We continue boundary month here at YMC with…

“What boundaries do you have with your youth?”

Colby Whitaker

Colby Whittaker is the Associate Pastor with Youth and Young Adults at Hope Valley Baptist Church in Durham, NC. He studied religion and philosophy at Georgetown College and received his M. Div. from the Duke University School of Divinity. He is a native of the Bluegrass State but currently resides in Durham, NC with his wonderful wife and giant mutt of a dog. He spends too much time keeping up with television, movies and books. You can find him at @LoveLoudlyNC


For me, maintaining good boundaries with Youth comes down to a few important and interconnected pieces. The first is transparency. Having good boundaries never means hiding, misleading or concealing myself. I do my best to make sure that who I am with Youth and parents is reflective of who I am the rest of the time. Maintaining a facade isn’t spiritually or emotionally healthy and it just doesn’t hold up in the long term. When you’re dealing with Youth and joining them in conversations and discussions and events day in and day out, they’re going to have a lot of opportunity to see through a lie or pretense. Many of them have a very clear sense of who is being honest with them and who is putting on a front. Getting caught in insincerity will undermine any sense of trust or openness you’ve built. Conversely, being authentic is essential to getting a hearing from youth. They’ll put more attention and care into the things you share together if they know you’re really being present and honest. But transparency also doesn’t mean that every thought that passes through my head or heart comes spilling out in youth activities.

I have to keep clear boundaries in terms of what I’m bringing into our discussions. While its important to always be open to learn from Youth and what they share, that is different than using them as a place to process your own theological and emotional baggage. Sometimes your personal theological musings won’t be appropriate discussion material for Youth. Sometimes you need to maintain the confidentiality of situations and  circumstances  within the congregation. And Youth should never ever be your personal therapy group.

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To help keep those boundaries clear, I need other outlets in my life. While my theological musings or difficult interpersonal scenarios within the congregation are inappropriate for Youth, they are exactly the sort of thing that peers and mentors can help process. Former and current Pastors, professors, classmates and neighboring ministers help me navigate difficult situations and continue my theological growth in an appropriate setting (many denominations even have specific resources to connect you with mentors or peers in your area).

Similarly, its very tempting to tie your self-esteem and well-being into the success of your ministry and the way student’s react to you. Some of that is natural, you want to do a good job in the vocational ministry you’ve been entrusted with and you want to develop real and meaningful friendships with youth. But its very easy to let it get out of hand.

I have to keep a reasonable boundary between my sense of well-being and the day to day responses I receive from youth and others. I can’t let my whole sense of self float on the tumultuous seas of teenage feelings and perceptions and how they respond to each thing we do. Even the best, most kind-hearted youth are going to have off days or thoughtless moments (this might apply to non-youth you have to deal with on a regular basis as well). Sometimes you’re going to have to make unpopular decisions in leading the group (enforcing cell phone policies and RSVP cut-offs anyone?).

So I have to carefully seek out trusted voices for meaningful feedback. I have key people at differing levels of perspective and involvement in my ministry who I trust to really let me know how I’m doing. I have peers who can give another professional perspective, older pastors who can give the wisdom of experience and a few key church members who see the day to day workings up close. I always take Youth feedback into account but when it comes to the hard or controversial moments its those select other voices I rely on.

Ultimately good boundaries comes down to understanding and maintaining appropriate outlets in my life. Working with Youth is full of rewarding experiences but it has its difficult moments as well. Protecting my emotional and spiritual well-being through appropriate boundaries helps ensure that I can continue that work in the long term, without living or dying on the road bumps and difficult moments that come my way.