It seems every week there are news stories of a youth minister losing a family and career because he or she had an inappropriate relationship with a student. This doesn’t even cover the long-term damage it will cause the church and student. As we look to avoid having the same thing happen in our own ministries, the thought should not be “It will not ever happen to me.” The correct statement is “I must make sure it never happens to me.” This statement leads to appropriate action and safeguards that will not only protect you but also will set clear boundaries for those to whom you minister. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but let me give you five easy things you can do to limit your exposure from false accusations or the trap of inappropriate relationships.
When the service is over and the final prayer said, some people immediately head for the door, yet others mill around visiting for a few minutes. You are counseling with a student and ask to pray for him/her. When you say “Amen” and raise your head, you realize you are the only two left in the room. You know everything is fine and appropriate, but does the church member, parent, or random person driving by when you and the student walk out of the dark and empty student building together?
To protect ourselves and students, we need adults to work with us in youth ministry. We do not need to do the youth ministry by ourselves. Our adult workers should be in the room with us at all times; the closing prayer does not end their responsibilities. Adults do not need to leave until the last student has gone home. Yes, it can be frustrating to wait on the student who “forgot” to tell his/her parents when to pick them up, but for the protection of all, we need multiple adults to wait. If you have a large team of adults, put them on a rotation where three or four stay every week.
“Not Your Jurisdiction”
I want to minister to all my students, guys and girls alike. I want to give them the best ministry possible. This means recognizing my limitations and protecting myself and them from misconstrued feelings and emotions. The opposite sex can take our communications and expressions of concern and care differently than presented. To overcome this, provide training for adult workers of both sexes who can help minister to students.
This is a delicate issue, but necessary. No, I’m not passing my girls off immediately. Nor am I publicly saying “I don’t minister to girls.” This couldn’t be further the truth. I will take the time to listen to the girls in my group and to validate their feelings and situation. Then, I will communicate to them I want to bring in another adult (of the same sex) who can help me give them additional wisdom and support.
I will not end my concern for them. I will be with them along the journey but will take a supporting role.
“They’re Watching Us.”
We should protect ourselves in our communication. Did you know there was a time when people actually used their phones for talking? Digital communication is the way most of us, especially teenagers, communicate. Instant messaging services or text messages through your data carrier lessens the need for vocal communication. Vocal communication allows others to hear what you say if you are near them, but messaging can be private. It can be turned off when someone enters a room. Different from company or church e-mail, it has privacy controls that prevent other people from seeing the communication. In addition to being too private, it can also be misunderstood. “You are an important part of this ministry, and we can’t do it without you.” I’m trying to show appreciation for the student’s efforts from a leadership perspective and encourage him/her to continue to serve. My message could easily be misunderstood as “I’m important to him.”
In order to protect yourself, first, avoid instant message conversations with students. Make sure everything you do and the conversations you have on social media are on public forums for other people to see. If you do want students to have access, set up group chats so multiple people can be part of the conversation, especially another adult.
If students have access to your phone number, include your spouse or another church leader in your text message conversations. Make sure the conversations stay focused on ministry and avoid discussing your personal life. Limit small talk conversations to face to face interactions. What about that text from a middle schooler at 10 at night: “sup, whatcha doin’?” Either ignore it or respond with a grown-up response that includes an opportunity to talk with you in person in the near future.
Our relationships with students should be public. You will have students who will ask to speak to you in private. Private doesn’t have to mean alone. I have had conversations with students on the steps of our stage while the rest of our group is busy playing games and eating at the snack bar.
If you have an office, then either leave the door open while you have someone in it or ask that your office door include a window where people can see you.
If I’m at camp or a retreat, and a student needs to have a private conversation, I’m not going to sit with them in the dark woods alone so we can’t be disturbed. I’m going to be under a light with another adult nearby.
“I’m Over Here.”
“Where did the youth pastor go?” “Where’s your youth ministry spouse?” The last thing you, your spouse, or the church should say is, “I don’t know.” The mind begins to wander at that point. Either the youth minister is not here at the office, therefore he is not working, or he’s not here and is hiding something. Always let someone know where you are going. It doesn’t mean the secretary has to tell them every detail, but it does instill confidence that you are professional (“I worked the lock-in this weekend, so I am going home a little early to spend time with my family. If anybody needs me, just send me a message.”) It will also hold you accountable. (“I’m going home early for the third time this week.”)
When spending time with students, always tell someone where, when, and who you are with. At times, I meet a student at a fast food restaurant or coffee shop, but I always tell someone where I am going and how long I expect to be there. Afterward, I report back. In addition, that individual is free to interrupt the meeting by checking in with me.
What we do is important. Being able to do it a long time by protecting yourself from temptation and false accusations is equally important. Guard yourself so that your ministry can remain healthy and fruitful.