Teaching Churches to Draw the Line

Youth Ministry Roundtable: The final post in a five-part series focused on issues related to risk and safety.

This is the final blog post in our five-part series from the roundtable discussion we conducted on our Youth Ministry Safety survey findings. Today we discuss this question: “How do we educate churches about the importance of safety awareness?”

If you missed theses blog posts on the top concerns facing youth ministry, check them out below:

Roundtable participants: Brian McAuliffe, CFO at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois; Garland Owensby, professor at Southwestern Assembly of God University in Texas and a volunteer youth worker; Brad Neese, teaching pastor at Berrien Center Bible Church in Michigan; Laura Leonard, associate editor of BuildingChurchLeaders.com and a volunteer youth leader in Illinois; and Wes Trevor, youth director at Central Presbyterian Church in Colorado. Ashley Moore, assistant editor for the Church Law & Tax Group moderated this roundtable–with assistance from editorial resident Andrew Finch.

Ashley (Moore) Emmert: I think our conversations have really led up to the question, “How can we help churches understand that safety and boundaries are a big deal?”

Garland Owensby: I think case studies are best. We learn by example. It would be eye-opening for churches to hear case studies from their denominations or leader. They need to hear from people they work alongside of, “This could happen to you, and it could happen in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful.”

Brian McAuliffe: Richard Hammer does a big study every year and publishes the findings, focusing on sex abuse and other issues that land churches in court. He usually gives examples from both small and big churches. Churches have to understand that this can happen just as easily at a small church as it can at a large church.

Wes Trevor: The only way that everyone’s going to wake up is through repetition. We have to present case studies, have those tough conversations, and reach out in our networks. But some people will only learn the hard way. Sadly, it’s going to take someone within their church making a mistake. Obviously that’s not the best-case scenario. We want to be able to prevent that, which is why we’re having this conversation. But it’s not going to happen in one wave. I think we’re going to have to repeat these types of questions and answers to get to a place where the majority of our churches are operating in a safer manner.

Brian McAuliffe: Along with repetition, the other thing that could make a huge difference is inexpensive resources to help churches–especially smaller churches. They aren’t going to have the resources or budget to take many of the necessary steps to build curriculum or training programs.

I agree with the idea of repetition. I think about Bill Hybels’s example of water in a beaker. If you have water in a beaker, it’s not going to change on its own. But as you hold a flame to it, it eventually changes its state. It starts to boil.

The more you get this information out there, the more you talk about it, and repeat what can happen, the more likely it is that eventually people are going to wake up to it.

Laura Leonard: My church has no denominational ties, so we’re not getting resources handed down to us from any higher authority. I think the more we hear the stories of other churches, the more help it is. We need practical tips and guides that focus on, “What do I do about that?” and “Here are lists of what you can do, how to prevent it, how to respond if something does happen.”

Garland Owensby: I do a lot of image searches while building presentations. The most frustrating image search is youth pastor, because 70 percent of the images that come up are mug shots. As a professor, the very first day of my class I tell my students, “I can teach you to be the best discipler, the most dynamic speaker, a great administrator, but if you can’t keep your hands out of the offering and your pants up, then you’re going to be the best youth pastor selling insurance.”

Wes Trevor: It doesn’t take a conviction to end a career; it only takes an accusation. Because once a sexual scandal is tied to your name, you’re done. If there’s a whiff of impropriety at all, you’re done. You don’t have to be sitting in a jail cell saying, “Oh, I screwed up.” You’ll be sitting at home not doing any youth work because you didn’t guard your boundaries well enough. I’ve watched three of my friends who will never be a youth pastor again, and not because they necessarily did something wrong. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time and were accused. And they’re done. They’re never going to work for a church again.

Brian McAuliffe: I know of a youth pastor who regularly didn’t guard his boundaries in regards to driving youth home. One time, the last youth was a girl in the car. She was pregnant, and after that ride home, she said that the youth pastor was the father.

His marriage fell apart. He lost his job. He was kicked out of the church. It wasn’t until later that she finally confessed that it was her boyfriend that got her pregnant. But in the meantime the guy’s life was absolutely destroyed. It’s a naïveté that got him there–that belief that “it can’t happen to me.” I don’t think people understand how often this kind of stuff happens.

Ashley (Moore) Emmert: Do you feel like this is a conversation that’s happening among youth pastors and leaders right now?

Wes Trevor: Yes, but it needs to happen more. We have a situation at a church nearby where the youth pastor, the son of the pastor, got caught in an inappropriate relationship with a student. It’s very relevant for us to be talking about it.

Garland Owensby: The conversation is definitely taking place. I think the problem we’re seeing in my denomination is that people talk about it but it’s always “I’ve got a friend that …” There’s still an emphasis on, Well, if you’re following Jesus, you’re not going to sin. I think the conversation that needs to take place, so we can be honest enough with each other, goes like this: “Yes, I’m dealing with something” or “I’m struggling with whatever moral thing that could put me in a compromising situation.”

I think people feel so much shame when they’re struggling with big issues, like attraction to a student. It keeps them from having authentic conversations about it.

Brad Neese: The shame thing I think applies to some of the guys I know who have gone off the radar because of inappropriate relationships. In the Christian community, we haven’t brought them back. Let them tell their story about how they messed up, how God has redeemed their situation and restored them. It’s that personal account that I just don’t see. I always hear about, well, this person did this and they are no longer working with youth. But I have yet to meet somebody that’s gone through an inappropriate relationship, been restored, and say, “Hey, Brad, I messed up and I don’t want you to make the same mistake.” Usually it’s a “ghost” of their story that comes down the line.

And so, Ashley, your question is a million dollar question. How do you get both small and large churches to really care? You can threaten them, guilt them into doing it, show them the scariest part of the process of the extreme, or you can bring in somebody that says, “I messed up.” And it’s personal–it’s their story.

For more on youth ministry and safety, check out Youth Ministry in a #MeToo Culture and Essential Guide to Youth Ministry Safety.

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