These are all words I heard this weekend while participating in my church’s sixth grade camp. I have to admit I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t think a group of sixth grade girls who are just getting to know each other would be so open to talk about their school, their friends, their family—at least not so honestly. Some of the words listed above were talked about during our designated small group time. Other times these words were brought up in normal conversation, sitting in the bunkhouse with them during free time just listening.

Here’s the most important thing I learned from these conversations: they really do want to talk to someone in a safe environment. They want to have open conversations about the things that are bothering them, about things that drive them crazy at school and yes, how sometimes their little sister really does get on their nerves.

I learned that in middle school there are labels for everyone. Whether they want to be labeled or not—they are. It may be because of the clothes they wear, the people they hang out with, or just because someone doesn’t like the way they behave. They don’t like feeling judged all the time or how others are judged so quickly.

I heard these girls open up about their parents’ divorce, close family members who have cancer and friends struggling with cutting. They confessed fears of being a burden on their parents. They expressed sympathy for their parents, who are watching their grandparents deal with Alzheimer’s. Toward the end of the weekend, one of the girls said, ”I had no idea I had so much in common with some of the other girls.” And she wasn’t talking about what movies they like, it was about the fact that both of them were in families where divorce and cancer is impacting their lives.

When asked what was going to make our three years as a small group together successful, some of the answers were: being honest with each other, supporting each other, listening to each other and not talking outside of small group about what we share when we’re together. (Yes, what happens in small group stays in small group.)

Then we discussed what would hurt our three years together, and they answered: gossiping, not listening to each other and not being open with each other. These are smart sixth grade girls!

At the end of the weekend, I came to this conclusion: we as the church—as ministry volunteers—need to fasten our seat belts and prepare for the ride of our lives, because being a small group leader to middle school students may be one of the most challenging things we’ve ever done. But there’s so much at stake. These kids are just beginning to understand what it means to really own their faith and how it impacts their lives. They’re learning that a relationship with Jesus is what they will always be able to depend upon. They want to make a difference in the world. They want to be the church, not just sit in it.

We have been called to be a part of their lives. We have the privilege of listening to them, praying for them and loving on them for the next few years. We’re not called to be their parents, or to take the place of their parents. God put them in the family they’re in for a reason. It’s our job to give them a safe place to belong, to be one of the other voices in their lives, to speak truth to them—to listen to the stories they may never tell their parents and respond in the way a loving parent or their Heavenly Father might.

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