What students need most when they’re stuck spiritually

Jen Bradbury
Jul 06 · 5 min read

On the first day of swim lessons, the lifeguard asked my nearly four-year-old daughter, Kendall, to put her head underwater and much to my shock, she did. This immediately advanced her from Level 1 (for anyone who can’t put their head underwater) to Level 2.

At the end of the first two-week session of swim lesson, she got her certificate and was told to remain in Level 2. The only thing that surprised me about that was what she COULD do—go underwater five consecutive times.

Fast forward to Kendall’s second swim lesson session, which began a mere three days after the first concluded.

On the first day, I confidently walked Kendall to Level 2. When I picked her up, she proudly announced she’d been moved to Level 1. Thinking I’d misheard, I asked her what happened. 

“I didn’t want to go underwater any more, Mommy,” she replied calmly.

In response, Kendall’s big sister cried, “But that’s moving backwards, Kendall! You don’t want to do that!”

While I wish I could tell you I had the perfect parenting response, I didn’t. Inside, I was thinking those exact thoughts: “You started at Level 2. You can’t move backwards, Kendall.”

I wrestled with this all the way home. We’ve always told the girls we don’t care if they pass from one swimming level to the next, we just want them to learn to be safe and have fun in the water. Yet, I couldn’t deny Kendall’s regression bothered me. Why?

I think it’s because in our success-oriented American culture, we’re taught (from a very early age) that success requires perpetual forward momentum. When we (or our offspring) fail to move forward at the expected pace (or at least remain steady), we feel like failures (or we worry that others will see us as such).

That night, as I processed my feelings with my husband, Doug, he gently reminded me, “Learning isn’t always linear.”

“True,” I thought.

Nevertheless, we both continued to problem solve. Doug asked Kendall to tell him about her swim lessons and we deduced that the problem with going underwater might have been that she didn’t have her goggles on.

When we went to the pool as a family later that night, we put Kendall’s goggles on and after some not-so-gentle prodding, she went underwater and came up smiling.

“Problem solved!” Doug and I both thought, relieved. Because let’s be honest, while learning isn’t always linear for some kids, we still wanted it to be for our girls.

So this morning, on the way to swimming lessons, I asked Kendall if she was ready to go underwater like we practiced. “Yes I am,” she said confidently.

So I talked to her teacher, Lilly, and explained what happened. Lilly graciously assured me she’d retest Kendall and move her to Level 2 if she went underwater.

Even with her goggles on, Kendall refused to go underwater.

“Today, I was scared to go underwater, Mommy,” she told me afterwards.

And so Kendall stayed in Level 1 to get more comfortable with the water, to learn that when we interact with it safely, it doesn’t have to be scary.


As youth leaders, sometimes we treat faith formation like swimming lessons: we expect growth to be linear.

We plan out our teaching series for the year and then turn the page to the next year and do it again, careful not to repeat any of the stories we previously explored.

We expect that once we teach something, young people will grasp and remember it; that they’ll retain it so they can pass some kind of invisible test, after which they’ll never need to return to what we’ve already covered.

But that’s not how learning works.

It’s not how we learn to swim, read, or even form our faith.

Learning requires practice. It necessitates ongoing conversations about difficult topics. It’s best done in the company of others. And even then, it seldom looks like the linear progression we want it to. Instead, it’s filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, loop de loops, and sometimes, even full stops.

Sometimes faith formation requires us to backtrack—not necessarily because we (or our students) have done anything wrong but simply because we aren’t yet ready to move on.

Sometimes, faith formation does a loop de loop because life throws us a curveball and we need to return to old, familiar stories of our faith that anchor us and help us connect with God.

Sometimes, faith formation feels stuck because we’re really wrestling with a question we have not yet been able to answer and until we do, we simply cannot let go of it.

Sometimes, faith formation looks like regression because as we grow and learn, we need to revisit old stories and ideas about God in order to reform them in light of new information or perspectives.

Sometimes, faith formation stalls because we just can’t see or imagine what’s next.

All of these twists, turns, regressions, and pauses can leave students feeling like Kendall did, like it’s just too scary to move on.


At the end of Kendall’s lesson today, her teacher, Lilly, sought me out and apologized. “I tried my best to get Kendall to go underwater but she just wouldn’t.”

Then she looked at Kendall, smiled, and said, “But that’s OK. We’ll try again tomorrow, won’t we?”

Kendall looked at Lilly with awe and wonder and said, “Yes we will!” before turning to me and excitedly sharing all she did during swim lessons. She talked to the fish underwater (to learn how to blow bubbles and put her face underwater without fear) and baked a cake (to learn the hand motions needed for swimming.)

As it turns out, Kendall has more to learn right here, in Level 1. She’s learning the basics that she needs to swim and be safe in the water. It’s OK for her to camp out here until she’s mastered them and feels ready to move on.

In the same way, it’s OK for students to camp out on the basics of their faith, or in a particular story of our faith. It’s OK for them to continually ask the same question about God. It’s OK for them to keep getting stuck on the same big idea.

They’re not failures for the stops, twists, turns, and regressions they experience in their faith and neither are we.

It’s OK for us to include the same building blocks each year as we teach. It’s OK to spend extra time wrestling with the questions our kids are actually asking. It’s OK for us to backtrack to the lesson we taught last week (or last month or last year).

Learning isn’t linear and neither is faith formation.

Repetition isn’t wasted time. It’s part of the building blocks to understanding.

Allowing for the loop de loops of faith doesn’t mean we’re failing at teaching. It means we’re listening to our students and giving them what they need to take the next, often non-linear steps of faith.

And oftentimes, what our students need most in the moments when they’re stuck or moving backwards isn’t a push into deeper waters. It’s someone to grab their hand, gently lead them into the water, sit with them, and say, “It’s OK. We’ll try again tomorrow.”