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, Youth Ministry in a #MeToo Culture clinical psychologist Lauren Widman Eggerth 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.
In a youth ministry setting, the relational awareness absolutely falls on the youth leaders and pastors. Teenagers aren't fully developed emotionally or cognitively; they don't have the self-awareness they need to always make good decisions.
In the field of psychology, if there is a feeling of attraction, no matter how small, you don't ignore it. You seek consultation, talk to someone you trust and respect who can give you an objective reflection. They really fight the culture of shame that is still very present in the church.
What are some signs of possible attraction?
Some signs that might alert you that you have a higher potential of risk of acting on attraction to someone who is in your pastoral care are as follows:
1. Thinking about your student outside of ministry time.
2. If you're grooming more or wearing a different outfit because you maybe want them to think you are special, you're trying to impress them with your clothing.
3. Looking forward to times with particular students more than other students.
4. Hoping that you see your student out in the public, at the local grocery store, and so on. Hoping you'll have an excuse to engage with him or her more personally.
5. Having trouble concentrating in small group or ministry time because you're thinking about having contact with them outside of this setting.
6. Trying to elicit more information out of curiosity rather than because it pertains to ministry efforts or spiritual development.
(See more from Koocher &Keith-Spiegel (2008), Ethics in Psychology and the Mental Health Professions.)
If you do have an attraction to a student, don't ignore it. Seek consultation, talk to a supervisor. In therapy, most people do that and never act on the physical or sexual attraction to a client.
In therapy, if you speak to your supervisor about feeling attracted to a client, what happens?
Well, all of that self-awareness and self-analysis is brought into supervision. One of the greatest risks in instances of abuse in a therapeutic relationship, or in a ministry relationship, is when someone is very isolated professionally—they don't have supervisors, pastors, or colleagues they can trust and talk to. This puts them in a place where they can't seek supervision and have someone hold them accountable for their actions.
The same goes for burnout. If a pastor or a mental health professional has no one to go to, and they have high demand roles and are being depleted, that's when it gets risky. That's when they might to start leaning on the people they're working with in a counseling setting to get some sort of emotional closeness. The same goes for youth pastors and leaders.
Catching these signs that can be harmless is so necessary—early awareness is the best thing. Saying that you've been thinking about your student outside of ministry times once or twice—that needs to be then brought to your supervisor. And it might turn out to be nothing. It might be something where you're just more worried about their safety or a situation they're facing. So it could be totally harmless. But you want to process that in supervision. In the mental health field, the nature of supervision is to process these relationships under therapeutic supervision, which is something I don't think pastors probably have. They need to have people they can speak to, safely, about the relationships they're working in every single day.
No matter what the feeling is—what if you're feeling angry about your student? What if you don't like your student? That should be brought into supervision. It's okay to have your own stuff that you bring into a relationship.
In pastoral care, it probably seems more okay to tell another pastor or supervisor that you don't like a certain student. That feeling is accepted. But it might feel incredibly awkward to say that you like a student more than you should. There's a real discomfort in the church about some of those feelings, whereas a lot of those feelings are normal—especially if you have a 24-year-old youth pastor hanging out with 17-year-olds. The nature of training in psychology is that there shouldn't be shame placed on feelings. Instead, you should be given an outlet for processing those feelings, and then putting up boundaries that are for the best interest of the client or student.
What is the next step for pastors in this situation?
In youth ministry, you would need to talk about your feelings toward your student with either your supervisor or another pastor. And then you would, in that reporting structure, process through what you need to do next.
If these feelings or signs aren't caught early, this can mean termination of a mentorship.
Where do you draw the line? When does a pastor or volunteer need to be removed from ministry?
Part of the meeting process with your supervisor or reporting pastor is to decide what should happen next. In therapy, it's part of the consultation process. You decide together how strong these feelings are. Does it have to do with an actual sexual feeling of attraction? Or does it have to do with the ministry process? Are you feeling overly close with a student because you've been working with them really intensely?
Those questions need to be taken into account. If you've already seen this student outside of a ministry setting, that's a sign that you've started to go too far. Have you been making excess contact with that student? Then you need to remove yourself, hopefully in a temporary manner, and the church needs to work with you to figure out if these are issues that need to be dealt with so you can return to ministry, or if you need to step away from ministry on a more permanent level.
That's when the supervisor should say, "It's not in the students' best interests for you to continue to pastor them, because you've now started to serve your own needs and wants. You've reached out to a student in ways that are inappropriate and boundary-crossing."
What I'm saying is, when it starts to become about the pastor and not about the student, that's when a problem develops. In really good cases, those feelings are caught early, talked about in supervision, and then boundaries are specifically set in place and accountability is held, so that the pastor continues a good ministry relationship. That's the goal.
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