Visit our new site at

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - When Youth Chaperones Go Rogue

Summertime for active church-going youth can mean sleep-away camp, mission trips, and regional and national youth events.  At least one major denomination has gathered over 35,000 youth this's question comes from a sister in Christ who has just returned from that event in "the Big Easy."

Dear Matriarchs,

I recently went with our youth group to our denomination's national youth gathering.  I knew that this would be a difficult trip - there were problems even before we left.  Most of these problems were because the church we always travelled with in the past had recently left our denomination, yet they still wanted to attend the gathering.  Our youth leaders saw no problem with this and registered their group as part of our group.  They did this even after I had informed them that there would be open registration for non-denominational groups after the denomination-only registration period and that they should register only our teens and adults and let the other group register separately.

During the fund raising and preparation process, the only youth activities were fund-raising - no bible studies, no use of the pre-gathering prep materials, and no creation of a group covenant. 

I thought that somewhere on the 2 day bus trip, at least a few rules and expectations would be laid down, but nothing was said.  On the trip down, I casually talked with the other adult leaders (one of my youth leaders, and two parents from the other congregation) about what the rules for the teens would be.  After talking to them, I was satisfied that we were on the same page as far as traveling as a group, making sure an adult was with them at all times, and following the event curfew and rules.

I was wrong.

The first incident happened the very first evening.  A group of boys (all theirs) took off without telling anyone.  We were not allowed to leave the venue because of severe weather, but we had decided to leave the seats and gather in the hallway.  When we finally caught up with the boys, I took the whole group off to the side and read them the riot act - they needed to let us know where they were at all times and they had to have an adult with them outside the hotel.  All rules that the chaperones agreed to on the bus.  Yes, I was yelling, but that was only because we were in the corner of a stadium gate area with lots of other groups - you had to yell to be heard.  I also told them that those basic rules were non-negotiable and if they couldn't follow them, then I had no problem sending them home.

The week went downhill from there.  We couldn't gather for the evening devotional and experience-processing time, because the teens were not expected to all be in by the gathering curfew.  By the time all were gathered, some of the kids were asleep.  I had no problem waking them for the devotion, but the other adult leaders would not.

Teens were allowed to leave the hotel unchaperoned, to go to places within a two block area (in violation of the event rules).  The adults allowed boys to hang out in the girls rooms and did not enforce the 11 pm in-the-room and midnight lights-out out curfew of the event.  The second to last evening we were awakened by event personnel at 1:30 - some of our (their) youth had ordered a pizza and it was just being delivered.  After the event personnel chastised the adult leaders (theirs were handling it), the leaders said they would have to have a 'long talk' with the teens the next morning.

Even after that, my leader decided to take a group of kids to Bourbon Street at 11:30pm.  We had already taken the group there the night before.  I told the group leader, 'no' and reminded him that the teens were not to be out of the hotel after 11pm period.  He assured me he would have them back at lights out and he would be responsible.  Despite my opposition (and the opposition of the other 2 adult leaders) he took the teens out.

It was only when they got back that we discovered 3 of (their) boys were missing.  They were on another floor in the hotel in a girls room.  It was almost 1am before they finally got back to their rooms.

I have chalked this trip up to a learning experience.  I really learned how NOT to run a youth trip. And I am saddened that this opportunity to journey with our youth on a faith deepening experience turned into a glorified vacation, where any non-fun events were seen as things to be endured so they could get on with the fun parts.  Jesus was encountered in a fresh new way by so many who went to this event, and I fear our youth missed out. 

Anyway, I have a long list of what not to do next time.

I need to know what I should do next: I am faced with the reality that I have a youth leader who is actively working against me.  I cannot allow this leader (his wife is the other leader) to take the teens on another trip if that is the level of supervision that takes place.  I wonder if this is the way all the youth trips have been run (the chaperones vary from trip to trip and the leaders don't always go).  The leaders have already told me that they are stepping down when their youngest graduates (in 3 years) and won't organized the next gathering trip (also in 3 years). 

I know I need to talk to my councils (2 point parish) about this trip.  I'm not sure how to approach it.  Am I wrong in expecting that the pastor should have a hand in setting some of the expectations for a trip?  Did I overstep my bounds trying to set some rules? 

Any advice on where to go from here would be welcome.

Martha, who blogs at Reflectionary, offers this advice:

As a pastor and also a parent of a teenager (and two former teenagers), I would be livid about the behavior of the chaperones and the lax approach to discipline and, for heaven's sake, SAFETY. You need a come-to-Jesus with all parties concerned as well as any other trusted leaders in your two-point parish you can gather. Be prepared to hear the current volunteers complain that you yelled or were too strict. Then ask parents and other congregational leaders what their expectations would have been for the young people. Then describe yours: the trip is about Jesus, not Bourbon Street; etc. Let them get it all out there. Then draw a comparison with other areas of church life in which we take responsibility for things and people who are not ours: younger children, elderly folk, the care of the church building and grounds, the care of financial resources. Would this lax approach be acceptable in those areas? Is it acceptable to violate the event rules that have been set with care, and with the good of the youth in mind? What lesson are we teaching our youth by flouting the rules and standards? 

Let them say it's different with teenagers, then remind them of the liability of both congregations, as well as the event organizers,  should something have happened. If we don't define the boundaries--and enforce them!!!--they might as well be on spring break, unsupervised. If you mean it, tell them you won't be part of these trips in the future nor will you authorize such trips to occur. Use your pastoral authority. As we sometimes say around here, BE FIERCE AND FABULOUS FOR JESUS!

I realize this may bring the wrath of annoyed, embarrassed people down on your head, but I'm telling you as a parent, if I knew my sweetheart of a 17-year-old had lost out on so much of the intended content of the trip and frankly been put at risk by roaming boys because the *adults* couldn't adhere to the rules they developed together, I would be finding another church. 
Fiercely, and I hope fabulously,

And from Muthah+, blogging at Stone of Witness

I am old and I am not with it with regards to what the young are doing and not doing on trips so I am not going to take on that issue.  But I do want to take on the issue of your staff--paid or unpaid.  You need to have a reasonable amount of trust in your staff that you can depend upon them to do their jobs.  That means that you have informed them of your expectations and they understand that YOU are responsible for these kids welfare.  They need to know that you will expect them to uphold the rules of the event.  If they can't or are not willing to do so, they must stand down from your staff. 

Before you go on a trip with youth, YOU and your staff need to meet with parents and kids as a group and come to some understanding about how kids and staff are to behave at such an event.  You need to know their norms of what is appropriate.  You also need to tell them of what you expect from their behavior and the parents will pay for them to be sent  home if those expectations are not met.  Make it clear before the kids leave.

Of course there will be pushing against these expectations.  That is of the nature of kids, but your staff needs to be on the same page with you.  If however, you are being too strict, your staff needs to tell you.  I am such a fuddy-duddy that I would NEVER in all my born days schedule a national youth event in New Orleans--but hey, what do I know?

Thanks Martha and Muthah+ for your advice.  I am certain that there is more experience and advice to be shared.  Please, keep the conversation going by posting a comment and checking back during the day to read and comment on others.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. All of your council members need to know (use the pastor's report time in the next meeting) what happened, what you learned, what you will do differently next time. I'd say future trips are planned and organized by you, or kids don't go - period. And I would absolutely "fire" those youth advisors. That behavior is unacceptable. You may need some feedback from the parents. How do they feel about their children being out late in New Orleans, unchaperoned, etc. Because I agree with Martha - if that was my child's experience, we would be finding a congregation that held up the expectations and safety rules of an event.

  2. I'm a mother to teens, and responsible for our youth programme, and agree that chaperones MUST agree what the rules are, make them clear to the teens, and then stick to them. Those are not negotiable. It sounds like you can't let these particular leaders be in charge of an overnight trip again until/unless you feel you can trust them. You also need to clarify in your own mind whether you trust them to continue the youth work in general. (yes ? no ? a bit if you involve someone you trust ?) From what you say in your second paragraph, it sounds like you are unhappy in general - is it time to bring in some new leaders ? (yes, I know, finding competent youth leaders who are willing and available to do it is a dreadful, awful, painful task....)

    It sounds to me like you need to talk first to both your parish councils, then have a meeting with the youth leaders, involving representatives of both councils. Think in advance about how you will handle it if they say "if its like that we resign".

    I would also contemplate sending a letter (official on the church's headed notepaper, and signed by you with all your official titles and letters after your name) to the parents of all the young people involved apologising for what happened and saying that measures have been put in place to make sure it doesn't happen again.

  3. I'm with Muthah+ on this one -- NEW ORLEANS????????? with a YOUTH GROUP??????

    But seriously, seconding all the advice above; and if your youth leaders leave, they leave.

    My hunch is that they would be very vocally defensive--and recriminatory perhaps; the important thing is not to let that NOISE distract you from the perhaps unvoiced concerns of the responsible parents of the young'uns on the trip.

    The phrase "stand down," by the way, I have found very useful when caught up in the dynamic of "if you don't enable and/or flatter us we'll quit".

    1. Since New Orleans and the surrounding areas are still in the long and painful process of recovery from Hurricane Katrina, having the National Youth Gathering there allowed 35,000 attendees to provide some much need and much appreciated assistance - from cleaning up playgrounds, bringing books to school libraries, fixing up and cooking at a homeless shelter (as my husband's group did), and so much more. That's why!

    2. fair enough! I do appreciate that!

  4. I echo the advice here to have a serious come to Jesus talk with the youth leaders. I say this as a mother whose 13-year-old son was allowed by youth leaders to go off at night unchaperoned with other boys and purchase/ignite fireworks in RURAL NICARAGUA a dozen years ago. Of course, the worst happened and my son injured himself requiring emergency treatment. In the middle of nowhere, Nicaragua.

    I also write this as someone who was a volunteer lay leader for our presbytery's trip to Montreat years before I went to seminary. I was the only adult on the trip concerned about the fact that the entire group was sleeping in the same rooms on the trips to NC and back. I was the only adult who stayed up all night when the young couple on the floor next to me (15 years old) zipped their sleeping bags together and tried to do what young people do when their sleeping bags are zipped together. (That was the last trip I chaperoned.)

    So, I guess I'm a fuddy-duddy with cause. But, it seems to me that at a large denominational gathering your group covenanted with the other groups in regards to curfews and other policies, and going rogue is so very not part of what it means to be part of the larger group. Your leaders failed you, failed the youth, and failed the Church. Your role is to hold them accountable.

    Have a discussion, listen to them, hear the apology they hopefully will make, but stand your ground. If they threaten to quit, let them. I know it sucks to lose leaders, and have to find new ones, but losing a little momentum in a youth program that is headed in a wrong or unpredictable direction is not the end of the world.

    Blessings as you serve.

  5. One thing that I've found when working with other adults in leading a group of kids is to reiterate that what they would do with their own kids should not be the standard for what they do with a group of kids. Just as in challenge events you look to the weakest member of the group to set the pace, in working with kids away from their parents you set the standards far more strict than most parents would set if they were traveling with just their own kids.

    Your mileage will vary, obviously, but I've found that driving home this fact has helped to reduce a little bit of the defensiveness that I used to get. I think my setting strict standards sometimes sounded like "you're not strict enough/safety conscious enough as a parent" (particularly when I was not a parent myself at the time). Framing it helped.

    But the bottom line is this: every trip needs a leader, or else chaos will reign. You were the leader and they did not respect or support you, and that is utterly unacceptable--and unsafe.

  6. I realize that people doubt the venue of New Orleans, but this is the second time that the denomination in question has held the youth gathering in this city (2x since Katrina) and many, many group have a powerful and positive experience, as has the city. For the letter writer, a similar situation occurred in my internship congregation just before my internship. There were expectations laid out and agreed too, which were violated by several youth, chaperones, and the pastor. The youth director had to bring all in line. The result was a very specifically written covenant used for ALL who attend ANY event. Everyone signs (parents, youth, AND chaperones). The penalty for non-compliance is returning home on your own/your parents own dime. Enforced one time, people take it very seriously and then the attitude changes. With your councils and with parents, I'd have a conversation about what they expect youth to get out of these events. Socializing can happen at home (as can service). A powerful experience of the largess and largeness of the greater church only happens a few times in one's life.

  7. Amen to all of the above - standards set BEFORE,stricter than for indidual kids, agreed upon, non-negotiable, with well-published consequences should they need to be enforced. Also, LOTS of group building BEFORE - Bible study, fellowship, fund-raising (the least important component IMHO).

    Also agree that it is imperative to include committees and boards in discussions and decision making.

    Be prepared to catch a lot of flack from parents, of all people. There are those who will support you, but the one's who don't will be the most vocal. I always state up-front and unequivocally why the CHURCH is sending young people on the trip.

    I've had some interesting experiences, including "firing" a much-loved youth advisor (30ist male who was "friends" with kids) and hearing about it from my colleague in ministry, the youth advisor's parents (also members of the congregation) along with many youth and their parents. Unfortunately, it comes with territory.

  8. Good question and good advice. I think one thing that's been overlooked so far is the dynamic caused by a church that had recently left the denomination, as you say. They have already made it clear that "the big-C-Church cant tell us what to do" in the rest of their lives, so why would the youth be any different? It's like breaking up with someone, but still calling to see if they can go to the movies on Friday night. By coming along on this trip, the other church is essentially disrespecting you by saying it's ok to have the fun parts of relationship as long as they dont have to actually do the WORK of relationship. I think it's ok to say to the other church's leadership that as they are not longer able to hold a covenant with you re denomiantional ties, they are no longer welcome to join you for these kinds of events. They need to get really clear feedback about the consequence of their choice to leave.

    1. I _might_ nuance this ever so slightly differently - but I don't know your denominational dynamics so forgive me if I'm off-beam. As Jennifer points out the "other" group was part of the problem. As a body they have left your denomination, but I assume that as individuals many of you and your youth group have friendships and ties. So you could contemplate saying that individual members of the other youth group are welcome to join your delegation, as long as they fully integrate into your group and accept to follow your rules. Same could potentially go for chaperones.... But only if you feel you can trust them.

  9. Being ELCA, I think it's hilarious that it was the group that left your church that gave you the most problems. I'm sure it was not hilarious to you, though. I'd say next time - nobody who leaves your church because they are so morally superior gets to go with you.

    1. See, you said in one sentence what it took me a whole paragraph to say!

  10. I would recommend from Group Publishing a resource called "Better Safe than Sued"... it has examples of group covenants; permission slips; insurance forms for parents etc. etc.

    Perhaps your council can come up with expectations/guidelines for youth leaders/sponsors and maybe some training events for them. Might help for them to not only hear your voice on this, but the voice of other church leaders - think synodically; or regionally known youth ministry folk. This will help build your own authority etc.

  11. It occurs to me that you should also document the event/s, the steps you took, as specifically as you can (names, dates, times, locations, details). File it with your synodical office after a consultation with the bishop. If things come back around with problems, you have already documented concern and your role in it. (if, for example, someone caught an have shown that you were not the one who "allowed" the behavior.)

  12. A second vote for "Better Safe Than Sued " from me. And also, if you are not doing background checks for each and every volunteer, then start doing them. Frankly, I almost got sued over the actions of some volunteers because they were having "deep discussions" after curfew. Mixed gender kids, one adult in a motel room. And a few kids left unsupervised... And another church's chaperone found them in time...

    One final thought. I have switched from having just young, hipster chaperones who want to be the kids' friends to having a mix of chaperones - moms, dads, grandparents. That way I have a variety of adult role models. I also have a "come to Jesus" meeting with anyone who wants to go on the trip BEFORE they go. If they do not make the meeting, they do not go. Every kid with at least one parent must be there. I adopted this rule when I learned that it was the policy of the local school district. Funny how they all made the meeting when I enforced it the first time.

    Remember -- no one chaperones unless they have had a background check.

  13. FWIW - I live and serve and Baton Rouge and take my youth and young adults to New Orleans on a regular basis. While I was serving in Kentucky I took two youth groups on mission trips to NOLA. We have Mardi Gras parties at church and in every small town and city in SE Louisiana. I've not had a single problem with NOLA and even let my kids walk down Bourbon Street - around 4:30pm - with chaperons, one walk, no stopping, that was it. A large city is a large city - and New Orleans was not the problem here.

    I don't think you overstepped your bounds as pastor at all. I would agree with all those who support a lot of prep before hand as it is about developing a certain culture within the group before you go. Before any church trip of any kind, mission, national event or otherwise, I do have a group covenant and on the covenant there is a place for the participant to sign and the minister to sign.

    Prayers for this situation - I think you handled it well and seem to be gathering a lot of suggestions for only making the situation better from here on out.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.