Appropriate Relationships with Young People
The role of a youth worker can be a complicated one. The relationship between a youth worker and a young person is not the same as other relationships – there is a certain informality, but it is different to a friendship with a peer. To appreciate the benefits of this unique relationship with young people, we need to think through what appropriate relationships with young people look like.
There are various theological reflections that are relevant to this. In 1 Timothy, it is clear to see that the relationship that Paul has with Timothy is that of a Leader / Mentor, but in 1 Timothy 1:2, Paul refers to Timothy as ‘my true son in the faith’, and again describes him as his son later in 1 Timothy, and in 2 Timothy. There are encouragements from Paul, but there are also challenges.
The relationship that Jesus had with his disciples is also an example of a Leader / Mentor, with younger followers. In these examples, the relationships are close. They involve time spent together, learning, with Jesus and Paul being role models. There are parallels to be drawn with a relationship between a youth worker and young person. If you are in a church context, the idea of a family is one that is used for all involved, and people will frequently talk about the ‘family of God’, or ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’. There is an informality here that is unique in comparison to other contexts or work situations. However, this means that there are issues to think through, to ensure that we avoid difficulties.
I believe that Paul’s description of ‘Overseers’ in 1 Timothy 3 is relevant to those of us in youth leadership. We are called to be ‘above reproach’ (1 Tim 3:1), and to ‘have a good reputation with outsiders’ (1 Tim 3:7). Our behaviour needs to be appropriate, and not lead to any questions or concerns about whether the relationship with young people is suitable.
God gives us a responsibility to care for, and love, people of all ages, including young people. We need to ensure that this care extends to looking after all of their needs; physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem and self-actualization (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for a greater description of these), and also their spiritual needs. Part of showing care and looking after needs, is making sure that we interact with them in an appropriate way. God has entrusted us with these young lives, and we need to take that responsibility seriously.
Having an appropriate relationship with young people involves thinking through various practicalities. This is not an exhaustive list, but is a few specific issues that I have reflected on in my youth work experience.
- Safeguarding – The first issue to consider in relation to appropriate relationships with young people, is to make sure that everyone involved with leading youth work has had Safeguarding training. We are responsible for ensuring that every young person is safe, and that means that we need to be aware of potential issues, but also know how to react to and deal with any situations that are disclosed (more detail on this can be found on the article about Safeguarding).
- One-to-ones – As part of your role with young people, you may be asked to meet one-to-one with them. This is linked to the Safeguarding issue. Ensure that you are following any policies and procedures, but a practical suggestion for this, is to meet where you are in sight of others (eg a public place like a coffee shop, or in a room where there is a window where others in the building can see you). In some cases (although not all) it may be that youth workers will meet with young people of the same gender. This would be something to talk about in your setting. Another suggestion is to let someone know that you are meeting with the young person. This is to protect both the young person, and you. It goes back to the verse from 1 Timothy 3, about being ‘above reproach’. Transparency is so important, as is doing all we can to provide a safe environment for young people and leaders.
- Boundaries – This may depend on your context, but it could be good to set boundaries with your work with young people. This may mean having a separate phone number to be in contact with them, or not being available at all times of the day or week. The use of social media can be a complicated one in youth work too. These are areas that would be worth discussing in your context, and there may be different practices suggested for youth workers who are employed, and volunteers.
- Sam Richards writes about Appropriate Relationships in the book ‘Christian Youth Work in Theory and Practice’, and quotes K. Young, saying that young people ‘are able to make a distinction between a friend (peer) and someone who is like a friend (youth worker). There is a difference, and it is important that we work out what that means in practice. There is the potential to be open and vulnerable with young people, but also to remember that you are a role model for them. Therefore, the amount that you share with them about your own experiences may differ depending on how you view your role, and what you feel is appropriate.
- As mentioned previously, the church or Christian context provides a unique opportunity for a more familiar relationship, like ‘family’. Unlike some other professions, you may choose to live near to the young people you work with, rather than create deliberate distance between you and them. You may have young people regularly visit your home as part of your ministry. These factors can have a positive affect on the relationship with young people, but in these contexts it is therefore all the more important to ensure that the Safeguarding and good practice issues are being carefully thought about, so that young people and leaders are safe, while benefitting from the more informal and familial setting.
- Relationships between young people and leaders can get more complicated at the point at which there are older young people (eg. 17 or 18), and young leaders in your context (potentially gap year students who are 18 or 19). In a church context you could often have the situation where these young people are in the same friendship group. The transition for young people becoming leaders is therefore a complex one with regards to appropriate relationships. One suggestion is that a young leader could focus on working with those at the younger end of the group. When I have had situations of 18 year old leaders, I have asked them to work with the 11 and 12 year olds. This is not always something that would work, and there may be reasons you would prefer them to work with the older young people, but it is important to be aware of that added dynamic, particularly with any romantic relationships that may develop, and the implications of this.
- Young people are observant. They will be watching your every move. In some ways this is a great opportunity; you can be open with them, share your life with them, and they will be able to learn from you. However, with this comes responsibility and sacrifice – is this something you are willing to do?
REFLECTION & LEARNING
Here are a few points to consider when reflecting on this area of your youth ministry:
- For those involved in youth work in your setting, have they all had Safeguarding training? Is there a shared understanding of how important this is, to ensure safety for those God has entrusted into your care?
- If you were asked to meet one-to-one with a young person, how would you go about this? What practicalities would you need to think through?
- What boundaries do you think need to be in place in your situation with your youth work?
- What are the differences in the roles of a youth worker and a friend?
- What are the similarities in the roles of a youth worker and a friend?
- How happy would you be to share some of your life experiences with young people? Are there areas you would not be comfortable sharing with them?
- How does the ‘family’ aspect of church youth work affect your youth ministry?
Here are some next steps for developing your youth work practice in the area of appropriate relationships with young people.
- Speak to the person responsible for Safeguarding in your context, to find out if there are any areas which need to be focussed on for ensuring that the young people in your care are being kept as safe as possible. Are you someone who could help to keep this important issue at the forefront of leaders’ minds?
- Reflect on your own life, considering where you would establish boundaries in your work with young people, whether that is what you’re happy to share, or whether you need to put any changes in place with your contact with young people.
- Think about whether there are young people you know who would benefit from greater investment in their lives, and more time given to the relationship with them. Consider how much you are willing to make sacrifices in order to walk alongside young people, being a role model for them.
A useful chapter to read on this subject is entitled ‘Appropriate Relationships: ‘Like a Friend’ ‘by Sam Richards in ‘Christian Youth Work in Theory and Practice’ (edited by Sally Nash and Jo Whitehead). This includes other areas not discussed here, which will encourage and challenge you in your relationships with young people.