Preventing Abuse in Youth Ministries

Churches need to develop solid boundaries and a good reporting structure.

When I started doing research for the Church Law & Tax resource, Youth Ministry in a #MeToo Culture, my stomach was in knots. I began my process by Googling “youth pastor in jail sexual abuse,” 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. 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 the top reason churches go to court each year involves an abuse allegation?

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 Youth Ministry in a #MeToo Culture will greatly reduce the odds of sexual abuse taking place in your ministry.

This article is adapted from Youth Ministry in a #MeToo Culture .

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