Last week, Leadership Journal magazine posted an article penned by a youth pastor who groomed, then sexually abused a girl in his youth group. He is now in prison for his crimes. The anonymous article was saturated with a self-pitying tone, some horrifying reframing of his sin (statutory rape is not an “affair”), and a stunning lack of concern for the young woman upon whom he preyed. It took a couple of very intense days of social media activity by those infuriated by the platform given to a semi-repentant sexual predator before the editors acknowledged that a few edits could not redeem this terrible piece. They removed it from the site late Friday afternoon. Mary DeMuth wrote a helpful summary of the situation here if you’d like to read more about it.
The story led me to do a little reflection about the collateral damage caused by a youth leader’s sexual sin. I’m thinking here about those who were not directly affected by the actions of a predatory leader: the rank-and-file youth group kids.
In my forty years of being a part of the big “C” church, sexual sin by leaders has pot-holed my journey:
- A lead pastor with a porn addiction eventually had an affair with a congregant.
- A twenty-something youth leader on the fast track to the paid position of youth pastor in our church had a “friends with benefits” relationship with another young woman who was over 18 – and was secretly dating one of the youth group girls at the same time.
- A youth pastor at a nearby megachurch had sexually abused a number of young men in his charge over a period of several years. When his sin was about to be exposed, he killed himself. We had the parent of one of the young men this predator had abused in our small group in the year immediately following the suicide.
- Another youth pastor had a history of forming sexually-charged, boundary-crossing unhealthy relationships with adult and youth group kids alike. He stayed justthisside of physical affairs, but left a trail of chaos and confusion in his wake.
- I mentored a young woman who had been sexually abused by her cousin, a youth pastor.
My husband was in church leadership at two of the congregations where some of these events unfolded. He was involved as an advocate for a survivor at a third. Those little bullet-points on the list above have taken an inordinate amount of our time and emotional and spiritual energy through the years. Either we have a stunning knack for choosing especially messed-up churches or this is happening in too many congregations. Debate about the former can wait for another day. The latter, however, is ugly reality.
In the midst of dealing with the exposure (usually in the form of denial, denial, denial, victim-blaming, and more denial on behalf of the two-faced youth pastor), the focus stays on the parties directly involved. Additional effort goes toward messaging about the situation for the congregation and, in some cases, meeting with with legal authorities. In the case of a youth pastor’s moral failure, a flurry of meetings about the situation with the teens and their parents are scheduled once the leader has been removed. The goal is to “normalize” things as quickly as possible.
The question no one asks is: Normalize to what? The way things used to be before the sin of the youth pastor was exposed?
Things weren’t ever “normal”. In each of the four cases of a youth pastor’s sexual sin with which I’ve been personally involved, the dynamics of the group were warped by the youth pastor’s secret life. In two cases, the teens in the group long suspected there was something going on between their fearless leader and one of the kids because of flirting, favoritism, inside jokes and moments of inappropriate physical connection between the pair. In the other cases, the youth pastor was working so hard to keep his other life under cover that he tended to be reactively hard-line in the way in which he talked about sex and behavioral rules.
Some youth group kids don’t seem to be affected much by this stuff. They show up to see their friends and glean a few truths about God in the process. The behavior of the adults in charge doesn’t matter much to them. Other kids may suffer with some disillusionment as a leader they’d idealized as a model version of a Christian turns out to be an idol with feet of clay. Or they’re confused. The main course in terms of teaching in many youth groups is about developing healthy relationships with a side of sexual purity (or visa versa). That focus can give some kids the impression that this is the main thing God cares about. Having a leader fall in this area sends the message that the whole faith thing is a hypocrite’s game. Still others struggle with their outsider status in the group, because the weird sexually-charged dynamic between the leader and his prey injected an additional layer of insider/outsider vibe on top of the usual peer group pecking order of teens. Could God want them when his representatives have cool kid favorites?
I’d like to suggest that the urge to get back to normal as soon as possible, while understandable, may not be spiritually healthy in the long term. The leader’s sin warped the atmosphere and relationships among all in the youth group for a long, long time before his sin was exposed. Our experience has taught us that doing some hard-core excavation backwards through time in order to discern how the character of God was misrepresented through the leader’s teaching is a necessary part of pastoral care for the teens in the group – and few leaders have the emotional energy to deal with it after dealing with the mess of a leader’s exposure. Correction and redirection without overreaction to the leader’s sin can help re-form a healthy image of God in the group. We’ve also discovered that prayer for all the kids who’ve been in a youth group led by a leader involved in sexual sin needs to last for a long time; much longer than the water park outings and short-term mission trips “return to normal” would suggest. A warped leader’s sin makes a giant millstone an honorary member of an entire group of people – a youth group, a church.
“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.'” (Luke 17:1-3)
Have you or your kids been affected by a youth pastor’s sexual sin? What prayers or practices were most helpful to address the confusion and hurt among the kids in the group?
If you are a survivor of clergy abuse, your story matters. There is help, healing and and possibly a measure of delayed human justice available for you. One organization that has served as a clearinghouse and connecting point for survivors is the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. Their resources reach far beyond the clergy abuse that has occurred within the Catholic Church. Another organization focusing on abuses within the Evangelical world is GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse within the Christian Environment).