6 Strategies for Improving Safety and Risk Management

I remember feeling the temperature of the room rise. I quickly clarified, “To respond to the unasked questions I can read on your faces, no, this is not a reaction to any particular scenario. This is preventative! We are talking about this now so that there is not a damaging incident in the future.”

The setting was a youth ministry parent meeting. We had recently revamped our student safety policies. We presented them to our volunteers but realized our parents and students needed to also know these expectations. We do not want any student to walk away from our ministry emotionally, physically, or spiritually harmed due to lax policies or uncommunicated expectations. As soon as I clarified, the temperature in the room dropped. Whoops! I guess we could have mentioned that at the beginning.

I’d like to share with you six strategies that we teach on a regular basis to our youth ministry volunteers. We also present these in our annual parent meeting while both parents and students are together. Creating a culture of safety for our students is a matter of real ministry, not just red tape; it’s a justice issue. These strategies are supplemental to the necessary background checks, Ministry Safe Training, and church board-adopted policies.

  1. Avoiding the Appearance of

Avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing. Our volunteers must learn self-awareness for what might create even a hint of suspicion. This relates to body language, physical touch, the location of a conversation, the timing of a conversation, and the vague umbrella of “just joking around.” We are called to be above reproach in our interactions.

  1. Culture of Accountability

It is essential that we normalize accountability and communication in our ministries. We encourage all our volunteers, students, and parents if they ever get that funny, uncomfortable feeling in their gut when witnessing an interaction to share it with ministry leaders. People don’t need to be investigators but simply share their intuitions.

It is essential that we normalize accountability and communication in our ministries. We encourage all our volunteers, students, and parents if they ever get that funny, uncomfortable feeling in their gut when witnessing an interaction to share it with ministry leaders.

Ministry leaders, then, need to be willing to have tough conversations. We have had to talk to very committed and solid volunteers about how something didn’t quite look right, even though we discerned the interaction was innocent.

  1. The Rule of 3s

During youth ministry events and trips, we have the Rule of 3s. People should stay in groups of at least three rather than ones and twos whenever possible. Sometimes I call this Trinitarian Youth Ministry. Not only is it good for community building but it helps create a culture of accountability.

  1. Everything Observable and Interruptible

We want youth leaders to instinctually ensure interactions can be observed and interrupted. Sometimes a student wants to have a private conversation with a youth leader or pastor. It’s our policy that we get clear parent approval and that it takes place in a setting where other people are around.

  1. Digital Communications Policies

Digital communication with students should be done assuming any ministry leader or parent could read the messages without concern. We do not allow volunteers to add students on Snapchat because of the lack of accountability with disappearing messages and pictures. We also instruct them to not have on-going conversations with students after 9pm.

  1. Burden of Responsibility on Adults

The burden of responsibility to hold these boundaries are on our adults. It is never acceptable for our adults to use the excuse that the student was the one pushing boundaries. They know that the burden is on them to hold boundaries and to immediately communicate to ministry leaders anytime they enter a gray area.

The burden of responsibility to hold these boundaries are on our adults. It is never acceptable for our adults to use the excuse that the student was the one pushing boundaries.

Tyler, a ministry intern, was picking students up for disc golf. The first student on the route invited Tyler into their house to share some chicken he had just grilled. After a couple minutes of eating chicken, it suddenly became clear to Tyler that the student’s parents were not home. Tyler told the student that they needed to leave to pick up the other students. Eating chicken was interruptible, but it wasn’t observable. Later that day, Tyler told me and another pastor about the situation because he found himself outside our policy. This kind of accountability and communication is our expectation from volunteers.

Our youth ministry volunteers do not find these procedures restrictive but appreciate the accountability and clarity. These six strategies aren’t foolproof but they are helpful guides. The goal is not simply to have a policy but to create a safe and healthy ministry culture so that students can flourish in Christ.

David Goodwin