reach out and touch, but think first (part 1 – banish paranoia)

This is a topic around which I have labored hard to gather my thoughts wisely. To be honest, parts of this I really didn’t want to write at all. But it’s gotten to the “fire in my bones” stage, so here goes anyway. It will come in three parts. That’s a big commitment for a blogger.

We live in increasingly bizarre times. The very people once implicitly trusted to care for our young people are now quietly suspected as more and more incidents of child abuse have surfaced. The most publicized cases seem to involve Roman Catholic clergy throughout North America and Europe, often reaching back multiple decades. It really hits home, though, when we hear stories of teachers, coaches, and even youth leaders accused of inappropriate contact with students. It seems like men in these roles tend to get more press when allegations are made, but to this day the name Mary Kay Letourneau brings to mind utter reprehensibility. The website Bad Bad Teacher aggregates arrest reports and court proceedings of teachers and others who work with children and have been accused of misconduct. (I’m not sure what redemptive purpose is served by frequenting this type of website out of morbid curiosity.)

I must point out, in all humility, that these individuals represent a tiny, tiny fraction of pastors, youth leaders, teachers, and coaches. The vast majority of us are persons of character who have no intention of harming students. In no way would I belittle the trauma experienced by the young victims of adults who never had any business working with kids in the first place. But we cannot succumb to the fear and paranoia that so often surround sensationalized reports in the news media. Statistically, one can actually assume that adults who work with children are safe and pose no threat. The subjects of the news stories are extreme outliers.

I am going to address the comments that follow to volunteer youth leaders, but paid youth pastors and parents will want to think these issues through as well. While parts 2 and 3 will address specifics of physical and digital “touch” in ministry contexts, there is some general territory through which we need to tread carefully.

First, we as volunteers should enthusiastically embrace whatever screening process your church or ministry has in place. Submit gladly to the background check, the fingerprinting, the interview, the waiting period (brand new church members don’t work with kids for several months), whatever safeguards are in place to keep predators away from situations where they can do harm.

If your church doesn’t have any kind of screening for employees or volunteers, find out why. Today. It’s not comfortable to deal with, and unfortunately churches seem to be the most relaxed on this issue. If your leadership team needs some help developing a system for background checks, check out Church Volunteer Central.

Next, make sure that you spend time primarily with students of your own sex. In large group gatherings, interacting casually with the opposite gender is natural and healthy. But the intimate time you spend with kids, the one-on-one or small group discussions and prayers you engage in, the phone calls, texts, and Facebook messages you send, need to be restricted to boys if you’re a male, girls if you’re a female. Even if you’re the primary youth worker and serve as a volunteer (i.e. no paid staff), you need to have both men and women serving with you.

Finally, be very careful about how you spend time alone with students, of the same or opposite sex. NEVER give rides or have closed-door meetings with students of the opposite sex. Even with kids of the same gender, one-on-one contact must be arranged very deliberately. If possible, meet with kids in groups of two or three at a time. If you choose strategically, you won’t be stymied by awkwardness between kids who are reluctant to share in front of each other. I call it “making it a party, not a date.”When you do meet with students one-on-one, meet in public places. Find someplace with enough white noise to have a private conversation, yet enough visibility to avoid suspicion.

Always have permission of parents as well as notifying the youth pastor or paid staff any time you get together with students outside of weekly programs or scheduled group events. This protects you, students and their families, paid staff, and the ministry at large. Knowledge is power.

In part 2, I share my thoughts on the appropriate role of physical touch as we interact with students. Part 3 will address contacting students in the digital realm – texting and Facebook in particular.

Your thoughts? What safeguards does your ministry have in place?

See also:
Part 2 – Wise Physical Touch
Part 3 – Digital Connections

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About andrew burden

andrew blogs about being a volunteer youth leader, teacher, video editor, husband, friend, child of God
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  • Jennifer Purling Baker

    WOW! Once again, I am blown away by your gift! This is a very difficult subject to think about, let alone discuss. You make a number of very good recommendations here! I’m eager to see what you have to say in parts 2 and 3.

  • Jennifer Purling Baker

    WOW! Once again, I am blown away by your gift! This is a very difficult subject to think about, let alone discuss. You make a number of very good recommendations here! I’m eager to see what you have to say in parts 2 and 3.

  • Jennifer Purling Baker

    WOW! Once again, I am blown away by your gift! This is a very difficult subject to think about, let alone discuss. You make a number of very good recommendations here! I’m eager to see what you have to say in parts 2 and 3.