"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Personal Life of the Youth Worker

The Last Temptation of Your Career

Bryan Belknap

Have you been tempted to pursue an inappropriate relationship with a group member? You?re not alone?in fact, the room is crowded. Here?s a game plan for stopping temptation in its tracks.

By Bryan Belknap

You?ve heard it all before?some youth pastor down the street gets sexually involved with a teenager. Stupid and pathetic, you?re thinking. But there?s something lurid about it, and it grabs your attention the same way a four-car pileup on the other side of the median makes you slow down to gape.

I?d heard the stories, too. I knew all about the human wreckage produced by these "dangerous liaisons." But no one ever warned me that it could happen to anyone...even me. So I wasn?t worried. As a college senior, I scoffed at classmates who dated freshmen. I laughed at how they fooled themselves into thinking the target of their obsession was "mature" for her age. (In this case, "exceptionally hot and willing" is a synonym for "mature.")

Two years later, as I left my position as a college minister, I was actually scheming ways to pursue some of the young women I?d been ministering to?all of them were at least five years my junior. I never got within shouting distance of sexual impropriety, but I did drag my foot alongside the primrose path. God?s grace kept me off it.

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Before I got started in ministry, I determined I?d never date anyone involved in my work?I thought it would create a tension that could hinder the gospel. Well, at my first church there weren?t any women my age?so that was easy. I couldn?t (and wouldn?t) cruise the bars, nightclubs, or dating services to meet someone. I trusted God to bring "the one" into my life.

And all that trust left me lonely and frustrated as, Friday night after Friday night, I sat home alone eating cold pizza and watching Dukes of Hazzard marathons. My heart remained strong, but my mind wandered the halls of possibility. It never progressed to fantasy or action because I stumbled onto a few practices that kept me pure.

1. Every youth pastor needs close adult friends?people who?ve known you for a while.

It?s easy for us to slide into isolation?we?re surrounded by kids, but not adults. There?s always another phone call to make, meeting to prepare, magazine to read, and person to counsel. So you work yourself nutty for those extra jewels in your heavenly crown. (I once worked six weeks straight without a day off. Not smart.)

All of these "spiritual" deeds create a false sense of safety: "Nothing will happen as long as I?m doing God?s work." That?s nothing but camouflaged pride?the God-guaranteed precursor to falling. Luckily, I had two guys (my partners in youth pastor crime) who kept me honest. Though we worked like dogs together, at least one of us was sane at all times to keep the other two tethered to reality.

You need connections with adults who are at the same place in life?dealing with adult problems and experiencing similar hopes, joys, and frustrations. They also remember the same Saturday morning cartoons and Top 40 hits. Your adult friends aren?t easily fooled by your smoke screens. They know your pits smell and will quickly point it out.

If you have no adult peer group, you?ll fill the void with your young people. No es bueno. Your job is to understand and impact your kids? culture (music, dress, slang, interests), not fully integrate into it. An obvious red flag is when you suddenly discover the "hidden maturity" in your opposite-sex group members.

Even if (especially if) the object of your affection is mature for a senior higher, she?s still living at home, where she?s someone?s little girl. She?s never paid an electric bill or dated without a curfew. (Exceptions do exist, but they still don?t pass the smell test.) She?s worried about prom dates and college application essays, not Sallie Mae and 401(k)s. When you lack connections to people your own age, you?re like an undercover agent who?s in so deep you forget who you work for.

By maintaining my old friendships, I was constantly reminded about my age. These guys knew me from way back, before I ever got "holy." They were quick to encourage me, and to knock me back to earth when I tried climbing on a pedestal. When I imagined their response (and ridicule) to boasts about my great new girlfriend?"She?s not only godly, beautiful, and mature, but also just earned a 1310 on her SAT"?kept me from contemplating a love connection.

2. You will be the object of worship, so remember what happened to the golden calf.

Beware of student worship. And I?m not talking about the kind of thing Sonic Flood does. I?m talking about good old-fashioned idol worship. If you?re seen as a godly and powerful person you can expect to be the object of someone?s crush (wake up?even though your church board members treat you with something less than awe, you?re a god to at least some of your teenagers).

Remember your sixth-grade teacher?the one you planned to marry once you grew up? You are that teacher to someone in your ministry. They think you can do no wrong. Your "close proximity to God" just makes you more desirable and morally acceptable in their minds.

Crushes aren?t bad, but they can be hazardous waste if you see your kids as peers. Our psychological needs make this situation potentially explosive. We crave respect the same way drug addicts crave heroine. And that means you?re working?day in and day out?with "pushers" who?ve got what you want. Guard your heart against the tempting rush of this ego boost! Remember that your kids don?t know the real Star Trek-lovin?, laundry-hating, early morning grump that is you. They?re in love with someone who doesn?t really exist?namely, their (large dramatic breath) do-no-wrong pastor.

Since I was determined never to date a student, I simply wasn?t tempted when I learned someone "liked" me. I preprogrammed my response before anyone made an offer, which made it easy to do the right thing even when I was taken by surprise.

When I realized the power I had?the power to abuse my position?I was terrified. I knew I could choose anyone in the room and be virtually guaranteed a positive response to my attentions. I still face this choice every time I speak at a camp: Will I use my words and actions to point teenagers to Christ, or will I push a few emotional buttons to boost my own ego? This is exactly why God expects more from teachers?we can use our platform to bring great good or cause great damage.

3. Don?t skimp on your alone time with God.

We win the battle between our selfish ambitions and our desire for humble submission by passionately pursuing God. I spent two hours in prayer and Bible study every day before going to work. That time kept me focused and aware?basically, it was harder for Satan to fly below my radar when I started my day with some serious wide-awake time. The time I spent with God in quiet kept me from treating my Christian faith as job description instead of a lifestyle.

4. Spiritual growth is all about intimacy?so make sure you compartmentalize when and where you?re vulnerable.

I was never more attracted to a young person than when I saw her falling deeper in love with Jesus. There?s nothing like the high we get when we?re catalysts for deep transformation in kids? lives.

Likewise, the deeper my faith grew, the more students were drawn to me. As we all grew closer to God, we all grew closer to each other. This spiritual bond made romantic bonds with a teenager easier to slip into.

I defused this magnetic pull by avoiding one-on-ones with kids. Alone time with a teenager (especially of the opposite sex) is more dangerous than scheduling Kenny G to play Ozzfest. Most ministries have rules about this kind of thing (does yours?), but it?s easy to fudge the rules when your interest is perked. Don?t give in! Mere accusations have leveled ministries in the past (see the sidebar "Picking Up the Pieces").

After I left my college ministry position and moved to Los Angeles, I spent a lot more time with people my own age. I quickly saw how my perceptions had warped?the girls I was interested in were just that...girls. They were amazing, attractive, and godly... and not for me. I was a twenty-something out on his own and needed to wait for a woman who didn?t have to be carded. Praise God I only stuck my toe in the dark pond! I pray you use my advice and avoid the shore altogether.

Bryan Belknap is group?s media editor. He authors our Music & Media column, and created our Mind Over Media Web site connected to youthministry.com.

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PICKING UP THE PIECES

Dealing with false accusations of sexual misconduct

by Mike Reynolds

It?s now common to see stories in newspapers and on TV news programs about youth pastors who get sexually involved with young people in their ministries. So it?s easy to understand why parents are cautious. And it?s not surprising that many parents have blown the whistle on youth leaders who?ve abused their position.

But then there are parents who use the "sexual misconduct" charge like a club?their aim is to sabotage your ministry. I know this is true because it happened to me.

When I got into youth ministry, I was the youngest youth worker in the state for my denomination. I inherited a modest youth group of about 35 kids, and within a few months we?d doubled in size and were still growing. I was young, single, and successful?perfect prey for a threatened, mean-spirited parent. This parent was partly responsible for the decline in the group?s membership before I arrived, and my quick success seeded bitterness and jealousy in my accuser.

The first salvo fired at me was a rumor going around town that I was sexually involved with my adult youth coordinator?I was 20, she was over 50. When I walked into restaurants and the shops, I could hear the whispers: "That?s the guy who?s sleeping with the lady in the church." And this poor woman had to deal with the exact same innuendo.

Just when it seemed the rumors had blown over, they started again?this time involving my kids. Now, not only was I sleeping with a parent, but also I was doing "inappropriate things" with senior high girls in the youth building. My ministry was in a shambles, and I hadn?t done anything wrong.

My situation dragged on for 18 months. The accusations piled up. Every time church leaders requested evidence or testimony in support of the accusations, none was provided. The accuser got desperate and called other parents to solicit support. When this failed, this person threatened church members. I held strong. I never faced an inquiry and was never officially questioned about my conduct. When my accuser?s credibility dissolved, my ministry slowly returned to normal.

*How to avoid an accusation in the first place

There?s no stigma harder to overcome for a youth minister than accusations of sexual misconduct. You must protect yourself.

1. Never meet alone with a group member. When you decide to meet alone with a teenager of any sex, you forfeit your greatest defense in countering an accusation. When a young person wants to talk, go to a greasy spoon or a park?somewhere you can talk confidentially while surrounded by people. Keep your office door open, and never visit teenagers when they?re home alone.

2. Make copies of all your correspondence with kids. Before you send a note of encouragement to a young person, photocopy it and file it. It?s also important to do this when you receive letters or notes from group members or parents. Kids may misinterpret your affirming note as a come-on?and you can?t count on them to keep the letters you send. Be sensitive about the language you use in notes?for example, don?t use "Love" as your closing.

3. Communicate well with church leaders. Develop a reputation for honest communication with your senior pastor and church leaders. When something happens that?s ripe for misinterpretation, inform your church leaders before someone else does.

4. Surround yourself with people you trust. There?s safety in numbers. So make sure you have trustworthy parents and adult leaders at meetings and events?people who know where you are and who you?re with.

5. Be aware and beware. A false accuser is likely someone who declares a deep ownership of your church?s youth ministry. They?re protective of the youth group even when they?re not involved. They also tend to be insecure and attention-seeking.

*What to do once you?ve been targeted

If you?ve been falsely accused, my best advice is hang on. It?s going to be a wild, long ride. You?ll be tempted to lash out at your accuser publicly or privately. But it?s imperative that you don?t. Carry yourself as a servant of God, even though it may seem as if God has abandoned you. You can survive this ordeal without permanent damage to your ministry and church.

1. Smile. This may sound silly, but it?s important. Smile in church, smile at your group meetings, smile when you see parents, and smile when you encounter your accuser. You still have a job to do and dwelling on the situation is counterproductive. Present yourself as if nothing has happened. Be confident and trust in God.

2. Align yourself with church leaders. The moment an accusation is leveled at you, talk to your pastor and church leaders. Make sure they understand the situation clearly so they?ll give you their support. People will follow the example of your leaders.

3. Don?t involve your kids. This is the prime directive in dealing with an accusation such as this. In my situation, the accuser roped a number of kids into the situation and jeopardized their reputations. Don?t discuss the situation with your kids, publicly or privately. If it?s necessary to ask kids for their input, wait for your church board to call them as witnesses. Never use them as pawns in a chess match. And don?t defame your accuser?that will only hurt your credibility.

4. Let your church leaders handle the situation. I was so desperate to clear my name that I used to dream about confronting my accuser. But it?s the church?s responsibility to investigate the charges and render a verdict. Never underestimate the power of your hot emotions to influence you into saying or doing something stupid.

5. Be extra cautious about how you handle yourself. You?re now under a microscope?your every move will be scrutinized. So don?t give anyone reason believe the accusations. Keep careful records of your activities and correspondence, and keep a tape recorder in your office to record any threats. If that happens, contact your local authorities immediately.

Mike Reynolds is the pseudonym for a longtime youth minister who prefers to keep both his name and location secret.

Permissions

Used my permission, Group Magazine, Copyright January-February, 2001, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539.

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