She certainly didn’t look like a seventh grader and maybe that’s why every middle school guy wanted to be with her. Each Wednesday night was like a scene out of a 80’s teen movie when she walked in. You know the one where the pretty girl walks by and the world happens in slow motion. We youth workers would always have a good laugh at the middle school boys’ expense. Maybe the next time I needed to make an announcement I should just have Michelle walk past so they would be quiet. By appearance Michelle looked more like she was in high school than middle school. Michelle definitely stuck out more than her fellow seventh grade girls.
Honestly, I never thought Michelle was a mean girl, but at times her nose appeared to be in the air (the entourage of mean girls that followed her didn’t help). None of my volunteer youth workers ever reported her being mean to anymore, and most had never even heard her speak. Like most middle school kids, she would only speak when spoken to and even then they were usually only one to two word declarative statements to appease the question. Sadly, her stay in my student ministry was short lived. She dropped off the scene just as quickly as she popped onto it.
Youth Pastor Confession: I thought that maybe we weren’t cool enough for her. After all my group was full of “average Joes”, underdogs, and fringe kids. We definitely didn’t fill the niche of “queens bees” and the “elite.” Every youth pastor understands that community is everything in youth ministry and maybe we just couldn’t provide the type she was looking for.
Michelle’s parents were long-time members of our church and I remember feeling slighted when they never reached out to connect with me. To be honest, it made me feel like I had done something wrong…like I had failed to qualify as a youth pastor because maybe they didn’t trust me to shoulder their daughter’s issues and burdens alongside them.
But it breaks my heart to know our churches are full of students and families like that. I guess in some ways I did fail Michelle and her parents as I never reached out either. Maybe we were both hanging by the phone to see which side made the first move until we waited so long nobody did.
Years later one of my former middle school guys told me that Michelle had withdrawn from high school after her anxiety and panic attacks had become unmanageable. Then he said, “You know she was diagnosed with anxiety in 7th grade? She takes medicine and everything.” Why did I not know?
They never told me.
But I never asked.
Maybe they were embarrassed.
How do you ask a parent if those questions if they don’t volunteer the information?
I had failed Michelle. They had failed Michelle. We had failed Michelle. And to think that church could have been a huge win for Michelle and the Kingdom! It hurts.
Parents, truth is I could have done a heck of a lot to accommodate Michelle in my youth group and I know hindsight is 20/20. We could have made minor tweaks, we could have helped to lessen the unknowns that cause anxiety, we could have given her a safe and quiet place to go when she felt a panic attack coming on, and we could have connected her with one of our female volunteers who also has anxiety. The list goes on and on. Thinking about how many possible “Michelles” I’ve had over the years almost makes me want to have a panic attack.
THE CONCLUSION: I want to start waiving the flag for you, but I need some help. The church needs you to help us be the church. We need information that will help us include, celebrate, and minister to your teen’s uniqueness. We don’t want to label your student or give them an IEP at church. We are the church-not the public school. We want to make them feel wanted and included. Let me leave you with some food for thought after having this very conversation with a fellow youth pastor.
Asking a parent if their student has a disability or disorder is like asking a woman if she is pregnant.
Youth Pastor: So I’ve been observing Billy, and I think he might just be on the spectrum. High functioning of course. He meets all the criteria on Web MD.
Parent: We’re finding a new church.
There’s got to be a better way. Parents…How you can you help us help you? How can we better partner?
Mike Pitts is a youth worker from the southeastern United States who made his way north to the Midwest. Along his journey, this southern transplant developed a passion for middle school students and for engaging students with hidden disabilities. Mike is an ambassador for Key Ministry challenging youth workers to pursue ministry with students with hidden disabilities. Mike and his wife Hope have been married for four years and live with their two young children (Emery & Phoebe) in Cleveland, Ohio.