Having Safe 1-to-1 Conversations
Many of us have a burden to say something to our students about the obvious sexual deluge that’s bearing down on them. But with the constant, horrifying reports of student ministers taking advantage of kids in sexual ways and lawsuits splashed on the front page of the news, we need to approach these conversations wisely.
Our student ministries have to address these matters, and often that means having safe, one-to-one conversations with students. But how exactly do we do this?
Accountability Begins With Us
The reality that we ourselves need to have someone who is holding us accountable is foundational to having safe, one-to-one conversations with students about sexual issues. We need to ask ourselves, Who knows me and my sin struggles? Who am I meeting and talking regularly with about my own issues? How honest am I being with those in my own life?
If you supervise youth staff or volunteers, it is also a good idea to make sure your workers are in this sort of relationship with someone else. It doesn’t necessarily have to be with you, but honesty and vulnerability must begin with ourselves and our staff before we seek to be a safe place for students.
The following tips, each of which will be expanded in future posts, can aid you in having safe, accountable, one-to-one conversations. They might seem obvious, but it’s sometimes the obvious points that we can forget.
1. Gender to Gender
In an informal context, such as a one-to-one discipleship or conversational time, same-gendered meetings should be the norm. However, there are certain times, such as formal interviews, where a student minister must meet one-to-one with a student of the opposite sex; but this should be done in an office with a giant window while people are around! Of course, there is the danger of homosexual sin, but this is where the accountability structure of the minister can serve as a safety net. Still, gender-to-gender meetings protect the majority of students and student ministers from any inappropriate conduct.
2. Go Public
I love the concept of student ministry as a fishbowl, visible from every angle. As mentioned above, meeting alone with students in a room without a window is never a good idea. Never. Neither is meeting with them alone at their houses. Don’t do it. Public places, however, can be everyone’s best friend. A student is probably somewhat intimidated by meeting with you in the first place, and a public environment can dispel a little of the one-to-one pressure.
A public environment is also highly visible: others can see everything. This is a fantastic accountability tool to make sure all of our behaviors are kosher.
Of course a church office is also fine, but that heightens the intensity. If you do decide to meet with a student in a church office, make sure you meet with them during times of heavy traffic in the office and not after closing time. Your office must have a window.
One of the most important things about one-to-one conversations with students is that parents know where their children are at all times. We need to make sure that students have gotten permission from their parents and that their parents know where their kids are before we meet with them.
Again, accountability on our end is a must. Our supervisors should also know that we are going to have, or just had, a conversation with a student about sexual matters. This doesn’t mean that our bosses need to know the extreme details of our conversations, but it does mean that we are being “visible” with those in authority over us. This transparency guards us from having secret portions of our ministry with students, and it also keeps supervisors pastorally informed and aware.
At times, we must bring parents into the loop. I say at times, because it is not always prudent to bring parents in on the matter right away, as Johnny’s occasional lust life is hardly something to divulge to parents (see below).
Urging students themselves to confess to others is a great way to shepherd them as well. As a way to help students grow, it’s a good idea to encourage them to tell at least one parent of their struggles. Let’s always try to get parents involved. As a student, honesty with parents can be a beautiful training ground for life, since one way the Spirit grows and strengthens us is as we confess and are open with each other.
Also, as faithful undershepherds of our students, let them know that you are available to be with them during those conversations and every step of the way.
Let’s never promise students complete confidentiality. We simply can’t offer it, nor should we. Right from the start, we are trying to wrestle students from the fear of being known and into the security that Christ brings, which means beginning by saying things like, “I know a lot of what we are talking about today is embarrassing. And I know you don’t want a lot of people to know. I promise that we will bring in only those people who need to know, possibly your parents. But friend, Christ has secured you. You are safe in Him.”
One obvious exception to confidentiality is the issue of sexual abuse. If we perceive that this student has suffered sexual abuse (any inappropriate actions from an adult, any unwarranted actions from a peer, etc.), then we have a duty to immediately notify our supervisors for the safety of our students. To do this, we must know our state laws and church policies regarding the reporting of sexual abuse. This is absolutely crucial.
However, if a student is participating in sexual acts with another student, such as sexual intercourse or sexting, we also need to bring parents into the loop pretty quickly, as these situations now involve multiple lives and families.
In situations like these, again encourage students to bring their parents into the loop themselves. Give them a timeline. And if the student hasn’t told the folks by the end of the timeline, pick up the phone. If you are reporting situations like sexual abuse and those mentioned above, it’s also important to let the student know who you will tell and when that will take place.
We often need to have one-to-one conversations with students who are struggling sexually. In this fallen climate, however, we’ve got to be smart and safe. Hopefully, these principles will aid us in being effective disciplers of God’s children as we swim around in the fishbowl of student ministry.