Wednesday, January 04, 2012

    Most Important Youth Ministry Story of 2011

    Looking back now, it would seem the most important youth ministry story of 2011 wasn't really about youth ministry at all but its implications for those who work with youth in the Church are enormous.  The scandal at Penn State brought to light once again the critical importance of establishing proper and consistent boundaries for adult-youth interactions in schools, clubs, sports teams and, yes, even youth ministries.  I think this all boils down to two important questions:

    1. Does your youth program have a policy that mandates that no adult is to be alone in private with a teen?

    2. Do you allow exceptions to that rule?

    I regularly lead boundary training workshops with youth ministry, church,  and camp staffs. By far the most important rule I argue must be part of any safe church policy is the "two adult rule." Simply stated, there must be two adults present with youth at all times -- no exceptions.  Oddly, this is the one rule that participants in these workshops often have the most difficulty accepting.  Without fail, someone will always argue that there must be exceptions to that rule.  The most common exception: "We follow that rule when the youth and adults are opposite gendered but not if they are same gendered." In other words, it's okay for a male youth leader to be alone with a guy but not a girl, or vice versa.  My response:  Take a look at the Penn State scandal. Take a look at what has happened in the Catholic Church. How well did that policy work out for them?

    If you start allowing exceptions to the two-adult rule, you open the door to a host of difficulties. In particular, you send a clear message to pontential abusers that there is a hole in your safe church policy that they can exploit...and often the would-be abuser is the last person you would suspect.

    Developing and maintaining strict boundary policies in our youth ministries shouldn't be about protecting ourselves from litigation or making our work easier.  In truth, isn't it really about honoring our youth as children of God who deserve to be protected and treated with the utmost care and respect?  


    Benjer said...

    So true. Treat volunteers like employees and have solid policies in place. Our small groups aren't allowed to meet unless two leaders are present. If one can't make it, they have to find a fill-in or cancel.

    If we care about our students, we will make this stuff a priority.

    Missy Mae said...

    I'd like to add that the two adult rule is also to protect adults from children. 1. so there are no false accusations and 2. so that the youth do not assault the adults as well.

    Anonymous said...

    Does anyone have a website with sample policies for youth ministries regarding boundaries, not only of adult - child ratios but for picture taking and social media?

    Anonymous said...

    The phrasing you use is important: "no adult is to be alone in private with a teen." Our policy acknowledges that one-on-one conversations with teens are sometimes important...but they must take place in public (or if you're at the church, you must leave the door open and notify another staff person that the meeting is taking place).

    The one issue we run into is when parents, older siblings, or family friends also serve as youth volunteers. Our policy tries to be comprehensive (you should never be alone with youth, regardless of whether you're at a church function), but this seems difficult to enforce (i.e. a parent volunteer may be asked to give their kids' friends a ride to a youth event...this would technically be against our policy, although we don't enforce it). How do your policies handle these scenarios while still setting up appropriate out-of-church boundaries for volunteers?

    Brian Kirk said...

    Benjer, thanks for sharing. I agree that having a policy that says "if we don't have two adults we just don't meet" is important.

    Missy, it's certainly true that these policies can also aid in protecting adults, though I don't see that as our first priority.

    Jason, I don't know anyone who has those policies posted but I'll see about making some sample docs available here on the site soon.

    Finally, yes I was careful to use the term "private." There are certainly times when it is appropriate and even necessary to have a one-on-one conversation with a teen. If this is in a church setting, we should simply make certain that another adults is within sight. If away from church, it is important to meet in a public setting (coffee house, restaurant) etc. where our interaction with the teen is out in the open and visible to others. Of course, all of this would prohibit an adult from being alone in a car with a teen, even if driving them home from youth group.

    The situation with parents is a little different. A parent being alone with the teen child is not an issue, as far as I'm concerned. Likewise, if a parent has a previous practice of transporting their child AND a friend when away from church, I wouldn't have any problem with a parent transporting these two together to or from a church event, as long as they have the permission of the other parent.

    iPriest said...

    Completely agree. Our policy is two-way: it protects young people, but most significantly, it protects our youth leaders from spurious allegations. Sadly, troubled teens know how to manipulate situations and here in the UK the malicious cry of "paedo!" needs to be avoided at all costs if only to protect honest, decent, caring and Christ-focused youth leaders.