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Two Reminders about Youth Safety Training

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


Icons of the Icon - Sunday of Orthodoxy

It happens every year, but it never comes as a surprise. Indeed, the Church does such a good job of preparing us for Lent that by the time Forgiveness Sunday rolls around, we’ve learned all about our spiritual life. We’ve desired the Lord with Zacchaeus. We’ve fallen before God with the Publican. We’ve returned to the Father with the Prodigal, and we’ve stood before the King with the sheep…or goats (but hopefully not the goats). 

The Church knows that without preparation for Lent, we would not be ready to experience Lent, and without Lent, we would not be ready to experience the life-giving Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord. It seems that the Lord and His Church are on to something about being human: we need to be prepared. 

This coming Sunday is the First Sunday of Lent: the Triumph of Orthodoxy. It is the day that we take icons in our hands and proudly confess, “This is the faith of the apostles. This is the faith of the fathers. This is the faith of Orthodox.” 

I always love that part.

But it also the day that we will hear these words in the Gospel reading:

Philip found Nathanael, and he said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him and said of him, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

In this reading, we see that God’s people, the Israelites, had also undergone a great deal of preparation, waiting to encounter “him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth.” The entire Old Testament, we learn from this, points to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all that God has been seeking to do from the beginning.

In the beginning, Moses tells us, God sets out to complete a work, namely, to create a human being in His own image, after His own likeness (Gen. 1:26). This work of God begun in Genesis is ultimately and only completed in Christ, who is Himself “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Or, as Christ says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). Or, to put it another way, “Jesus’ human face is the face of God.” 

The invisible, immaterial, unlimited Son of God (God Himself!) was pleased to take on flesh and become incarnate.   Jesus Christ’s human face is the face of the Son of God, the face of divinity. Moreover, we who share in the same humanity that Christ Himself bore (and continues to bear), who become truly human by being incorporated into Christ as members of His Body, also share in that same image of God, the Image that Jesus Christ Himself is. As St. Athanasius writes, “The Word of God came in His own person, because it was He alone, the Image [Icon] of the Father, Who could recreate man after the Image [of God].”2  

We are his icons, as He is the Icon, the perfect Image and Likeness of God the Father. 

In Jesus Christ, the thousands of years of preparation that God’s people had been given through Moses and the Prophets reach their fulfillment. And it is in us that the work of God, that is, the formation of human beings in His own image, the creation of His new icons, continues today. And so this Sunday, we rightly celebrate the use and veneration of icons of Jesus Christ and his Saints, his completed icons, and this is truly the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

But most especially, it is Christ Himself who is the Triumph of Orthodoxy, for it is He Himself who is truly the fulfillment of all that was written in Moses and the prophets. For it is in Him, the perfect Icon of the Father, that we see everything that it is to be a human being in God’s very image, and it is in Him that we, too, become truly human as we share in God’s own image. So let us bear this in mind as we, icons of the Icon, bear icons in our hands, proudly confessing that this is truly the “faith that has established the universe.” 

-Christian Gonzalez 

1 Andrew Root, The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove: 2013), p. 157. 

2 St Athanasius, On the Incarnation (St. Vladimir Seminary Press, Crestwood: 1993), p. 41.

Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.


For more...

For more on the Gospel reading for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, please see our annotations of the passage at our annotated Gospel project, ExeGenius.


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