by Hank Hilliard
I love the television show Supernanny. The extreme cases displayed make my parenting challenges seem manageable. Also, the show offers practical parenting tools for creative and effective discipline. Supernanny teaches parents that kids thrive when there are clear expectations and a consistent system of rewards and consequences.
Discipline is more than consequences for negative behavior. Discipline is a personal commitment to accomplishing a goal or living a certain way. As followers of Christ, we should recognize our very title of “disciple” comes from the same root word for “discipline.”

Why should a youth ministry have a discipline covenant?

Youth ministries can benefit from having a discipline covenant in place which outlines how members will live together and the consequences for not living up to the agreement. One gift a ministry offers young people is providing a safe space to develop relationships, share ideas and opinions, and practice faith. Developing a discipline covenant holds every youth, leader, and parent accountable to maintaining a ministry that allows every young person to be his or her best self and live out the mission of the ministry. The covenant calls every person to submit to the good of the group, placing a priority on the needs of others.
A discipline covenant sets CLEAR EXPECTATIONS. You cannot expect youth to live up to the expectations of the ministry unless expectations are clearly communicated. People often rise or fall to the level of expectations placed upon them. A discipline covenant sets the level of what is expected.
A discipline covenant unites through COMMON UNDERSTANDING. Youth group members each come from a unique family situation, each with a different set of expectations and rules. This makes it imperative to have an agreement that explains, “This is who we are, these are the things we value, and this is how we live these out.”
A discipline covenant allows for CONSISTENCY in behavior guidelines and in administering any consequences. Members are held to meeting the standards, and leaders are held accountable to upholding the standard instead of arbitrarily handing out discipline.
A discipline covenant assures CLOSURE, giving the leader a clear path to enforce policy and administer consequences. Because the youth have agreed to submit to the leader’s authority and the parents have pledged their support, when issues arise, the covenant allows for resolution.

What makes up the covenant?

The discipline covenant should consist of three things:
Each person’s responsibility to the community should be clearly defined, including the rules each person pledges to uphold and general treatment of others. Some specific things to consider are:

  • Personal responsibility of the youth, such as, “Be where you are supposed to be, when you are supposed to be there” or “Participate fully in all activities” offer a clear standard that youth are expected meet.
  • Rules and Policies. Rules must be clearly stated and enforceable. For example, “Cell phones are silenced and put away during programming” or “At lights out you are in your bed and remain quiet” are clear statements that leave no uncertainty. Other things to consider including in your covenant are dress code, language, tobacco and alcohol, and pranks.

Define the roles of all adult leaders including trip leaders, mentors, and support staff. Clearly state how youth relate to the different adult authorities and who is responsible for carrying out any corrections or discipline.

  • The youth are each a valuable part of the community.

Although parents may not be there physically, they play a key role. The covenant  must include that parents will support the decisions of the leaders and any discipline actions. You may want to include an “Agreement to Transport Home” clause for parents to sign stating that in the event it is decided a youth must be sent home from a trip or event that the parent will come get the youth or cover the expenses of sending him or her home.
Include enforceable consequences and a plan of action for when someone violates the covenant. This ensures that discipline is administered fairly and consistently and gives adult leaders the security of knowing that youth and their parents have made a pledge of support.

How do I write a discipline covenant?

Consider making this a team effort. Since a covenant is an agreement between parties, everyone who is to be held to the covenant should have a voice in its design; in this case, the youth staff and adult leaders, the youth, and the parents. This increases buy in and helps ensure all parties understand the purpose and expectations of the covenant.
The leader may draft a preliminary covenant to be presented to a select group of parents, youth, and adult leaders for review, discussion, and revision. This process may be preferred if the youth leader has a lot of experience and has earned trust from the other stakeholders. Another option is to gather with a select group of parents, youth, and adult leaders to design the covenant together. This process takes longer and may be more difficult, but can be very effective. Either way, a representation of stakeholders should have a hand in the design and come to consensus on the final version.
Consensus does not mean everyone thinks every line is 100% perfect. Instead, consensus is an acceptable resolution that can be supported, even if not the “favorite” of each individual.
Use positive language. Avoid making the covenant a list of “don’ts” For example, instead of writing “No touching other people’s things.” The covenant could state “I will respect the property of others only using other’s things with permission.”
Once finalized, the covenant should be presented to the larger community in a positive manner. Change is challenging for many, so sell this as a positive change. Avoid presenting the covenant as a response to negativity. Instead focus on the positive aspects of entering into this covenant such as expectancy of increased unity and healthy relationships.
By instituting discipline procedures, Supernanny actually frees young people to be their best selves and to be a valued member of the family. What Supernanny does for families, a discipline covenant can do for your youth group.
For further reading, check out Deech Kirk’s guidelines for writing a discipline covenant, including a sample document.
Hank Hilliard is the Director of Youth Ministry at Franklin First United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tenn. Prior to his current position, he served as the Director of Young People’s Ministries Development for the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, where he helped local churches develop more effective youth and young adult ministries through speaking and teaching, producing original resources, and building networks of support throughout the Church. Before joining GBOD, Hank served for 13 years as the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn. Hank and his wife, Amy, have two sets of twins—Tanner and Kendall, and Connor and Will.