You’re Not My Parent: A Youth Minister’s Role in Discipline

By Dietrich Kirk

I can remember in my first two years of youth ministry thinking that my role on a trip was to be youth’s parent. Not literally, but I felt a great sense of responsibility for their safety and well-being, and I’m pretty sure that I may have said something to the effect of “While we are on this trip, I’m in charge, I’m your dad.”

Reflecting back on decades years of ministry, I can say for sure that one thing is for certain: I am not their parent. You are not their parent (except when your kids grow up and join your youth group).

I know some of this seems obvious, but I would like to explore our role as it relates to discipline. Here are some things to think about:

You are responsible for boundaries

One of my early mistakes is that I believed I was responsible for youth’s actions because I was afraid that I would be held responsible for the consequences of their choices when we returned. We cannot be responsible for another’s actions. They make choices that have consequences. We are responsible for setting clear expectations and boundaries, and communicating what happens when students behave outside of those boundaries. My sense of responsibility for their safety and well-being was a good one. Yet my job was not to keep them from doing things, but to set appropriate boundaries that protected their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Our covenant created boundaries that allowed us to live in this kind of space. In this way, we do act like a loving parent.

You are more like a principal than a parent

Part of your job is to enforce the rules or to hold the youth accountable to the covenant. When someone gets outside the boundaries, your job is to enforce the consequences. But Joel was right: you are not their parent. You have limited responsibility and authority in their lives, which is why when youth step way outside the boundaries or are consistently rebellious, we turn to the higher authorities in their lives: their actual parents. However, even if boundaries and values are different at home, you still have a responsibility to enforce the boundaries of your organization/church/camp/group. Just because something might be allowed at home doesn’t mean you have to compromise the values you’ve set for the group. When students attend or participate in your group, they need to understand that this setting could be different from home, and that’s ok!

You have limited but important influence

For the most part (there are exceptions — both good and bad), a teen’s moral compass is set at home. Youth workers, teachers, and coaches who work with teens all are influencers on young people, but we are not the primary influence. The adult leaders, other youth, and you have the opportunity to cast a value system for the young people in your youth ministry that is in line with God’s design. We hope that our church and ministry helps families develop godly value systems at home, but every family’s values and boundaries are different. You have limited but important influence in young people’s lives. The most important thing you can do for them is to model the lifestyle of a Christ-follower.