What Youth Ministers Need to Know Before Dating
I was hired into paid, full-time youth ministry at the age of 24. I was single, young, male, not dating anyone, and found myself suddenly surrounded by people that dominated my social schedule…romantic dating just got a lot more complicated. That was back in 2004, and I am now married with two kids. So why am writing this particular blog entry? I know many youth ministers who are young and single (I know many youth ministers of various ages and stages of committed relationships too, of course!) and this post explores the realities of being a young, single person leading youth ministry. To refresh my own experiences and hear first-hand about today’s challenges, I spoke with two other full-time youth ministers who are younger and closer to a dating stage of life than I. (Shout out to Audrua & Cody for the awesome conversation and laughter!) The following observations reveal some of the challenges and realities about life as a single, young, youth minister.
Leading a youth ministry inevitably means that personal and professional life will overlap. The schedule of youth ministry makes a social life, especially outside of church, challenging. Youth group gatherings, Bible studies, and church meetings all happen regularly. They also often happen in the evenings. Many youth leaders end up with 3-5 evenings a week committed to the church, and those times are when most peers have time to go out and socialize. Finding a date, or maintaining friendships can be difficult because of a lack of time. Setting up boundaries and dedicating time helps balance personal and professional life. Avoiding overlap can significantly alter the way a youth minister lives their life. They may choose to live in an area not near the church. They may choose to shop in different stores, or even go out for dinner or drinks in places where they are less likely to see a church member. A youth minister can feel the need to be “on” whenever a church member is around. This can be exhausting.
Friendships within the church can be tricky and take time to develop. Church staff are put in a position (to use consumer language) where their employers and customers also can become friends. It can take a lot of time and trust for a youth minister to identify safe spaces and true friendships where they can be themselves. This is a healthy thing and reflects the need for personal and professional boundaries. Church members become the social circle for ministers because of the time spent with them. The need for authentic relationships is always present, and without quality friendships at church, youth ministry can feel like a lonely proposition.
Dating can be difficult when working at a church. There are well-meaning “match makers” in the church who always have the “perfect person” for a single minister to meet. Those can be difficult conversations to navigate. Some church members will ask well-meaning questions like “Why are you single?” or “Why aren’t you dating anyone, or married?” that can sting. Just because someone is not in a committed, romantic relationship it does not mean that they are incomplete. In fact, people should really know themselves well and be aware of their worth as an individual. How questions about singleness are asked or suggestions for mates are made matters. If phrased poorly, the suggestion or question could infer an assumption that singleness equals incompleteness. These kinds of conversations are so common that many youth ministers have a stock of one-liners ready to deploy. When a youth minister starts dating, they have to navigate the questions of how and when to introduce their significant other to the church and to the youth. They have to face potential expectations that their significant other will get as they become involved in the life of the church.
Singles in youth ministry face different expectations than their married counterparts. A young, single person without the responsibilities of a spouse or children must have more flexibility in their schedule, right? Actually the need to maintain friendships and family is not unique to the married or with kids crowd. Obviously children and a married relationship require different amounts of energy and availability. However, a young, single person can felt taken advantage of because others assume they can put personal needs on the back burner for the sake of church responsibilities. Sacrificing personal time, or the maintenance of family and friend relationships, can be a dangerous expectation of a young single leading ministry. Also, if a single youth minister starts dating, and they are pursuing a career track leading to itinerancy, that can hamper the development of a romantic relationship.
Talking about dating in the church is important. Modeling healthy relationships is important too. Church is a great place to meet people. Youth ministers know that youth in their groups will develop romantic feelings for each other. Many churches have members whose stories begin with “I met my significant other here at church.” Adults in the church have the opportunity to model healthy dating and married relationships. The modeling of healthy relationships provides youth and youth ministers with an environment of respect where they can discover what it means to see the “imago dei” in others. We can recognize the sacred worth of others. Those who we are romantically attracted to are not meant to be objects, they are meant to be windows through which we can see new and different qualities of God. Talking about dating and modeling relationships also means discussing sexuality. United Methodists in the clergy process promise to be celibate in singleness and faithful in marriage. This expectation usually applies to all church staff, as they are expected to be upstanding, moral members of the community. This can also complicate dating for youth ministers, based upon research that shows rising trends in sexual activity before marriage1 in the US. With a culture at large that is becoming more accepting of sexual activity outside of marriage, youth ministers must be aware of the expectations of their congregation.
Social media makes most stuff complicated, and one thing easier. Social media sharing makes personal and professional boundaries difficult to separate. Someone who starts dating a youth minister will face a steep learning curve about what and how they share on social media regarding their partner. The ability to tag others in pictures or locations might share more information than the youth minister wants shared, so privacy settings become very important. Likewise, Facebook and other platforms have the ability to share relationship information and announce it to the world. A youth minister’s move from “single” to “in a relationship” (or vice versa) can generate unwelcome commentary or invite questions from church members. Dating websites however are proving to be a place that helps youth ministers meet potential dating partners outside of church. Some websites that allow users to share preferences of religion, or communicate before meeting face-to-face can help a youth minister prepare a date for conversations or particular challenges that come with being in ministry.