[This article was originally published in the book Making Peace at Home – Teacher’s Guide, by Dawson McAllister and Clark Albright (Shepherd Ministries, 1996, Appendix C)]
Read 1 Samuel 18-23. When Saul was trying to kill David, he knew that he had a secure place to go for safety and help. David had Jonathan. Where can your students turn when they are hurting or feel that they are not safe? Do they know that the church is a safe place to go to for help in a crisis? Here are a few principles that will help you create a climate of trust and safety in your youth group.
Know your students. While this may seem obvious, it is not as easy as it may appear. Getting to know your students will require that you (or one of your trusted volunteers or staff members) spend time with each one of them individually. You will learn more about their lives if you spend time with them on their own turf. Visit them in their homes. When you visit a teenager in his home, ask to see his room. It will probably give you a lot of clues about what is important to that teenager! If the school administration permits, go to lunch with your students regularly at their school. Get to know their friends, their teachers, their coaches – anyone who is important in their lives. If you have a large youth ministry, you will have to divide up the ministry by small groups, by grade level groups, or some other way so that each student has at least one trusted adult who is responsible for building a close relationship with that student.
Know the parents of your students. Ministry to the parents and families of your students is an integral part of youth ministry and should comprise about one-third of your total ministry. Include some parent-teen activities in your program and notice how your students interact with their parents. While visiting in students’ homes, take note of how the students and their parents relate at home.
Be available to your students. Give your youth a phone number where you can be reached or where messages can be left in your absence. If your student ministry is large, this may be the number of a trusted adult volunteer or staff member (make sure they know). Let your students know that the student ministry is accessible to them whenever (within reason) they need you.
Build your personal “trust account” with your students. You have a trust account with your students. Whenever you do something that demonstrates you are trustworthy, a deposit is made in your trust account. When you do something that, in the eyes of your students, is seen as a violation of trust or a betrayal, a withdrawal is made in your trust account. No matter how available you are to your students, they will not turn to you in a crisis unless the balance in your trust account is high. (By the way, this principle works with parents and teenagers too – and it works both ways!) You build trust with your students by spending time with them and by letting them know you are available to them. Here are some additional ways to keep a healthy balance in your trust account:
- Don’t make promises you can’t or won’t keep.
- Don’t talk about them behind their backs – to anyone. If you need to talk about a student to his parents, talk to the student first and let him know what is going down.
- Be honest with your students and with others. Honesty and integrity are, sadly, virtues that your students don’t see very much these days. Let them see those virtues in you and your trust account will rise.
- Demonstrate to your students that you are willing to listen to them – no matter how shocking their story might be.
- Let your students know, in word and deed, that you are interested in their welfare and that you will always act in their best interest.
- Be consistent in your actions. Your trust account will evaporate quickly if your students catch you doing something that you have preached against to them. Your teens need to know that you will be living on Saturday night the same way you tell them to to live on Sunday morning (or whenever you meet).
Create a climate of confidentiality, and let your students know about the limits to confidentiality. Confidentiality is essential if you are to make your student ministry a safe place. On the other hand, you can never promise in advance to keep a student’s confidence before you know what the student is going to tell you. Students who are in in trouble will often say, “I have something to tell you, but you have to promise not to tell anyone.” There are some things, like suicidal plans, or abuse, that you simply cannot keep confidential. It is best to let teens know that everything they say is between you and them, unless they are revealing harm or potential harm to themselves or someone else. Above all, let the teenager know that you will do what is in his or her best interest. And keep the student involved every step of the way.
Create a climate of unconditional love and acceptance. Model living out the implications of the gospel with your students. Let them know that you love them and accept them as they are. Teach your volunteer workers and staff to do the same. Make every effort not to favor one student or one group of students over the others.
At the end of the day, you are called to student ministry to love and serve your students, their families, and your volunteers and staff. This is a very important ministry position, with eternal and life-changing implications. Love them well.