Anyone who has a teenager in their life is most likely texting on some level. This includes youth pastors, who know that texting is the preferred method of communication among young people today.
“With affordable unlimited texting plans available from most cell phone carriers, it’s easier than ever for teenagers to use their thumbs to communicate,” according to a TeenMark study from Mediamark Research & Intelligence (MRI) that was released in February. “The number of teens who text has increased 50% since 2007… Texting is now the number one feature teens use on mobile cell phones, aside from making phone calls.”
As with other forms of technology, increased convenience also brings increased risk. If guidelines are not established, young people can hurt themselves or others by sending or receiving inappropriate text messages. This includes something commonly known as “sexting,” when teens send and receive sexually-explicit images to each other via cell phones or the Internet.
How Could this Affect Your Ministry?
What would you do if you discovered that members of your youth group are involved in sending or receiving an inappropriate text message? It could be a youth group member who sends a message to another young person, or even to a youth volunteer or pastor. What if your youth pastor were involved in sending the message? Or, what if a young person wrongfully accused your youth pastor of sending an inappropriate message?
There are ramifications, both legal and otherwise, associated with each of these scenarios. As with other situations that pose risk to a ministry, your church should talk about issues like inappropriate text messaging or sexting and establish written policies and guidelines designed to prevent it from happening—or at the very least know how to respond if it does.
Where to Start
There are several schools of thought when it comes to establishing texting guidelines for ministry volunteers and youth workers. Some say that prohibiting workers from texting with youth altogether and discouraging youth group members from texting each other is the answer. While this would certainly curtail the risk of any of the above scenarios, it’s probably not a realistic solution.
“Texting is a significant part of the teen culture,” says John Sandy, corporate attorney, at Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company. “It can be used as an effective ministry tool if utilized within the boundaries of the law.”
Sending inappropriate text messages, including sexually-suggestive communication, insensitive remarks or downright bullying, should be immediately addressed in a straight-forward manner if discovered. This type of communication should be approached in the same way that your ministry leaders would handle inappropriate conversation heard in a hallway of the church.
Depending on the situation, teen-to teen texting that crosses an appropriateness line may best be handled by sitting down with the offending individual and explaining the harmful nature of the text. If the inappropriate text was generated by a youth worker, then a thorough investigation should immediately take place. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, an accused worker may need to be temporarily or permanently removed from their position.
Establish Guidelines for Sending & Receiving Text Messages
Once texting turns into “sexting,” the stakes get much higher. Legislation addressing sexting varies from state to state, so ministries should consult with a local attorney to determine the law in your jurisdiction. However, there are some guidelines that all ministries can consider. Sandy makes the following recommendations:
- Ministry staff and volunteers should know what is legal or illegal in their state when it comes to texting. They should specifically be cautioned against sending improper pictures that could invite charges of criminal law violations.
- Encourage ministry youth workers to send most texts or e-mails to a group rather than to individuals. This approach eliminates problems associated with one-on-one electronic communication.
- Ministry youth leaders should inform youth group members of the dangers of sexting. Teens need to understand that sexting is not only emotionally damaging, but that under some state laws, young people could actually be charged with a sex crime for transmitting sexually suggestive photos.
- Churches should develop a written policy on texting/electronic communications parameters for all staff and volunteers. The policy should spell out what the ministry’s expectations are when it comes to electronic communication, including texting. Ministry staff and volunteers should either take a class or be provided with educational material that carefully explains this policy.
- The policy should also outline when young people can and cannot use their cell phones. It is recommended that the policy state that, generally, cell phone use is not allowed in any form during official church youth functions. This will not only avoid distractions that come with cell phones, but also protect the church from a charge of negligent supervision, should a youth send an inappropriate or even illegal text message during the meeting.
As churches consider their stance on texting within their ministries, other questions are likely to surface.
Reference: Used with permission from Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company. Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved.