Ask Rooted: How Do You Set and Keep Emotional Boundaries in Youth Ministry?

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We asked several experienced student ministers how they practically set and keep emotional boundaries – like getting too close to a student, or leaving one’s work at the office – in their ministries. We hope their wisdom sparks insight and ideas in your own ministry.

Kendal Conner (Student Ministry Girls’ Associate at Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond, OK) said:

Emotions can be one of the most challenging issues in the work of the gospel. While we recognize emotions as valid. Because of who we are as created image bearers of the God who cried over death (Jn. 11:35), became angry over injustice (Ezk. 5:13), and loved/loves His people deeply (Isa. 43:4), we also recognize the danger of emotions as the saving grace of the gospel is not based on them. As we care for our students, we must find the balance. There is great importance in lamenting and rejoicing with them, and never negating the joy of walking through all seasons of life with them. However, emotions can draw unhealthy attachments. So ultimately, just as fences give us the freedom to run freely within a safe space, so do established boundaries in our ministries. Each person must make clear lines for their own (and their leaders’) interactions with students from the start – such as no late night conversations, no snapchatting, no extended text conversations, or specific cross-gender interaction lines. These lines may look different based on your individual ministry. If you establish them from the start, you will give yourself freedom to run joyfully and without fear in your work, knowing the boundaries you will not cross.

Jonathan Clubb (Pastor of Student Ministries at Kindred Community Church in Anaheim Hills, CA) said:

Every relationship you have in student ministry has to have accountability built in. Whether it’s a spouse, another pastor, a trusted volunteer, or a friend, you need to have someone that you’re sharing details of your leader-to-student relationships with, who can help you look for anything that could push boundaries. Make sure you have people in your life who can give you a fresh set of eyes on each relationship, and are willing to let you know when they see an issue.

Alice Churnock (Licensed Professional Counselor at Covenant Counseling and Education Center in Birmingham, AL) said:

After a long day of absorbing the emotional hurt and pain from client after client, it can be difficult to leave the trauma that was said and felt at the office. But real life continues – my own kids have baseball practice and the dinner table is often my only time to even look at my husband. So in order to switch from professional care giver to personal care giver, I’ve found that I need a separation ritual. There’s something powerfully therapeutic about merely changing from my work attire to my work OUT attire. I change clothes. My hair gets thrown in a ponytail. Symbolically, spandex pants = bedtime stories. My home “job” is equally, if not more, important than my counseling practice, so I dress accordingly. For some it may be a nightly beverage or a warm shower, but I practice self care with a ritualistic wardrobe change.

Jon Coombs (Youth and Young Adult Pastor at Rowville Baptist Church in Melbourne, Australia) said:

I set and keep emotional boundaries in ministry by (1) having a dedicated day off and taking vacation time, (2) regularly catching up with someone older in ministry to talk through various aspects of the work, (3) having friendships and activities that are life giving outside of the church, and (4) making sure I am getting enough sleep and exercise.

Liz Edrington (Coordinator of Girls’ Discipleship & Young Adults at North Shore Fellowship, Chattanooga, TN) said:

This question gets at one of the most important things to address in ministry: our story and our relationship to ourselves deeply impact the way we relate to others. Are we aware of what causes us to react intensely, defensively, or self-protectively? Are we aware of what is emotionally draining and what is emotionally life-giving? Do we believe that our emotions are equally as valuable and connected to our spiritual health as our actions, will, and thoughts? Setting and keeping emotional boundaries first involves processing (and continuing to process) our own story with older, wiser, safe folks who can support us in our wounds, help us navigate situations as they arise, and remind us of who we are and where we’ve been forgiven in and through Jesus. We are not meant to do this on our own, but to engage other parts of the body to walk alongside us. We need to know our triggers and weaknesses, know who (peer or mentor) we can go to when we’re struggling, and know that confession and repentance are super important to being whole people who minister to other whole people. And we need safe people to help us to stay accountable to the healthy boundaries we set in our ministries, for the sake of the gospel and unto the glory of God – not unto shame, self-centered perfectionism, or fear-based rule-following. In short, we set them with safe, trusted, wiser-than-us people (for the sake of loving well), and we keep them by the grace of God in and through Jesus with those same people.

Shaun McDonald (Youth Pastor at Open Arms Church, upstate New York) said:

It is certainly a balance. I don’t want to close off emotionally, but I don’t want to be so emotional that I am unable to be objective and appropriate. Reminding myself constantly that although I work with teens, I am not one of them, helps me to find that balance. My students are looking to me to be their shepherd, not their friend. One failing moment in this early on helped me draw some clearer boundaries. A graduate of mine said to me (and I am paraphrasing), “I was put off by how you interacted with me. You are my pastor.” I can love them. I can rejoice with them. I can laugh with them. I can cry with them. But I cannot become too familiar with them. When I do, I am no longer shepherding them.

Nick Conner (Youth Pastor at Grace Church of DuPage in Warrenville, IL) said:

My short answer to this question is that emotional boundaries are kept by reminding myself how students need Jesus far more than they need me. For example, there is a student in my group who lives with an absent mother and verbally abusive stepfather. This student has developed a strong connection to me and I, in turn, have developed a heart for this student. I’ve had the opportunity to see him come to Christ as well as baptize him and take him on his first mission trip. When he texts me at night asking me to pray for him, letting me know how hard it is at home, I can be tempted to try to be his savior. I want to get in the car, go pick him up, and pull him out of his misery. But that is only a temporary fix. Only Jesus can be his Savior, and so rather than seek to save him, I continue to point him to Jesus time and again in the mist of his struggles and then pray for him, committing him to our Savior and asking Jesus to guard and guide him through his trials. Finally, I need to go to sleep trusting that Jesus can care for my students far better than I ever could.

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