A blog post by Jesse Weiss
A good friend of mine is about to start his first teaching job in a couple of weeks -- high school English. As we were talking about what excited him and what made him nervous, he pointed to one area in which he was very unsure of himself: where is the line between friend and authority figure?
No doubt that most people in ministry with youth and young adults face the same question. Especially when our ministry is predicated on building relationships, we have the desire to be friends with the people we are ministering to, but at the same time we know we are the ones that need to be in charge so that the ministry can remain effective and safe.
I know at camp our first-time staff members struggle with this line between friend and authority figure more than anything else, and we devote a good amount of time in staff training to discussing this issue. For me, as well as other camp program directors I know, the struggle lies in trying to be both a part of the summer staff and the leader of the summer staff. How can we be part of the group but also maintain an appropriate level of authority?
Here are some of my thoughts on how to walk this line:
Respect is key. In order to gain the respect of the people you are working with, you need to be the one to show them respect first. Be upfront and tell them that you respect and trust them, and then continue to show them through your actions. Model a life of grace; they will mess up and you will mess up, but trust that the grace of God is in the midst of those mistakes.
If they respect you, you can be an authority figure without having to worry about whether or not they will like you -- they will, because they respect you. It’s important to remember that they understand the purpose behind your actions as an authority figure; you’re not just making decisions for the sake of being strict but for the sake of making the ministry a positive experience for everyone.
Establishing boundaries is also important. Let youth know right away what is acceptable and what is not (i.e. you can listen to music in the van ride, but you can’t shout along with it). If you don’t establish boundaries, when an activity or situation gets out of control, you have to turn from friend into authority figure, and it’s harder for youth to understand where you are coming from -- you’re just the person who ruined the fun. When you establish these right away, you aren’t the one that limits the fun in the midst of the activity; rather, it’s the defined boundaries that are doing the limiting.
Also setting boundaries in personal discussion is important. Decide for yourself what you feel is appropriate to talk about with those you are leading. I think a leader is able to maintain an underlying sense of authority when their life isn’t an open book to those they are working with; there is a certain sense of unknown that sets them apart from the rest of the group. However, you certainly want to share enough so that others can relate to you and view you as someone who goes through the same things they go through.
I think the less a leader talks, the more others will listen. When addressing a group, there is a tendency to ramble, get off topic, or go into too much detail. By being intentional about only saying what is most important for others to hear, words will gain more respect with the audience because the audience will learn that whenever you speak, it will be because you have something important to say. Always consider your words carefully before you say them and always speak at a level of love and respect.
If there are two or more leaders, make sure to speak with a unified voice. Discuss boundaries and what is acceptable/unacceptable in order to avoid the “good cop, bad cop” scenario. One leader should not be viewed as the “friend” and the other as the “authority”; be united in your roles with those you are leading.
Ultimately, walking this line comes with experience. Be willing to be honest with constant self-evaluation about how you are handling situations. Most importantly, continue to trust that God has called you to be a leader and that because of this call you are equipped to do so.
Jesse Weiss is the Program Director at Luther Point Bible Camp in Grantsburg, WI. He graduated from Luther Seminary with a Master of Arts in Congregational Mission and Leadership in 2012. He is passionate about outdoor ministry and how this ministry can encourage people to be active in God’s mission in the world.