Appropriate Relationships With Students

By Dan Istvanik January 19, 2021

I read another story this morning of a former youth leader caught and arrested for an inappropriate relationship with a student.  My heart breaks every time I read one of these stories.

The evening news, newspapers, and internet seems like a running weekly ticker update on the latest teacher, coach and yes,” youth pastors” crossing the line into inappropriate relationships with a student.

Whatever you are called in your ministry context: pastor, director, leader, worker… we need to be careful when it comes to our relationships with students.

We, of course, want to have a “relational” ministry. Books and seminars have been teaching us relational ministry for years, and we should be doing ministry that builds Godly, appropriate connections, and relationships in our ministry. It is after all one of the most powerful things we can do in the lives of our students is to introduce them to a relationship with God and others.

The lines however become blurred quickly when relational ministry becomes relationship ministry, which becomes just relationships.

Even if it is not moving into inappropriate, abusive situations, we must work hard to un-blur the lines… 

Friendly, Not Friends

While working on my master’s in education a few years ago, one of our professors said something that has stuck with me, even more so in a church setting- You can be friendly with students without being friends…”. 

The fact is simple, while we want to have a good relationship with students and build a community of faith, we as adults are not their friends, even though they sometimes see us that way. Your students have friends their age. They don’t need a 20+ year-old being their best friend.

Often we drift into how some parents are trying to parent, as their child’s friend, not their parent. Do not fall into the same trap, because it will quickly become a slippery relationship slope for you as well.

Invested, Not Intimate

As we invest our time, efforts, and ourselves into serving students we naturally connect with them, and they with us. Students coming from homes and relationships, where they are not being invested in, naturally become people they connect with. Even students that come from good homes are drawn to people who take the time to listen, care, and pray with them.  

Especially as we have deep discussions on spiritual things, closely connected to the emotion, the line can seem blurry as we feel closer to students and them to us. What looks like an investment and humbly serving students can easily drift into false feelings of intimacy. Be careful to invest in students’ minds, hearts, and lives while keeping a clear line drawn back from the entrance into an intimate connection.

Caring Godly Love, Not Human Attraction 

We use an unfortunate phrase in youth ministry settings  “loving on students”. If you take half a second to think about how that sounds to someone outside a church-setting, you will see how creepy that really sounds.  

We do want to show students, love. We do want to show them an example of God-center “love” (agape). As brothers and sisters in Christ, in the settling of the church, we want to teach them about how life in the loving family of God (philia). The problem comes in when we cross the line of loving our students into “loving our students” (eros).

Why is the news packed with stories of inappropriate relationships between a formerly caring adult and students?  

Part of the issue is that while we are working to build a “relational” ministry, many times we are also trying to build an “attractional” ministry. We are trying to attract students to our events, activities, teaching, and in the meantime also attracting them to us.  

Our personality, style, and that we truly care about them. We must be very clear and set our stance firm. Our ministry needs to be about caring and loving students in away that will attract them to Christ- not to us, otherwise not only will we blur the line, we will quickly erase it!  

Ministry built on attracting students to a person and not Christ is just waiting for disaster!

Professional, Not Personal

Paid… unpaid…underpaid…Whatever you are, we are a professional. Even if this is not your profession, as a person in authority and leadership we are seen as the person in charge. The ministry we are working in needs to have clear expectations, rules, and policies in place for you and your helpers.  

While we own the ministry and take it personally when things go wrong or people complain. When it comes to how we are to act with students, it needs to be more professional and far less personal!

Our professional relationship with a student must never cross the line into a personal relationship. This may seem cold or business-like but there is a way to minister to students that do not enter into our personal spaces, emotions, and relationships.

My prayer for you is that God would guard your heart, mind, and life as you work to guard the heart-mind, and lives of students. We have all seen and heard of way too many people falling because they blurred, lost and then crossed the line with a student or someone else in their ministry. 

This post was originally featured on mymresources.com.

About the Author

Dan Istvanik

Dan Istvanik has been working in youth ministry for over 26 years, serving in churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Washington DC. He currently serves as a Family Pastor, in the Western Suburbs of Chicago. He is a speaker, ministry coach, writer, and regular contributor to a variety of youth ministry organizations. He shares…  Read More