Tuesday, April 12, 2011

5 Tips for Discipline and Disruption in Junior High Ministry

The constant murmurs and giggles. The iPods and texting. The never-ending tangents during small group discussion. The rubber band that gets shot into your face or the student that actually loudly answers their cell phone while you're in the middle of teaching (both really happened to me).

How you handle disruption and discipline with junior highers will communicate a lot about how you love them.

The typical unhealthy responses are a) over-discipline (domineering and strict) or b) under-discipline (indulgent and permissive). To find a healthy balance between being fun and authoritative requires intentionality. Here are five ideas for how to develop this balanced paradigm of discipline. (Note: these are particular for early adolescent ministry; I'm not sure how these would fit with children or high school students)

Create clear and realistic boundaries. Even though they wouldn't articulate it this way, junior highers appreciate and need clear boundaries. (Partly so they can test them!) These need to be guidelines that are clearly articulated, agreed upon, and normative for your group. It also helps if they're communicated in funny and creative ways. For us, we've created the FLUSH Rules (Focus, Listen, Uplifting Words, Staff, Honor), and shared them through some hilarious videos. When these are communicated clearly, it helps students know what's appropriate behavior, and allows for a friendly way to remind them of the rules. Often a simple, "Hey, remember FLUSH" or "what does the 'U' stand for in FLUSH?" is enough for a student. The volunteers also follow a 3-strike system for consequences: 1) Verbal warning, 2) Move the student, 3) Remove the student, follow-up with a parent.

Empower volunteers. Make sure all your adult volunteer team feels like they can enforce the boundaries confidently. All of the discipline shouldn't come from the paid youth pastor; volunteers should be able to call a student out on inappropriate behavior in healthy ways. This doesn't mean volunteers have to be babysitters or bouncers; they just need to be able to remind students of the boundaries and enforce those without questioning if they have the authority to do so. If they need to move a student or sit between two disruptive students, volunteers need to know that they can get up and do it.

Times for tangents. Particularly for small group discussions, tangents can take a good conversation down a totally random path. While I don't normally recommend compartmentalizing in ministry, sometimes it's good to create specific times for "serious stuff" and times for tangents. With our boys' small groups, the groups can agree upon an amount of time where they can focus and have a spiritual conversation. This could be only 10 minutes, but it's 10 minutes of agreed-upon serious conversation. We've also created Random Story Time, a specific time in small groups where every student can share a random story from their life for 60 seconds. If a tangent seems to be starting, we remind the guys "save it for Random Story Time," which still allows them to share their tangent, only at an appropriate time.

Stick with the consequences. Have you ever found yourself asking a student 20+ times to stop disrupting what's going on? Even when it's hard, even when you like the student, even when the distracting comment they just said was hilarious, stick with the agreed-upon consequences. You can view it as a burden, or as an opportunity to disciple the student and lovingly guide them.

Do it all in love. Discipline out of anger or obligation isn't good discipline. If a student has you emotionally fired up, make sure to calm yourself before taking the step of discipline. The motive needs to be one of love, like a parent exhorting their child. God disciplines us out of love; our discipline should follow suit.

What other discipline and distraction tips do you have? Share them in the comments!


  1. Thanks for the post. I love it. I am a middle school pastor and I can relate with alot of you talked about.
    I see you went to Multnomah! What year did you graduate? I graduated from the undergrad in 04 and with my MDiv in 08.

    To your answer your question about what I do:
    I do alot of what you talked about. I do however, have my students turn in their cell phones on Wednesday night. This has a been a great thing and something the students police themselves. They don't mind not having their phones for hour and half.

  2. Could you tell us what the rest of FLUSH means. I get the F, L and U, but what do you mean by staff and honor?

    Our ministry is 7th - 12th and while our Jr. highers can get talkative and a little goofy during the teaching time, our biggest distration is from a 16yo boy, who acts like he's 13!

  3. @revjosh, I graduated from Multnomah with my undergrad in the fall of 2006. So we were definitely there at the same time! What church are you serving in?

    @Angela, "Staff" means to respect the staff and obey them if they ask you to do something. "Honor" is the foundation for the rest of the rules--honoring people and honoring property (i.e. the building, other people's stuff, etc.). The rules somewhat overlap, but the acronym is memorable, so we've kept it. :)

  4. @joel Mayward, I am the Middle School Pastor at the church I grew up in; Oregon City Evangelical Church. It's fun and challenging to work in the same church you grew up in.
    I will be checking back to your blog often to see what you are up to. Ever want to bounce an idea or anything let me know, I would love to help you out.
    God Bless you, your family and your ministry.

  5. Thanks for the great ideas! Our 628 ministry is a chatty group and we have been looking for an appropriate acronym. FLUSH might just communicate the message we've been looking for. Thanks!