by Chris Mucha
It’s the students that constantly talk while you are trying to teach, the ones who disappear during programming, the guy and girl who seem to think youth night and date night are the same thing, and the ones who pull pranks and bully other students on retreats. Those of us in youth ministry have all experienced students exhibiting these behaviors that we may deem as unacceptable. The question is, what should our expectations be when it comes to our students’ behavior? Is it OK to have expectations when it comes to behavior?
I’ve heard the arguments against structure and discipline . . .
Aren’t teenagers going to be teenagers?
If we offer too much discipline and structure they might not want to come back.
Don’t we want them to feel safe to be themselves?
These are all great points. Yes, teenagers will be teenagers, and yes, on occasion, if you discipline them they might not come back, and of course we want them to feel safe to be themselves. The larger issue at hand is when the behavior of some students gets in the way of the other students’ ability to feel safe to be themselves, or pay attention to the lesson, or feel accepted and wanted in youth group.
Whether they say it or not, students desire structure and boundaries for their behavior. They may not agree with where you draw the lines, but there is safety that comes from knowing where the lines are and that there are consequences for crossing them.
How do you determine the boundaries and consequences? The answer looks different for every ministry. Here are six steps that will help you to answer the question for yourself. If you have a team of adults and/or a leadership team of students, invite them into the discussion and go through the steps together.
1. Pick Your Battles
No one wants to be a drill sergeant and no one wants to be a pushover. Whispering to a friend during a lesson and bringing alcohol along on a retreat are two very different behaviors requiring different approaches. This is why it is important to pick your battles. Determine what behaviors are unacceptable and what behaviors, although possibly annoying, may not be necessary to discipline.
For example, our policy becomes much more strict when we travel. Our students and parents sign an agreement before any trip making it clear that if the student violates the travel policy, the parent has to come get them. There are no second chances. When on trips, our leaders should be more focused on building relationships and spiritual guidance than on discipline. This is a hard line approach but in 12 years we have only had to enforce it once.
2. Develop a Clear Policy
Once a list of intolerable behaviors has been created, transform the list into a clear policy. What will the consequences be for various behaviors? What will happen if students repeat behaviors? Write down your policy and allow others to offer feedback. Consider leaving room in your policy for personal discretion by the youth pastor.
For example, my adult leaders once suggested we clarify a dress code and post it all over the youth space. Students violating the code would not be allowed to participate in youth. They were not concerned about dress in general but were specifically concerned about one young woman in our group who wore fairly short shorts. She was new to our program and I knew more of her story that was filled with depression and suicidal thoughts. I used my discretion and shared with my team that the last thing I wanted to do was create a policy to clearly single her out and tell her she was not welcome unless she changed.
3. Communicate the Policy
Effectively communicate your finalized policy to ensure it is understood by your volunteer team, parents, and students. Repetition is always good for teenagers, so periodically communicate the policy to your students so it sticks. When students violate the policy they will not be able to claim they were not aware of the policy or the consequences.
Our small groups go through a routine each week where the students explain the purpose of the groups and go over their covenant (policy). It consists of three statements: (1) one person speaks at a time, (2) anything said in the group stays in the group unless it has the potential to harm a group member or someone else, and (3) we do not discuss people outside the group by name in a negative way. Some groups went a step further and extended the covenant to include putting cell phones in jail, taking off shoes, etc.
4. It Takes a Village
Empower your adult leaders and congregation. We are not interested in creating a police state in our churches, but we do want to provide consistent structure and expectations of behavior. Our adult leaders need to be familiar with our policy and feel comfortable enforcing it for structure and discipline to thrive in our large group of students.
As the ministry leader it is important to be made aware of all incidents. While adult leaders in our youth ministry are comfortable enforcing our policy, they will send students to a staff member to discuss what happened and provide consequences. This empowers our adults to provide discipline but takes dealing with the consequences out of their hands.
5. Follow Through
Following through is one of the most important pieces of providing good discipline in youth ministry. When you have a clear policy of behavioral expectations and clear consequences for violating that policy, you MUST follow through on the consequences. Respect for you and the integrity of the policy is compromised if you do not enforce the consequences stated in your policy.
We were on a beach trip eight hours from home the time I had to enforce our trip policy. It involved a young girl with whom I had counseled extensively. She began drinking alone at the age of 12. She had been abused and had attempted suicide. She brought alcohol with her on the trip. After a few days she told me about it and brought it to me. It broke my heart, but at that point I had to follow through on our policy. I had a good relationship with her family and her dad drove down through the night and picked her up. Her parents initially had trouble believing the extent of her problem but this incident made them aware that she needed serious help.
6. Remind Them You Care
When we have behavior issues with a student it is important to show them we are not just enforcing rules, but that we love the student. After any policy violation it is important hold a discussion with the student to remind them you care about them and to reflect on the situation and why the particular behavior was unacceptable. Remind them they are masterpieces in the image of God and nothing they can do can change that.