Crossing the Line: When Volunteers Date Kids

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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry, edited by Will Penner.

by Mark Montgomery

I pick up the phone, glad to hear that it’s John, a pastor friend of mine from one of the local churches I support. After the usual catch up about family and life, he gets to the point of his call, which is a lot more serious than our normal conversations. I can hear in his voice he is a little tentative when bringing up the situation.

Judy, the church’s gap-year (or intern) youth leader has started to date one of the kids in the group. Apparently, they are very much in love; and, apparently, the relationship has been going on for a while.

It only came to light when one of the other youth leaders on the team raised some questions about how much time Judy and this boy were spending together. Other leaders had also noticed that that Judy always picked this boy to do things in the sessions over and above other members of the group.

My friend John was a little unsure what to do. Judy is 18, and the kid is 17. Other church kids of similar ages are dating, and no one has a problem. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed this going on before, but as a busy pastor he had trusted Judy with the youth ministry and thought she knew the boundaries of the role. I could hear the disappointment in his voice.

As he asks the next question, I think he already knows the answer. But he asks it anyway: Should he treat this relationship differently because Judy is a youth leader, or should he just let it go like other relationships in the youth group?

Dilemmas

Over the past few years I have had several similar conversations with pastors in my area—too often for my comfort. And this issue doesn’t just crop up with gap-year students. Sometimes a volunteer youth leader begins dating a student; other times a young full-time youth minister develops a relationship. Occasionally, a senior, who is already dating a junior, graduates and becomes a leader—so the relationship developed prior to the leadership position.

This isn’t a new situation in youth ministry; volunteers and youth ministers have been falling for kids for decades. Sometimes they end in life-long relationships; but in many cases careers are ruined, marriages get wrecked, or even worse. So we have to be careful how we treat these situations.

The Bigger Issue

One of the causes stems from the way we train youth leaders. We are usually good at training people about typical leadership tasks, but we don’t talk much about the costs of leadership. When we accept the call to lead God’s people, certain parts of our lives are not our own anymore. Certain life decisions have to be taken wearing a leadership hat, not just a personal one. This is one of the harsh realities of being in Christian ministry—and especially youth ministry.

Rarely do I meet young leaders who are aware of this. They are typically caught up in the passion of doing the work today rather than the difficult sacrifices necessary to sustain it for the long haul.

Was it Judy’s fault that she crossed the boundary of leadership and child protection and became romantically involved with a kid in the group? Or was it the church’s fault for not telling her this situation should never have
happened in the first place, however normal it may seem amongst her friends?

Abraham knew the harsh realities of being a leader. In Genesis 22 we read an account of God testing Abraham by asking him to take his son Isaac to a place to be sacrificed. Abraham had been waiting for a son for many years, and after God had finally given him one, it seems that God was going to take Isaac away from him. Abraham feared the Lord, though, and was willing to follow God whatever the cost. Not until the last minute did God stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, his “son, his only son that he loves” (22:2).

Leadership comes at a cost. Our ministries are going to test us at times. Certain young people in our groups may become attractive to us, seeming to offer us things our current relationships don’t. When this occurs, we need to stand firm in our faith and make sure we act appropriately. We might be flattered by the attention we receive, but we should flee from such thoughts and actions quickly and without hesitation. We should be aware that we have to make decisions as youth ministers that affect our lives outside of our ministries.

In 1 Timothy 3 we read Pauls qualifications of Bishops and Deacons. Paul sets high standards on what it means to serve in these roles. The qualifications of a deacon offer guidance regarding appropriate behavior for those in leadership. The Greek word diakonos, from which we get the term “deacon” means “servant,” “minister,” or “messenger.”

The qualifications listed by Paul cost us, both inside and outside our ministries. On more than one occasion, we might like to go out and get drunk with friends and forget about the cares of the world for a while. But that one action may carry ramifications that would affect young people’s (and their parents’) perceptions of us for a long, long time. Sometimes we may have to exclude ourselves from things or go home early and look like the killjoy.

If we are to be held blameless when tested (by new potential employers and church members) we need to demonstrate ministries that are free of any questionable actions.

One of the big doubts that hang over any youth minister for a long time is the issue of inappropriate relationships with young people. These inappropriate relationships might start off innocently—but even minor transgressions can cost a career. If relationships between leaders (regardless of their ages) and youth are regarded as acceptable by the leadership team, then you will encourage a place where inappropriate relationships are the norm in your youth ministry.

How I Responded

As I listened to John, I knew that some of the questions I was about to ask him were going to strain our friendship. They are the same questions that I would ask any youth minister who came with the situation of a volunteer who was starting to date a kid:

 

These can be hard questions, especially as they can reach into and question deeply the Pastor’s role in setting up the youth leader’s job. John explained that he assumed Judy knew what the boundaries were and that she had undertaken youth ministry training prior to being approved as a leader. The assumptions made by John are commonplace, unfortunately.

Not many people spell out the expectations of what is appropriate and what is not, and what it means to take on a leadership role in the church. Over the past decade in the United Kingdom, we have seen a move to start recruiting volunteers in a similar way to full-time youth ministry workers and clearly spelling out what is expected of them.

If John had done this with Judy, she would have known what was appropriate—and that the relationship she had started with the kid in the group was not and never would be. I explained to John that if this were in a school, Judy were a young teacher, and she were having a relationship with a pupil, we wouldn’t be having a conversation like this. It’s not just full-timers or gappers, but volunteers, as well; we need to clearly state what the boundaries are. If the youth leaders are not happy with these terms, they need to step down from their roles.

Judy was left to make a hard decision: should she end the relationship with the kid in the group or step down from her position? If she steps down and wants to continue her youth ministry career she would have to answer questions about why she stepped down from her position for many years to come. Her explanation would likely create doubt around her ministry, and she would be open to serious questions.

During our residential and events programs, we encourage young leaders (16-18 year olds) to work on the planning teams and at the events—but we spell out a couple of things to them and the other leaders. Once they take on the role of a leader, we expect them to refrain from getting romantically involved with any of the young people at the event. Likewise, to the older leaders—although these young people are acting as part of our leadership team, they are still young people in our care, so romantic relationships between them are out of bounds, as well. Sometimes the roles can get mixed up, especially for people in the middle, not quite young people and not quite leaders. So we are very specific in making sure everyone knows there roles and responsibilities.

It might sound harsh, especially in a church setting, but when we clearly know our expectations and boundaries, we can better work as a team and glorify God. Clear communication also allows us to question each other’s practice, especially if we think things are going in a dodgy direction. I want to make sure the young leaders I am developing know from the outset what it means to be in church leadership—and what joys, responsibilities, and costs come along with that.

Some realize leadership is not for them at that moment, or not for them at all. Others recognize God’s long-term call on their lives. For those, God has entrusted our leadership team with the responsibility to help them be successful. If we don’t clearly communicate our expectations and boundaries, we set them up to stumble through their leadership—and sometimes completely fall.

What I Would Do Differently

A few months later, John called me again to update me on the situation. The church had reviewed all their volunteer agreements in their youth and children’s ministry. They had made sure that everyone was well aware of their roles and responsibilities and what was appropriate behavior. They had made sure all the leaders participated in child protection training and that any young leaders were being trained in an appropriate way so that this type of situation wouldn’t happen again.

Judy decided that her long-term calling was to youth ministry, so she ended the relationship and sought out appropriate training. The cost to her leadership was that she had to separate herself from the kid she was dating, stand apart from her peers in the church, and recognize that God’s calling on her life was more important than her relationship with another person. She accepted the cost of Christian leadership.

Questions to Consider

Have I considered the costs of Christian leadership? What boundaries do I tend to push that need to be solidified?

In what creative ways can I help train others regarding appropriate boundaries beyond a list of dos and don’ts?

What barriers stand between clear communication of expectations and boundaries to all leaders—both paid and volunteer, regardless of age—and how can I overcome them those barriers?

*****

Mark Montgomery is an ordained youth minister in the Church of England, and the Youth officer for the Diocese of Chester. A contributing editor to Young People and Worship: a Practical Guide, he spends his time training, teaching, and mentoring youth ministers, consulting with churches, speaking at youth events, studying trends in youth ministry, and writing resources.

COMMENTS


Will Penner3:18 am

I think there are two issues related to dating students: One is the age issue. To me, this is a hard-and-fast rule. No dating minors by adults, even if there's only a few months' difference. There are legal issues in addition to the moral ones. The second is the positional issue. This one is a problem regardless of whether or not everyone is a legal adult. It's what gets college professors in trouble, and doctors, lawyers, and other service providers. When one person who is in a position of authority over another and they start dating, things get complicated. While I try not to be overly black and white about every situation, a good general rule of thumb is for those in a power position to avoid relationships with people under their care. If they choose the relationship, then the position needs to go away.


Will Penner2:18 am

I think there are two issues related to dating students: One is the age issue. To me, this is a hard-and-fast rule. No dating minors by adults, even if there's only a few months' difference. There are legal issues in addition to the moral ones. The second is the positional issue. This one is a problem regardless of whether or not everyone is a legal adult. It's what gets college professors in trouble, and doctors, lawyers, and other service providers. When one person who is in a position of authority over another and they start dating, things get complicated. While I try not to be overly black and white about every situation, a good general rule of thumb is for those in a power position to avoid relationships with people under their care. If they choose the relationship, then the position needs to go away.


David Berkley8:18 am

I have a recent graduate working with my youth ministry. He is 20 years old. He recently began dating an 18 year-old senior he has known for many years prior to my moving here and taking this position. Is this a problem since she is legally an adult?


David Berkley7:18 am

I have a recent graduate working with my youth ministry. He is 20 years old. He recently began dating an 18 year-old senior he has known for many years prior to my moving here and taking this position. Is this a problem since she is legally an adult?

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