Having Safe One-on-One Conversations about Sexuality
Maybe you have a burden to say something to your students about their sexual struggles. But you’ve heard horrifying reports of student ministers sexually abusing kids and the resulting lawsuits, so you feel as if you’re caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. But you must speak with your students about sexuality, and often that means having safe one-on-one conversations. So how exactly do you do this?
The following tips can aid you in having safe and accountable conversations.
You need to have someone holding you accountable. This is foundational to having safe one-on-one conversations with students about sexual issues. You need to ask yourself, Who knows me and my sin struggles? Who am I regularly talking with about my own issues? How honest am I being with those in my own life? If you supervise youth staff or volunteers, it’s also a good idea to make sure your workers are in this sort of relationship with someone else. Before you seek to be a safe place for students, you must begin by being honest and vulnerable yourself.
2) Same-Gender Meetings
In the context of one-on-one discipling, it’s important that youth workers only meet with students of the same gender. Of course, even in same-gender meetings there’s a risk of sexual sin but this is where accountability structure becomes important. Same-gender meetings protect the majority of students and student ministers from any inappropriate conduct.
3) Go Public
Student ministry should be a fishbowl—visible from every angle. Meeting alone with a student in a room without a window is never a good idea. Never. Neither is meeting with students alone at their houses. Don’t do it. Public places can be everyone’s best friend. A student might be somewhat intimidated to meet with you in the first place, and a public environment can dispel a little of that pressure. And in a public environment, what you do is in plain view of everyone else. This is a fantastic accountability tool.
A church office can be fine, but it can also heighten the intensity of your meeting. If you do decide to meet with a student in a church office, make sure you meet with them during times of heavy traffic in the building rather than after closing time. And your office must have a window.
Accountability on your end is a must. Your supervisors should know that you’re going to have—or have just had—a conversation with a student about sexual matters. This doesn’t mean your bosses need to know the extreme details of the conversation, but it’s important for you to be transparent with those in authority over you. This guards you from having secrets in your ministry to students, and it also keeps your supervisors pastorally informed and aware.
When you have a one-on-one conversation with a student, it’s vital that his or her parents have given permission for the conversation to take place and that they know where their child will be during this conversation.
At times you must bring parents into the loop. I say “at times,” because it’s not always prudent to bring parents in on the matter right away—Johnny’s occasional lust life is hardly something to divulge to parents.
Urging students to confess to others is a great way to shepherd them. It will help the student grow if he or she is able to tell at least one parent of his or her struggles. For students, honesty with parents can be a beautiful training ground for life, since one way the Spirit grows and strengthens us is as we’re open with one another.
It’s important to never promise a student complete confidentiality—you simply can’t offer it, nor should you. You’re trying to wrestle students from their fear of being known into the security Christ brings, which means beginning by saying such things as, “I know a lot of what we’re talking about today is embarrassing. And I know you don’t want a lot of people to know. I promise we’ll bring in only those people who need to know—possibly your parents. But, friend, Christ has secured you. You’re safe in him.”
One obvious exception to confidentiality is in the circumstance of sexual abuse. If you perceive that a student has suffered sexual abuse (any inappropriate actions from an adult, any unwanted actions from a peer, etc.), then you have a duty to immediately notify your supervisors for the safety of your student. In order to do this, you must know your state laws and church policies regarding the reporting of sexual abuse. This is absolutely crucial.
If a student is participating in sexual acts with another student, such as sexual intercourse or sexting, you also need to bring parents into the loop pretty quickly, as these situations involve multiple lives and families.
Again, in situations like these, encourage students to bring their parents into the loop themselves. Give them a timeline. And if the student hasn’t told their parents by the end of the timeline, pick up the phone. It’s important to let students know who you will tell and when that will take place.
You will often need to have one-on-one conversations with students who are struggling sexually. And in this fallen world, you’ve got to be smart and safe. Hopefully, these principles will aid you in being an effective discipler of God’s children as you swim around in the fishbowl of student ministry.
Cooper Pinson is on staff with Harvest USA’s THE STUDENT OUTREACH and has served in various capacities in youth ministry, having most recently served as Junior High Director at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL before heading north to study at Westminster Theological Seminary. He and his wife have one, beautiful daughter. Check out more from The Student Outreach at WWW.THESTUDENTOUTREACH.ORG; @GospelSexuality.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.