Over the past few weeks, Southern Baptists across the country are grieved over the findings in the Houston Chronicle investigation of sexual abuse in our local churches. I joined in the lament in an even more personal way as the third and final part of their series uncovered the role youth pastors play in this evil epidemic.
The article states, “More than 100 Southern Baptists described as former youth pastors or youth ministers are now in prison, are registered as sex offenders or have been charged with sex crimes.”
Student ministry should be a safe haven for students in a dark world. But in some churches, the student ministry is a prime place for predators to groom and abuse their victims. As I read the article, I was struck by some unique dynamics in youth ministry that don’t exist in other ministry areas. I believe these unique traits make student ministry more vulnerable to sexual predators. These dynamics were highlighted by the Houston Chronicle’s investigative work, and I can personally attest to their validity from my own experience in youth ministry.
Let me highlight three traits of student ministry that make it particularly susceptible to sexual abuse:
1. Youth Pastors tend to have lower qualifications.
The bar for someone to attain a job as a youth pastor is generally lower than other ministry positions. Most churches want to hire someone younger to relate to their students, which comes with less experience, less maturity, and less education. Because the qualifications are generally lower, many of those who desire to serve in ministry begin as student pastors, even if they ultimately feel called to other areas of service.
Being less qualified does not render someone incapable of excelling in student ministry and walking in integrity, but it does create a lower wall for predators to climb over if they want access to victims.
I believe the church is also guilty of overemphasizing the wrong qualifications. In the Houston Chronicle article, one of the youth pastor sex offenders they detail is described as “charismatic” and “popular.” Sadly, some churches select their youth pastors with these qualifications at the top of the list. They want someone who will be highly relational, relevant, hip, and extroverted.
The problem isn’t with these qualities themselves. They are not necessarily signs of a potential abuser. But when we prize these traits over ones such as godliness and personal integrity, we set ourselves up for a potential failed ministry. The marks of a good youth pastor are not how he looks in a flat bill or how far he can throw a frisbee. What’s needed is men who walk in personal holiness, who have and are seeking knowledge of scripture, and who have a history of evangelism and discipleship. Until they exhibit these traits in their daily lives, they have no business leading students, no matter how cool they might dress.
2. Youth Pastors tend to have less accountability.
“When are you going to be a real pastor?” Every youth pastor has been asked this question at some point in their ministry. It’s usually a funny moment, but it signifies what many believe about student pastors. They are less-than, not on the same plane as other ministers in the church.
When people in the church don’t view the youth pastor as a “real pastor,” they won’t hold them to the same standards as other ministers. They might be more prone to ignore warning signs or explain away poor choices as, “Well he’s just the student guy.” His immaturity might be glossed over as inexperience or even an attempt to be relevant.
The Houston Chronicle article discusses a prominent SBC church that fired their youth pastor after dishonesty, abuse of a work cellphone, and sexual promiscuity with an adult girlfriend. But as he applied for another church in the same state, his firing church gave him a great reference and said nothing of his lack of integrity. He later was convicted of sexual abuse charges from his time at both churches.
Every leader needs accountability, including youth pastors. Yes, young pastors with little experience and training are going to make mistakes. But a moral failure of sexual nature is not a mistake; it’s a disqualification from ministry. Accountability protects pastors, and in the case of sexual abuse, it, more importantly, protects potential victims.
3. Youth ministry tends to have less boundaries.
The Houston Chronicle article pointed out the ways that these convicted youth pastors targeted and groomed their victims. They began with a simple text message, a social media interaction, or a ride home from a church event. These typical youth pastor-to-student interactions were gateways to abuse.
Things that might seem odd for other adults is acceptable in youth ministry culture. Parents and other adults might explain away a youth pastor or volunteer’s flirtatious behavior as part of the ministry. They might not question their desire to meet with a student one-on-one for counseling. They might even applaud their compassion to help a troubled teen.
I once talked to a student who was molested by his pastor while staying the night in his home. Sadly, predators have been granted unthinkable access to young people simply because of their title in the church.
Since youth pastors work with middle school and high school students, the need for clearly defined boundaries is vital. Student pastors and volunteers need to know exactly what is and is not acceptable when it comes to private communication, social media engagement, and counseling situations. All those who serve with kids need to be made aware of the grooming behaviors of predators. With clearly defined boundaries in place, it becomes much harder for abuse to happen and may even scare away abusers from the ministry altogether.
Churches hire youth pastors because they want to reach and disciple the next generation. This is a good and right desire. But we must also desire to do whatever it takes to protect the vulnerable among us. It’s time to raise the bar in student ministry.