Chapter 11 of It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry, edited by Will Penner.
In order to generate some enthusiasm around teaching the Prophets of the Old Testament to our high school students, we began our Wednesday evening together with a game we titled, “Jonah’s Revenge.” One student from each grade was invited to join us on stage, where we had four giant plastic tubs filled with gallons of water. The plastic tubs were clear, so that everyone in the audience could see the countless number of sardines that had settled to the bottom of each tub. The object of the game was for each contestant to retrieve as many sardines as possible from the bottom of the water-filled tub using only his mouth. The person who collected the most sardines would exact the most revenge on Jonah’s behalf and would be declared the winner. Brilliant game, right?
Almost immediately after the game began, I noticed from my vantage point in the back of the room that a considerable amount of water was flying out of each tub as our four contestants dove for mouthfuls of sardines. I ran on stage and politely instructed all of our contestants to be “a little less violent” as they dove, because they were spilling too much water. Almost immediately after returning to my place in the back of the room, our sophomore contestant (who is exceedingly large and strong for his age) decided to stand-up, lift his plastic tub over his head, and dump out all of the water because, logically, diving for sardines would be much easier if there was no water left in the tub. Now, however, gallons of standing water covered our stage, guitars, microphones, drum kit, and keyboard! All instrument cables, extension cords, and plugs were completely submerged.
All at once I was confronted with the reality that my students on stage were in immediate danger of electrocution, that thousands of dollars of band and tech equipment could be damaged or destroyed, and that we still had nearly 90 minutes of programming ahead of us.
Most youth ministry mishaps will be preventable based on your experience and intelligence, the nature of your students and programming, and of course, the grace of God. But nothing is foolproof, so we must make sure we’re as prepared as possible. We need to accept the fact that there will be metaphorical floods that come our way. And we need to be ready to bail water during any potential situation in which our volunteers and students find themselves.
In order to minimize risk (and in youth ministry there is always some risk), ensure that you are prepared by doing the following:
Plan Ahead. Outline basic policies and procedures for your students and volunteers to follow in case of severe weather, fires, security threats, or health related emergencies. Have other ministries and leaders in your community check your information to make sure nothing is missing and to confirm that everything you’ve outlined is consistent with other church policies. Compiling this information in a manual or training document with several hard copies located around the space where you most frequently gather with your students and volunteers isn’t a bad idea.
Share the information. Being prepared means that you shouldn’t be the only one who knows what to do if things get crazy. Hopefully you’ve already discovered that whether your ministry has 10 students or 300, you need to share your leadership responsibilities with eager interns, trusted volunteers, helpful parents, and high-capacity student leaders. Requiring training on the information outlined above (and hopefully much more) and sharing leadership responsibilities with other invested individuals ensures that you’re not the only one responsible for making things right and you’re not the only one who has something to lose when disaster strikes. When our stage flooded that evening, the three volunteers in our tech booth helped save day—not only because they were empowered to act through trust and our trainings but also because they had a personal investment in caring for the submerged equipment. Because our adult volunteers share ownership of our ministry, they shared ownership of cleaning up our mess.
Expect the worst (and know what to do). Members of our ministry team roll their eyes whenever I say, “How might someone die if we decide to do this?” during our planning meetings. It sounds like an extreme and gruesome question, but after “Jonah’s Revenge,” a competition between our high school students that involved crowd surfing the most junior high students from point A to point B, and a watermelon eating contest that ended with a female freshman student’s face covered in blood, I’ve learned the hard way that doing the work of asking critical questions about safety might save the life of a student or volunteer I love—along with saving my job. If we’d asked these kinds of questions as we planned “Jonah’s Revenge,” we likely would have decided against it. Just to be clear, asking these questions doesn’t automatically eliminate ideas. It might just provide you with the safest possible version of your idea. We will have a watermelon-eating contest again this year, but we’ll definitely enforce a rule against using your head as a hammer to smash the watermelon. (Because sometimes the watermelon moves and a kid ends up using his head to hammer the picnic table.) We’ll also have a fully stocked first-aid kit close by.
Protecting People and Property
The parents of your students and the families of your volunteers have extended you the trust of providing for the safety and care of the people they love most in the world. You and your team must take this sacred trust seriously and act urgently to protect the physical safety of everyone present once you realize there is a flood. Thus, plans for your program, or the disappointment of your students and volunteers cannot take priority over what will actually provide protection.
After our stage was drenched, the game was ended immediately and all of our students and volunteers were removed from the stage until we could turn off the electricity to that area of the room and clean up the water. Much to the dismay of our student band, we chose to postpone the next portion of our evening until we could guarantee everyone’s safety.
Your community also trusts you to steward and care for your church’s resources. You and your team must take this seriously and act urgently to protect church property and equipment once you realize there is a flood. Minimizing the fiscal cost the church might incur because of the disaster will help minimize consequences you might face with your boss or other church leaders. You won’t be able to prevent all of the damage, but you can’t let your desire to keep your program or event moving cost your church more money.
If you can’t demonstrate responsibility with what you’ve already been given, you likely won’t be trusted with more resources in the future. This will be a problem when it’s time to submit next year’s budget proposal to your leaders. We refused to turn our stage’s power back on until we could guarantee that it wouldn’t come at the cost of the church’s or our volunteers’ band equipment. This was a short-term disappointment but a wise decision in the long run.
Acknowledging the Flood without Drying out the Program
Everyone who is present at your program or event will be fully aware of how disastrous the flood really is. In the chaos of the moment you might convince yourself that you can somehow hide the severity of the situation. This is a lie. Trying to gloss over the mess you’ve found yourself in will only cause you to lose credibility with your students and volunteers.
Once you’ve ensured the safety of the people and property that have been threatened by the disaster and you’ve decided not to send everyone home, you have to trust yourself enough to move forward with confidence. Acknowledge the reality of the flood and calmly direct your students and volunteers in a positive and productive direction with an alternative way forward. If you’re constantly pointing students and volunteers to what went wrong earlier in your program or event you’ll be giving them permission to dwell on the flood and not move forward with you.
In our situation with the drenched stage: we made the quick decision to eliminate a portion of our program; I made fun of how short-sighted our game was and how they might have a new high school pastor next week; I gave my talk on Jonah without a microphone and in more of a discussion format; and we dismissed students to their small groups earlier than normal. The night didn’t go as planned, but it still served a purpose in spite of our unexpected disaster.
We’ve All Felt Like We Were Drowning
You need to go to bed every night knowing you’re as prepared as possible so that you’ll be able to sleep well on the night things go horribly wrong. When there is a flood in your ministry remember that you’re not alone and that all of us have encountered a disaster of some kind. During the drive home on the evening we drenched our stage I couldn’t help but tremble at the thought of how much worse things could have turned out, who could have gotten hurt, and how irresponsible I was. These kinds of thoughts quickly lead us to question our calling and ability to serve as pastors.
During floods you will likely be your greatest critic. Forgive yourself, and remember that our students and volunteers are more forgiving than we generally give them credit for. My students like to remind my team and me about “Jonah’s Revenge” and the chaos of our waterlogged stage. When they do this, they remind me why I love my job and why it’s so important to take it seriously.
Questions to Consider
How “bought in” are the adult volunteers to our ministry programs? If disaster struck, would they take the initiative to bail it out?
In what ways could we mitigate potential damages from unexpected floods with a little preplanning?
In what ways do we allow fears of unexpected disasters to inhibit creative events?
Beyond “people” and “property,” are there other things we need to protect from potential disasters in our ministries?
You can purchase It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry here.