Caution: 5 Hazards Ahead

“Hurt people, hurt people.”

A pastor I once worked with often cautioned us on the staff. He was warning us that the wounded people we were attempting to help may harm us as we try to help.

This was very true when I tried to assist a woman who I saw across the street one evening who was being beaten by her drunk boyfriend. She had been thrown down in the street and the boyfriend was about to kick her. I ran between her and her assailant and received a vicious kick in the leg. I shouted at him, “I am calling the police!

Suddenly I heard the woman shout, “No you can’t !” She was pulling me down toward the side walk which gave her boyfriend an excellent opportunity to kick me in the back. I was dazed, thrown off balance and fell into the street. The two of them jumped into a car and sped off. As I sat on the curb getting my breath, I wondered what I would do differently if I encountered that situation again.

Since that time I have seen well meaning helpers thrown into the street. Some ignored important policies, like not being alone with a member of the opposite sex. Other became so involved in the lives of hurting people that they became emotionally and physically exhausted to the point that they were unable to help anyone. As I work with my students I have categorized 5 risks associated with helping teens.

Burn Out

Counselor burnout is the most likely response to the overwhelming needs of a youth ministry. Too often, caring people become the casualties of their own work. The typical response to burnout is a deep unmanageable lack of energy or enjoyment of anything. In a complete burnout the individual is incapable of performing simple tasks.

At one very low point in my career it took me 40 minutes to address an envelope and mail it out. In some instances burnout people can end up hurting those they had intended to help. In serious situations medical and psychological help are necessary.

 Burn Up

Inordinate intimacy is an occupational hazard for counselors. All of us have been disappointed to hear of a minister who has been involved sexually with someone other than their spouse. Most books on the subject describe a pattern that moves along a path from professionalism to perversion of the sacred calling.

  • At first the counselor begins to compliment the counselee or confide in them in an unprofessional manner.
  • The counselor looks forward to the visits and may even dress differently for them.
  • Eventually the main issue of the counseling is lost and the conversations become more intimate.
  • Next, the counseling meetings will take place outside of the church office and take on the feeling of secret rendezvous rather than helping.

This is destructive in all circumstances but particularly in the case of a youth who is looking for affirmation and can easily misinterpret compassionate empathetic listening to romantic interest. When the student is meeting with a recognized authority figure there are dangerous power issues involved as well. Single male youth pastors would be wise to avoid private confidential counseling sessions with students. These students should be refered to a trusted female counselor.

 Blow Up

Unresolved conflicts in the life of the youth worker can lead to situations of explosive anger. Sometimes these helpers become involved in family situations and end up choosing sides.

One youth worker took it upon himself to remove teens from a home because he suspected abuse, based on their retelling of an incident. Out of anger and concern for the teens he called the police to remove the father from the home. As the investigation proceeded it became clear that the girls had fabricated the story. The huge blow up could have been avoided if the youth worker had followed procedures established by the church instead of acting on impulse.

Anger can often be associated with working with teens. Anger can be directed toward a student, a bully, a parent, a teacher, or another church member. The results of a helpers rage can be devastating for a ministry. Properly channeling these emotions is crucial to effectiveness.

 Bye Bye.

In a crisis situation our bodies regularly assume a flight or fight response. There is the danger that a compassionate person could be completely overwhelmed with the needs around them.

A missionary to Canada’s Artic left the community he had traveled so far to serve the day after he discovered a youth who had hanged himself out side of the door to his house. While this is a very disturbing and dramatic account, those who immerse themselves in youth culture sometimes feel hopeless and overwhelmed. They want to run from the vocation because they discover that the needs are far greater than their personal resources.

Sadly, abandoning the charge leaves one less person to help in the battle to rescue at risk youth. It is inevitable that their will be days when the needs seem to far outwheigh the resources and yet those who have worked with youth have recognized that there is little that can be done in the short term but so much that can be accomplished in the long term.

 Blown Away

The last of these terrible “B” words refers to the situation where a youth worker or pastor is asked to leave. There may be many reasons for early dismissal but the main one is where they have done more harm than good.

In general this person has burnt all bridges with the staff of the church. It may be that they have over stepped boundaries or alienated the parents in a ministry. In this case the board works under the assumption that it is better to remove the person before too many deep relationships are formed with the youth.

We Need More than the Best  Intentions

There is a difference between wisdom and knowledge. Wisdom involves using knowledge properly. To abandon wisdom in youth ministry because of emotion or exhaustion has catastrophic outcomes. None of us can turn aside from wisdom; there’s way too much at stake.

If any of these B words are in your life. Please talk to someone today. Don’t go another day in any of these situations.

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Ron Powell


Ron Powell is the Adviser to the Director of the Youth Ministry Institute at Vanguard College. He has been involved in youth ministry for over 30 years. He continues to volunteer, write, teach, and speak to parents, leaders and teens. If you would like to contact him you can email