Some Things I Wish I Had Known Part 4: Only the 10 Commandments are Set in Stone

Reaching back almost a decade for this one…

I like rules.

Rules provide structure. They provide discipline. They provide a clear delineation between “right” and “wrong.” They tell you which way to go. I write curriculum for a living for a large health insurance company. The modules I build teach people how to do their jobs. It’s Standard Operating Procedures and workflow documents that help me do this. If there were no “rules” to the business, there’d be no way to build instruction.

Of course, though…every time there’s a rule, there’s a consequence.

In business, consequences are simple. You are supposed to do your job a certain way. There are guidelines for conduct. Violation of these guidelines is subject to specific outcomes. Every workplace has some variation of this system…strike one, you’re verbally corrected, strike two, you’re written up, strike three you’re out the door. It’s fairly black and white.

Starting in Junior High all those years ago, my wife and I understood the need for rules. After all, have you BEEN in a room with 15 middle-schoolers before?? It can get chaotic very fast. We also understood that rules needed consequences or they were worthless. We set very clear rules.

  1. Pay attention
  2. Keep your hands to yourself
  3. Respect others
  4. Keep your shoes on (yes, that was an actual rule…and for a good reason!!)

The list went on. I don’t exactly remember what all was included, but I remember some of the consequences.

  1. Warning
  2. Conference with the Sunday School Superintendent
  3. Sent downstairs

The rules were good rules (especially the shoe one). The consequences were logical. There was one problem though: the consequences were set in stone.

There was a new convert in our class. She was full of all of the energy and and excitement any new convert brings. She was a worshipper, and the first one in the altars. Her enthusiasm was contagious! Unfortunately, she also had a problem with talking in church.

My wife addressed it with her a couple of times. When it seemed she wasn’t taking us seriously enough, we upped the ante: we made her sit with us during church.

Looking back, I’m embarrassed to even admit that! I don’t think I have to tell you that we didn’t see the same level of response from her that service. She sat there most of the night, looking like she couldn’t wait for church to be over. Thankfully, the Youth Pastor picked up on what happened.

He pulled me aside after church. He asked me what was going on, and when I explained it, he only replied with, “I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I think you noticed a difference in her tonight…and I’m not sure that’s what you wanted.”

He was right! The fact is, rules are black and white, but people are shades of gray. Where would any of us be if God had a “Three Strikes and You’re Out” program. We still have rules and guidelines, but we learned that only the 10 Commandments are set in stone. Here are some principles for student discipline we’ve learned to live by:

Build rapport before an issue ever arises. Make no mistake, the title “Student Pastor” or “Youth Worker” does not typically endow upon you the immediate awe of your students. If you are to be effective leading your students, they must GIVE you permission to speak into their lives; you can’t force it. Sure, you can force people to follow rules, but if the relationship isn’t there, you can’t truly shape their wold view. Build a connection with your students so when they DO mess up (and all of them, at some point, will) you can build on that connection instead of building a wall.

Always correct in private, when possible. Sure, if a student is jumping up and down on a table (hey, we’ve done Jr High Ministry, we understand!), correction must be swift and to the point. Most of the time, though, you’ll get much further with a student if you pull them aside where they won’t feel the need to demonstrate their dominance in front of their peers.

Never, ever, argue with a student. The minute you start to argue, you’ve lost. “I saw you kiss her behind the church; I want to talk about it.” “I didn’t kiss her!” “Yes you did, I saw it.” “No I didn’t!” “Are you calling me a liar?” “No, I’m just saying I didn’t do it!” All of the power is now in the student’s hands. You’ve lost control of conversation, and the burden of proof is on you. Let’s try again: “I saw you kiss her behind the church; I want to talk about it.” “I didn’t kiss her.” “Look, I know what I saw. We’re not going to argue about this. Besides, even if you WEREN’T kissing, was it appropriate for you to be alone behind the church with a young lady in the dark?” Much different conversation in that scenario.

Respect the student. A condescending tone never helps anyone. You don’t have to talk down to someone to show you’re the one in control. There’s a big difference between, “How many times have I told you to no drinks on the van?” and “You know what the rule is about drinks, right? I need you to throw that out before you climb on, please.” Remember the words of Solomon in Proverbs 15:1… “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”

Ask questions. We have a lot of wisdom to give our students. If we TELL them, though, it will always be OUR idea. The trick is to ask them questions that will lead them to the right conclusion. Then, it’s THEIR idea. For example, I can say, “You don’t need to listen to that kind of music; it’s wrong.” Or, I could try this approach: “I heard the music you were listening to; let’s talk about it. Is it Christian? Does it glorify God? What makes you want to listen to it? Those reasons you listed, is that appealing to our flesh, or our spirit? What happens when we feed our flesh? So is it wise to listen to it?” You’re leading the student to the same conclusion, but you’re taking a much better path.

Always err on the side of mercy. There are some issues that are black and white. Yes, unfortunately I’ve had to tell students that they were not welcome on certain church trips because of very serious issues that arose that made bringing that student a serious risk. However, thankfully, most issues are not that serious. I’ve learned to err on the side of mercy. If my God can forgive me the 3948530th time I’ve done something, certainly I can forgive my student for the 4th. Mercy restores; judgment condemns. Is there a chance that student could fail again? Sure. But there’s also a chance that the 5th time was the charm, and I’m willing to take that chance!

Remember that we should always see discipline as one of our many opportunities to strengthen our connection with students and help them grow. It’s not a chance to throw our weight around or “prove” to the rest of the students that “I’m in charge.” No, all we’ll prove is that we’re more interested in discipline than we are discipleship. After all, I’d want the same for me.

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