BFF or nah? How to Enforce Boundaries in Student Ministry

Youth Specialties
April 10th, 2016

Students are crazy. One minute they love you, and then they don’t show up to youth group for 10 weeks. Some students have enormous spiritual breakthroughs, and it seems as if they’re about to make a radical life change—and then the next day they’re worse off than before. I’ve seen youth pastors spiral quickly out of control in response to situations such as these. Some try to compensate by being the students’ friends. Others enforce excessively strict boundaries in order to safeguard their own hearts. Either way, it’s not sustainable, and it sends students running.

It’s important to build some really strong character traits into your leadership so you can focus on God’s ultimate purpose for your group.

Three things to keep in mind in order to maintain a healthy balance as a youth pastor:

You are not their friend.

If that’s all you try to be, they won’t respect you when it matters. Students have enough friends, and your student ministry isn’t a social club—it’s a God-ordained opportunity to show students the love God has for them. Your role is to be a spiritual leader and authority figure in their lives. Don’t be afraid to set an example and enforce boundaries when necessary. Be secure in who you are, and kindly speak the truth to students.

A friend of mine volunteers in a student ministry that does an insanely amazing job at reaching those far from God, and she’s constantly enforcing important boundaries. This past Mother’s Day, one of the students in constant need of direction hooked her up with flowers and a gift, which he didn’t even do for his own mother. Because this ministry has good boundaries and is a safe place, this student experiences something every week that he doesn’t get at home: the love that can only come from God.

Tip: Be sure to encourage students more than you correct them. As a rule, I make sure to encourage students five times for every one time I have to discipline them. This keeps me from being hypercritical without falling into the trap of trying to be their friend.

You are not a nazi.

If you try to control your students too much, it screams insecurity. In this broken world, many students are surrounded by instability and insecurity, so they’re drawn to stability. Boundaries that make no sense will send students running.

I spoke at an event where the auditorium was inside a large, open building. A cafe and arcade were in separate wings on either side of the auditorium. It was common to take snacks and drinks from the cafe to the arcade. After one of the services, a student wanted to talk with me. I was in the middle of eating, so I took my food with me and walked about fifteen feet into the back of the auditorium. I’d been speaking with the student for about five minutes when one of the leaders of the camp spotted my snack and demanded that I immediately leave the auditorium. I obliged without hesitation, but it seemed to be an out-of-control rule that could have negatively impacted that moment with the student. Worst-case scenario for the building was that I could have spilled a little milk on the floor.

Tip: When you enforce a boundary, ask yourself, “Is this my way or the right way?” If it’s your way, then you need to let it go. Be secure in the identity Christ gave you.

You are their leader.

Act like a leader. Leaders lead by creating a path for followers to follow. Jesus created a way for us, but weeds and grass have blocked the way for many students. They’re looking to you as a role model and spiritual example. As Paul said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

I was recently invited to speak at a large student ministry. I had been there before, so many of the students knew me. As worship ended and students made their way to their seats, I watched one boy pull the chair out from under the girl in front of him. All of his friends started laughing, and she was extremely embarrassed. I immediately corrected him, and I shut him down when he tried to come up with excuses. I followed the girl into the lobby. I gave her a hug, apologized for that boy’s behavior, and promised that she was loved in that student ministry. I then paired her up with a female volunteer and hooked her up with something awesome from the cafe.

The boy was crying. Partly because he got caught and partly because he was embarrassed. I let him know that I wasn’t mad at him but that he couldn’t behave that way because it encourages chaos.

After the service, this boy found me and said, “Love you, man. Thanks for coming tonight and speaking to us.” The control that I exhibited as a leader brought stability. I helped the boy understand that he was acting a little out of hand, and I showed the girl that mistakes happen, it’s okay to forgive, and that youth ministry is a safe place for her. Both students left feeling awesome. 

Tip: Go first on the path. It’s hard to lead students (or families or churches) somewhere you’ve never been.


tyler headshotTyler Feller is the Church Relations Specialist for Intentional Churches, the largest network of pastors and leaders throughout the US, covering every tribe, major denomination and region. Tyler has been involved in student ministry since he was 19 holding every role from intern to student pastor. He holds a Master’s in Leadership.

Youth Specialties

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