In the psychology field, therapists are encouraged to recognize feelings of attraction toward their clients, and deal with them in a professional manner. Unfortunately, this same recognition is enshrouded in shame in most church settings. This leads to youth pastors feeling isolated, battling feelings they know they shouldn't have, afraid to tell anyone for fear of losing their jobs.
In this excerpt from our resource,Draw the Line: Relational Boundaries for Safe Youth Ministry, Psychology Doctorate student Lauren Widman speaks up about what the field of mental health and therapy is doing right—and what the church could learn from a little more self-awareness.
Why do you think youth pastors and therapists both struggle with the possibility of inappropriate attraction to the students or clients they work with?
Youth pastors and therapists both tend to be in a position of power and authority over people who are coming to them for help. And often, youth pastors are younger individuals, working with students who are not that far from their own age. This can be dangerous if boundaries aren't established.
Should youth pastors be embarrassed about feelings of attraction?
In the field of training clinicians, there is a portrayal of the inevitability of possible attraction to a client. And there's a real lack of shame surrounding the possibility of having a physical attraction to a client. Because of the nature of our work, you engage with people on a very emotionally intimate level that can foster feelings of attraction to clients. The key is to educate someone on how they can be self-aware and maneuver those relationships for the protection of the client and their self-esteem.
Boundaries need to address the power differential. In a position of power, you have to be responsible for the possible exploitation of a youth or a client.
How can youth pastors be honest with themselves about feelings of attraction?
Part of our training is in self-awareness. Future mental health clinicians are constantly developing self-awareness and introspection. Knowing what our own baggage is and what our tendencies are can be preventive in the abuse or exploitation of clients—but it also promotes healthy boundaries.
Beyond self-awareness, there is also encouragement to really be aware of what is going on between you and the client. Feelings are normal—attraction between two people is normal. And even more so, clients come in and often feel an attraction toward the therapist. So those things need to be resolved in a way that really preserves the professional boundaries of the therapeutic relationship and protects the therapy process and treatment goals, but also helps bolster the self-esteem of the client so that you're not shaming them for feelings of attraction.