes. It takes discernment and wise voices in your community to sniff out and reveal the often hidden offended party. And when the offended party comes to light, their perception must be taken into account. For they deserve to be heard and understood. They can not be belittled or patronized, for their current perception unchecked is forming a brand new reality of you and your ministry.
We are responsible for our part in those perceptions:
When we sit down with the person we have hurt we must come in a humble position. Somewhere along the way there was a break in the communication and since we are usually the ones communicating, we can and should always work hard to find the places where we can improve.
Love truly does cover a multitude of sins, and when we approach the other person in humility and love, they often will return the favor. When we come ready for battle, then battle is what we are going to get.
We must remember that we are the ones in a position of power. And whatever it costs our ego in the short run to apologize and ask for forgiveness, will be returned ten fold with restored friendship and good will. We walk in the light of truth and we seek to be right. When dealing with adolescents, being right can not be the most important thing. We must be gracious with our students and realize that perceptions are powerful, and so work hard to shape and repair them, and usually that happens by taking responsibility for our part.