My church is just a few blocks away from Panera, which serves as my second office. On occasion, we hold our staff meetings there. I also regularly meet with adult leaders and students there. I do so for many reasons. As a youth worker, I want to be above reproach. This means that when I meet with a teen one-on-one, I ALWAYS do so in a public place. Panera is my default public meeting place.
Over time, I've learned it's far more comfortable for teens to meet with me at Panera than in my office with the door open (which I'm told feels like being summoned to the principal's office) or in our lobby where it's hard to go deep into a conversation. In contrast, while public, the booths at Panera offer some semblance of privacy – enough to make teens feel much more comfortable having hard conversations.
Meeting regularly at a place like Panera also gives me the chance to cultivate relationships with people outside my congregation. I mean, I'm in Panera a LOT; So often, in fact, that the staff there knows my name as well as that of my infant daughter, Hope. At the register, I'm often greeted with, “How's Hope today?” or if she's not present, “Where's Hope today?” Since I'm in there so frequently, sometimes, we enter into conversations that go well beyond those kind of typical pleasantries.
Yesterday afternoon, I met a student I mentor at Panera. We were engrossed in a good conversation about the book we're reading and discussing together (Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution) when all of the sudden, I felt a thump on my shoulder. I looked up to see one of our church council members (essentially, my congregation's elders) standing there. He asked how I was and, motioning at my student, what we were doing. I briefly explained we were there discussing life and our book together. He grinned and walked away.
As he did, I was reminded of yet another reason why it's good for me, as the youth pastor at my church, to meet with teens in public places: It makes ministry visible to others in my congregation (I almost always see someone from my congregation at Panera when I'm there). This, in turn, gives people a valuable glimpse of what exactly youth ministry looks like. So often, people – including our elders and board members – wonder what it is we do during the week beyond the youth ministry programs we offer on a regular basis. They think we're holed up in our office doing who knows what. But when church members actually see us out in the community meeting with teens, they begin to understand what it is we do; It paints a picture of what discipleship with teens looks like.