This morning I read that great wake-up call from the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6. It starts like this: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the whole armor of God. . . that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” Because it’s familiar, it’s sometimes easy to brush over. Instead, it’s a passage we must settle on. . . stay there. . . and pray through.
For me, I know Paul’s words to be oh-so-true and oh-so-never-less-than-timely. Over the course of my years in youth ministry I’ve learned many things the hard way. . . either by watching myself and knowing my own heart, or observing friends as their lives come tumbling down.
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. 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. I would also add that your accountability network shouldn’t be filled with people just like you. Be sure you’ve got some older, wiser, well-seasoned folks who have been down the path in your loop.
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. I absolutely hate that this is the way it is, but in today’s world, the best and safest policy is to never spend one on one time alone in private with a student. Never, ever, ever give a student a ride alone in your car. Even when everything is on the up and up and innocent, false accusations could be made that will destroy you. Don’t visit a student of either sex in their bedroom. It’s best to minister to students in groups. 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 tools 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. Group texts and messages offer built-in accountability.
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. Then, start to take the necessary steps under the supervision of a group of ministry leaders at your church to admit your wrongdoing, seek forgiveness, submit to oversight, and get back on track. . . even if that means stepping away from ministry temporarily or for good.
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. 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. There but for the grace of God go I. 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?