A Game of Chess With No Winners…Mike Pitts

shutterstock_81693892She 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.

shutterstock_79177156I can’t imagine what it feels like when your kids don’t want want to be part of the youth ministry in the very church they were born and raised in.

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.

Example:

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 PittsMike 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.

 

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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2 Responses to A Game of Chess With No Winners…Mike Pitts

  1. Lisa C. says:

    corrections made on this submission:: please delete former one. Thanks!

    Thank you for this article and reaching out. I have a ministry for those with chronic illness and do church training in understanding invisible illness. That aside, my son has an anxiety disorder and we recently sought out a small local church because the former one was too overwhelming with 200 kids in Sunday School.

    I would teach church leaders to always ask about home environments and what works best that may apply at church events, etc. Never assume you are dealing with a normal family or normal kid–there is not such thing as normal. If we want people to be more important than programs we must get to KNOW people before pushing the programs.

    I’d like to share an example from a few weeks ago. We began attending a small local church, the pastor came over and chatted, we truly like it. My son is a 5th grader, he has ADHD, anxiety, etc. and we shared privately about the 2-year journey this has taken us on.

    Sunday school (during the 2nd half of the church service) is for K-4th grade, so we asked if our son could attend it a few months until school was dismissed and then start attending when he is officially a 6th grader. He struggles with holding still, etc., but honestly, he wanted to attend Sunday school which thrilled us, and he was familiar with the room, environment, etc, from going to AWANA a few years earlier. Both the pastor, and his wife who teaches, said “this is fine–of course!”

    But a few weeks ago, we sat down in church and just as worship began a woman came over to me and mumbled how my son was too old and couldn’t attend Sunday school. I asked, “Even today??” And she said yes, other kids were not happy about it because they had to sit through church and it wasn’t fair he was going.

    The Sunday school administrator didn’t introduce herself, didn’t say what her position was, she just threw out some rules about how my son could NOT attend that day or ever again because he was too old. She made sure I understood I was breaking the rules and then got up and left.

    I whispered something to my son and he was crestfallen. This alone could change his entire attitude about church, especially because it was one of the few places he really felt accepted. My husband was annoyed how it was done. I started to fume as the worship songs went on, And didn’t want to feel that way.

    I saw her in the back of the room, so I went back and asked her to step into the foyer. I told her it would be nice to know her name and it would have been polite for introduce herself. I explained to her that my family this was a BIG deal. I explained my son has anxiety and is in a 4/5th combo class at school. That we had specifically asked both the pastor and his wife if his attendance for SS was okay.

    I shared that my son had experienced a horrible week, because he was worried about my impending surgery the next day which would cause all routine to be gone for a month. although it was just foot surgery he truly thought I could die. And the anxiety over all of this had caused a lack of work at school. I shared that he told me that morning now he couldn’t wait to come to Sunday school to pray for me.

    I also shared we had been telling him how exciting it would be to start attending church in just a few months–building it up for him. We wanted it to be a good experience he looked forward to,

    She shared how she was glad I had told her this–however–she felt sooo-o-o sorry (that was how she emphasized it) for the other 5th graders who wanted to come to Sunday school but who were not allowed. This is a church body of about 40 in attendance and one other 5th grader who had been eyeing my son when he got up to leave. (And her mom had leaned over and asked, “How old is he??” the precious week.)

    I told her I understood other children may not understand but that school many kids are told “fair is not always equal” and that the most important thing to me was for my son to feel like he was welcome, loved, and accepted at church, not turned away. (In my opinion, we do not always owe our children detailed explanations about everything.)

    I also said that if that was the decision about him not being allowed to attend SS, I would support it, but I would have preferred for her to say, “starting next week…” Many people do not understand that there are a number of kids who cannot transition that quickly. We all would have had to leave the service.

    She said she would check with the pastor about it all. I gave him a heads up and told him no worries, but that she would be asking him if he had in fact said it was okay. He was shocked it was such a big deal, it wasn’t supposed to be, he said, and he was sorry for any trouble.

    He is very strong on people before program. I said, “we are fine, but if we were seekers right now, we wouldn’t be coming back.” I shared with the pastor “you know how some families come for awhile and then just disappear and you never know why? I am only sharing this because it as little situations like this that sting that occur that you are not even aware of. These are the reasons why.” (As a ministry leader, I am constantly trying to figure out the reason people don’t return and how we can become better at making all feel welcome.)

    I also told him I wish I could commit to just teaching 5th grade SS but cannot right now with my health. But what an amazing age of kids we have with inquiry minds about Jesus! It saddens me that when kids are most interested and eager to learn we are teaching them to “sit through church” as a burden or hear a story with 200 other children and sing a few songs. This is when we need to let them ask questions and talk and share!

    I have no hard feelings toward the church, we are all a work in progress, and I share this here in case it can help others. My advice would be ALWAYS ASSUME there are chaotic circumstances– I haven’t known a home without them. Whether it is mental health, physical health issues, loss of jobs, family stress, whatever–every family is struggling and coming to church for renewal and hope. Some Sundays as a lifeline.

    Parents of kids with special needs are leery to reveal too much because we become one of “those” families. Our children become “difficult” and we are labeled “hover parents” because we are an advocate for our kids. Trust the parents. Most DO know their children and their needs and the last thing they want to do is make church volunteers’ lives more difficult. At the same time, we need someone who “gets” our kids and loves them anyway.

    Our kids who struggle are clinging to the fact that God has a purpose and a plan for their life. They start searching at a young age for what God will do with their challenges and pain. We are looking for other adults to help us guide our children down this road of discipleship, seeing strength in what the world constantly tells us is a weakness,

    Like

  2. Kristin says:

    Such a great article! Lets not forget that one of the most important lesson any parent can learn while raising a child is to truly embrace the teachings of our Savior and forgive. Forgive ourselves, forgive others who dont understand, and forgive our children. They dont want to have mental illness. The way we show them how to cope with life long skills that are biblically based, may be a life line for them.

    Like

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