Investing without rescuing

Why saving students from their pain doesn't help

Mary Glenn Image Mary Glenn | Dec 10, 2014

Photo by Luann Hawker.

He sat in my office, tears rolling down his cheeks, feeling overwhelmed by the pain in his life. Paul asked, “Why me? Why does everyone else have what I don’t—like a family and people who care for them? Why have I been abandoned? Doesn’t God care? If he cared, he would rescue me.”

His pain was real. I sat with him and listened. I, too, found myself asking those questions we all do at times. Why does suffering have to exist, and why does this person have to go through pain? Without answers that would help, I did the only thing I knew to do. I sat with him. I listened. I was present with him.

As the conversation continued, it was obvious that what he thought he needed and what he wanted was to be rescued... by God, by his community, by me, by anyone. This student longed for someone to make it better, to take care of him and take away the pain he was experiencing. It seemed reasonable enough.

He is not the first—nor will he be the last—student who has asked me to be a rescuer. I get it. The pain can be crippling, and may cause us to feel stuck.

Like us, when students are facing crisis and the pain in their lives, they are looking for answers and more importantly for relief. Before we examine ways we can respond, we need to start by asking why young people want to be rescued.

Why do young people want to be rescued?

Students today are facing pressures that students twenty years ago didn’t experience. In addition to academic pressures, they face family dynamics as well as societal challenges. They are facing and maybe even experiencing trauma, all in a social media-saturated era. News is immediate, instantaneous, and at times panic and fear-driven. Young people need adults to keep them grounded in this swirl of activity. According to the Search Institute, all young people need between 4-5 mentors in addition to their parents in order to become productive and healthy citizens.

Students can feel more vulnerable when this community is not in place. Paul was without family support due to the years of abuse and suffering he endured at their hands. He never seemed to recover from the loss of those biological ties. Many students in my youth groups over the years have suffered without this web of relationships and have operated from a place of crisis and fear. They may feel isolated, alone, unattached, and vulnerable. It is understandable why they want to be rescued. They may feel ill equipped to face the challenges and pain, and so escape becomes the option for providing immediate relief.

But not all students are lacking resources and support. Some students may be avoiding responsibility or facing reality. They may not want to do what is needed for them to find healing, wholeness, and purpose. Instead, avoidance, worry, and anxiety ensue, which can lead to bad decision-making.

Why rescuing is bad

Many developmental and education experts are concerned that when it comes to young people in our society, we tend to rescue too quickly. According to leadership specialist Tim Elmore, we hijack the growth process and development of the student when we don’t allow them to work through the pain at hand. “When we rescue too quickly and over-indulge our children with ‘assistance,’ we remove the need for them to navigate hardships and solve problems on their own."[See] When a student is rescued from a problem, it removes the need for them to problem-solve themselves. Wendy Mogel, a leading researcher in this area, urges, “Remember that kids are hardy perennials, not hothouse flowers. Let them be cold, wet, or hungry for more than a second and they’ll appreciate the chance to be warm, dry, and fed. Abstain from taking the role of Sherpa, butler, crabby concierge, secret police, short order cook, or lady’s maid. Your children are hard-wired for competence. Let them do things for themselves."[See]

In addition, when we rescue students, we replace the role that Jesus can and needs to play in their lives. As students turn to us and depend on us more, they may find their need for God diminished.

Why do we want to rescue?

In thinking about students’ issues, it is important that we examine our motives as well as the ways we respond to students in need. We need to honestly ask ourselves why we want to rescue students and fix the situation. Does it make us feel better? Are we trying to alleviate our own sense of responsibility or the pain of watching someone we care for suffer? In reflecting about Paul’s situation, I wanted to make it better. It pained me to see him in pain. I wanted to take the pain away and rescue him. The motivation may be innocent enough, seeking the well-being of the student. However, the action of rescuing can complicate what the student is going through and compromise how they recover.

What then is our role?

It takes time and patience to build trust with young people. The Search Institute researches the development of kids and teenagers, and the role of adult mentors in that development. They have identified several key conditions to developing this trust in your mentoring relationships, including:

  • reliability
  • consistency
  • patience
  • identifying and telling the student what positive qualities and behavior you see in them
  • listening to cultivate understanding (rather than just giving advice)
  • honoring confidentiality
  • allowing your students to make decisions for themselves

Developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell notes that young people themselves say we are more likely to influence their life paths if we possess the following six qualities:

  1. being supportive
  2. being an active listener
  3. pushing just enough
  4. taking authentic interest in youth as individuals
  5. fostering self decision-making
  6. lending perspective [See Marilyn Price-Mitchell, “Six Qualities That Make You a Good Mentor For Teens”]

All of these qualities are crucial. In particular, decision-making helps students grow into adulthood. How can we facilitate their ability to walk through life challenges and make choices that are good and healthy? More importantly, as spiritual leaders, how can we point them to Jesus as the one who saves?

Jesus saves, restores and transforms

Jesus doesn’t simply rescue us from pain, but rather he saves, restores, and transforms. Jesus is making all things new. It is his transforming work in us and through us that brings healing and wholeness. Revelation 21:5 declares, He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Jesus’ work on the cross provided salvation to all. He saved us. In that sense he did rescue us. But rescue doesn’t always mean that our circumstances change or the pain is removed. We are promised that Jesus walks with us, but our immediate context may not be changed. We must help students understand the difference, and help them to engage Jesus who saves, restores, and transforms. We start by sharing how Jesus has done this in our own lives. We can share how we have crossed the difficult waters in our lives and how Jesus has met us in those places.

Best practices for caring without rescuing

  1. Practice the ministry of presence. Offering a ministry of a presence is a tangible reminder that the student is not alone. We are with them and God is with them. The love and presence of God is embodied as we are with the other person in their moment of crisis. A ministry of presence can bring comfort and express care without words. Presence encompasses physical, emotional, and spiritual care. This is sacramental presence. It is a revelation of Jesus’ care and compassion through listening, being with, and affirming.[[See “The Ministry of Presence: Being a Safe Place for Teens” on the FYI site at /articles/ministry-of-presence.]]
  2. Offer stability. As we walk with students through their life struggles, we can demonstrate our commitment to them and provide stability through consistent investment in their lives over time.
  3. Be a safe place. Students need to have safe places to feel loved, secured, and cared for. They need to have safe places to develop their skill sets and decision-making abilities as well as to express their feelings and emotions. There are several ways we can create safe places for students.[[For further student on how parents can create emotionally and spiritually safe places for their teenagers, see American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)]]When students feel safe, there are several positive outcomes. Teenagers who experience increased well-being grow in self confidence, connectedness to community, and a more authentic life.
  4. Speak honestly. Rather then giving platitudes or pat answers, we need to speak with authenticity. We can’t be afraid of the hard conversation, but rather speak the truth in love.
  5. Validate their pain without giving easy solutions. The emotions students are feeling are neither wrong nor right, they are real. We need to bring value to that experience without trying either to explain or to resolve it.
  6. Increase our training. As mentors and leaders, it is part of our commitment to students to grow in our own training and skill sets. Books, articles, and workshops can help us to grow in our knowledge and experience so we can better see the signs of trauma and pain in a student’s life.
  7. Connect them with resources. Students will turn to us in times of need. One of the most practical ways to help is to provide resources including reading, skill-building, other adult mentoring relationships, and referrals to counseling or health professionals.

Action Points

  • Evaluate your own response pattern in situations of crisis with young people. Do you tend to react by rescuing, by listening, by getting out of the situation as quickly as possible, or some other response?
  • Think of a particular young person in your care who has a critical need right now. With another adult on your team, brainstorm a response that offers support without rescuing. Name other adults who can be part of the web of support for this young person, and if possible connect with this teenager’s parents about your ideas.
  • Share this article with your whole ministry team and host a follow up discussion about how this plays out in your ministry. Identify skill-building areas for leaders, and role-play interactions with students that model support without rescuing.
Mary Glenn Image
Mary Glenn

Dr. Mary Glenn, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Chaplaincy and Community Development with Fuller Theological Seminary, previously served as an Urban Youth Ministry professor with the Fuller Youth Institute. Mary has more than 20 years of youth/college/community pastoral experience and she has served as a law enforcement chaplain for twenty-plus years. Mary loves cities, particularly Los Angeles (where she calls home), and she regularly leads Downtown Los Angeles urban immersions and city walks.

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