Staying Above Reproach

7 rules to help volunteer leaders protect themselves and the kids they serve.

Teens are among the most unpredictable individuals on the planet. One moment, they’re independent with almost adult-like qualities, but at the next can be childlike and dependent upon adults. Providing the appropriate amount of guidance is a common concern for volunteer youth leader. But there are risks to working with students, too. These seven rules will help provide “defensive” guidance to help you avoid situations that may compromise your ministry and the well being of those you serve.

1. The “never alone” rule. Leaders should take care to always meet with students in the presence of a third party. When a youth worker is alone with a teen, he is placing his future in the teen’s hands, since most authorities will give the benefit of the doubt to the teen, not the adult leader. Avoid this situation by always having a third party present when meeting with a teen. In a one-on-one mentoring relationship, consider meeting in an open, public place.

An easy place to overlook this rule is in the car, but workers should never be alone in with a teen in a car. Even if a student needs a ride, be cautious and responsible and make sure you are not alone. Remember: with only two witnesses present, the authorities tend to believe the teen, not the adult.

2. The “opposite sex” rule. This may seem obvious, but it is important to state: adult leaders should avoid developing close emotional relationships with teens of the opposite sex. What a leader may view as innocent conversation, a teen may see as flirting. Take precautions by asking other leaders for feedback on your interactions with students. If others question your motives or communication, change your style. This is especially necessary with teens that are vulnerable and need affirmation from the opposite sex.

Students’ emotions are basically a rollercoaster, and students are apt to develop crushes on members of the opposite sex whom they respect. If a teen develops an emotional bond with a worker, she may become angry when that worker rejects her attentions. Sometimes this anger can turn into false accusations, including criminal accusations.

Adult leaders should also exercise extreme caution in dealing with teens of the same sex. If a teen is confused about his sexual identity, he may attempt to develop a close relationship with a worker of the same sex. Again, this relationship is fraught with hazards. While the adult leader may counsel the teen regarding sexuality, it is critical to avoid building unhealthy emotional bonds.

3. The “more time” rule. Related to the first two rules, it is important to monitor “off duty” time spent with students. If the amount of time that you spend with a student becomes inordinate, take precautions to avoid awkward situations that could lead to false accusations. If a student frequently seeks out the company of a leader, it might be a sign that an unhealthy relationship is developing. The adult leader should keep track of her time together and discuss the situation with the supervisors and parents of the teen.

A corollary to this rule is this: if an adult leader is meeting consistently with a student to discuss life issues, those meetings should not go on for more than eight weeks. After eight weeks, the chances that a student will become unhealthily dependent on the leader increase dramatically. If the teen needs further assistance, the worker should refer the student to a professional counselor.

4. The “no confidentiality” rule. Youth leaders should never promise confidentiality to a student. Under most state child abuse laws, youth ministry workers are required to report any circumstance where a child has been or is in danger of being harmed emotionally, sexually, or physically. If an authority figure, such as a parent or law enforcement officer, requests information about a teen, the youth leader must fully disclose his or her knowledge. Failure to respond appropriately is not in the best interest of the student and may result in criminal charges against the worker.

For example, if a teen shares with a youth worker that she has been sexually abused, the worker must report this activity to the student’s parents and other authorities, and possibly to the state’s child protective services.

5. The “transparency” rule. Youth leaders need a system of accountability where they can be absolutely transparent about their behavior. Some churches require weekly or monthly statements from all workers stating that they haven’t behaved inappropriately toward their teens. Examples of inappropriate behavior include sending or receiving text messages containing prohibited language or meetings that violate the church’s policies. At the very least, workers should meet regularly with an accountability partner, another trusted believer who will ask direct questions.

6. The “no porn” rule. Youth leaders need to be aware of the reality of pornography in students’ lives. Because pornography dehumanizes individuals, teenagers who seek it out tend to separate sexual activity from relationships, making them much more likely to sexually harass others. Apart from the damage done to the teens themselves, adult leaders are at risk to be sued for inadequate supervision if one teen accuses another of sexual harassment in a church setting.

If a leader finds out that a teen is looking at porn (a picture on a cell phone, for example) the leader should take steps to address the situation. In most cases, this will require informing the parents and referring the teen to counseling. Child pornography is particularly serious matter, and if a worker becomes aware child pornography in the hands of a teen, the church’s attorney should be contacted immediately.

7. The “no fear” rule. The center of judgment in the human brain doesn’t fully develop until about age 25. This explains why teens sometimes lack healthy decision-making skills. In fact, often, they think they are invincible, 40-feet tall, and bulletproof.

Youth leaders must watch for risky activities and behavior, both to protect students and to keep themselves free from accusations of negligent supervision. As soon as a dangerous behavior comes up, leaders need to confront the student. When teens are in the care and custody of the church, there must be adequate adult supervision at all times. It is far better to cancel an activity than to risk harm, injury, or accusations.

Frank Sommerville is a both a CPA and attorney, and a longtime Editorial Advisor for Church Law & Tax.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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