Over the course of my years in youth ministry I’ve learned many things the hard way. . . either by watching myself or observing friends. One of the lessons I’ve learned is just how important it is for a youth worker to set boundaries. The fact is, we’re in a spiritual battle where the hearts and minds of kids are at stake. Consequently, the enemy wants to take us down. Add to that the fact that we’re all broken and sinful people trying to lead and minister to other broken and sinful people. And wherever one or more broken and sinful people are gathered together, there’s a need for boundaries.
I’ve learned to appreciate boundaries. They aren’t confining. They’re life-giving. Boundaries protect us from harm and they provide for our well-being. They keep us out of trouble. And in today’s world, boundaries are more important than ever. Here are some boundaries I believe every youth worker should pursue, set, embrace, and live within.
First, don’t do youth ministry unless you have and are using an accountability network. People who decide to do youth ministry on their own without the benefit of others are usually the first to get in trouble. Find a couple of trusted friends who will engage with you in vulnerable conversation, asking the hard questions about your ministry motivations, about where you’re spending your time, and about your relationships with kids. In fact, don’t just seek out accountability partners who meet your demographic. Find someone who is older and more seasoned. Chances are, their own experience equips them to ask the kinds of questions that people like ourselves might not. The great benefit of this boundary is that it helps you figure out just what your weaknesses are, which then helps you set and keep other much-needed boundaries.
Second, avoid any and all inappropriate contact with kids. Sadly, I’ve known way too many youth ministry friends over the years who have destroyed their lives, their ministry, their families and even their youth group kids through crossing the line into inappropriate relationships. In today’s world, the best and safest policy is to never spend one on one time alone with a student of the opposite sex. Never, ever, ever give a student of the opposite sex a ride in your car. Even when everything is on the up and up and innocent, false accusations could be made that will destroy you. It’s best to minister to students in groups. Where three, not two, are gathered together, there is greater safety. If you need to have a one-on-one conversation with a student – which you will – have the conversation in a quiet corner of a public place. And when it comes to physical touch, be very careful. Even a hug that means nothing to you could send all kinds of emotional and sexual signals to needy and adoring kids.
Third, develop a clear set of parameters for how you will engage with students through your smartphone and social media platforms. All these new technologies are great. They enable us to stay in touch with kids like we’ve never been able to stay in touch before. But if we aren’t careful, our communications could cross the line into the realm of the inappropriate real fast. I’ve learned that it’s just best to carry the same rules for personal contact over into the world of social media. Never forget that squeaky-clean and innocent intent can easily be interpreted wrongly. It’s best just not to chance it.
Fourth, if you find yourself crossing a line, run to your accountability partners and scream out to them for help. If you find yourself crossing a line and enjoying it, run and scream like there’s no tomorrow. . . and remove yourself from ministry. Then, start to take the necessary steps under submission to and supervision of a group of ministry leaders at your church to admit your wrongdoing, seek forgiveness, and get yourself back on track.
Finally, learn the power of saying “no.” Perhaps this is the most important boundary I’ve learned to set in my own life and ministry. Don’t let your investment of youth ministry time cut into your time with the Lord, your time with your family, or your time pursuing your own personal interests and friends. We all need balance in our lives. And if someone you know and love – particularly your spouse – tells you that you’ve crossed the boundary to the point where you’re no longer spending time where you should be.. . .well, you’ve got to listen and you’ve got to make changes.
Those are just a few important boundaries. I know that there are many more. Whenever I hear about a high-profile ministry leader who has fallen into sin, I’m tempted to wag my finger at them in condescending disapproval. Then I remember who I am and how I’m tempted. I remind myself that I’m only one bad decision away from being that guy. And that is why you, me, and everyone else in youth ministry need to set and stay within boundaries. The Apostle Paul issued a warning in Galatians 6:1 that’s just as relevant to us today: “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
What other boundaries have you found to be helpful?