Six times in one trip. That’s right, the worst breakdown trip involved me pulling over on the side of whatever dirt road or interstate we happened to be on at the moment with two bus-fulls of teens because one of our amazing vehicles broke down. That tale is still being retold by the kids who were there. We kept getting it “fixed” only to have the next mechanic say that they had found the “real problem.” It concluded with an unexpected night in a hotel much to the excitement of the students on the bus (not so much the adults) and a church funded meal at the Cracker Barrel next door where one student’s individual root-beer binge bill ended up being north of $50…at Cracker Barrel.
Throughout many less extreme breakdowns, I have gathered some tips that can help you think through what to do when your bus breaks down this summer because you know it will.
CALM DOWN! Your demeanor in this situation is going to determine a lot about the safety of your students. There will be time to be angry after the students are in bed. Now is the time to practice your deep breathing and not freak out. Seriously, don’t explode because it just makes the whole thing worse. There is nothing at this moment that will be helped by your anger, so CHILL!
This shouldn’t have to be said, but your absolute first job is the safety of your students. That begins with where and how you pull off the road. Unless the engine appears to be on fire or the bus uncontrollably grinds to a stop, you need to wait until you have a relatively safe spot to stop. That place is never on the side of an interstate…remember teens are going to horseplay and be a little crazy so make sure this is a teen-friendly location.
You are going to be fussed at by the chair of the Trustees no matter what you do, so make sure you choose safety. That may mean you ride very slowly on a flat tire until you can pull off the interstate, but better a ruined tire rim than a dead student. At this point be very sure you know where you are so that you can tell someone else.
Once you are stopped, get off the bus first by yourself and decide exactly where you are going to have the students hang out while you address the situation with the bus and call for a mechanic. Only then do you get back on the bus and let the kids off. If you had not done it already, ask students to not call home until you have an idea of what is happening and what the plan is. Parents don’t panic as much when students have more to say than “The bus is on fire and we’re pulling over on the side of the interstate.”
2. Can I get back out?
Your second (and somewhat simultaneous) thing you need to be thinking about is whether your pull over site is somewhere that you can get out of. Realize that you may end up pulling over only to find that the smoke from the engine was caused by the can of mountain dew you left there when you were checking the oil (you checked the oil right?). That means you may end up pulling away without ever letting the kids off. You need to make sure you can do that. Try your best to find a paved area. Far too often we have pulled over only to find that our tires were now in the softest sand God created and had to call a tow truck to pull us out.
3. Call Your Pastor/Supervisor
You may think that the next thing to do is call a tow truck, but that needs to wait. Though I’m sure you read and memorized all the van procedures, it is important that someone at your church knows what is going on and helps you think through the right decisions. Call your Pastor or supervisor and let them know what happened and what you plan to do. Then ask them if you are on the right path.
4. Call someone to help
Depending on where you are and whether or not you have internet access you may be able to look up the nearest towing company or you may need someone back home to do that for you.
5. Scope out your location
Now it’s time to figure out what you have that is close by. Is there food? Is there an Air-Conditioned building? After you look around your immediate area, it’s time to look for sister churches in your denomination that are close by. Every church understands that busses break down, and if you can get someone on the phone most are willing to give you a lift and let you come hang out in their youth room and order some pizza until everything is fixed. Granted, you may not need to take that much time, but its nice to have a longer-term game plan in case the mechanic gives you the worst news.
6. Communicate with Parents
It’s finally time to ask students to call home and give them very specific instructions on what to say that includes what happened, that students are in a safe location, what the plan is from that point, and when they will call again with an update. Make sure you have someone handling your phone for you so that you are available to talk to any parent who needs to talk to you.
7. Make this a ministry moment
This is the moment when you pull out all your silly games, playing cards, soccer balls and make the best of the situation. Some of these times are some of my best memories from ministry in the past sixteen years. If you are present and have control over your temperament, God can use this moment in a powerful way.
Look, we all hope this isn’t going to happen again this summer, but it probably will. The least you can do is think through it ahead of time. Take this list with you or make your own, but don’t be caught off guard. If you handle it right even the church bus breakdown can be a powerful moment for ministry.