I was 21, wet behind the ears and serving in my first youth ministry. Not long into my tenure I met a young man by the name of Ian. Ian had just turned 16 and was moving from the Jr. High into the Senior High ministry. Now, for years I had heard stories about Ian, but never had the privilege of getting to know him myself. One of my first experiences with Ian was a winter retreat. Nestled into the Appalachian mountains in Central Pennsylvania, I and ten adult leaders along with 100 teens went on retreat. Our housing for the weekend was a large building called the barn. The barn was unique, upstairs were two individual bunkhouse bays for the boys and girls. Downstairs contained a meeting space, game room, lobby play area and the showers. Mid weekend during a free time for our students I found myself in an intense game of Monopoly in the common area situated between the two shower bath areas. In the middle of the game, Dana who was sitting directly across from me, stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes becoming bid as saucers and looking past my head, and saying, “Oh my word”. As I slowly turned my head to see what Dana was reacting too, I turned to see Ian having just walked out of the bath area in a towel. And only a towel. As my eyes focused from the blur of moving my head, Ian stood with one arm poised on the wall, still dripping wet and trying to have a conversation with a teenage girl who wanted to run for the hill. Believe me, I and the other 60 people in the room were shocked.
This past week while reading The Social Animal by David Brooks I was struck by the concept of how children are programmed into social acceptability or social isolation. Foundational to all of humanity, the family of origin and heritages become the playing field where relational and social cues are learned. This form of secondary education follows the person throughout life, setting the stage for acceptability or isolation. For Ian, the son of an alcoholic and having been raised in an abusive situation, the cues were simply missed. The following are three key areas of social development which emerged while processing the growth of the social animal in regards to life and ministry.
Social Development – Three Key Areas
How to work with others… Have you ever worked on a team where at least one of the individuals was impossible to work with? I think I know each of your answers. When an individual is not taught to work with others when young, as an adult the same dysfunction rears its ugly head, often with even more complexity than a child. The fear of be vulnerable, out of control or even known, can sometimes make a person near impossible to serve alongside.
Social Cues… My son Eli just turned 14. Yes, he is officially in the Jr. High years. A few weeks ago, I took Eli and three of his friends on a birthday weekend getaway. Three days, two nights, 6 hours in a car and all Jr. High boy’s social cues, or maybe better said… no cues. Watching the four of the them made me laugh. Laugh at remembering those days for myself, but also seeing similar traits in many adults and leadership teams I serve within. Though our adult forms are a little more evolved, often our responses look very similar to those long gone days of adolescents.
How to disagree… Disagreeing well takes a high level of differentiation. Yet, for most of us, our families of origin taught us that disagreements lead to fights. Not all families teach those in the system to disagree or fight well. When these young children grow up, they either flee conflict all together or pounce on it, like a tiger smelling fresh meat. It is rare that ministry leaders enter adulthood with a healthy well differentiated understanding of disagreements and handling conflict well.
Over time, Ian became a healthy young man. For Ian, emotional development and simple life training was needed for his overall development. In order to go forward, Ian needed to go back. Healing from our past, unearthing unhealthy patterns and leaning hard into a new reality is key for all of us as we walk the journey of life.