There is nothing more exciting in youth ministry than getting to disciple a student. The opportunity to walk with them through the phase of life they are in and get the chance to point them to Jesus through the ups and downs of adolescence, the laughs over slurpees and cheap fast food, and especially getting to pray with them and support them when things get hard, are all elements of this are a huge of why I love doing youth ministry.

On the other hand, little, if anything, is more crushing than the first time a student bails on you. I’ll be honest with you, it just plain sucks. Sitting awkwardly in the car at the local high school watching dozens of kids hop into parents SUV’s, enthusiastically expecting to see the student who asked you if you could meet up this week. The slow burn of watching all the vehicles rolling out of the parking lot, the buses full of students pulling out, and checking your phone to see if they cancelled or let you know plans had changed. Eventually, you sit alone in the empty parking lot, discouraged and a little embarrassed, and decide it’s time to head back to the office.

If you’re anything like me, a situation like this immediately creates doubt in your mind and heart about whether or not you have any idea what you are doing. It’s easy to feel discouraged, but know that you are not the first or the last youth leader to get bailed on.

It’s ok, I promise.

So with that said, here are some things to remember when a student bails out on you at the last minute.

  1. Assume Positive Intent –​ I used to be a barista at Starbucks, and if one of their many corporate quotes has stuck with me, it’s this one. We were encouraged to remember to assume positive intent when a customer was rude or grumpy. I think it carries over to ministry, especially with students. More often than not, people have a reason for what they do. With students, it might be as simple as they forgot, or they ended up in detention for skipping class. When we assume positive intent, we allow students to blow it and show them grace, which ultimately has a greater impact.
  2. Remember the Gospel – ​I don’t know about you, but I often feel like I’m not cool enough to warrant time with many of the students in my few. Every year I move further from my high school graduation, the further I feel from having the cool factor that allows me to connect with kids. So when a student bails, it’s imperative that my identity is found not in my job title, but in my adoption by the grace of God (see Romans 8). I am loved and welcomed into the family of God because of Jesus, and whether or not I am “cool” enough for a student, in God’s eyes I must remember I am loved and even rejoiced over (Zeph 3:17). It’s too easy, and extremely dangerous, to build our identity around our work. Students can and will let you down, Jesus will not.
  3. Don’t Force It –​ As hard as it may be to accept, not every student will want to be discipled or work on their faith as much as you hope and pray that they do.

Last year, I spent a few months trying to get two of my few to meet up for discipleship and as a result, I ended up missing the fact that another student had been asking and longing to get together. Only when I stopped pouring my energy and resources into the first two boys did I begin to see how much God was working in the other students heart. Interestingly enough, the other student has since asked to be discipled every week, has chosen to be baptized, and us asking about how he can share his faith at school. By not forcing it, we leave a greater margin to see what Jesus is doing in our groups, and then we can act in response to that.

4. Don’t Give Up –​ Ministry is hard. There is no getting around that. But it is so worth it. Don’t be fooled into thinking youth ministry is a short term process, because discipleship is a lifelong journey led by Jesus, not you and I. Play the long game and love your students in practical ways. Hang out and play video games, go for french fry runs, build relationship. It takes time and intentionality for a student to feel safe to open up to their leader, so play the long game. Pray for them, encourage them, show up at their concerts and sports games and be their biggest fan, give them a birthday card.

Students bail at the last minute and it can feel crushing. But let’s look at these moments as opportunities to show grace, look for creative ways to love students, and look ever more intently at what God is doing in our own lives and the lives of the students we get to disciple.