Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry, edited by Will Penner.
by Jack Radcliffe
At the beginning of my 17th year in youth ministry, I embarked on a new journey with a new church. The youth ministry had a history of having to deal with difficult situations created by students and leaders on trips. My first order of business at the new church was to address an incident that took place a couple of months before I arrived. At the fall retreat, a group of high school boys took part in what had become a retreat ritual: hanging out in their cabin naked. Apparently, this ritual (called “Naked Time”) had been passed on over time, completely unknown to the staff and leaders.
On this particular weekend, the ritual took place as usual. An attempt to initiate a freshman, however, didn’t go so well. He was reluctant to participate. A young, well-meaning leader who walked into the situation tried to alleviate the young boy’s embarrassment. His effort failed miserably and led to the church being alerted by unhappy parents. Temporary action was taken, but it was decided to let the new youth pastor decide what to do. Parents and church leaders both expected assurance that “Naked Time” wouldn’t happen again.
My hopes of reversing the tide of having to deal with “trip issues” were dashed several months later. Over the course of the two-week domestic mission trip, we sent three students home because of suicidal threats and other emotional issues.
The next summer I learned after returning home from a mission trip to Central America that several leaders purchased beer and drank it on the roof of our hotel during the end of the trip R&R.
One of the first things a youth pastor learns how to do is establish boundaries for the youth ministry. Establishing boundaries involves a delicate dance between ensuring relational and physical safety, not making involvement in the youth group suffocating to students, and not making it hard for leaders to enforce the boundaries. My own dance resulted in the crafting of three simple rules:
After unpacking and reinforcing the rules by teaching their biblical foundations and the consequences for violating them, we enjoyed a culture of personal responsibility and mutual regard. Issues were few, but when they occurred, each was handled individually. This approach served me well for 16 years in several churches. However, the world was changing rapidly, and new approaches to keeping youth safe were required.
Prior to my first day in the office at First Church, I received a multi-page document of youth ministry guidelines. Discussions about the policies with volunteers and staff revealed how this church chose to respond. Many of the
youth ministry policies were developed in response to incidents that occurred on youth ministry trips.
Clearly, parents and church leaders wanted assurance that we would do all we could to prevent our young people from making choices that resulted in behavior that was dangerous to themselves and the group. Equally clearly,
I had gone about accomplishing this over the past 17 years in a far different manner than the new church I was serving.
We agreed that youth ministry staff and leaders were responsible to God along with family and the church to feed and protect our young people. I felt that we were also responsible to honor the developmental needs of young
people: specifically, that we help them grow from being externally motivated and controlled to being internally driven. But this journey of gradually loosening the boundaries promises mistakes and failure along the way, and I was more okay with that than the church was.
I had to decide how to balance all of these responsibilities, honor the adolescent journey, and deal with the gap between how I handled the setting and violation of boundaries, and the way the church had become accustomed.
The pressure to ensure expected student behavior would be a tall order.
Feeling the need to assimilate into the new culture (and keep my job), I set aside my preferences and crafted policies addressing each of the situations we encountered. Students were to wear clothing at all times in public dorm and cabin areas, and leaders were not to shower or change at the same time as students. Leaders were also not permitted to sleep in the same room as students. An extensive mission trip application and interview process was developed
and implemented to sniff out emotional issues students may have. We reserved the right to refuse someone participation based on our findings. It also had to be spelled out in our policies that leaders could not drink on trips.
All the while I worked on trying to change the culture of policymaking to the development of personal responsibility and mutual regard. Efforts to put practices in place to help students develop an internal center of control were often
met with skepticism. The good news is that my last trip three years after my first with this church proceeded without incident. The bad news is, students overall didn’t seem to be any better at making wise choices on their own than the day I arrived.
Looking back, I realize that in my attempt to use the external control policymaking approach of the church and my preference of helping students become internally controlled, I did not set us up for success. These two obviously opposite approaches to handling the issue could not work together at the same time. If I could do it over again, I would take the risk of implementing my approach. Accompanied by a lot of communication with parents and church leaders and training of leaders, I believe this would be a win.
Jack Radcliffe has served young people and their families for more than 20 years in churches in Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Tennessee. Jack currently serves as adjunct professor of Educational Ministry at Martin Methodist College and is the Dean of The Youth Ministry Institute of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. In addition, he is a ministry trainer, speaker, and president of Redwood Coaching, redwoodcoach.com.
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