Serving today’s anxious generation; 5 ministry perspectives
What does it look like to minister to and serve today’s anxious generation? Before we created Faith in an Anxious World, we knew wanted to make a practical resource for ministry leaders like you. So we consulted with several hands-on youth practitioners.
Today we’d like to introduce you to five of our curriculum contributors, who each took a moment to share insight, experience, and an inside look at some of the realities facing the young people in their vibrant ministries.
Phil Lewis serves a reflective and energetic group of middle and high school students at a multiethnic church that values every generation and welcomes all abilities to belong in the body of Christ in the heart of Seattle.
Lisette Fraser is the Lead Family Pastor at a multiethnic, intergenerational, multisite church in California where she gets the joy of serving kids, youth, & families.
Carl Dodd is Head of School for a therapeutic Christian high school in Bellevue, Washington, where he serves young people who are experiencing crisis.
Ruby Varghese is the Pastor of Youth and College-aged Ministry at urban, multigenerational, and multiethnic church striving to be an incarnational presence in Seattle.
Giovanny Panginda is a co-youth pastor at a Chinese Indonesian American church in Southern California.
What are the questions or realities young people in your ministry are wrestling with when it comes to anxiety and depression?
Phil: In our cultural context, students primarily struggle with internal and external forms of social pressure. Because of the broad accessibility to all forms of media, the weight of the world is being placed on younger and younger shoulders as they wrestle with the anxieties of our political and social climate. Exposure to this kind of fear on a daily basis changes one’s ability to truly feel safe in any circumstance, particularly for those on the margins. While navigating the everyday challenges that come with growing up, our students are also faced with the expectations of being a full-time student, a son or daughter, maintaining their friend group, and in some cases holding a part time job. In all these things, the central question ‘Am I enough?’ permeates their relationships and thoughts—and even manifests in their bodies.
“Where is God in my depression and anxiety?” “Am I enough to be loved by a perfect God in my own imperfection?” These are the questions that our students face when processing through anxiety and depression. They are hungry for a safe space to be able to process these questions. They long to know that the same God who walks them to the mountaintop identifies with them on the journey of life with depression and anxiety.
Carl: The students in my ministry navigate several different phases of questions and realities around anxiety and depression. For some of them, feelings of anxiety and depression are new, and their questions and realities come from confusion as they grasp for definition, language, and framework for what they are experiencing. A lot of times these young people use their interaction with others (sometimes positive, often negative) as a mirror by which to compare their own feelings to others around them. I sometimes see my students moving into a place of darkness and without hope. It is at this point that I feel my students are either looking to numb their feelings or seek a pathway to healing.
I find that students who have experienced anxiety and depression for a long time are asking different questions. Theirs relate more to “Where can I place my trust?” and “Who genuinely cares for me in this situation?” Often because of previous experiences, barriers have been built and behavioral patterns have been established. They are questioning who they can trust to help them bear their burden. What’s especially hard is when young people feel they have to seek solutions on their own. Sadly, too many young people find their “solutions” in relationships that can do more harm than good.
How have you been surprised or challenged as you’ve addressed topics like anxiety and depression with young people and their parents?
Ruby: First, I would say it’s been important for me to do my own work around mental health. When we are emotionally healthy, we are effective at supporting others in their journey. Youth leaders who are available, present, and are able to serve as a support and resource are a huge asset to students as they are going through their anxiety and/or depression.
Addressing topics like anxiety and depression in ministry can be tough. Church leaders often face the pressure of having to have all the answers, but we don’t. We are not the experts and need to acknowledge that we don’t have to have all the tools to help students. When we as ministry leaders do the work to prepare for these inevitable conversations with students and parents, we create a safe space for those we serve and allow them to be honest and vulnerable.
Lisette: Young people are swimming in the waters of anxiety and depression. They feel it, they talk about it, they know it. What’s challenging is that often parents struggle with the conversation. Acknowledging that their child is dealing with anxiety or depression can trigger parents’ feelings of failure. And for many parents, the stigma of mental health was very different to their generation. But despite it being a challenging conversation at first, I have witnessed over and over that most parents want the best for their kids and are willing to help make that happen.
Ruby: I’m often surprised at how students and parents just need our presence, and someone to trust to open up their lives to. The challenge can be finding adequate time to support all our students in need. Equipping your leaders and finding local mental health services are so important as you carry the load of ministry. I also have been challenged to find diverse voices when it comes to mental health professionals and resources, and in a diverse church it’s especially important for me to educate myself from different perspectives. Parents often approach leaders in times of crisis, so the earlier you can start the dialogue with parents around mental health the better support you can be to them.
When it comes to young people and anxiety, what would you most want parents in your ministry to know?
Gio: In my Asian American context, a number of things hinder families from talking about anxiety. It’s easy for adults to readily assume that anxiety is an excuse, or a sign that this generation is ungrateful. And in some families, parents or grandparents who immigrated to America went through a lot of hardships. They may have lived under harsh political-religious regimes or struggled to make ends meet. Because families pride themselves on being tough (which is no bad thing!) and successful, young people can feel anxious just talking with their parents about how they feel.
Another tendency of parents is the spiritualization of anxiety. Some Asian American churches equate having anxiety with sin or a lack of faith—as in, “My kid’s anxious because he’s not right in his spirit.” Having anxiety is not about a lack of faith, but rather a sign that something is going on inside of them. It could come from the environment, trauma, biology or something else. We need to be open to different tools and relationships God can use to help alleviate that anxiety. Often when parents open up about their young person’s struggles, I ask, “If your kid had a broken arm, where would you take them?” They always answer, “To the doctor.” Then I respond, “If your kid is struggling inwardly, you can take them to a doctor of mental health” (i.e., a therapist or counselor). Framing it that way helps them so much more, because then they don’t feel it’s a lack of faith to get professional help.
Ruby: I find parents blaming themselves and questioning what they’ve done wrong or could have done differently. It’s important to be present, to be patient, and truly listen before responding as their teens talk about struggles. This generation of students who are coming up through youth ministry are facing extreme pressures in the home, at school, and in the world around them.
Anxiety is normal and something we all face on one level or another. I want parents in my ministry to know it’s okay to seek help, they are not alone, and that there are tools available to help their child through. There is such a stigma around mental health that any opportunity they have to process through these topics, emotions, and life struggles with their children, the better.
Gio: Agreed. One of the biggest cultural ideals that my second-generation students grapple with is honor and shame. In my ministry context, I want parents to know that anxiety does exist, and it doesn’t have to bring shame to the family to talk about it. Some parents in my culture worry that anxiety can be seen as a sign of weakness—and taking them to a doctor feels like admitting weakness. I try to help families understand that talking about mental health is actually very honorable, because by releasing the young person fear of that stigma, they’re creating a healthier family environment.
What are some of the factors for teenagers in your community when it comes to family dynamics, culture, or ethnic background?
Ruby: Looking deeper into family dynamics has been valuable in understanding a student’s struggles. In my multiethnic community and church, I’ve worked closely with students who carry generational trauma that has a direct impact on their anxiety and depression. Especially among immigrant and refugee students, there is tremendous pressure for students to fit into the traditional American structure to assimilate and be viewed at as “normal.” And living in dual cultures can often be confusing for students. There is high pressure to succeed, to push through challenges instead of seeking help, and to mistrust systems that are supposed to create safety but don’t. Where parents are working multiple jobs while the kids run the home, are struggling financially, or lack healthcare, stressors among family members play a major factor in a kids’ anxiety. It’s also important to look at the trauma that often comes with systematic oppression and marginalization due to race, disability, gender, and how trauma is (or isn’t) processed among these groups adequately. These are all key things I look at when discussing anxiety and depression.
Lisette: There are so many! I see for our teenagers of color that as racial tensions continue to build in our country, they carry a degree of stress everywhere they go. With increased school violence and trauma, many of our young people have acknowledged that they carry some fear with them at all times. The ongoing pressures of having to succeed, of getting into a great college, of excelling at what they do, at having a great presence on social media and more, all play into our young people’s ongoing stress and anxiety.
When do you recommend that a young person consider making an appointment with a therapist or counselor? And what suggestions would you offer ministry leaders navigating that conversation with young people and parents?
Lisette: To normalize the conversation about therapists and mental health, we talk about it frequently and attempt to model it in our own lives. As healthy adults we see doctors and dentists annually (if not more) for check-ups—why not make it a habit to check in on your mental health? In times of distress, I am quick to recommend a therapist or counselor. We are not trained experts in this work. We are great support, but I do not assume to know how to best care for young people in distress.
When talking with young people and parents about seeing a therapist or counselor, I think it’s really important to walk them through the process. Often people haven’t been to a mental health professional before, and may have preconceived ideas of what’s going to happen (for example, lay on a couch, or be medicated). Let them know what a first appointment will be like. Encourage them to attend three appointments before determining if it’s a good fit or not–the first appointment always feels hard and somewhat awkward. Reassure families that you’ll continue to journey with them and be a great support.
How do you incorporate practices that promote mental health into your conversations on discipleship?
Carl: Our ministry serves a lot of students outside of the Christian faith. So we make sure their introduction to faith exploration and the discipleship journey is rooted in the message of hope. We have weekly faith conversations, and students are encouraged to not just answer questions of fact and opinion, but also tell us how a new spiritual concept or practice makes them feel.
During chapel, we integrate therapeutic tools (such as box-breathing), group conversations, and even one-to-one conversations with staff as we communicate our biblical message. We often move away from traditional models of worship like singing, and incorporate art activities and moments of private reflection, to give students time to form their thoughts and questions so they can later process them with a member of our team.
Gio: I’ve started by looking at how we pray. Every year with my youth group, we explore different kind of prayer. Last year, we focused our prayer on the four quadrants in our lives: spiritual health, physical health, social health, and mental health. It helps my students to understand that all four of these areas are interconnected. For example, when we’re physically exhausted, it’s going to affect how we mentally function, which might lead us to be frustrated and we end up lashing out to a friend. Or if we’re depressed, we’re going to experience some physical symptoms. And because they’re all interconnected, we can talk about mental health at church. I also don’t shy away from using mental health examples in my sermons. We talk about depression, anxiety, and loneliness—all of which relates to belongingness.
This year, we’re exploring the Prayer of Examen. I’ll ask a “question of the day” before the sermon (which tends to relate to the prayer), and each time we pray the prayer, we spend some time journaling afterwards. Then I ask students to talk to one person about what they wrote—which allows both introverts and extroverts to connect on the issue. It’s been amazing. My students already feel so much closer to one another. And because they’ve processed their thoughts as they journal, they’re more ready to open up and talk about them. I also invite leaders to ask their small groups weekly about what’s causing anxiety, and what God might be saying though it all. These conversations have been changing the atmosphere in my church in a very good way. My goal is for all of us to be more self-aware. God knows us, but how many of us know ourselves? In learning to know who we are, we come to realize Whose we are.
What are your biggest questions and best ideas about serving young people with anxiety in your ministry? Please leave a comment and let us know!
Faithful living in a stressful world.
Help your students have meaningful conversations beyond youth group. With our 4-week multimedia curriculum, you’ll watch God at work in anxious stories throughout the Gospels and discover spiritual practices that equip students to navigate the stress of daily life. Discover Faith in an Anxious World today.