A student asks to speak with you about a personal problem. You agree to meet with him/her in your office at the church after school. The student comes in, you close the door to have a private conversation and 15 minutes later the church secretary goes home, leaving you alone in the building with a teenager. You may have just made the biggest mistake of your youth ministry career.
I know that in my earliest years in youth ministry, when I was 20-something, I didn't give a great deal of thought to personal boundaries when it came to the young people I was serving. I thought I was really doing my job when I had opportunities to meet with them one-on-one, to visit them in their homes, to talk with them on the phone. I was a "youth director" -- a lay leader in a paid church position -- with none of the expectations of having to do periodic boundary training like a licensed or ordained pastor. But in the ensuing years, I became more educated on just how easy it is for youth and adult leaders alike to cross boundaries --social boundaries, personal boundaries, sexual boundaries, ethical boundaries. There are situations with youth I wouldn't even consider putting myself into today that were commonplace in my early days of ministry.
Now I am responsible for providing regular training for youth leaders who work with youth in our summer camping program. Of course, the practices that apply to a situation like camp are just as important for those staffing a weekly youth ministry program. Much of what we teach is adapted from a program by the Methodists called "Safe Sanctuaries." I'd be happy to share this information in more detail with anyone who is interested, but let's focus on just a few of the biggest issues:
TWO PERSON RULE - Just what it sounds like, the two person rule maintains that at least two adults must be present and within sight of each other at all times when youth are present. This is a "non-negotiable" in my opinion. In a time of heightened awareness of abuse by clergy, it is paramount that youth (no matter what age) not be alone in the presence of an adult. Of course, such a rule also protects the adult from being accused of something improper or having their actions misjudged by a young person.
Does this mean you can't meet one-on-one with a teen? No, but it does mean you can't be alone. I often arrange to meet young people at a local coffeehouse or restaurant so that there will be other people present when we are talking. If you meet with students in your office, you should insist at the very least that the door have a window so that you can be viewed at anytime by others. If you have to drive a student somewhere or take them home after youth group, make sure another adult goes with you. Oh, and one more thing. So often I hear youth workers suggesting that this is a gender issue: male leaders shouldn't be alone with girls, and women leaders shouldn't be alone with boys. True, but they only get it half right. No adult should be alone with a young person, regardless of the genders involved.
SAFE TOUCH - This one is tough for many youth leaders, particularly if you are a "hugger." In this part of our training, we emphasize that there is nothing wrong with touch -- Jesus often demonstrated the healing power of touch. But when it comes to teens and adults, there must be boundaries. We encourage adults to focus on "safe touch" which can include: a pat on the back, a sideways hug (hip to hip with arm around the shoulder), high-fives, handshakes, and A-frame hugs (where the two persons lean in and hug but torsos are not in contact). The most important question to ask when engaging in physical touch with teens is: "Do you want to offer touch to share God's love to the teen or do you yourself need physical contact? What is your real motivation?"
TRANSPARENCY - Many of us utilize social networking sites such as Facebook as a way to stay connected with our youth. But the real danger here is transparency. I've read recently about youth leaders who use the chat features on sites like Facebook to counsel teens. If you are a trained pastor, you might think there is no issue with this. But what about the other adults who work with you? Are they too having long private conversations with individual teens via chat rooms and Facebook? Do you have any way of accounting for these conversations (such as printing out the IM conversations or saving or printing email correspondence with youth)?
What about beyond the virtual world? Do your volunteers meet and/or socialize with youth outside of youth group times? (And are they socializing with teens for the benefit of the youth or because of their own need for friendships and social contacts?) Do you have any way of tracking or accounting for these interactions? Do you ask that volunteers at least share with you when they have met with youth, what they did, and any pastoral concerns that might have been raised? Do you run yearly background checks on all adults working in your youth groups? Each of these questions are important as they relate to the transparency of your ministry.
Ultimately, our primary concern should be that students in our care feel safe and come to know the church or whatever setting you are in as a place where they are cared for and they are protected. It's so important to remember that everything we do, for good or bad, may form how that young person feels about God and the Church for the rest of their lives. Ministries that provide safe space for teens to explore their faith are also giving young people a window into another possible vision of the world, the "Kindom" of God, where all people are loved and respected.