by Emily Meredith, adapted from the book It’s Personal
When I took my older son to his kindergarten assessment, I was prepared for him to answer questions about letters and numbers and shapes. But there was one question I had completely neglected. When the teacher asked him to say his address and my phone number, he looked at her with a blank stare.
Two kids later and several grades behind us, I now understand why that question was included in his assessment. Knowing where you live is important. But beyond a physical address you can plug into your GPS, it’s important for every leader to understand where their kids are coming from.
Context Is Key
One of the best ways to get to know someone’s context is to know where they live. Maybe that’s why Jesus invited Himself to Zacchaeus’ house. By doing so, Jesus modeled empathy. We define empathy as “pausing your own interests and opinions long enough to discover someone else’s interests and opinions.”
Of course Jesus already knew everything about Zacchaeus because He is God. So Jesus had a primary empathic advantage. But Jesus knew that when He visited Zacchaeus’ home, Zacchaeus would probably feel known in the different way.
Obviously we have a disadvantage in comparison to Jesus: as individuals, we’re limited to our own personal experiences. Because our experiences tend to define how we see things, we often assume that how we see the world is the way sensible, reasonable people should see the world.
- We assume that others should feel like we feel.
- We assume that others should think like we think.
- We assume that others should believe like we believe.
What would the world look like if we all simply stopped assuming? What would happen if you and I became aware of what we don’t know? What if we took the time to understand where the kids and teenagers in our ministries are actually coming from? Because something changes in a relationship when you take the time to understand someone’s everyday context.
Enter Someone’s World
Respect their personality
Everyone is unique. Your ministry has introverts and extroverts; everyone exists somewhere along that continuum. Be intentional about learning each kid’s unique needs and act accordingly.
Respect their timeline
This may take months or even years. Preschoolers and kids in elementary school tend to trust adults quickly. Teenagers are frequently more guarded. It may take showing up consistently for 12 to 24 months before a teenager invites you into their personal world.
Respect their boundaries
When it comes to working with minors, it’s imperative that leaders and volunteers follow church policies and practical boundaries like staying public, doing things in a group, and keeping other adults informed.
But there are other boundaries we need to understand too, those unique to each kid. Here are five specific aspects of their world with which leaders need to become familiar.
- Where someone lives physically. We need to know something about their neighborhood, school, and physical home environment.
- Where someone lives socially. Kids and teenagers need someone to help celebrate the distinctives of their family.
- Where someone lives digitally. If you want to be personal, you may need to intentionally listen to conversations you wouldn’t otherwise be a part of.
- Where someone lives culturally. When you are personal, you learn interesting nuances about a person’s family and cultural practices.
- Where someone lives emotionally. The key to developing empathy is not having lived the same experience as someone else, but tapping into the same emotion someone else is feeling and feeling it with them.
The truth is, you may never convince a kid that Jesus cares about them if you don’t get personal. And to move from shallow to personal, you must take the time to understand someone’s everyday context.
When you know where I live you model empathy, so I have a hope that I am worth knowing.
Do the leaders in your ministry model empathy?
Do they understand where their kids are coming from so that they communicate that the kids in their groups are worth knowing?
For more ideas on how to encourage leaders to stop making assumptions and start connecting in a more personal way, check out the latest from Orange Books: It’s Personal by Reggie Joiner, Virginia Ward, and Kristen Ivy.
This book challenges leaders to answer five key questions to ensure they’re leading in a way that’s less shallow and more personal. To find out more, visit www.ItsPersonalbook.com.
While you’re there, be sure to download the FREE “Getting to Know You Toolkit,” with age-appropriate interview questions and activity ideas for preschoolers, children, and teenagers, designed to help kids and leaders get to know each other.