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Creating Policies with Youth Groups

Sarah Gibb

When congregations have healthy, viable, active programs for youth (ages fourteen to twenty), both the young people and the congregations receive incredible benefits. Some of these youth, now young adults, have written about their experiences. Elizabeth Martin of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City writes,

In Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU), I learned to get along with others. Youth and adults, together. We worshipped, played games, cooked, ate, talked, and sang. I discovered myself.. .. I have built friendships I hope to keep for years to come. Most importantly, my memories of YRUU continue to make me feel loved and safe. During the moments when I was in YRUU, I was safe.

And in a Washington Post article from a few years ago, Ashley Wilson of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, speaks of her experience:

One thing I appreciate is that my church believes in full education so individuals can make their own educated and informed decisions...I love my church because it is so supportive of youth...this religion has given me a better way to live my life, exposed me to many wonderful people, educated and supported me.

With youth ministry, as with any type of ministry a congregation might undertake, there are risks involved. Some of these risks, like the risk of abuse, are risks in all of a congregation’s programs. Others, like the risk of underage drinking, are more particular to this age group. Some universal risks need to be emphasized more with youth than with adults. Anyone in a church can break furniture, but youth are more likely than adults to think of using a couch as a trampoline.

Unitarian Universalist (UU) youth are at a crucial phase in their religious and social development; they are simultaneously empowered and vulnerable. They’ve been raised to think for themselves and by their capacities for independence of thought and action are increasing; yet they are vulnerable due to cultural sexualization and a lack of legal power. Youth in Unitarian Universalist congregations need a safe environment in which they can share themselves in a genuine way and develop as leaders.

Unfortunately well-intentioned adult leaders can actually diminish youth safety by creating and enforcing rules in a disempowering way. Our religious movement has too many examples of youth programs being damaged or dismantled because adults in leadership positions forget that youth can be their allies in creating safety. Some examples include church boards barring all youth from district conferences because one youth was found smoking marijuana or religious education committees disallowing youth group overnights because someone broke a classroom window.

But our movement also has many positive examples of youth and adults working together to create safety. When a pair of youth playing tag at one youth conference, youth and adult leaders convened to determine who should fix the window and helped identify constructive ways for the hyper youth to channel their energy.

Youth sometimes rebel against rules and structures imposed from the outside. It can be alienating for a youth group to be told, “This is how things are going to be.” On the other hand, a lack of rules and structure can be equally alienating for youth, resulting in chaos and compromising their safety.

There must be a balance. Youth, like adults, have a strong interest in safety in youth groups and at youth events. They can work as allies rather than adversaries. In “The Sunday-School: Discourse Pronounced before the Sunday-School Society,” William Ellery Channing writes that the goal in religious education with young people is “not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, which rest on no foundation but our own word and will, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment, so that they may discern and approve for themselves what is everlastingly right and good.” Discussions about youth group safety are an ideal place to awaken the consciences and moral decision-making skills of youth. This is a chance to see UU values and Principles in action.

Our congregations often take great care to offer well-balanced religious education curricula for children from preschool to eighth grade. We teach children that ours is a religion of diversity, respect, and acceptance. We teach children to honor and uphold the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” Although many of our congregations do not use formal curricula with high-school aged youth, noted religious educator Maria Harris, author of Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church, reminds us that these youth are absorbing a curriculum nonetheless. The circumstances of the life of the church form what she calls an “implicit curriculum.” This implicit curriculum is conveyed to youth in the way the church and its representatives relate to them. Though the explicit curriculum of a church school may be to uphold the seven Principles, an implicit curriculum of conflict and interpersonal power struggle could undermine what the church is attempting to teach. For youth, the implicit messages communicated in the creation of guidelines and policies can have just as a profound effect upon their faith development as the explicit messages about honoring our UU Principles. When the implicit curriculum is in line with the explicit curriculum, a congregation is more likely to foster youth commitment to Unitarian Universalism.

Creating policy well is an essential aspect of doing our job as congregations. Therefore as congregations set out to discuss, develop, or revise safety policies that concern youth programs, including youth in the process is very important. Maybe a group of adults would arrive at the same policy that a group of youth and adults would, but creating different policies, or different rules, is not even half of the point of youth inclusion. Primarily, as Angus MacLean taught, “the method is the message.” Inclusion of youth communicates that their congregation honors them and respects their experiences and ideas. Further, when youth have a role in creating policy, they are more likely to feel responsible to and abide by it. On both practical and philosophical levels, youth safety is enhanced when policy is created in a context of youth empowerment in our congregations and conferences. Congregations should consider the following elements as youth and adults assemble to create policies together.

Youth Group Staff

Who are the adults who advise the youth group? Are they volunteer members of the congregation? Are they paid advisors? Are they on the staff of the church? The answers to these questions can help to determine the accountability of adults who work with youth in your congregation.

Questions surrounding accountability include: Who selects advisors? If there is trouble who can fire an advisor? Who supervises adult advisors, and how? Who reviews their performance on a regular basis and offers feedback?

When establishing a structure of accountability for adults who work with youth, it’s advisable to include youth input in the hiring and selection processes as well as feedback and performance review. Anonymous feedback can also bring up issues that youth are afraid to talk about in person. The Youth Office publishes a helpful guide for this process, “Seven Steps to Hiring a Youth Advisor,” available at

Adults working with the youth group must sign a code of ethics under “Resources” on the above. It is also recommended that youth advisors consent to a criminal background check or at least a sex offender background check. Church Mutual, an insurance carrier used by many congregations, offers background screening for employees and volunteers (see

In staffing a youth group, many congregations often find themselves without many willing adults to choose from. Therefore if an adult with little or no background in youth work wants to be an advisor, advisor training can be very valuable. The Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries provides a series of trainings for youth advisors through the Chrysalis Training Program Training covers such issues as ethical behavior and safety as well as more basic items like how to lead youth group activities.

Congregations can also set policies concerning the ratio of youth to adults in the youth program. Typical rations are ten youth to one adult and seven youth to one adult. At Con Con, an annual continental YRUU conference, a ratio of ten youth to one adult is in place. Such ratios are established not because adults need to supervise youth or run all their activities but because youth community is enriched by the positive participation of adults. The Search Institute’s research, published in “Forty Developmental Assets,” indicates that support from “three or more nonparent adults” is one of the building blocks that enable youth to develop in healthy, caring, and responsible ways.

In order to staff youth groups responsibly, adults working with youth must acknowledge that they are different from youth and behave accordingly. Adults help youth the most not by acting like youth but by acting like adults and setting a good example. They must also acknowledge that certain boundaries between youth and adults are necessary to create and uphold a healthy youth group.

Just like in the church school, it is advisable to have more than one adult with youth at all times. This helps to protect youth from abusive or manipulative situations as two adults can “check” each others’ behavior. The presence of more than one youth can serve the same purpose. In some cases, youth may want to meet privately with an advisor for a variety of reasons. In such situations, it’s advisable to meet in a public place, such as a mall or a coffee shop, or at the church with others nearby.

For many Unitarian Universalist youth, the opportunity to give and receive hugs and affection at youth group is vital. Touch is so sexualized in other contexts that it can be a real joy to have friends in YRUU whom they can caress and snuggle with without it being “a sexual thing.” Adults who work with youth may crave this kind of casual affection too. However the power differential between youth and adults makes it impossible for adults to participate in hugs or backrub circles as “just one of the gang.” Even well intentioned adults can get themselves in trouble in this area because youth can feel violated by an adult’s hug even though they might feel comfortable with similar hugs from other youth.

“Jack,” an advisor who saw himself as loving and kind would walk up to female youth in coffee hour, put his arm around their waists, and stroke their hair as he chatted with them and their friends. The girls probably wouldn’t have minded the same behavior by another youth. But the girls in this youth group felt, understandably, extremely uncomfortable with the advisor’s behavior. He was twenty years older than they were. “It just felt icky,” one of the girls said. That “icky” gut feeling indicated that something was wrong. It was inappropriate for the advisor to initiate this kind of physical contact with the young women in his group.

Adults working with youth are responsible for maintaining boundaries. It’s important, therefore, that they understand that physical affection is not theirs to initiate. Adults also have the responsibility to resist certain kinds of physical affection initiated by young people. While youth should understand appropriate boundaries of youth-adult touch, adults are ultimately responsible for enforcing these limits.
What kind of physical affection is appropriate then? Here is a checklist of guidelines that can help any adult working with youth:

  • The touch is initiated by the youth.
  • The touch is clearly not intended as a sexual advance.
  • The adult does not experience the touch as a sexual advance.
  • The touch is taking place in an open setting with other people around.
  • The touch is clearly socially acceptable within the terms of the adult’s advisory relationship to the particular youth, i.e., a handshake, a pat on the back, a moderate hug.
  • The touch is something both the youth and adult can stop easily if it becomes uncomfortable.

Finally, the receiver of the touch determines whether a touch is appropriate, inappropriate, or confusing. For this reason, no matter what the advisor’s intentions, it is best to err on the side of too little touch than too much.

Advisors are sometimes invited to participate in youth group activities that involve touch, such as back rubs or games like “Ha,” “Wink,” and “Honey, if you love me.” Such touch-oriented games are risky for advisors to participate in because they could involve youth group members sitting on the advisor’s lap and vice versa (“Honey if you love me”), the advisor holding the ankles of youth and kissing them on the cheek (“Wink”), or the advisor’s head resting on a youth’s belly and a youth’s head resting on the advisor’s belly (“Ha”). Advisors are strongly discouraged from getting involved in such group games and activities.

“Check-in,” a popular element of youth group meetings, involves sharing things that are going on in the lives of youth in the group. Adult advisors also participate in check-in. Two safety issues arise from this situation; one involves the advisor’s level of sharing and the other involves the limits of confidentiality.

As with touch, advisors are reminded not to use the youth group to meet their own needs. An advisor using check-in as a place to unload emotional baggage on the youth group is inappropriate. It changes the dynamic of a youth group so that youth find themselves caring for the advisor rather than the other way around. Sharing details of your love life, tales of last night’s drinking escapade, or sexual fantasies is totally inappropriate. Beyond clearly inappropriate topics, however, there is a grayer zone. Advisors are well-advised to think in advance about bringing up personal topics close to their hearts that would dominate the youth group’s attention and care-taking—topics such as a break-up or pending divorce, a friend’s illness, or a family member’s death. Advisors can address these issues during check-in in appropriate ways that let the group know what’s going on. For example, saying, “Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers as I head down to Florida for the funeral” lets the youth group know that you are sad and that you’re dealing with the death of a loved one. The advisor must not lean on the youth group too heavily for emotional support. Advisors are well-advised to have adult friends whom they can lean on and sources of emotional support beyond the youth group.

Confidentiality is a principle that is basic to most congregations’ youth groups. It is understood that sensitive personal information stays in the room. There are, however, limits to the confidentiality a youth group can and should offer. First, state law may designate youth advisors as mandated reporters of abuse. Certainly religious education directors are mandated to report abuse. Adults working with youth should make it clear at the outset that there are cases in which information shared in the group, or privately, must be shared with others. Advisors ought to be able to discuss confidential youth issues with their supervisors on the congregation’s staff. Regular supervisory meetings between advisors and ministerial staff allow advisors to openly process their experiences and keep the ministerial staff informed of youth program activities. It is important that advisors have the freedom to be totally candid about their youth program experiences in these supervisory meetings. Therefore when discussing confidentiality, advisors can clarify that they reserve the right to discuss what comes up in youth group with their supervisors, who are also sworn to confidentiality.

The Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) Youth Advisors Handbook sums it up nicely:

It may sometimes be difficult to stay in your “adult” role as advisor. The youth in your group are looking for a friend and advisor, but they want you to be an adult one. If you think becoming an advisor is a chance to relive your youth, think again. This doesn’t mean that you can’t play games or participate with your group. It does mean that you should keep a certain distance or boundary between you and the youth. They will not be comfortable with you at the same level of intimacy that they share with each other.

Creating Rules Together

Aside from rules and policies set by committees charged to do so, youth groups traditionally play a role in setting up their own ground rules, or covenants. Some typical rules for youth group activities include:

  • Personal information is confidential.
  • Everyone has the right not to share personal information.
  • Listen when others are speaking.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Respect people’s differences.
  • Use “I” statements when talking about opinions.
  • Speak for yourself.
  • Alcohol and drugs are prohibited.
  • Sex and “hooking up” are prohibited within the youth group.
  • Weapons are forbidden.
  • Turn off cell phones.

Youth groups often develop lists of rules by brainstorming and then coming to consensus on the rules they will abide by. This gives the members of the group the opportunity to own the rules—to feel that they can both abide by and help enforce them. Adults working with the youth group are expected to abide by the same rules at youth group events.

An adult’s primary role in a youth group is that of advisor, not supervisor. Youth and adults work together to ensure the safety of the group. This partnership must be clearly communicated because both youth and adults can assume that the adults are the only ones in charge. A revolutionary aspect of YRUU is that rule infractions are dealt with by the whole group, not just adults. For example, if a young man is found to be drinking alcohol at a conference, the Spirit Committee—a group of youth and adult leaders—will convene to deal with the problem. However, in cases of imminent bodily danger, such as fire or oncoming traffic, a collaborative approach is not necessary. Youth or adults are encouraged in such cases to do whatever it takes to get people out of harm’s way. Advisors are strongly encouraged to become familiar with their congregation’s safety policies and reporting procedures.

At overnights and conferences, it is not the adult’s job to patrol from room to room and sleeping bag to sleeping bag to make sure that no rules are broken. At most conferences and overnights, at least one adult is awake and available at all times that youth are awake. This adult can even go from room to room, checking in on people. But the goal is to relate to youth. If adults (or youth) see rule infractions it is their responsibility to handle these concerns through the appropriate channels. These channels are often defined in advance of the overnight and include both youth and adult leaders (like the Spirit Committee).

Fire safety policies and procedures as well as parental permission procedures must be followed with youth groups in the same way that they are with children in the church school. Please see “Healthy Religious Education Community” for guidelines in this area.

Education plays a role both in preventing unsafe situations and helping people know how to respond if one does arise. The Our Whole Lives sexuality education curricula can help young people recognize and respond to sexual harassment and sexual assault. Congregations must recognize, however, that even the best sexuality education program does not inoculate a person from being a victim or a victimizer in the case of sexual assault and harassment. Teaching the curriculum is not enough. Education must be partnered with clear codes of ethics, expectations, and policies.

Clearly stating expectations and policies at the outset of events serves both to educate and to prevent. If the “no drugs” rule is written in the registration materials and announced at the beginning of a conference, youth are far less likely to use drugs because the expectation that they will not is clear.

Youth Safety at Programs Beyond the Congregation

Most Unitarian Universalist youth groups engage in activities beyond the walls of their own church. These outings may be related to subjects they are studying in their religious education programs or they may involve participation in denominational activities at the regional or national level. In either case, taking field trips and attending conferences with young people requires sound planning and firm safety rules. The essential safety elements of field trip planning are five-fold. They involve safety on the trip itself, emergency contact information, parental permission, communication with the congregation, and liability issues.

To make the trip as safe as possible, the first step is to assess the risk level of the planned activities. For instance, a field trip to a Buddhist temple will clearly involve a different level of risk than a three-day wilderness backpacking trip. Assessing the risk in advance can help the trip’s leadership plan appropriately.

Some safety elements to consider when planning a field trip include:

  • written permission from parents or guardians (see the sample permission form included at the end of this book). For trips involving physical challenge, include a clause indicating parental understanding of the risk and releasing the congregation from liability in case of injury or death.
  • emergency medical information for each participant that includes signed parental consent for emergency medical treatment, emergency contact information, and health insurance policy information. Keep a binder with this information on hand at all times during the trip and leave additional copies in the church office.
  • signed code of ethics forms for all adults accompanying youth on the trip.
  • drivers’ names, license information, insurance information, and license plates on file with the church office
  • Further, congregations may want to set:
  • a required adult-to-youth ratio for off-site trips
  • a minimum age requirement for drivers (may be required by congregation’s insurance policy)
  • a requirement that trip leaders carry first aid supplies, and that at least one participant is certified in first aid and CPR

Youth conferences, gatherings of Unitarian Universalist youth from multiple congregations, are typically held under the auspices of a sponsoring organization such as a district youth steering committee or continental Young Religious Unitarian Universalists. These organizations all have their own safety policies and guidelines for behavior. Sometimes the conference site has its own policies and guidelines, depending on whether the site is a church building or a privately owned camp. It is the responsibility of the conference’s planning committee to negotiate the differences and similarities in the sponsoring organization’s and hosting site’s policies, creating a unified set of policies, procedures, and guidelines for behavior.

Most youth conferences have trained youth and/or adult YRUU chaplains. These chaplains are caring, understanding, and compassionate listeners who offer personal care-emotional and spiritual-and attention to members of the conference community. Chaplains serve the conference community with active listening, responsive awareness of ethical behavior, and their ability to refer members to certified professionals when appropriate.

Congregations can set policies concerning transportation to conferences. Because some youth will be old enough to drive themselves and others will be too young, the possibility of youth driving is an issue to consider. Additionally, congregations have an interest in establishing the safety and insurance coverage of drivers and vehicles transporting youth, regardless of age.

University Unitarian Church in Seattle, Washington, requires drivers to hold automobile liability coverage for a minimum of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident. Further, drivers are asked to sign an understanding that their own insurance will provide primary coverage in case of an accident and that the congregation will not compensate them for the use of their vehicle. Drivers are then required to fill out a form with the following information, which is then verified by the director of religious education:

  • driver’s name and address
  • driver’s children’s names (if enrolled in church school)
  • driver’s license number, state of issue, and expiration date
  • auto insurance carrier and policy number
  • whether the driver has been convicted of a moving violation within the past three years
  • description of the vehicle: make, model, year, registered owner’s name and address, license plate number and state registered, number of seat belts, whether there is a passenger-side airbag, and whether an insurance card is kept in the vehicle

This information is kept on file with the church office for the duration of the trip. Some congregations (and some district youth steering committees) have created policies requiring youth drivers to be eighteen years of age or older and/or stating that youth can drive themselves but not other youth. The policy that works well for one congregation or one district may not meet the needs of another. It is advisable to consider the length of the trip and the type of driving involved in attending conferences. The ten hours of mountain driving required to bring youth to some conferences in the Mountain Desert District is different from the thirty minutes of interstate and city driving required to bring youth to a typical conference in eastern Massachusetts. Both types of driving have their dangers—your congregation can take these factors into consideration when drafting a policy. Congregations may want to look into what coverage, if any, is offered by their congregational insurance policy for volunteer drivers traveling on church business.

Like all adults working with youth, congregations are well advised to ask adults who drive youth to sign a code of ethics. Congregations that do not permit youth-adult one-to-one time in regular contexts need to consider whether they will permit one youth and one adult to travel together to a conference. Some congregations find this situation acceptable as long as the adult signs the code of ethics. Others would seek travel alternatives.

Youth conference safety begins long before arrival at a conference, or even registration. Safety at youth conferences requires careful planning. First, registration materials must include parental permission forms with emergency contact information, health information, insurance policy details, and a signed release authorizing emergency medical attention. Second, registration materials need to be up front in presenting a code of ethics for adults (and youth in leadership positions like the conference dean or the worship coordinator). The signed parental permission forms and codes of ethics must be prerequisite for participation in the youth conference. It is important for the conference registrar to make sure that these materials are obtained from all participants.

The book How to Be a Con Artist: Youth Conference Planning Handbook for Unitarian Universalists gives more suggestions and details about the conference planning process and is available online. This resource shares the following wisdom on creating guidelines for behavior at conferences:

One of the most important tasks for a conference staff is the creation of a safe, nurturing environment in which the community can flourish. The creation of a safe environment requires the creation of rules. Keeping in mind the age and needs of the conferees, brainstorm a list of rules that will allow them to feel safe and cared for. Some districts have established rules for youth conferences. Looking at your list, ask yourselves if the conferees, both youth and adult, are likely to agree to these rules.

  • The rules should be stated clearly and concisely on the conference flyer and listed and explained at orientation. Many conference registration forms ask participants to sign an agreement to abide by the rules, listing the consequences of violating rules (being sent home, for example).
  • Sometimes an Energy Committee or Rules Committee is formed at the conference (composed of one person from each touch group, the chaplain, and another adult or two). This committee should meet regularly to touch base, to share their perceptions of how the conference is going, and to deal with any rule infractions that come up.
  • Clarify among the staff how you will handle rule violations before they occur. Who will be responsible? What will be the process for decision-making? Where will you meet? If you decide these things when you are cool, calm, and collected, in the frenzy of a conference you can easily follow your established procedure.
  • A sense of responsibility to the community and to individuals and a willingness to make compromises to maintain peace in the community are essential to conference unity.
  • As a committee, decide what rules and policies will be necessary to hold your conference successfully, peacefully, and with unity. Whatever you decide, the rules must be wholeheartedly supported by the planning committee.
  • Part of the Planning Committee’s role is to have a good relationship with participants, let them know what’s going on, listen to their concerns, and be involved in the community as regular conferees as much as possible.
  • The key to gaining support for behavior guidelines is for the community to have a sense of ownership of them. If conferees feel responsible for their own rules and policies, they will be more likely to uphold them rather than if they feel they must live under oppressive rules handed down from a faceless source. The process of creating behavior codes is one of the most crucial aspects of allowing conferees to feel a part of the community.

Further, How to be a Con Artist suggests firm enforcement coupled with creativity to address rule infractions:

When conference rules include consequences such as being removed from the conference community, “safe houses” are sometimes established. These are homes where the offenders can stay for the remainder of the conference, removed from the community but without the hassle of arranging transportation home. Creative thinking often can solve difficult problems, and keeping minds and hearts open to alternatives can produce amazing results.

Youth safety and youth empowerment can co-exist in an environment that nurtures religious and moral growth. When congregations and conference communities uphold the notion that everything we do is religious education, the opportunity to create and enforce safety policies is an opportunity to strengthen Unitarian Universalism.

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