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Most youth workers will admit that they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about safety in their youth ministry. Sure, they shout, “Seat belts!” when the crew loads into the van, or they use the buddy system when at theme parks. But beyond that, they’re mostly concerned with introducing students to Jesus. Nothing’s wrong with looking after their spiritual well-being, but overlooking their safety can lead to pain and problems for you, your students, your church, or your community. The reality is, whether it’s a ...
Most youth workers will admit that they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about safety in their youth ministry. Sure, they shout, “Seat belts!” when the crew loads into the van, or they use the buddy system when at theme parks. But beyond that, they’re mostly concerned with introducing students to Jesus. Nothing’s wrong with looking after their spiritual well-being, but overlooking their safety can lead to pain and problems for you, your students, your church, or your community. The reality is, whether it’s a game of dodgeball in the church gym, or a rock climbing trip during a summer retreat, you have precious cargo in your care, and it’s your responsibility to make sure they return home safely and in one piece. Better Safe Than Sued is an essential guidebook for anyone in youth ministry—paid or volunteer, veteran or rookie. Along with questions to get you thinking about your own ministry context after each chapter, inside you’ll discover how you can make your ministry a safe place for students and leaders as you read about: • Safety while riding in buses, vans, and cars • Camps, retreats, and conferences • Selecting staff • Avoiding sexual misconduct • Establishing a No-Bully Zone • How to handle injuries, and much more Make sure your ministry is safe and that you’re protected so you never have to be the one saying, “I never took safety seriously until …”
The bad news had been delivered. It was a no win situation. Larry, a 28-year-old youth pastor, stood in the doorway, halfway between the church van full of teenagers and the desk in the canoe outfitter's shop. In all the planning for this trip, he had never even considered this problem.
He stared at the swollen river just 150 feet away, across the parking lot. How was he supposed to know this was the weekend the water was released into the river from the reservoir? What was he going to do-run the river or drive this van home?
The owner of the outfitter's shop had explained that only experienced canoeists had any business being on the river today. But Larry and the kids had driven three hours hauling a rack of six canoes for this special, one-day outing. The van was rocking side to side with the pent-up energy of teenagers psyched for a wild day running the river. Larry felt the pressure building.
Five minutes later Larry pulled the van and trailer into a parking lot a mile down the road from the outfitter's shop. He asked his crew of teenagers how many of them had canoeing experience. Only the hand of his volunteer leader went up to join his. With a look of resignation and a slight laugh, Larry shouted, "What are we waiting for?"
Within minutes of hitting the river, almost every canoe had capsized. Everyone was soaked and shivering in the frigid, fast-moving current. It was going to be an adventure.
LARRY: AWESOME YOUTH LEADER OR FOOL?
Several months later the youth group was still retelling the stories of how they ran the river. Most memorable and laughable was Patty being so wet and cold she turned blue and couldn't breathe. She was shivering so much she didn't have enough strength to get out of the water and back into the canoe. It wasn't until later that night at home that she was able to get warm.
A father overheard the conversations of the young people and approached Larry privately to express his concern. He asked Larry if he had recognized Patty's symptoms as clear signs of hypothermia, suggesting Patty could have lost her life that day in the river. He questioned the choice Larry had made to canoe given the condition of the river that day and the inexperience of the young people.
Larry deflected the parent's concern, assuring him no one had gotten hurt. More important was the fact the teens had a great time. Adventure and a few risks make the youth group exciting and more attractive to the non-churched teens they were inviting to attend. He said driving home would have hurt the positive image of the youth group. Larry added he was confident that God would protect them from any real danger. They have people in the church praying for the youth ministry. Driving them home without going into the river would have been a big mistake.
Larry continued his youth ministry, not giving another thought to the incident. Most of the students in the youth group still think Larry is an awesome leader. Fortunately, for Patty's sake, Larry didn't learn his safety lesson the hard way. Unfortunately Larry hasn't learned his safety lesson at all. He just keeps rolling along.
Don't think badly of Larry. He does care about his students and would never want to see any of them hurt. To him, discussion of safety concerns is boring and stifles the freedom and fun he promotes in the youth ministry activities. Safety warnings sound restricting and probably would squash the excitement and spontaneous fun the youth group is supposed to have.
Larry can't picture himself standing before his youth group reading off a list of precautions and regulations. Nothing would destroy the atmosphere of his group as fast as a safety lecture. It would make him sound like a parent. Fear and caution are signs of "thinking old." Larry prides himself in "thinking young."
Larry's attitude toward safety issues reflects the attitudes and practices of many youth ministry workers-both paid employees of the church or organization and volunteer leaders. Safety is one of the last concerns discussed as youth activities are planned and implemented.
WHAT IF PATTY HAD DIED?
Consider the consequences if Patty's adventure in that chilly river had ended differently. Suppose the hypothermia had advanced a few more degrees. Patty would have stopped breathing, and her heart would have stopped beating. How prepared was Larry to respond to this life-or-death crisis?
Imagine that the best efforts of the paramedics and hospital team were not enough to save Patty's life. How would it affect all the people involved?
Grief, sorrow, and shock would ravage the youth group and the church. Heartbreak and deep sadness would hammer Patty's family, her boyfriend, and her best friends. They would cry out to God about why such a fine young woman had to die before reaching the most fulfilling years of her life.
Eventually anger and blame would be leveled at Larry and the volunteer leader. The story of raising hands in the van would be public knowledge. People would be second-guessing Larry and condemning his decision to canoe the river.
New, strong love-hate feelings would surface in the youth group. In one sense the tragedy would give them reason to comfort one another and deepen their connectedness. But the painful memories of Patty's death would make it hard to be together without that experience being foremost in their minds. It's likely many members would seek to escape this by reducing their involvement.
Personal guilt would weigh heavily on Larry, the volunteer leader, and any student or adult who felt responsibility for what happened to Patty. Larry's personal effectiveness and work habits would likely suffer for an extended period. He would find it hard to concentrate for any length of time because his thoughts would keep returning to what happened that day on the river.
Church leadership would conduct some kind of review concerning the accident. Larry's leadership and effectiveness would be closely reviewed. Parents would voice concerns about safety in all aspects of the youth program. Larry's status would be diminished in the eyes of many church leaders and parents. Most likely, Larry and the church would be sued in relation to Patty's death. The proceedings would continue for several years. The litigation would provoke rifts between all the people involved. The whole tragic story would have to be retold many times during the judicial process. Plenty of hard feelings would come between everyone involved around issues of responsibility, pain, negligence, and money. This day on the river, it would seem, would never go away.
No one would come out of this chain of events untouched. Everyone would be changed. Relationships would change. Attitudes would change. Some individuals would grow stronger in their personal faith; others would feel their faith shaken and fall away from their commitment to Christ and the church.
One constant would remain. Patty would be gone. What happened couldn't be undone.
For years Larry would examine and reexamine his motives for taking Patty and the group on the river that fateful morning. He would have to admit to himself that he'd never even considered the possibility of someone dying that day. When he made his decision, he was thinking about wasting a three-hour van ride and listening to the complaints of students who might question his "awesome" status as a leader if he'd talked safety and decided not to canoe.
Larry might imagine all kinds of creative alternative plans he could have used on that day if he'd said "No" to canoeing. Unfortunately, on the day of the accident, those thoughts never crossed his mind.
Of course Larry's attention to safety issues would change forever. He would have learned the safety lesson from the most severe teacher-the life-changing, tragic experience.
CHANGING ATTITUDES TOWARD SAFETY
In writing this book I interviewed more than 50 youth workers about safety issues in youth ministry. I asked each of them if there were specific situations that had provoked significant changes in their attitudes toward safety issues. Here's how they completed the sentence,
"I never took safety seriously until ..."
"I got older and had children of my own."
"I saw a student in my group get seriously hurt."
"A friend in youth ministry was involved in a horrible lawsuit over an accident involving the youth group."
"A parent asked me why I hadn't done something to stop the game in which a student was seriously hurt."
"My church board of elders talked to me about our legal liability."
"There was a close call where we escaped a serious injury, but I realized how careless we had been."
"I got hurt myself during a weekend retreat."
FIVE MAJOR REASONS YOUTH WORKERS OVERLOOK SAFETY
I WAS YOUNG
Young leaders often feel indestructible. They believe nothing can hurt them. Challenges are to be accepted and overcome, not analyzed. The younger the youth worker, the less likely he or she is to be adequately concerned about safety. Young leaders don't have to give up their enthusiasm and energy, but when they face safety issues, they must force themselves to think like a person who has lived a few more years or surround themselves with the counsel of mature volunteer staff members with more real-life experience.
I HAD NO CHILDREN
Parents often seem overly cautious and careful to a youth worker-until that youth worker becomes a parent. Having a child sharpens a person's awareness of danger and safety. One important role of a parent is to think ahead and anticipate any potentially harmful situations. Parents childproof a room to keep children from encountering what could hurt them. The responsible youth leader thinks the same way as he or she prepares for the youth group meeting. It's a mindset more naturally embraced by parents who daily look after their own children.
I WANTED KIDS TO LIKE ME
No youth leader wants to spend every activity or trip saying "No" to the kids in the group. Not wanting to offend or drive away any young person, youth leaders are sometimes afraid to confront students involved in dangerous activities. The mature youth leader knows students are not offended if they are confronted in a personal, affirming encounter. Students don't want to be yelled at or condemned in front of their peers, but they do appreciate a respectful call to responsibility and maturity.
I COULDN'T AFFORD IT
Operating a safety-conscious youth ministry costs time and money. Most youth workers run their programs on a last-minute schedule, either because they are procrastinators or volunteers in a time squeeze. Many events and activities are planned with no thought given to the potential dangers present. Safety requires training leaders in specific subjects (such as first aid, water safety, and emergency procedures) that require a significant time commitment. How many youth leaders are willing to invest the time and money for such training?
I HAD NO EXPERIENCE
A few trips to the hospital emergency room with students injured during youth group activities will change a leader's attitude toward safety. Nothing beats firsthand knowledge. Unfortunately it is a painful and costly method of learning. Wisdom can also be gained by watching others and heeding the warnings and advice of those who have paid the price of actual experience. Pride and stubbornness, however, keep some people from learning by any other method than their own failures. It's a heavy price to pay.
REFLECT AND INTERACT
Stop and reflect on your experiences and decisions related to the safety of young people. Better yet, discuss these questions with your youth ministry team:
What lessons have you learned about safety during your youth ministry?
If you had been a volunteer leader with Larry that day at the river, what would you have said or done?
What good or bad decisions have you made regarding safety or danger as a leader in youth activities?
What decisions about safety have you made in your personal life? What influenced you to make those decisions?
What has made you more aware of your safety responsibilities in youth ministry?
A few more excuses youth workers offer for resisting any serious safety emphasis in their programs:
"Nothing bad has happened to us yet."
"You can't think of rules for everything."
"If we follow all these safety rules, we won't be able to have any fun."
"Relax, God will take care of us."
Excerpted from Better Safe Than Sued by Jack Crabtree
Copyright © 2008 by The Livingstone Corporation. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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