Monday, October 20, 2008

    Adult-Teen Boundaries and Youth Ministry

    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:

    - 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.

    - 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?"

    - 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.



    J.D. Eddins said...

    Great thoughts on giving counsel to teens. Having worked as a therapist before I still try to follow all of the ethical guidelines, plus a lot more, when I work with teens. You can never be too careful.

    Marv Nelson said...

    Great thoughts! I've only ever encountered ONE time a kid spilling over facebook chat. What I did and ALL NEED to do, is copy and paste it into a word document. It's so vital for your own safety.
    Also, with the leaders I ran into one time a leader IMing a student WAY too much, the parent contacted me letting me know she was uncomfortable about it and I talked to my leaders letting him know how it was being looked at, trained him and then the problem stopped, the IMing ceased to be so dangerous.
    This stuff is WAY important and if you're confused read: "Safe Place" and "Better Safe Than Sued" two dynamic books that deal with this stuff!

    Brian said...

    J.D., I agree that you can never be careful. I think it's particularly hard to be vigilant the more we get to know kids and they get comfortable with us and vice versa. It's easy to get sloppy with our boundaries.

    Marv, thanks for sharing your experiences, especially pointing out the importance of training our staff on these sorts of issues. I'll check out those books.

    Gen said...

    This is an excellent article. As a parent of a teen girl, I have great concern with my pastor's interaction with her. I am uncomfortable when he talks to her on facebook. He and his wife tend to pull her away from our family by telling her they love her and she is like family. We have had family problems, but are working hard to build our family and this seems to pull her toward them and away from us. They shower her with gifts that we can't afford, also. I know they are trying to help, but it is tearing our family apart. I feel that we are in competition and that is not appropriate. There could be a lot worse problems, but this is very challenging.
    Thank you.

    Ann said...

    To Gen, Please do not discount your gut feelings when it comes to your daughter. As a Youth & Family Minister reading your comment, it seems as though there are some other boundaries that are being crossed here. You and your husband are the primary adults in her life at this time and every ministy effort should be supporting you in your God-given role in helping her to mature in her relationship with Him(God!) As difficult as it might seem for you, you and your husband must meet with the Pastor and his wife to discuss your concerns, and your hopes that all of you might work together for the good of your daughter and the good of your family. Perhaps it would be as simple as inviting them to your home for dinner, or just simply out for coffee. You could assume that they have only the best intentions for your daughter but it is necessary that you talk to them directly about this.