A boundary is a real or understood line in what is acceptable adult volunteer behavior, what falls within their responsibility and competency. A boundary crossing is a benign deviation from the standards of care that is done so in a way that is not harmful or exploitive to the student. An example of this is to catch a student who trips on your desk on the way out of a mentoring or discipleship meeting or picking up a same gender student in your car and transporting him/her to a safe place when you see that student standing in a blizzard, with no means of transport.  A boundary violation is a significant deviation from standards of care that likely is harmful or exploitive of the student.

Where is the line between a boundary crossing and a boundary violation?  Here are some clues:

  • Is it a repetitive pattern for the volunteer?
  • To what extend is the behavior out of context or the culture in which the  mentoring/discipleship is provided?  Or outside the normal youth ministry frame?
  • Time, place, purpose and intent are key indicators of potential violation (meetings lasting longer for certain students, meetings help outside of normal times, excessive contact between meetings, inappropriate self-disclosure).
  • Meetings lack focus and purpose, adrift or repetitive.
  • There are discrepancies between the adult’s behavior and what’s being reported.
  • Sexual fantasies about students.

What happens for youth ministry volunteers and staff that think a boundary violation is appropriate?  Some people have “magical thinking”, a rescue complex, believing they are the only one who can help a certain student(s).  Some want to be idolized by the students and their peers.  Some use the students to work out their own life issues.  Some need to be needed.  But, most often, the problem is we have an “exception fantasy,” the belief that “I’m different.  I don’t need to abide by that code.”

There are unique concerns also for certain students: those with a history of trauma or abuse; needy and highly dependent individuals; and manipulative students who want to set a quid pro quo between themselves and the youth worker (“I will do something for you if you do something for me”).  Another area of concern  regarding boundaries in ministry ought to be new frontiers with technology: email, texting, Skype, IM, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites.

The following are risk management approaches to for staff supervising volunteers in a litigious society and to reduce the potential for boundary violations:

  1. Monitor performance through direct observation of the volunteer or staff member.
  2. Minimize the degree of direct, unsupervised contact between adults and students by clearly defining the limits of the mentoring/discipleship relationship.
  3. Ask “cui bono,” who benefits from this interaction?  Is this in the student’s best interest?  Does this enhance or detract from the spiritual growth of the student?
  4. Documenting questionable conversations and immediate reporting of such information to direct supervisor.
  5. Watch for the warning signs of boundary crossings and violations.
  6. Help the adults to identify the issues, conflicting values, duties, and impact on various supportive others and possible alternative courses of action.
  7. Examine with the adult the reasons for/against a particular action, including what’s in the best interest of the student, and what  are the ministry’s policies and procedures.
  8. Be clear, it is always the adult’s responsibility (not the student’s) to set the boundary.  And we do not blame the student if a boundary violation occurs.  Boundary testing can lead to a boundary violation.  On the other hand, boundary testing is an important part of defining the nature of the relationship.

It is important to broaden the question of boundary violations from a simple “don’t ever do that.”  That’s a simplistic, legalistic approach.  Instead we need to  acknowledge that there are times when there is intentional breaking of confidentiality, such as duty to warn, mandated reporting and the such.