If you’ve ever been a camp counselor, you know the pains of some of the youth ministry training process. Of course, I don’t mean the time you took classes on learning icebreakers or how to be a good listener or how to best speak about our faith. I mean the online training, learning all of the things you shouldn’t do and having to learn the ins and outs of the Youth Protection Manual.
(By the way, the Archdiocese is preparing new Policies for the Safety of Youth and Children. So these basic youth safety principles will soon apply to all youth work. Stay tuned!)
Now, I’m sure you know that all of this is important. But when you’re an experienced counselor, it’s easy for this to feel like just another task you have to check off your to-do list. It’s easy to lose sight of what it’s all really about.
Those in youth ministry have an incredibly important role in the spiritual lives of the youth with whom they work. Though you may only be with these young people for a retreat or for a week-long camp session, your impression matters, and the parents trust that their children are in safe hands with you.
So what are two things that everyone can keep in mind, as a background for all of the rules and regulations? What I’ve found helpful is to remember that boundaries matter, and that we as leaders in the Church serve as icons of God.
1. Boundaries matter
Boundaries are at the core of many youth safety regulations. We talk so much about how far apart to be from the youth, about how much physical contact is culturally appropriate, about contact online and on the phone. But common to all of these rules is the concept that our boundaries and the boundaries of our youth truly matter.
One common mistake that youth workers can make is to not properly set up boundaries for themselves. They want to be open and helpful, they want to be always available to lend a helpful hand or a listening ear. Youth workers want to be there for their youth, but sometimes that Johnny-on-the-spot availability can be at the detriment of their own physical and spiritual health. We can’t give what we don’t have.
While our boundaries matter, so too do the boundaries of our youth. There is the obvious need for physical boundaries to be respected. But there’s also the need to have clear emotional boundaries with those we serve. I remember early on in my youth work a time when I found myself getting too emotionally worked up about a young person’s struggles. I wanted to be able to help him, to make sure he was alright. But I had to see that I was trying to fix him instead of letting God do the work. I had to stop seeing him as a problem to be solved, and instead as a person to be loved and prayed for. I needed to commit him to God, and to trust that Christ could work in his life.
2. Religious leaders are icons of God
Whether we like it or not, we who work in ministry are – in a very real and particular way – icons of God for those we serve. How we act and live our lives reflects Christ whose ministry we share. How we speak to young people guides and molds how they perceive and understand God.
This may be a rather heavy realization to have, but it’s an important thing to keep in mind. Though we know that we are imperfect people ourselves – and perhaps because of an awareness of our imperfections we are personally aware of the power and grace of God – we must remember that our youth do not expect us to be quite so imperfect. How we show love, how we demonstrate the grace of God by how we show grace to young people we serve, all impacts how they are able to relate to and encounter the Holy Trinity.
Another temptation, intertwined with the importance of boundaries, is sharing too much of our own story too soon and in the wrong context. We may want to show that we can truly empathize with the challenges our youth face – because, let’s be honest, we have oftentimes been in the same boat they’re in now. But we have to remember that we represent the straight and narrow path; we represent Christ. When we share with teens, for example, that we faced a challenge they are now facing, we need to favor being vague over specific. Because not only could a discussion of specifics end up crossing a boundary, it can also send the wrong message and lead to temptation rather than a helpful lesson. How specific we become, and the examples we share, can only be properly discerned over a period of time as we build as relationship with the person before us. And when it comes to youth, we need to be extra careful in what we say.
We don’t have to be perfect, but we do have to work not to scandalize those in our care (1 Corinthians 8:13).
Icons made of wood or plaster bring us to an encounter with the one depicted. Through created matter, we come to know Jesus Christ, His mother, and the other saints. And in us – those who work with youth – others come to see living icons of our Lord. Imperfect though we may be, young people encounter Jesus Christ in and through us.
When Youth Safety is seen as a task to accomplish, or as a set of rules to follow, we forget that we are preparing to serve the Body of Christ. Youth ministry is Christ’s ministry and we are His hands and His feet serving His people. But we need to rediscover the importance of keeping proper boundaries, both for our sake and for the sake of the youth. And we should keep in mind that ultimately we represent our Lord to those we serve.
How have you struggled with boundaries in youth ministry? Have you ever encountered a time when you felt a young person placed you on too high of a pedestal?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages, genealogy, and good coffee.
Photo Credit: depositphotos