The room buzzed with energy as the fourth and fifth graders waited for large group to begin. It was our first Sunday as a new church plant—first time in our venue, first time in large group, first time our small group leaders had met their kids, but not, fortunately, the first time we’d worked together as leaders.

The host of our large group, a young but experienced communicator, welcomed everyone and got things off to a rollicking start. Kids and leaders alike were engaged and getting into the opening activity.

So it was a surprise when one small group leader, Sam (a 6’4” former marine), stood up, bringing fifth-grade Brian up with him. Hand on his shoulder, Sam marched Brian out into the hallway, pausing only to tell me he and Brian needed to talk. Obviously, I knew something was up, but didn’t know what (standing in back of the room, I hadn’t seen or heard what had happened). Because I was a coach at the time, I kept one eye on the rest of Sam’s group and the other on Sam and Brian, whom I could see through the observation window in the door to the hallway. Sam had lowered himself to Brian’s level for an eye-to-eye conversation. It lasted several minutes, then they returned to large group.

The rest of the morning passed uneventfully, though I was dying of curiosity by this point. Parents came to retrieve their kids and meet their small group leaders, and everyone seemed happy with our first Sunday as a church. When the kids left, Sam and I talked about what had happened, what he’d said to Brian, and what to do next.

Now, if you’re like me, you want to know what happened and how we responded in order to compare notes on handling knotty situations.

So here’s what happened: Sam was seated with his group, next to Brian, when Brian said, “Mm-mmm, I sure would like to get in her pants,” meaning the host of our large group. (She didn’t hear this appalling comment, by the way; few did, thankfully.)

Looking back now, I am glad for the way Sam handled the situation. He did many things right, we discovered over the next few months. (More on that in a moment.) Here’s what Sam did:

  1. He covered his bases. He told me he was leaving the room and why. He stayed in sight, where I could see them both (as a measure of protection for him and Brian.) After telling me what had happened, we told our children’s minister. (Anytime serious misbehavior happens, like sexual harassment, violence, etc., we need to inform someone on the church’s staff.) We did not, however, tell Brian’s parents since we didn’t know them or the family’s history. (That turned out to be wise in this case due to a whole constellation of family problems that came to light later. Otherwise, it’s usually best to inform parents when something serious happens.)
  2. He modeled respect. By pulling Brian aside for a private conversation, Sam avoided humiliating him in front of others. By speaking plainly and firmly, Sam made clear his respect for the other leader as well as expectations of Brian. (That conversation went something like this: “Honorable men do not say things like that to or about a woman, ever. That comment was unacceptable. I want you to grow up to be an honorable man, so no one in our group—you, I, or anyone else—will make any remarks like that …”) By responding swiftly, Sam showed the boys who did overhear Brian’s comment that that kind of talk wouldn’t be tolerated.
  3. He showed mercy. Sam’s measured response, then and later, earned Brian’s respect and, eventually, admiration. Though things got off to a rocky start, Sam didn’t hold Brian’s behavior against him. He maintained the same high expectations for Brian that he did for the other boys, but it was tempered by fun and grace. Over the year, those boys—including Brian—grew to love Sam, as much for his plainspoken manner as for his good humor and his “manliness.”

I believe Sam’s genuine concern for Brian’s well-being was evident that day, even though Brian probably didn’t recognize it. I’m convinced Sam proved that concern to Brian throughout the year. Sam wanted the group to be a safe place, a place the boys could be themselves and mess up and they’d still be accepted, even (or especially) while being corrected. He wanted the boys to know that even though their behavior wasn’t always acceptable, they were—easier said than done sometimes.

You probably have similar stories to tell, about things children have said or done that made your stomach churn. Obviously, we (parents and leaders) can’t let kids run wild; they’d have no moral “guardrails” for life. But if all we focus on is behavior, we eventually teach kids to be superficial and judgmental—to have a false piety. I don’t think we want that either. So, how do YOU go about creating environments that correct behavior but make kids feel accepted at the same time?

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Melanie Williams

Melanie has taught kids at church for a looong time, has a master's degree in early childhood education, and designed and edited children's curriculum for 20+ years. She now edits books.'

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