Blog Post by Shannon Guse
When recently sharing about youth trips and my expectations of the students who are travelling with me, a young adult stated that the job of a youth worker sounds a lot like risk management. You better believe it!
Parents trust us with their teenagers and one of our primary jobs is to keep the young people in our care safe. We can’t prevent every trip and fall, but we can do a few things to manage risks at the church and before we hit the road with young people in tow!
Before Youth Trips
Shannon Guse serves as the director of Christian Education for youth and young adult ministries at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Florida.
Blog Post by Hansen Wendlandt
People will trust your vision if you handle the little things well. If parents don’t trust you to keep their kids safe, you’ll never be able to do the transformative ministry that called you to this career in the first place.
One of the little things that helps us keep youth participants safe is also one of the most boring and most annoying: forms.
Many parents/guardians are so overwhelmed with forms, that they don’t pay much attention to what they are filling out. Part of your job – and this can require some pastoral care – is to make sure they include all the pertinent information, and do it in a way that can be used in an emergency. That might mean you need to redesign your forms, or even move them to an online platform. That might mean you have a basic safety form for Sunday nights and a special form for trips. That might mean you need to consider a system for having copies available for volunteer leaders, as well as confidentiality for participants.
Over my 12 years as a youth leader, and now 5 years directing a mission program that welcomes youth groups, I have gone through many versions of better and worse forms. What we have landed on, and what we tweak every year, is our MERCI form. That stands for Medical, Emergency, Release, Covenant, and Information. Having one double-sided sheet, by that memorable name, with only and all the details we want, has increased compliance and streamlined our response in times of danger. Of course, we still have to hunt down forgotten signatures and follow up on empty blanks, but this simple paperwork has solved and prevented many problems.
Let’s go backward. The Information section is basic: names, participant date of birth, address, relevant phones and emails. You might think you know all of this, or have it saved in your own phone; but you are not always the only responsible adult with your young people. When a volunteer gets in a car accident, they should be able to contact parents immediately. When you can’t locate the new friend who tagged along for their first trip, go to your form, so you can text and find out what they’re up to.
The Covenant section is more pastoral than legalese. We have one part for young people to commit to being a positive participant, and another part for staff to commit to our own values and their effort. Very often on mission trips or at conferences, small groups will make their own covenants, but this small section has been helpful to get buy-in from young people. It shows we trust and respect them. And if behavior ever does become a problem, bringing out a signed covenant between a young person and pastor/youth worker can be a useful tool to reflect on what the goal of the trip is.
The Release section is the list of boring bullets that allows permission and limits liability. Some of those are pretty standard; others will depend on your context. Some can be worded more pastorally; for others you probably want to consult with someone who has a legal background. You’ll want to discuss with your church or Presbytery whether to have parents/guardians sign for permission that you give CPR in an emergency. Perhaps offer a place to opt out of using photos for fellowship or promotion. Hope that you never have to use this section! But taking it seriously is another way to signal to families that you care about safety.
The Emergency section is, straightforwardly, about who to contact in a crisis. We make that separate from parent/guardian information, so that some families might want to put a third contact, or for other families – perhaps those going through a difficult divorce – to clarify who has priority in a situation. The first time you send a sick teenager home with dad who is quick to answer but challenging for custody… you’ll understand why this is important.
Finally, the Medical section includes insurance information, allergies, and medications. You will have families that are hesitant to complete some of this, but the first time you bring a young person to urgent care, you’ll see how much faster it will go, if you do have full information! So build trust with your parents/guardians by following up about any medical concerns and checking in about insurance updates. If you don’t understand a medical condition (and you probably don’t), really listen and make notes for your other volunteers. If a family does not have insurance, have a frank conversation about their expectations, your responsibilities, and the church’s boundaries. For instance, you should not have to consider their situation, when deciding whether to call for an ambulance.
Our MERCI form is not a substitute for other safety measures. To have a safe trip, you still have to check your tires and ensure seat belts are used. You have to plan appropriate activities and watch for, ahem, youthful creativity. It’s great to get your youth leaders trained in First Aid and necessary to conduct background checks. You should broaden your sense of safety to include emotional and spiritual safety as well. But don’t forget the boring and annoying forms!
Click here to download the MERCI form.
Hansen Wendlandt serves as the pastor of Nederland Community Presbyterian Church in Nederland, Colorado, and the director of Rocky Mountain Mission.
I have to be honest about this whole Sabbath thing—I don’t really know much about it. And that’s not a good thing.
I mean, I’ve heard a few sermons on the topic and I’ve been to a couple of spirituality retreats. I’ve attempted to join a meditation group no less than five times and talked myself out of sticking with it each time. In my mind, I value the concept of Sabbath and spiritual renewal, but my life certainly doesn’t reflect this value. Does yours?
I supposed that’s why it’s so important for youth workers to engage Sabbath practices. As Mich Phillips explains in a recent Presbyterian News Service article, youth workers have a lot on their plates. We spend our lives helping young people, often at the expense of our own spiritual lives.
My lack of understanding about Sabbath time as a spiritual practice has become obvious as we've made plans for the Youth Worker Sabbath. Luckily, my friend and colleague Gina Yeager-Buckley has lots of great experience in planning and leading Sabbath experiences. As I was explaining my frustrations with people looking at this opportunity as a day off, her response completely shifted my understanding of Sabbath. She said, “Instead of thinking about it as a day off, start helping people understand that it's a day of.”
Think about it. It’s a day of spiritual renewal. It’s a day of reading Scripture. It’s a day of doing something that reconnects you with God’s love.
I hope that you’ll join us in claiming Thursday, April 5th—not as a “day off,” but as a “day of.”
This blog post is brought to us by Rev. Shelley Donaldson at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL. We asked her to give us her thoughts as she was preparing to lead a Sexuality and Spirituality program for her youth program.
When starting out in youth ministry, few of us were probably conscious of the fact that at some point, we’d have to talk about sex. I’m not talking about giving them the “birds and the bees” talk, no. I’m talking about helping young people navigate and understand that their sexuality and spirituality are inextricably linked. (You may need to say that last part aloud again just to let it sink in.)
Our bodies are given to us, created by God. We are to care for them. In the first letter to the Corinthians the writer says, “. . . don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you? Don’t you know that you have the Holy Spirit from God, and you don’t belong to yourselves?” (1 Cor. 6:19, CEB) What we do with our bodies and how we use them are important. And that includes what we do with or without our bodies when it comes to sexual intimacy.
Here’s what I have found to be the most difficult part about doing this: I was taught (and I am sure most of you were too) that talking about sex is taboo. That you never talk about God and your sex life in the same sentence. I was taught that abstinence is the only way, end of story, let’s never speak of it. Ever.
But for those of us working in youth ministry, we know it’s much more complicated than that. Sex and sexuality permeate our media and our culture. It’s everywhere and our young people are talking about it. Why not help them navigate the conversation from a faith-based perspective?
That's what my colleagues and I are hoping to do as we prepare to lead a program that intends to help them make connections between their spiritual selves, their sexual selves, and our sexually-charged culture. We'll be using the Our Whole Lives and Sexuality of Our Faith curriculum from the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists. If you have never heard about it, I highly recommend it. It’s a positive curriculum that focuses on awareness, education, communication, and being confident in the person that God made you to be when it comes to our bodies and what we do with them. It requires a training that can at times make you squeamish, but once you’ve gone through it, you decide how much and what parts of it you focus on with your faith community.
How many times have you watched YouTube or listened to music or read a young adult novel just to keep up with your young people and what they are consuming? So, why are we not doing the same when it comes to sex and sexuality?
Let's challenge ourselves to be vigilant in paying attention to the role of sexuality in the world in which our young people lie and bold in our conversations with our young people as we help them navigate it!
Are YOU a Presbyterian Youth Worker?
(Hint: The Answer Is Probably "Yes")
Over the past few months, our Strategic Planning Task Force has done a lot of listening. And, I mean, a LOT of listening. They’ve gathered face-to-face groups, assembled groups for online meetups, and pored over 150+ responses to our survey. Though the task force has learned a ton, one of the biggest takeaways has been confusion about who the heck is actually a youth worker.
Too often, we heard responses such as:
See the common thread here? Somehow church members and ministry leaders have gotten the message that the title of “Presbyterian Youth Worker” is reserved for people who get paid to work directly with young people.
It’s time to change this perception.
PYWA has launched a new initiative called the “I'm a Presbyterian Youth Worker!” campaign. Over the next year, we’re going to be connecting with volunteers and ministry leaders to help them claim their role and impact as Presbyterian Youth Workers.
Whether you’re paid or volunteer, full-time or part-time, or short-term or long-term, YOU are a Presbyterian Youth Worker.
If you’re a confirmation mentor, youth committee member, Sunday School teacher, or trip planner, YOU are a Presbyterian Youth Worker.
If you’re on a church staff in any capacity, YOU too are a Presbyterian Youth Worker.
In the coming months, we look forward to connecting with all of you as we work together to connect young people to Christ’s grace, hope, justice, and love.
Our blog post is brought to us today by Rev. Rocky Supinger at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL. We asked him to give us his thoughts on why he does trips for youth.
Summer is trip season at the church I serve. We have four of them scheduled for students ranging from 5th-12th grade, a fourfold increase in the number of youth trips since I started here in 2016. Clearly, I’m a fan of trips as a vehicle (no pun intended) for growing youth discipleship.
Every trip has a mission, but not every trip is a “mission trip.” The annual youth conference isn’t a mission trip, although its mission of connecting youth to a diverse community of disciples with whom they share meals and deepen their faith is critical. Likewise, the cross-cultural trip that focuses on relationship building but that never lifts a hammer has a very significant mission, even if participants seeking a “mission trip” might not get what they’re looking for out of it.
Mission trips have traditionally been conceived of as groups of teenagers travelling to some needy destination to paint houses and serve meals before returning home to share how they “got more than they gave” out of the experience. That model has come under useful critique in recent years, most forcefully by Robert Lupton’s much-lauded Toxic Charity. As important as Lupton’s insights are about the inadvertent damage caused by well-meaning Christians who do things for others what they can and ought to do for themselves, I believe short-term service trips can be a powerful tool for good. Here’s how I try to maximize their benefit for all involved.
Mission trips are powerful experiences for the youth who go and the saints who receive them. Insisting on education and long-term mutual relationship buildings only makes them more powerful for everyone.
But, wow, what a privilege to get to accompany young people as they dig deep to articulate their faith. It’s a blessing to sit with them and struggle with some of life’s biggest questions and then have an opportunity to see God through fresh, youth-filled eyes.
Since we’re in the time of the year that many of us are either focused on writing faith statements or will soon be focused on writing faith statements, here are some things to consider on the journey:
Practice Empathy—When’s the last time you wrote a faith statement? It’s not easy. Before expecting your confirmands to write anything, spend some time writing or updating your faith statement. Putting yourself in their shoes will help you be a better accompanier.
Include All Personality Types—God created us to be unique individuals, which means that one writing approach may not work for everyone in the group. Let the verbal processors talk it out and create space for the internal processors to ponder. Be sure to develop a writing experience that will include everyone.
Pay Attention to Different Needs—While some confirmands will blow right through this assignment with flying colors, others may struggle. Pay attention to the different needs in your group and create a plan to enable each to. Who struggles with anxiety? What learning challenges exist in the group? What can you do to accommodate each person’s needs to make the experience positive for them?
Offer Templates and Writing Prompts—Staring at a blank sheet of paper or computer screen is the hardest part of the writing process, right? Prevent the wasted time by offering a template for writing a basic faith statement or get them started with a writing prompt. (PYWA members, click here for a template example.)
Get Creative—Instead of writing a faith statement, tap into the creativity of the Holy Spirit by giving the confirmands an opportunity to express their faith through producing a video, writing a song, or creating some kind of visual art. These kinds of creative expressions of faith often provide a deeper dive into spirituality.
Most importantly, remember that we’re in this together. We'd love to hear your ideas and best practices!
Blog Writer: Michael Harper serves as the director of the Presbyterian Youth Workers' Association.
I recently stumbled across the official notes from the Pentecost Summit, which was the event that launched PYWA in November 2005. Though I enjoyed reminiscing about the event, I was caught off guard when I read about the moment that the meeting participants adopted PYWA's mission statement:
Connecting, upholding, and inspiring Presbyterian youth workers to faithfully serve the one triune God among young people.
Before the statement was approved, it turns out that someone suggested that we replace “Presbyterian youth workers” with “each other.” Let that sink in a moment. We exist to connect, uphold, and inspire each other to faithfully serve the one triune God among young people. That’s powerful stuff.
Though I completely agree with the decision to use "Presbyterian youth workers" in the mission statement (it's important that we clearly articulate who we are instead of leaving it open to interpretation), I'll never again be able to look at the statement without thinking about the implications of "each other."
At first, I couldn’t articulate why the suggested change in wording struck such a deep chord in me. I just knew deep in my soul what it meant. As I kept reading, however, I came across a couple of phrases that brought it all to life. Buried in the notes captured from the conversation about what it means to connect, uphold, and inspire are the phrases, “I’ve got your back” and “you are not alone.”
That’s when it hit me: Youth ministry is often lonely and spiritually draining. That's nothing new. But, the challenges of youth ministry are no match for us when we create space to connect, uphold, and inspire each other. You are not alone because I've got your back. I am not alone because you've got my back. We're better together.
So, here’s to 2018. Here’s to the meetups, Bible studies, webinars, and email blasts that will bring us together.
Here's to our Strategic Planning Task Force who will soon have a road map for the next leg of our journey together.
Here’s to the Youth Worker Sabbath Day in April when we'll rest in God's love together.
And, here’s to the Christ-filled roller coaster we know as “youth ministry” that we get to ride together!
This banner was created at the Pentecost Summit after the mission statement was adopted. The hand prints are from the people who attended the event.
I clearly remember the first time I attended a national gathering of Presbyterian youth workers. As a college student, I had just begun serving as a youth leader in a local congregation. I knew I had a passion for youth ministry, but had no idea that anyone else shared that passion.
You can imagine how blown away I was when I walked into a hotel ballroom filled with 200+ people who were also passionate about ministry with youth. With so many people to meet and so much to learn, I slept very little that week. I had found my people and, over the years, I discovered that I needed those people.
If you're reading this, my guess is that you've had a similar experience. Maybe not at a conference with tons of people, but maybe a quiet conversation with another youth worker or with a team of volunteers who are reflecting together on a recent ministry experience.
As a mentor from that first gathering that I attended taught me, "When you're a youth worker, you 'bleed' for and with the young people around you. The best way to stay healthy, is to be with people who understand this peculiar calling and that's why we're here!"
How can PYWA create connect, uphold, and inspire you in the months ahead so you can be faithful to what God has called you to do in ministry with youth?
to faithfully serve the triune God among young people.