Keeping online ministry with youth safe and holy
By John DeLaporte
Diocesan Director of Youth Ministry and Religious Education
As the coronavirus pandemic drags on with no apparent end in sight, many of us in parish and diocesan ministry are getting creative with our use of technology to share faith, conduct outreach and meet needs. This is certainly the case for those of us in ministry to the young Church, a generation often dubbed “digital natives.”
As our interactions with adolescents become increasingly digital during the pandemic, we must be ever mindful to use technology in ways that keep kids and ourselves safe. Just as we follow safe environment protocols in our physical interactions with minors, we must also follow similar procedures in our digital interactions with adolescents. To this end, I offer several considerations to maintain a safe environment with adolescents as we creatively adopt technology in our ministries. These recommendations are based on our Diocesan Digital, Online and Social Media Policy. This policy contains helpful handouts that you can adapt to solicit permission from parents, and goes into detail about specific platforms and applications.
We want to make sure all our communications with youth are as transparent as possible. This means we take care to avoid personal, private, one-on-one conversations with teens that could be hidden or deleted from others, such as sending Snapchats or using Twitter’s new “fleet” feature.
Transparency requires us to solicit permission from our pastor and our parish families when using a particular platform such as Facebook or Zoom. Our accounts should be created in the name of our parish, and relevant people in our ministry (such as a pastor, DRE, or co-minister) should have access to the username and password of the account.
We want to avoid establishing accounts using our personal emails and opt to use the email we utilize for purposes of ministry. More than one adult should always be included in our communications with minors (e.g., cc’ing a co-minister in an email, including them in a group text, and/or having “digital” adult chaperones in a Zoom meeting). Parents should be allowed to access any platforms we use with their children.
Use prudence and professionalism to guide what you share
Both the Christian value of prudence as well as standards of professional conduct should guide the content we share and how we share it.
Appropriate boundaries that must be respected in any face-to-face or verbal communications also apply to electronic communications with minors or adults. The content of our communications should be appropriate, professional, and in conformity with the teachings of the Church and the Diocesan Code of Pastoral Conduct. The purpose of our communications should be for ministry and not other reasons.
Acceptable hours to communicate with youth are between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. We can always use “schedule sending” features to compose messages outside of these times and schedule them to post during acceptable hours.
Make sure that any platforms you are using to communicate with adolescents is set to maximize privacy from people outside the boundaries of your ministry.
Protecting privacy does not mean we reduce transparency. Pastors, youth ministry leaders and parents should always be able to access these platforms when they wish. Privacy means that we protect these platforms from other adults who may wish to gain access to personal information about our kids.
This has become particularly important for Zoom users, as the rise of Zoom “bombers” has become more prevalent (see below for how to conduct safe Zoom meetings).
For example, a youth ministry Facebook group should be a “closed” group, requiring users to solicit permission to access the group from the administrator. Privacy settings should be reviewed often, as sometimes they can reset when platforms run updates. We should avoid “tagging” youth in photos or captioning youth in photos or videos we post. We always need permission from parents before we post pictures or videos of their children online.
This crisis demands our presence and outreach more than ever. As we employ technology to catechize, evangelize, care for and connect with youth, we must continue to be mindful of how to keep them safe while protecting ourselves from risk or liability. If you have any questions about maintaining a digitally safe environment with youth, or want to discuss how to adapt technology to minister to your kids, please reach out to the Office of Youth Ministry and Religious Ed at email@example.com or 573-635-9127.
Platforms that can work with diocesan policies and principles (not an exhaustive list, others may work also)
- Zoom (see guidelines below)
- Google Hangouts
- Google Voice
Special Considerations when using Zoom for ministry
(with thanks to the Archdiocese of St. Louis Youth Ministry Office)
- Whenever possible, always use a passcode for your users to enter a Zoom room. This will prevent uninvited guests from joining simply by finding your link.
- Avoid sharing the link to your Zoom meetings on open platforms that anyone can access. For example, don’t post the link to your Zoom youth gathering on your parish’s public website or Facebook page. Zoom “bombers” are out there scouting for meetings to crash, and they are particularly drawn to religious organizations and those involving youth.
- When scheduling a Zoom meeting, under Advanced Options choose to utilize a Waiting Room and disable Join Before Host. This will allow you to screen who can enter the group. This is required if you are sharing Zoom meeting ID’s publicly to ensure that anyone who should not be in your meetings is unable to get in.
- On the Zoom chat feature, click on the ellipse to the right of Everyone and under Participant can chat with select either everyone publicly or no one. This will ensure that private chats are not occurring between adults and teens.
- In the Zoom host controls, click the arrow next to Share Screen and click Advanced Sharing Options. Under Who can share? choose Only Host and disable File Sharing. This will prevent anyone in the meeting from “grabbing” the screen and prevent the host from monitoring what is shared.
- Enable an adult core member to be a co-host to help moderate the event, in case you (as the host) get disconnected.
- If you have upgraded to the Zoom Pro plan and have Breakout Rooms, it is permissible to have one adult lead each small group discussion. You as the host can hop in on the various discussions.
Additional Reading and Resources
- National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry COVID-19 Resource Page – Best I’ve seen so far; so many great things to discover here!
- “What I learned after leading my first Virtual Youth Group,” by Rick Lawrence, Group Magazine – Good practical considerations in using Zoom for purposes of ministry.
- “Starting a Social Media Strategy for Your Ministry,” by Angel Barrera, Center for Ministry Development
- “18 Social Media Apps and Sites Kids are Using Right Now,” Common Sense Media – What they are and what to be concerned about when using.
- “How to Lead a Small Group Remotely,” by Nell O’Leary, Blessed is She – Good pragmatic considerations for successful facilitation.
- “Recursos para la Pastoral Juvenil y la Pastoral Universitaria durante la Crisis de COVID-19,” V Encuentro
- “Simple Steps to Creating a Virtual Youth Night,” Marathon Youth Ministry
- ProjectYM Live – A national youth night with thousands of teens featuring top presenters and worship leaders in Catholic youth ministry. Free for your parish!
- Lifeteen Global Life Night – A live-streamed presentation featuring top presenters and worship leaders from Lifeteen.
- Benedictine College Youth Outreach – Bring one of BC’s trained college youth ministers to present virtually to your parish youth group.