“Nick, guess what?! I’m asexual!”
“Alright…when did you realize that?”
“This past week while talking to my friend who is too. I don’t like boys or girls.”
“Thanks for telling me this, have you let your parents know?”
“Yeah! Right before we got to church just now.”
This was a conversation I won’t soon forget, and probably represents the way that many of us hear that our students are questioning or exploring their identity. Often it occurs in quick conversations where a student suddenly drops that their identity or sexuality has switched or changed, and we have to know how to engage in those moments. There will be times when the conversations are more intentional and focused, but those are not as frequent. It is also helpful to remember that when these conversations happen, our responses to them are immensely important because students are testing the waters to see if we are trustworthy people.
I want to make it clear that the purpose of this post is neither to be affirming nor non-affirming. Instead, the intent is to give student workers helpful ways to care for students and insight into how to respond when faced with these conversations.
Listening is huge in these moments. Often when a student shares that they are struggling or questioning or changing their identity they are looking to see how you respond. Will you affirm or disapprove? Will you love them or cast them out? Will you listen or seek to challenge? Your response will dictate where the relationship goes from that moment on, so I would encourage you to simply listen. Let the student share their story. Let them talk through how they got to this decision. Help them see that you are for them by giving them space to be themselves and share. This is one of greatest things you could do in these moments.
Often when students come to us as youth workers it is because we are people they trust and know that we love them. They don’t often feel the same when it comes to their parents for a variety of reasons. These may not all be true and may be assumptions on the part of the student, but regardless the fear and anxiety of including parents can be very real for some students.
In these moments it is highly important for you to challenge the student to bring their parents into the conversation. But don’t let them have that conversation alone. Walk with them. Be present during it. Be the mediator and advocate in those moments. And always encourage your students with the truth that no matter the response, you will always be there for them.
Follow-up is really important in these types of conversations. As I stated earlier, students are often searching to see how you will respond and if you will be someone that they can trust. Part of the trust factor is our willingness and ability to follow up with them. Check in and see how they are doing. Thank them for opening up to you. Invite them out for coffee to hear their story. See if they have brought in other believers and the parents. Doing this will not only help your students see that you love them but it will also allow you to have a more holistic understanding as you continue to build and strengthen the relationship.
Often when talking with students, I am reminded how confusing these times are for them. They are developing in many ways, they are asking countless questions, and they are being bombarded by different messages from all sides. Because of this they may not even fully understand what they are saying, experiencing, or feeling. I am not trying to discount or discredit any one student, but there have been students who truly don’t know what to say or how to express it, and because of that they may say something they didn’t intend to.
At the same time, seeking clarity on what has been going on, how their home life is, how people have received them, and what the student has perceived is paramount in making sure you love and care for them well. A student may not have had a well received conversation with their parents and you may not know this unless you ask. Or a student may be scared about opening up and as you seek to understand you will gain valuable insight into why. This will in turn help you to better care for your student and guide subsequent interactions and conversations.
Know your stuff.
So often students and parents will come to us seeking understanding and clarity in these moments. Because of that, it is so important to have a working knowledge surrounding these conversations. Dig into resources, understand what people mean when they define themselves, seek to have an understanding of definitions and terms, and know what the Bible says. I know that there will be many perspectives to consider and that you may not be as well versed as people who study this for their career. But we are shepherds to our people and should know how to care for them well and this is an important way to do just that. So seek out information and understanding so you can better relate to, care for, and disciple your students.
Love well and don’t break fellowship.
This is one of the biggest aspects we must follow through on in order to care well for our students. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the decisions being made, the lifestyle choices, or the implications of decisions, you have an obligation to still love students and care for them. Too many individuals and churches alike are willing to break fellowship with someone who is walking through these moments, and that has hurt far too many people. We are simply called to love people and show them Jesus because He loves them and desires a full and whole relationship with them. It doesn’t mean you need to agree or condone, but it does mean you walk with them and love them as you show them Jesus. Your job isn’t to condemn, judge, cut off, or cast out, but instead is to show them Jesus and how the Holy Spirit can work in their lives.
So let your students know you are for them. Show them that they are loved and have a place. Help them experience the love of Jesus. In fact, I would argue that these students need more of our love and focus because they won’t be experiencing it from other places as much as their peers may be. These are students who already feel isolated, anxious, and vulnerable and we have an amazing opportunity to love and care for them. That is a high calling and doing so will allow us to truly invest in their lives, speak truth, and walk with them well as we point them to Jesus.