As a leader in the church, I want to be above reproach. For me, this has and always will be a matter of integrity. However, amidst the needed #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, being above reproach is perhaps more important than ever before.
As youth workers, we work with one of the most vulnerable populations in the church: Teenagers. We want to model Jesus to them, care for them, and protect them. To do that, we have to take steps to ensure that our behavior is unquestionable. With that in mind, here are 9 guidelines I follow when doing ministry with young people. They’re also the guidelines I ask my other adult leaders – both male and females – to follow as well.
- Meet with students in public, not private. Get to know students over a cup of coffee or scoop of ice cream, in a public place surrounded by other people, not in your office with the door closed. Remember, it is possible to have a private conversation in a public place. Doing so protects both you and your student who, let’s face it, will be much more comfortable meeting with you in public anyway.
- If you host students in your home for various events and Bible studies, always ensure there are multiple students and adult leaders present. When you have students in your home, your spouse – even if they are also a ministry leader – does not count as a second adult leader. Instead, you need to have another adult leader present who is not in any way related to you. Ask adult leaders to stay until the last student has been picked up.
- If you drive students home, do so only when a second adult is present in your car OR when there are multiple teenagers present.
- Over communicate one-on-one meetings with parents. Developmentally, teenagers are beginning to have a great deal of autonomy. However, to be above reproach, before meeting with a student one-on-one, talk to their parents. Let them know what you’ll be talking about (You can do this generally, without a lot of details, in order to maintain confidentiality with a student,) where you’ll be meeting, and how long that meeting will last.
- At the close of an event, ensure that you are never left alone with a student. Instead, ask another non-related adult to stay until the last student is picked up.
- Don’t block windows. Often in youth ministry, we try to create a certain atmosphere in our youth rooms and offices. To do this, we’ll close window blinds or put paper over them. Don’t. Parents – or anyone else for that matter – should be able to look into your office and youth room and see what’s going on. This communicates that you have nothing to hide.
- Never comment on students’ clothes, haircuts, or makeup. I recognize that the vast majority of people who comment on these things are merely trying to be nice. However, what matters in these instances is NOT our intent but how our comments are actually perceived. Adolescents are, by nature, uncomfortable in their own skin. When adults compliment them on their appearance, this often makes them MORE uncomfortable, not less. Among other things, complements make them question why we’re noticing (this is especially true for young youth workers who are close in age to those you serve) and why we didn’t notice them before.
- Be careful of touch. Appropriate touch can be good and healthy for students. However, we don’t always know everything about a student’s story. As a result, we don’t always know what touch is okay for students. So, err on the side of caution. Shake people’s hands. Pat them on the back. If a student initiates a hug, reciprocate but keep it short and only do so if other people are around. When in doubt, ask. “You seem like you could use a hug. Is it okay if I give you one?” If a student says NO, respect that.
- Don’t change in front of students or have them change in front of you. As youth workers, we do a lot of overnight events with kids. Often, we end up sleeping on the floor in large rooms crammed with kids. It can be tempting to try to discreetly change in a corner to avoid long lines in the bathroom. However, you never know who’s watching. What’s more, even if you’re comfortable changing in front of kids, chances are, they are not comfortable with you changing in front of them. When kids start changing, get out. It doesn’t matter if you have more to do, leave the room until teens are fully clothed.
These practices may seem basic, but they’re vitally important to protecting your integrity and more importantly, to protecting your students.
Earlier this week, when Bill Hybels announced he was accelerating his planned retirement from Willow Creek amidst accusations of sexual misconduct, I was struck by two things he said:
- “I realize now that in certain settings and circumstances in the past I communicated things that were perceived in ways I did not intend, at times making people feel uncomfortable. I was blind to this dynamic for far too long.”
- “I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.”
These are important lessons for youth workers – and all church leaders.
Being above reproach doesn’t only mean not engaging in sexual behavior with someone. It means caring for others, which means being wise and never engaging in any behavior (or saying anything) that makes them uncomfortable.
You don’t get to decide what makes others uncomfortable. They do.
But it’s up to us to put safeguards on our words and actions so that we can avoid making costly, preventable mistakes. When we intentionally do this, we help make the church safe – for us, yes, but also for our leaders and the teenagers in our care.