I was fresh out of college. I had been in professional youth ministry less than two years. I was six months into my first full-time youth ministry job when it happened.
Joel had been attending our youth group for three months and although I was glad that he was there, he didn’t quite fit yet. His background was a little different from the rest of the group. The group was learning how to accept him and he was learning what it meant to be a part of a youth group. Sometimes, he used inappropriate language, wore inappropriate clothing, and did inappropriate things. The most challenging thing was that every time he got close to fitting in, he would rebel and act out.
Our fall retreat rolled around and Joel signed up. By then, I had already learned the importance of a discipline covenant in youth ministry. Joel and everyone else signed it before we left on the retreat and I reviewed the covenant with the group when we arrived. The struggle with Joel was he was either all in or all out. He was either right in the middle of everything or on the edges. One of our covenant expectations was that everyone was to participate in all program activities. The problem began when a program time rolled around and Joel did not show up. I left some adults in charge and headed off to hopefully find Joel.
I found him in his cabin lying on his bead with his ear phones in. After getting him to take out the ear phones, I told him it was time for the session and he needed to come on. Joel’s response was that he did not want to come. He needed time, “To just chill.” All this church stuff was making him tired.
Frustration was boiling in my head. I needed to get back as I imagined the others were getting restless. We needed to get the program started. So I strongly suggested that Joel needed to come with me, right then, finishing my statement with a “Let’s go!”
Joel responded with, “You’re not my parent, and I don’t have to do what you say.”
His defiance put me over the edge and the conversation got heated. He eventually came with me, sat in the back of the room, and didn’t engage the rest of the weekend. I was so worked up over him that the programming time was a waste. I couldn’t focus because I was still frustrated.
I can remember in those first two years thinking that my role on a trip was to be there 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 19 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 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

Principals get a bad rap. They are often seen as the bad guys/girls because they enforce the rules. Guess what? 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.

You have limited but important influence

For the most part (there are exceptions–good and bad), a teen’s moral compass is set at home. Youth ministers, 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.

You must learn to balance accountability and grace

The youth minister’s role in discipline is to learn to balance accountability and grace. You must hold youth accountable to living within the boundaries that your ministry has established. You must be willing to enforce the consequences. If you are not, then your boundaries will quickly diminish into nothing as youth realize that there are no consequences for their actions. You must also learn to impart grace. Grace can come in the form of forgiveness. Grace can come in the form of gentle correction. But grace is not the only form of love that youth ministers need to impart; tough love can also come in the form of discipline.
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Hebrews 12:4-11)

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline of some sort), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers (or father figures) who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and lives! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
The balance of accountability and grace should create the space for the most growth for the teenager. How can you help them grow in your response to their actions? What space can you create for the Holy Spirit to work by carefully disciplining those you love?
Looking back, I was not mature enough in my response to Joel and his defiant actions. I wanted the power to be able to say, “Because I said so.” As the youth minister, we never have that power. We are not their parents. Instead, our power exists in the space of accountability and grace. We must learn to accept our responsibility to create good boundaries and to enforce consequences.
If I could go back and do it over again, I would remind Joel of the covenant that we had all agreed to and the consequences of breaking the covenant. Instead of pitting my will against his, I would encourage him to be a member of the community and reiterate his importance among us. I still don’t believe he would be happy about coming to join us, but I would let it be his choice and be prepared to hold him accountable for his actions with grace.
If you are looking for help with discipline issues, check out these other articles on discipline.
What have you learned about our role as disciplinarians from your experiences of disciplining youth? Share below!