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 summer...today's question comes from a sister in Christ who has just returned from that event in "the Big Easy."
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
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
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
hey, what do I know? New Orleans
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+