Thursday, June 17, 2004

Learned Helplessness

I spent the middle of this week in Toronto, where I had the opportunity to meet and hang out with a variety of youth leaders and pastors, and also with leaders of churches who don't have youth leaders but have a heart for the youth that are coming to their churches.


It was a great time of hearing many stories of how God is working among the emerging generations in the Toronto area, and of trying to find ways to encourage some struggling youth leaders, and also seeing one very surprising element crop up again and again.

Learned Helplessness.


It could almost be described, with not too much exaggeration, as a fiercely-held determination to fail. Some of the youth leaders I talked to -- and their situations were difficult, to be sure -- were highly resistant to any suggestions, training, or resources that Darren, Steve & I were trying to steer them towards. Their main theme seemed to be "nothing works" while they simultaneously seemed to resent the fact that we couldn't wave a magical ministry wand over them and their churches, and make everything instantly better.

A couple of them even declined to let us lay hands on them and pray for them. They walked away, some with tears in their eyes, still despondent but refusing to re-consider the ways they were approaching ministry.

Wow. I have so many friends who are eagerly pursuing new ways of re-thinking, doing and sharpening their ministries, which only made the determined helplessness of these people all the more jarring.

My friend Darren, who was my host for the few days that I was there, later told me in our hotel room that his biggest struggle has always been dealing with these kind of people: they know what they're doing isn't working, but they steadfastly refuse to evaluate, critique, revamp, or start fresh.

It's difficult to lead, encourage, or resource people who have already made up their minds that nothing works and nothing will change. I really felt bad for them -- they were truly despairing -- and also for the youth in their churches (I can only imagine how the modelling of frustrated helplessness has impacted them).

There were some really great times of ministry in Toronto as well (not to give an unbalanced report), but it was sobering to see how entrenched this kind of leadership-desperation dynamic was for some people. Would a verse like "Jesus told him, 'Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.'" (Matthew 8:22 NIV) apply to a situation like this?

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