Grandma: a youth ministry model

It is hard to believe that this was my first blog post of all time.  After 4 years, I think I would still agree with myself :)  Happy Thanksgiving!

This last week I had the honor of participating in Grandparents and “Special Friends Day" at a local high school.  This is an amazing Thanksgiving tradition that is a blessing to the entire school.  Grandparents, “special friends,” students and alumni all gathered for coffee and pastries in front of the school office and then headed off to the first class of the day.  The grandparents and “special friends” followed their student through their day and the alumni, who are home from college, got to go and visit their favorite teachers. 

After about an hour, I finally got over the awkwardness of not being a grandparent and the term “special friend,” and was ready to enjoy my day. Throughout this morning we were treated to several classes, a reception and an assembly.  Every part of this day was executed perfectly and all designed to honor the grandparents and “special friends” of the students at this school.  This school has recognized that for these students to thrive, they need a network of people who will love and support them through the rigors of high school, and grandparents are key players in this.

While this isn’t a new concept, I was very surprised that this tradition was happening at a very secular private high school.  Thankfully, it is not just youth workers who get that adolescents need plenty of adult love and care through this season of their lives.   It is deep within the dna of students that they need unconditional love and stability.  Anyone who works with students and actually stops long enough and listens hard enough can see this.  And this school not only recognizes and affirms it, but also celebrates it and facilitates it.

The most amazing part of the day was in the human development class.  You know, the class where we sit in bean bag chairs in a circle with our coffees and share about our feelings.  When I was done mocking the class in my head and actually started to listen, I was blown away at what i saw.

Students shared:

  • how busy and overwhelmed their lives are
  • how hurt they are by the negative stereotypes of teens
  • how they love / hate their social world
  • the amount of pressure they feel by their parents to perform

This part of the sharing was not that new to me.  But then a grandma who was sitting on the floor with us began to share.  she said that it must be so difficult to have so many choices today compared to when she was in high school, and that she was so proud of how thoughtful, contentious, hard working, and friendly this group of students were.  And as this little old woman was done sharing a transformation occurred.  The students all sat up a little straighter and held their heads a little higher.  And when it was the students turn to share, several of them commented on how great it felt to be seen and heard.  You could actually see their hearts grow and they were seen and poured into by this grandma.

Since the moment I left the assembly I have been wrestling with what I saw.  I think I run a parent model of student ministry.  I have very specific things to teach the students I work with, I have to keep track of them and and hold the accountable so they can develop into the godly women and men they are called to be.  And while I still think these things are good, I am wondering if I might need to go back one more generation and develop a grandma model of student ministry.

If I ran a grandma model of student ministry, here is what I would do:

  • Recognize that high school is way to hard.  It is true that students today have more choices available to them then ever before.  Every area of their life is open-ended and this lack of boundaries is confusing and unsafe.  This reality isn’t going away, but the manner in which we walk with students through it, can and should be more compassionate.
  • See them in their hearts, not their hard exterior.  Because grandma doesn’t have the same power struggles that parents and teachers have, they get to see the deep and amazing person that is bubbling up within them.  She has this amazing gift to look past the apathetic exterior and see artists, musicians, engineers, romantics, athletes right under the surface.  And not just average versions, but truly unique and special versions of these people.  Isn’t this the way we want to be seen?  How much more true must this be for students.
  • Ooze unconditional love. Grandma’s only job is to love.  She selflessly asks questions and listens.  She offers candy and a warm home.  Everything about her is welcoming and kind.  She knows that the parents have the rules, but when the grandkids are with her there is always some leniency.  Because, grandma doesn’t have to worry about homework and curfew, her time with the grandkids is special and important.
  • Watch their hearts’ soar. It is the combination of empathizing with students, seeing the amazing person they are and developing into, and oozing unconditional love that builds into kids in a way that few other things can.  This is an actual transformation that occurs in the life of a child when their grandma does these things.  Like the students in that class, being seen and loved is like a healing balm that covers and restores brokenness.  It reminds them that they don’t have to always be hard and defensive.  This balm actually soften their hearts and souls and allows them to share their real selves again.

As a youth worker, I need to remember that I am not their parents.  I do not and am not supposed to control their entire lives and choices, that is their parents job and God’s job.  Like grandparents, youth workers have a specific slice of their life which we are invited into.  And as I was reminded of at grandparents day, what these developing young adults need most in this season of their life is good old fashioned, oowy goowy love!  (And maybe even a bowl of candy, too.)