When you work with teenagers, dating within the group is almost an inevitability. With a David Crowder slow jam worship song and the gentle hum of florescent lights, romance is in the air. In addition to the freely flowing hormones, ministries explore emotions and growing together, relationship development and personal sharing. It’s no wonder our teens begin to develop feelings toward one another.
Relationships within the ministry can feel like a distraction, a hindrance, even an insurmountable problem at times, but there are a few things we can do to safeguard the ministry from a negative fallout from teen dating (and the teen breakups that follow). If you take the right steps, it’s far less likely that a couple in your youth ministry will become any of these things.
What’s the best way to be aware of the budding romance in your youth ministry? Pay attention. Josh and Kayley seem to be sitting next to each other more often, and are really enjoying the holding hands part of the squeeze prayer. They wear matching t-shirts and are planning matching tattoos. Sometimes the clues are obvious, right? You certainly can’t snoop all through their lives, but you can keep an eye out for the clues that new couples give off. You can keep an eye on their social media for the stuff they post about each other. Pictures of kissing and relationship updates are dead giveaways, but similar check-ins, increased cross commenting, and artsy lyric posts can be indicators, too. When we notice these things, it’s a good time to review your youth ministry’s policies for dating couples (you’ve got those, right?). Be up front with them about making good choices, especially at church events.
It Takes a Village
Once you are aware of a relationship, it’s good to bring your whole team up to speed. Having everyone on the same page will only help the couple. Consider regularly updating the leadership with who’s dating who, or at lest have a team pow-wow so everyone can update each other. That’s another good moment to go over dating policies for bible studies, youth group meetings and retreats. This isn’t a time to gossip, though, so if your volunteers are aware of anything that falls outside of the “need to know” realm, encourage them to keep it private.
If a relationship becomes problematic…if the couple is overly handsy, if they’re trying to pull off a little PDA, it may be a good idea to loop your head pastor in. If rules are being broken or issues arise, tell your pastor early so they are in the know in case they are approached by other parents or church members about it, or if you have to take disciplinary steps.
PDA? No Way!
This is probably the best place to start when it comes to dating policy. There’s no greater way of creating problems at youth group than public displays of affection. It makes others uncomfortable, brings inappropriate attention to the relationship or can give the entire group the idea that you promote a physical aspect to a teenage relationship. It’s best to have a clear, black and white policy around displays and stick to it. It’s important to clearly express these policies and expectations to your group and volunteers, too. Talk with your volunteers about PDA and where the line is, whether it’s arms around each other, holding hands, or excessive winking. And, clearly communicate these rules (and the results for breaking them) to teens and parents. When everyone is on the same page, your group can develop a culture of following this rule and it will become a non-issue.
The next policy that is good to follow all the time but crucial when you have relationships within the group is a three-minimum group rule. Whether it’s a scavenger hunt, hide-and-go-seek or going out to apply for car loans (terrible youth group activity idea), you have to have the teens break off in groups of three or more. This rule is already part of a lot of ministry safety programs like Safe Sanctuaries, and is a great way to limit awkward situations in a co-ed ministry.
If you or the ministry team notices that a couple has formed, it’s a great idea to have a conversation with the couple. I know that it sounds awkward, and it definitely can be, but it’s often helpful to make sure everyone understands expectations of behavior at church events as well as making it clear that you are available to discuss the relationship if they have questions or concerns. You can be a great resource on how to have a romantic relationship that is centered around Jesus. Teens are often looking for more than a “leave room for the Holy Spirit” comment while they are slow dancing, and you can be that voice of advice and compassion.
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Sometimes it’s a good idea to touch base with the parents of the daters. It’s good to get the parents’ views about the couple, clue them in to the youth ministry dating policies and ask what additional restrictions they may have. For instance, if a teen is not allowed to ride home with their boyfriend, it’s good to know so you can help facilitate a different carpool. Teen relationships are an important part of emotional and psychological development, but should be done in an appropriate, Christian way. Working together with parents and the couple is our way of helping keep teens out of trouble.
If you have any suspicions that the relationship is unhealthy or creating inappropriate opportunities for the teens, you need to chat with the teens, and invite parents in to that conversation. Remember: these aren’t our teenagers, they belong to God and are under the care of their parents. Ultimately we serve teens and families, so turning over info to parents has to be a high priority.
Above all, it’s important to have open conversations with teens who are dating, and to have clear boundaries for them. When we take the appropriate steps early, relationships in our ministry aren’t a big deal. In fact, they can be the perfect vehicle for conversations about faith-filled relationships, respectful gender roles and healthy boundaries. Going through these steps will help build a plan to protect the ministry and individuals from scrutiny and judgment.
This article originally was published by Youth Ministry Partners here.