I will never forget the moment at camp when one of my leaders turned our camp into a military style boot camp complete with single file lines, drill sergeant sounding voices, and precision instructions for guards standing their posts. Our camp was up in the mountains and there began to be rumors of a black bear on campus.
This one specific leader—who is amazing, by the way—brought the bear news to my attention and was very concerned about the safety of our teenagers. My response to the leader was to just handle the situation and get everyone back to their rooms safely. I gave no additional clarity or expectations around what would be the appropriate way to handle the situation and what wouldn’t.
I gave this leader a boundary-less task and it turned into boot camp with frightened teenagers and calls home to parents that there were bears running around the camp facility. I caused my own headache that night because I didn’t give clear boundaries for this leader to operate within.
Thinking back on the moment makes me laugh, but the reality of helping our leaders know and abide by healthy boundaries can be much more serious than this example. When we are unclear, people create their own expectations and they rarely match up with what’s in your mind. Because of this, one of the most important things that you can do for your leaders in helping them create healthy boundaries is to be crystal clear with your expectations.
Here are a few areas to consider as you help your leaders develop healthy boundaries with the students in your ministry.
Set up guidelines for your leaders on how you’d like them to communicate with students. You have an adults and minors situation in your student ministry so this is an area where you cannot leave room for interpretation.
One question to answer is: how do you want your leaders to engage on social media and in text messages? There are differing viewpoints here, but I tend to lean more towards adults avoiding one on one communication with teenagers through social media direct messages or texts. It makes things more complicated, and some would say more difficult to minister, but it provides a clear boundary for adult/minor engagement that provides the safest environment for leaders and students. If you have two leaders per group (which is always a goal to work towards) then you can ask your leaders to always include the other person when they text a student. Additionally, ask your leaders to never delete texts or DMs.
Your leaders should have growing and impactful relationships with the students in your ministry. Research shows that having adult spiritual mentors while in student ministry is the number one factor in a teenager staying connected to the church long term, which is a sign of growing spiritual maturity.
These are not boundary-less relationships, though, because any healthy relationship will also have healthy boundaries. Your leaders need to be coached on how to do this. For example, a leader should never be alone behind a door with a student. If a one-on-one conversation needs to happen, then it needs to happen in a public place where there are other people.
You also need to bring clarity to your leaders on what it means to have appropriate vulnerability. It is healthy for teenagers to know that adults struggle and have difficult times—that they aren’t perfect and need to rely on Jesus just like they do. However, the adult is still the adult and over-sharing or revealing details of sinfulness can be an inappropriate conversation with a minor.
A healthy step to take as your leaders are building relationship with students is for them to simultaneously be building relationship with the parents. This one small step can increase partnership between the student ministry and the home as well as creating a healthy environment for spiritual mentorship to take place.
There will always be students in your ministry who don’t follow the rules, especially if you are reaching people who don’t know Jesus. I find that it is always a good reminder for adults that lost people don’t act like saved people and we shouldn’t expect them to. At the same time, an expected standard for everyone is a healthy thing and there will be moments when your leaders will be put into disciplinary situations.
Some boundaries here would be: never become physical with a teenager in any way, never yell, and always keep an attitude of kindness. Beyond that, I think an extremely helpful perspective overall comes from a good friend of mine, Ryan McDermott, who is a student pastor in south Florida. (As a side note, we have a podcast with Ryan on this very topic coming soon!)
Ryan’s encouragement to his leaders is to call students up rather than calling them out. The difference is subtle, but it can make a huge impact in the life of a teenager. More often than not, teenagers in our society are looked down upon and called out. When we as the church call them up—to something greater—we are loving them in a way that is different than what they experience in culture and it creates a bridge to the gospel.
A pastor and good friend once shared this timeless principle of leading people: “You recruit most of your own problems into the ministry.” I’ve found it to be true more than I’d like to admit.
When we are clear with people by providing them with expectations and boundaries to operate within, we give them a positive, safe environment to pour their lives into teenagers. It is actually freeing for them to know the rules of engagement rather than wondering if what they are doing is what they are supposed to be doing.
You have great people serving in your ministry, as I’ve had throughout the years. Take the next step with them by providing them with healthy barriers.
And yes, there were bears on the campus that night at camp. It was awesome.
This post was written by Ben Trueblood, Director of Lifeway Students. Ben is passionate about investing in student ministry leaders like you. You can find more encouragement from Ben on his YouTube Channel, Student Ministry That Matters.