The Hardest Week In Student Ministry

One unavoidable aspect of ministry is walking with people during dark days. It means that when they “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” we are walking beside them. In student ministry this is amplified when it is the unexpected death of a teenager by suicide.

In less than six short months the small community I live in has experienced teenage suicide twice. One boy. One girl. Both high school sophomores. Different schools. Same hurt.

As I heard the news of the second suicide last week my heart sank. It brought up memories from six months ago: countless conversations with hurting, grieving, angry, and confused students. I cleared my schedule and spent three days in the high school library talking with any student who needed someone to listen. That Wednesday night we partnered with some local churches and opened our door to the community–parents and students alike.

That night I shared the gospel with over 200 hurting students. In each of these cases both students were believers and that is where we find comfort.

That night I spoke from John 14.1-8, a familiar passage read at funerals. It is a passage that I tearfully read at my grandfather’s funeral six years ago. The hook for my talk that night was: “Jesus is our hope. Jesus is our strength.” These truths are what we and our students must cling to when we face tragic, hurtful circumstances.

Many of my students (I view myself as having a multi-site student ministry: church campus, middle school campuses, and high school campus) were hurting, confused, and grieving. Many of them were looking for hope and strength…believer and unbeliever alike. Most of them were looking for answers to tough questions–I know because during my days in the library I was asked several of them. And here’s the thing, the beauty of the bible is that it speaks to many issues. The bible doesn’t mention sexting, it does tell us that there shouldn’t be even the smallest hint of sexual immorality amongst us (Ephesians 5.3). It may not talk about the speeding, but it does address obeying the laws of the land (Romans 13.1-2). The bible does not speak directly to suicide, but it does talk about life and death and heaven and hell.

John 14.1-8 begins by telling us to trust in God. By calling on us to trust in God, Jesus is making three succinct statements:

  • We can COUNT on God.
  • We can RELY on God.
  • We can LEAN on God.

A few verses later Philip, who’s brother Nathanael was the disciple who’s initial response to Jesus was bewilderment that anything worthwhile can come from podunk, backwoods Nazareth, speaks up. Philip states that he wants to see God and that will be enough. Indeed, it would. What Philip is saying is that he believes that if he can just see God, for a moment, that all of his problems will disappear. While this seems certainly true, Jesus’ response is intriguing: “Philip you have seen God because you have seen me!”

This passage reminds us, student pastor, student, and parent alike that Jesus is our hope. Jesus is our strength. You see, hope is the ability to see beyond right now. We have to remind our students that there is more to life than the next fifteen minutes and what seems like an apocalyptic catastrophe will only be a blip on the screen of life. We have to be honest with them and inform students that there are going to be tough days ahead. But it’s a process…sometimes they will have to take it second by second…others, day by day. They will get through it. Strength is the ability to get through today. And this strength doesn’t come from a bench-press. This strength comes from resting in the grace, mercy, and peace of God that is beyond our understanding. Remind students to get back into a routine. Go to bed that night. Wake up the next day. Eat breakfast. Shower. Go to school. Go to extracurricular activities or a job. Come home. Eat dinner. Do your homework. Go to bed. Repeat. And yes, you may have to get that basic with a grieving student.

I love how Jesus reminds the disciples that they know the way. He reminds them of all they have done with him and seen him do. He then tells them: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Again, succinctly Jesus makes three statements:

  • He is our LINK to God.
  • He is COMPLETELY RELIABLE in who he is and what he does.
  • He is our EXAMPLE for life on earth, but also the GIVER of eternal life.

And for these two sophomores in high school death, although as tragic as it was, was not the end of the story for them. Not in the least! No, they are now face-to-face with Jesus in heaven for eternity. This is not to glamorize suicide, but to provide comfort in grief. I believe that there is no situation for which suicide is a viable option. Yet, that does not mean that God, in his infinite wisdom and sovereignty, cannot turn tragedy into beauty. As pastors to students that is our job in every situation: point them to Jesus.

You see, these students realized several things about a relationship with Jesus.

  • They realized that Jesus loved them and wanted a relationship with them.
  • They realized that they were sinners…rebels instigating a coup against God.
  • They believed in who Jesus is and what he does and that he is the only one who could pay the penalty for their sin (death on a cross).
  • They gave control of their lives to Jesus.

And because of this they are in heaven with Jesus, right now.

Seminary did a great job of teaching me the content and theology of the bible as well as how to teach it faithfully and accurately. However, one area where I feel that seminary needs improving is in training ministers in ministry. I learned theology in the classrooms and ministry in the trenches. In the last six months I have been increasingly frustrated with this void in seminary instruction. I have come to the conclusion that the reason seminary education lacks a course or even a lecture in counseling people in the wake of a suicide is because it is literally impossible to recreate in a lab/practicum format. I would have gladly given back my degree for some talking points; things to say and not to say, questions to ask and not to ask.

Walking with students. “through the valley of the shadow of death,” I discovered the following and I pray they will help you should the day come in your ministry:

  • Find out if the student (or person) who committed suicide was a believer. More than anything this vital information will determine the direction of your conversation. In my context, fortunately both students were, in fact, believers.
  • Explain to the person you are counseling that Gods grace is sufficient; i.e., it covers all of our past sins, present sins, and future sins once we place our faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. They need to know that the method of death has no bearing on their eternal security.
  • Ask them how they are feeling.
  • Ask them what is going on in their heads.
  • Ask them if they could paint a picture of their heart and mind right now, what would it look like.
  • Ask them to describe the person who committed subside to you in 3 words.
  • Ask them to give you their favorite memory of the person. Then have them give you a second.
  • If they are an introvert, consider that they may prefer one-on-one counseling.
  • Again, if they are an introvert it may be easier for them to express themselves through journaling. Encourage them to journal for the next 24 hours, then meet with them again and discuss what they have written.
  • Learn everything you can about teenage brain development. You can check out a blog I wrote titled: It’s Like TNT or read A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the Teenage Brain.
  • Remind them that everyone grieves at a different pace. And that’s ok. Give them a heads up of what they’ll likely face in the grieving process (Elisabeth Kübler-Ross):

DENIAL. Shock. This didn’t happen. This isn’t real. They’ll walk down the hall any minute.

ANGER. How did this happen?! Who caused this?!

BARGAINING. What if…. Or I’d give “x” to have that person back. Or why not me? Or I should’ve done “y.”

DEPRESSION. Too sad to focus. No hope.

ACCEPTANCE. It’s real. It happened. I won’t forget, but I can get through this.

  • Encourage them to get back into a routine as soon as possible.
  • Do not use the word “successful” in context with the suicide. Rather, use “completed” so as not to glorify the act.
  • Ask them if they are thinking about hurting themselves. Even if they say “no,” probe this for a moment to be sure. If they are thinking of hurting themselves refer them to a professional counselor immediately. Also, see if you can find out their plan and even take possession of the item that they intend on using to take their life.
  • Pray with them.
  • Pray for them.
  • Follow up.

Lastly, some additional resources:

Confronting suicide in student ministry is never easy, but our job does not afford us the luxury of skirting difficult issues.

“We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too.” 1 Thessalonians 2.8 (NLT)

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