Staying above Reproach
As complicated as life has gotten these days, it’s worth noting that people haven’t changed all that much. Nor have our areas of susceptibility. The trio of trouble is basically the same as it was before: #1—Money, #2—Sex, and #3—Power. And it follows that those of us who stumble will usually do so because we’ve been less than vigilant about these areas. In this issue I’d like to focus on number two.
I do so, aware of the fact that most of you speak about sex and its cousins—dating, love, and marriage—with some frequency. Which means that you’re an expert. Or at least you are in the eyes of the 13-year-old, hormonally imbalanced, love-sick high school students you hang out with. But this article is focused on you, not them. And that means the we’ll skip the 101 and 201 material and jump right to the graduate-level course:
Sex and the Youth Worker.
What? You didn’t know we had our own course? Of course we do. And for good reasons.
1. Our Schedules. Youth workers are at greater risk for sexual improprieties than most. It’s not because we’re better looking than everyone else—I’m going to be painfully honest in this class—but because we’re free to roam the land. In fact, with the exception of Sunday morning and a meeting or two during the week, no one knows where we are or what we’re doing. Few professions provide as much autonomy as ministry does—which means that we have more than enough time to do stupid things.
2. Our Culture. And we also have more than enough opportunities. Gone are the good ol’ days when you had to go looking for trouble. Pornography—in all forms—is now available in the privacy of our own homes. Which means that chances of getting caught trying to buy the stuff—or being seen sneaking into an X-rated movie in the seedy part of town—have dropped. And of course there are other ways to get into sexual trouble and, alas, plenty of people to get in trouble with.
3. Our Students. In addition to movie stars and sports heroes, teachers and youth workers are often the objects of teen fantasy. Confused kids—struggling to make sense out of life—marvel at our ability to open God’s Word and lead the group in worship. They’ve never met someone with such a quick wit and caring demeanor—not to mention a car!
If they’re hungry for attention—and most are—then any special time or care we show them can be eagerly misinterpreted, especially a counseling appointment. (“Tell me what’s bothering you. I want to help. I really care about you. I’ll listen. You’re safe around me. I’m sorry for the pain you’ve experienced. I won’t give up on you.” Et cetera, et cetera.)
Professional therapists have long understood this dynamic, dubbedtransference, and have set up strict codes of conduct governing their relationships with patients. Schools have similar rules forbidding anything other than platonic relationships between students and teachers.
So, unless we are fools, we will realize that the crushes our kids occasionally develop on us do present real opportunities for trouble.
4. Our Naïveté. Finally we must also be aware that hurting and confused people will occasionally set us up to take a fall. During my first few weeks in ministry, I met with a freshman university student who was suing a former high school teacher for sexual misconduct. She claimed that he had seduced her on many occasions, and she came to me looking for support during the trial. During the first meeting I listened and consoled. But during our second session I got very nervous. Based on a few of her comments, I started to suspect that she was lying about the whole thing. And as she went on talking, I realized how easy it would be—indeed how likely it would be—that she would lie again. All it would take for my ministry to be over before it started was for her to say the same things about me that she was saying about her former teacher. I cut our meeting short, referred her to a woman counselor and took some quick steps to safeguard myself from false accusations.
Some Suggestions for Staying above Reproach
There are other factors that put us at risk—not the least of which is our sin nature—but you get the point. As much as anyone else, youth workers need more than a cold shower to safeguard them from sexual trouble. Here are my suggestions. If you want to pass this course, I’d suggest you draft some guidelines of your own today—well before you need them—so you can finish the race without stumbling.
• Get into an accountability/support group. Oceans of ink have been spilled on this topic, so I’ll avoid a general apologetic and get right to my point. You need the company of people other than your spouse who understand your weaknesses and are committed to help keep your actions pure. So assemble a small group of fellow pilgrims for the task. You should meet at least once every couple of weeks, and woven into your time of fellowship and prayer should be these questions:
1. Have you spent adequate time in Bible Study and prayer?
2. Have you given priority time to your spouse and family?
3. Have you exposed yourself to any sexually explicit material?
4. Have you been in any type of compromising situations?
5. Have you lied about any of these questions?
• Consume a healthy mental diet. In the quest for purity, I’ve not found anything as powerful as memorizing Scripture—and Philippians 4:8 is a particularly helpful passage. Additionally, biographies of great men and women who finished well, coupled with the spiritual classics, help build a mindset that is more disgusted than enticed by the sexual mind candy our culture feeds us.
• Understand sexual harassment. Corporate America is awash in lawsuits over sexual harassment, which means that their board rooms are full of training sessions on the topic. It wouldn’t hurt for you to attend one, or at least to read up on the subject. The most appropriate training is that which is given to teachers, because there are a whole set of laws that govern working with minors that most corporate folk are free to ignore. A second option is to sign up for any training your denomination offers on this subject.
• Install clear windows. You should never be alone in a room with anyone, especially a member of the opposite sex—unless others are able see what’s going on inside. In fact, if your office door doesn’t have a window that allows people to glance in, punch a hole in it before your next counseling appointment.
• Defer to your spouse. I once wanted to hire a single mom to work as my assistant. She was clearly the best qualified applicant and was being recommended by others on staff, but when my wife met with her, the warning lights went off. I wasn’t happy to start the search over again, but in retrospect, I realize how important it was to do so. On more than one occasion Sheri has sensed trouble where I haven’t, and over time many of her suspicions have proven true. Your spouse should have veto power over who you work with, where you go, and what you do. It’s also invaluable to allow your mate to talk with members of your accountability group, and vice versa.
• Three’s company. If the only time you can meet someone is after all sane people have called it quits—and let’s face it, many of our meetings take place at night—then don’t meet at the church. Schedule late appointments at a restaurant, the mall, or some other public place. Or schedule one day each week where the church secretary comes in late so he or she can stay until all your appointments are over. The “three’s company” rule also means that you can’t give someone of the opposite sex a ride—which, at times, will be a major inconvenience—unless others are in the car.
• Travel with a friend. It’s not by accident that most major airports are surrounded by strip clubs and adult shops. Men—sorry guys, but this is more our problem—on the road take advantage of their anonymity to do things they would never risk closer to home. So, the ideal solution is to travel with your spouse or a friend. If that option isn’t possible, take extra precautions. I ask those in my accountability circle to specifically ask me every hard question they can after I return from a trip, and I call them to tell them when I’m leaving, so I am certain to get grilled on my return.
• Avoid people who make you uncomfortable. Years ago I read a study that suggested the typical person falls in love seven times before they get married—and another seven times after. While I disagree with this definition of “love,” I do believe that from time to time we’re likely to meet people other than our spouses who we find quite attractive. When this happens, we need to avoid spending time with them. If they call and try to initiate a counseling session, simply report that your schedule is quite full—which is never a lie—and suggest they meet with someone else. If you have an assistant who sets your appointments, casually mention that you would rather not meet with this person, and ask that this person’s counseling requests get rerouted elsewhere.
In case I’m not being clear, let me be more direct: Should you find yourself attracted to someone under your care, flee. Your devious mind will willingly and ably rationalize its way around any number of checks and balances, so you simply must avoid the temptation. Like Joseph escaping the clutches of Potiphar’s wife, flee.
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.