Handling discipline at youth group

Discipline in youth ministryA reader-submitted question: How do you handle discipline?

“I’ll give you some context to that question. I’m 25. I have worked in 3 churches… My biggest challenge is how do I handle discipline. I look younger than 25 and even then I am still young, so how do I maintain authority when sometimes I still might look like a peer?”

Good question. I also thought about this several years ago when I held my first youth pastor position at the age of 19 years old.

What suggestions do you have for this fellow youth worker?

A couple points come to mind.

1. Establish yourself as the leader from the very beginning. Although you are close to their age, you’re first their leader before you’re their friend. Just having the title of “youth pastor” and the backing of the church leadership sets you apart, so don’t be afraid to use it.

2. Don’t be afraid to discipline. Studies have shown that parents who discipline are shown more respect and love from their teens because discipline proves to the kids that their parents love them. You’re the leader of the group, so you set the tone and standards for what happens. Enforce it.

3. Be consistent. If you say there are certain consequences for an offense, follow through with it. Although it’s hard the first couple times, you earn their respect and they learn to trust your word when you say something.

4. Don’t be timid because you’re young. Pretty much the same as #2. Be assertive, take charge and do whatever is necessary to manage the group. Again, you’re the leader. If they don’t respect your authority, the group may become chaotic and ministry effectiveness will dwindle.

Basically, it comes down being tough and setting yourself as the leader. Hopefully you can do this by earning their trust and respect, but if not, you may have to enforce it in other ways whether they like it or not. It’s part of your job, ya know?

Setting some guidelines and boundaries officially on paper is a good idea, too. Just make sure everything you state is enforceable and that you follow-up on it appropriately when violations occur. Otherwise it’ll loose credibility and be pointless. When/if you write up something, make sure you state everything in a positive sense, as if each point is for the benefit of the ministry and those involved. You don’t want just some big list of negative do’s and don’ts. That feels very restricting to the participants.

Posted on February 5, 2007

  • Gregg

    Great thoughts Tim. One thing that helped me is to establish consequences to breaking the rules. We called it the 3 Strike Rule. 1st you warn them and let them know what happens in they continue to disrupt. 2nd you move them so they won’t be “tempted” to disrupt and let them know what happens if they continue to disrupt. 3rd is you remove them and talk to the parents. I rarely get to the 3rd strike with most church kids. With kids that don’t have family in the church, this can be hard to deal with. I have had it were those parents just say they their kid won’t be back. That stinks. But I would rather have a group of kids that can participate, learn and experience God than a group that just has free run of the place. Don’t worry about kids not coming because of rules. If you have a place where they can experience life and the real Jesus, they will come.

  • Tim

    Gregg, I’ve kinda done the same thing, except not officially as 3-strikes. If there’s a pattern in a student, we address it but depending on the severity, the consequences may be after only one talk or after four. Last year I unfortunately had to dismiss a student from youth group for a couple months, but that should always be done with the parents and church leadership involved and always with restoration in mind (as Christ did for our own offenses toward Him).

    After I went to bed last night, I thought more about this and wanted to add that discipline should be done within the context of building a relationship. Whenever I have to scold someone for acting inappropriately or dressing immodestly, I always do my best to do two things:

    1. Address the situation, not the student personally. Don’t attack their character as if they’re bad and causing trouble and making youth group difficult for you. Let them know that it’s not HIM/HER you’re mad at, but at whatever action was just displayed.

    2. Affirm them afterwards. Let them know that you still love them. Give them positive attention, express your excitement when they show up at youth group, say goodbye to them as they leave, etc.

  • CBQ

    I think the biggest thing, especially as a young youth worker, is follow through. On the first retreat that I took some kids on at my new church, i had some boys that were behaving really badly. they were disrespecting me, the other leaders, etc. So, after 2 warnings, the ended up getting sat down, talked to very seriously, had to turn the contents of their pockets out, where i took away the things that were causing distractions, and told them i was going to call their parents when I got home. they begged me not to. and actually, at first, they wouldn’t even talk to me. but i called their parents. explaining to them that I am their youth director, and I want them to be able to trust me, and know what i am saying is true, the good and the bad.

    They, and the other kids who heard about it take me seriously now. and yet, they know i still love them.

    follow through…big deal!

  • Tim

    CBQ, when I was the Sr. High director at a church in PA, we were four hours away in New York at winter camp. Yet, after two guys broke some rules (they were caught with alcohol in the woods), the youth pastor called their parents and had them drive all the way up to camp to pick up their sons. Enforcing the rules and following through with the consequences is definitely important.

  • …interesting. most of the students that i deal with have never been disciplined outside of a classroom. i ask the Lord for wisdom and words.

  • Tim

    You’re exactly right, Chris — we are always in need of the Lord’s wisdom and words, especially in situations like this.

  • Leah

    I just wanted to thank you very much for this article. I am 18 years old and was just put in the position of starting and leading a middle school youth group at my church. We expect 60-70 kids within a few months. I am a very laid-back person naturally, so I definitely need guidelines set with my kids–and definately need to work on follow-up with them. Middle schoolers are new to me, although I’ve been working with elementary school kids for years. Discipline wise, the strongest I have had to use with those kids is the “if your name goes up on the board 3 times, I have to take you out for a few minutes” approach. They never passed the first mark. From what I have experienced so far, pre-teen discipline is a whole new approach! I also need to have the ability to be the leader of adults that are volunteering with my group–which is scary because I am used to obeying and going with everything they tell me. It was really encouraging to know that you were a Youth Pastor at just 19, and that I am not totally alone with this as young as I am.

    • One thing i have learned is to make sure volunteers are aware of the rules you set for the Youth Group and make sure they agree with them. Consistency must be maintianed or else any rule that you enforce will be undermined.

  • Tim

    Leah: You’re right, disciplining junior highers is totally different from discipling elementary aged kids. As you start you new position, it’s important to do a couple things that will help tremendously in this area:

    1. Build relationships. Show the kids and the parents how much you love them, enjoy being with them and loving having a good time with them. This alone will earn you so much trust and respect that they’ll see you as a friend and someone who’s on their side rather than someone who’s just being mean to take away their fun.

    2. Be firm. You’re the leader. Don’t allow your position to be eroded because you’re lax in your expectations. As I said above, you’re their leader before you’re their friend — you’re the roll model and the one who sets the standard of what’s okay. When you have to address something, don’t just comment on it like it’s no big deal. It is a big deal and treat it as such. Just remember to never attack the student, just the situation.

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  • Chris

    I am a Deacon in my church and we are having problems with some of our youth disrespecting the youth minister and goofing off after the church service. It doesn’t seem to bother him but they are running all over him. Is there any churchs that have a printed copy of rules that are used or enforced by the church dealing with the youth. I would hate to see some of them leave because I feel that we made them leave and thats not what God has told us to do.

  • Tim

    Chris, I don’t really have an established copy of rules to pass along, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with making one as long as it’s not overwhelming. I’d also advise that you use short and simple rules rather than long and specific and that you write them in such a way that includes you, too. So, make it more like an agreement rather than a, “Break these and you’ll be disciplined” kinda thing. For example, instead of saying, “Youth must not leave trash laying around,” say something like, “There will be mutual respect between students and adults.” When trash is left around, tell them that it feels like they’re disrespecting you and the property. Likewise, give them freedom to confront you, as well, “I feel like you disrespect me when you tell me what to do.”

    The key to any relationship is respect and trust, both of which are built over time. They’re not a right students will give you just because you’re a deacon, a youth pastor or an adult. So build those relationships, earn their trust and respect. Easier said than done, I know.

  • Sharon Hulstein

    Wow I am a new youth director in our church and we have 35-40 teens most weeks and not enough adult leadership. I am also laid back and most weeks I have to struggle with too much talking out of turn and some cell phone use. My husband and I are in limbo as to how to handle this is is about 7 out of the group that are making it bad for everyone else. HELP

  • lori

    Does anyone have advice on if the teens in the youth group don’t have a parent to tell, or they turn 18 is there still an effective discipline for them?

  • Joy

    I’m in charge of a ministry of 90+ junior high students. I have about 20 adults who work under my guidance doing small group ministry. I have been in youth/family ministry for 10+ years and have a degree in Christian education and teaching.

    We have 7th & 8th grade groups. Our discipline policy is as follows:
    1 offense warning
    2 offense moved within the group/object taken away
    3 offense moved to another part of the room, facing the wall if necessary
    4 offense parents called

    It’s a great policy, when leaders use it. However, I have a few who have a hard time disciplining. I’ve done three things to help the situation:
    1- split the group up into a smaller group. This prevents personalities from interacting in a negative way.
    2- Remove the instigators of the group and meet with them 2 on 1 for a special class just for them. You have something special in mind for them. When the class is over, celebrate their accomplishment by taking them out for ice cream or whatever.
    3- I have a group of boys who have some much creative energy it’s almost scarey. There’s so much potential in the group. Their creative energy gets in the way of their learning, so I’ve given them guidelines to do a special project “I need help with”. They have to come up with the project and complete it by a certain date so they can help me out of a jam because “I need something for the church’s newsletter”. Who doesn’t love to see themselves in print! The project has to be something they all participate in, serve others, and be completed by a certain date. The newsletter article needs pictures and an explaination of why they picked this project and how it helped them live out the things they’ve been learning.

    I just assigned the projects…we’ll see if it channels all that energy postively!!! The leader is gun hoe to do it with them! He’s even throwing in a pizza party to celebrate!!!

    Prayer…this postitive idea came from prayer!!!!

  • @ Sharon: When I have issues with kids not listening or being distracting, I don’t usually take it personally. To me it’s an indication that I’m either not communicating well or that the subject matter is not connecting with their life. Try a different communication style (less lecture, more discussion?) or change subject matters. More than once I scrapped my lesson half way through it and said, “What’s going on with you guys?” and just talked about their real-life stuff instead. It’s sure a lot better than fighting them and trying to somehow force them to hear what you have to say.

    @ Lori: I also have a couple kids in my youth group who have parents who don’t give a rip about their teenager and those who are 18 years old. To them I say, “We love you and we’re glad you’re part of this group, but this group has certain rules and guidelines that is expected of everyone who is involved. You need to abide by them if you want to be here.”

    @ Joy: Thanks for your input! I love hearing how other ministries address these kind of issues.

  • Heidi

    Wow, I only have 8 on a good week in my youth group. I would be floored to have so many in a group. My issue is with the groups within the group, which then leaves out a selective few from the click. We are a small church and would love to do big things, but until I get their behavoir under control we will be stuck in a rut.

  • Travis

    Tim, I started this youth ministry job 8 months ago and for the most part things have been going well. I’ve worked on building trust and becoming friends with alot of the people in the youth group and their parents. Problem is, I now have gone too far to that right or left side of the spectrum and now the teens see me more as a fellow classmate rather than the teacher. I know this is due to me being either soft, unaware of the room, or just not cracking on the ones that need to be disciplined. Thus, I feel like the youth group has lost some of its respect for me and some of the parents are losing faith in me. In my situation, what do you recommend I do? They’re already used to the norm so if I change it, it’ll be drastic for them right? I need help! Thanks

  • @Travis: I think you tell the kids the same thing you just told me and let them know that the lack of discipline is hindering the spiritual growth experience for many students in the classroom. Tell them ahead of time that you’re going to start cracking down on some stuff so that later they’re not surprised by it, but then make sure you follow through with it. Of course there will be push-back at first, but stay consistent with it.

    Also, make sure you’re not doing the class by yourself. Recruit a couple other adults to help serve, share with them what’s going on concerning the discipline, and ask them to help you create the best growing environment possible.

  • I am only 24 and I had to deal with this. Never be afraid to listen to and obey what your senior pastor or the person over you says. That way you are under spiritual authority and God will exalt you. Walk in humility and remember it’s not your minstries it is the Lord’s. Unless the Lord builds the house the laborers work in vain. Teach about the fruit of the Spirit. Don’t ever deal with it from the pulpit. Deal with it one on one with the person above you present. Love never fails so let them in because they are real and are not our projects.

  • Tricia

    As youth leaders, do ya'll have any rules about students coming back to youth group and other youth events after they have graduated? There seems to be a consistent problem with this at my church home.

    • Yeah, we tell them the youth group events are not for them and that they should connect to another place in the church. It's a bit hard to do sometimes, but necessary.

  • Bev Wesley

    Hello! My husband and I are Pastors, we are beginning a new work in a new town! Our hearts are for the people of this community, which include youth! However, I am looking for input on youth leaders in how to go about in developing a youth outreach – we are continuing to seek God on this important need! Please share your ideas, and enthusiasm in what the Lord has lead you – thanks so much : ) I will be looking forward to hearing from you all!!

  • Daniel

    I have a particular student who is particularly challenging, even defiant. He also happens to be respected by his peers (in part because he is the oldest). Our group is smaller (15) and I don't want to embarrass him. Further, our group meets on Sunday nights at a community center, so I can't send him out of the room to be with his parents (as I could on Sunday mornings). I feel because it is not our place, it would be kind of cheesy to show up with a "rules board".

    There are also some legitimate attention issues with this student, but I don't want him to be compromising the whole group dynamic.


    • Daniel

      I've also been a teacher recently and am transitioning back into youth ministry. Discipline was rarely a problem in my classroom, but I feel the dynamic is different now.

      Some of the other students seem to be bothered by his behavior as well.

      • In situations like that, posting rules won't make a difference. If it's affecting the rest of the group, I'd have a talk about it with my supervisor (sr. pastor?) and the kids parents. If the parents can't help correct the behavior, then it's time to consider asking the student to leave youth group for a couple weeks. I've been in this situation before and my sr. pastor said, "You can't sacrifice ministry to the group for the sake of one." So I talked with his parents first so they knew what was going on and why the decision was being made and then talked with the student. However, during the period of "probation," I met with him one-on-one ever week in place of youth group. We built a better relationship during that time over dinners and such that allowed us both to build mutual respect and allowed me to get to know him better. Then, after 4 weeks when he returned to youth group, his behavior problems were mostly gone because he respected me a lot more, too. When they come back to youth group, let them know that you're excited and happy for them to return, but the consequences for a defiant attitude again is dismissal from youth group for a longer period of time. After that, dismissal for the rest of the year.

      • Daniel

        Thanks Tim. I'm planning on talking with the senior pastor tomorrow about the matter. I'm really stressing over the whole situation. I know that long before I arrived at this church, another youth pastor asked a student to leave and got a whole lot of flack for it. Shortly thereafter, the youth pastor was asked to leave. From the conversations I've had, the previous youth pastor probably didn't go about it the right way and it wasn't an isolated incident.

        I'm confident that my conversations with the pastor, the student, and the parents are the best way to handle this situation. It's still rough, but hey, that's the way ministry is sometimes. Thank you for the advice and the encouragement.

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