When I started doing research for our Draw the Line eBook, my stomach was in knots. I began my process by Googling "youth pastor in jail sexual abuse 2013," expecting to find a few news stories. Within two days, I had over 30 individual cases, and I'd barely scratched the surface of the abuse allegations that took place last year. My heart broke for these students, for these pastors, and for these church bodies.
Youth ministry is important to me; it was a safe space for me in junior high and high school, and as a post-college young adult, I was a youth leader. I see youth ministry as a vital space for transformation, safety, and teaching teenagers how to live in Christian community and develop stronger relationships with God. It's also a place for having innocent fun.
But when abuse creeps in, that innocence is destroyed. Telling families, let alone students, that the man or woman who led their ministry for years turned out to be a sexual abuser, a predator, or a liar, is crushing.
As Millennials seem to be walking away from their faith in droves, I have to ask myself if constant allegations of two-faced pastors sleeping with students or congregation members has anything to do with it. How can a teenager trust God when everything they were taught about him was taught by a man who is now no longer allowed on the church premises? How can the world trust the church when 13.6 percent of all church court cases take place because of the sexual abuse of minors?
It's uncomfortable to think about. If you're reading this as a youth pastor, I know your desire is to protect your students. But you're fallible. And so are your leaders. The only way you'll be able to ensure your ministry is a safe place is through boundaries, and a strong, no-shame reporting structure. You won't go to jail for telling your supervisor that you're struggling with feeling attracted to one of your students. That honesty will open up doors to help prevent anything from happening. It may preserve your career, and it might save your ministry from heartbreak. But the most dangerous thing you can do in the situation of student attraction is to not recognize it for what it is: the greatest threat to your future life you may ever experience. Where there is no accountability, there is no safety. Even with all the accountability rules and procedures, no one can assure that you or one of your volunteer leaders will not victimize one of your youth. However, following rules and procedures such as the ones discussed in Draw the Line will greatly reduce the odds of sexual abuse taking place in your ministry.
Ashley Emmert is assistant editor for the Church Law and Tax Group at Christianity Today. She creates and edits eBooks, provides editorial support for Church Law & Tax Report, and leads editorial for Church Finance Today and ChurchLawAndTax.com.
This article is adapted from the Draw the Line ebook.
Draw the Line is devoted to screening, boundaries, strong policies, and the stories of those who have walked through youth ministry scandals and come out on the other side. We've talked to lawyers, youth pastors, senior pastors, psychologists, ex-students, and safety experts. Each of their perspectives brings a unique, important word for your church. Apply these lessons and you will reduce the risk for the church, its youth, and its staff.
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