Twenty years ago, I was volunteering in a local church’s youth ministry. I got a call from one of our church staff telling me that our youth pastor was fired for misconduct with a student. I was absolutely floored. That youth minister was a close friend. We’d stayed up late and watched movies together. We’d bought ghost pepper chili salsa and wept as we ate it together. We’d done summer camp together and rejoiced as kids got saved. As close as we were, I didn’t even catch a whiff of an inappropriate relationship with the student in question. I felt confused and angry … But – more importantly – I just felt duped.
Regrettably, I’ve seen this youth ministry scenario cycle on repeat like the most horrifying and nausea inducing Phineas and Ferb episode ever: Young youth minister meets cute teenage girl … Said youth minister starts meeting with that student in private locales … The minister puts her in an awkward position and asks her to keep their embarrassing secret … Suddenly the secret gets discovered. It’s literally the story of a young student minister I knew in the last town where I served (at a non-SBC church). It’s the regrettable proof that Ecclesiastes is true: There really is nothing new under the sun.
So when I read the recent Houston Chronicle article about sexual abuse in SBC student ministries, I was tremendously grieved but not totally surprised. If you hang around church circles enough, you’ll find that virtually every experienced pastor has a story of a fallen pastor … Often one that they trusted. As a family pastor and former student minister, I believe that many of our churches have unwittingly created a culture of student ministry that practically invites the types of temptations that lead to sexual abuse. Expeditiously, we’ve got to rethink our kids and student ministries to make them safe places for our kids.
Here’s the first key issue: Many churches ask student ministers to engage in job duties that are virtually indistinguishable from “grooming” for sexual abuse. “Grooming” is the process that sexual abusers use to identify potential sexual abusers, earn their trust and break down their defenses. Once trust is established with a child, the abuser will initiate some form of sexual contact that the young person finds embarrassing, and the abuser will ask the young person to keep that activity secret. This sexual contact can range from voyeurism to sexting to oral sex to rape. Once secrecy is established, the abuser will hamstring the young person’s conscience with embarrassment and shame, which enables the abuser to commit more atrocities.
Today’s popular model of “relational” youth ministry unintentionally mimics grooming, and often enables abusers hiding in plain sight amidst the ranks of our student ministers. In an effort to stem the loss of young people from the pews on Sunday, our church search teams often hire a minister that can identify with our kids’ issues and fit right into our children’s culture. This “relational” youth ministry paradigm believes that our student ministries need to earn the right to share the Gospel with teenagers by entering into their world and becoming their friends. It’s the model of ministry popularized by Young Life and other para-church movements. So our churches ask our student ministers to attend football games, to go to swim meets, to play Fortnite with teens, to have private text conversations and to have one-on-one interactions with our kids. As these ministers build bonds with students, they theoretically have an open door to share their faith.
One commonality of the third part of Houston Chronicle article (on student ministry) is that the abusers used “relational” youth ministry as the dynamic to perpetrate abuse. Pool parties and private meetings become opportunities for oral sex and sexting. “Popularity” became an open door for preying on teens. We want to believe that a married, godly minister wouldn’t send nude pictures over Snapchat or masturbate in front of our kids on Facetime. We want to believe that a mature Christian wouldn’t use an Overwatch game as a proposition for oral sex. But the problem is it happens … Probably more than we think. Folks, I have met a convicted ex-student minister that used video game sessions at his house as the medium to molest children. This crap is real, and it’s time to wake up. We’re unwittingly giving abusers too much unfettered access to our children.
Churches who ask student ministers to spend one-on-one time alone with our kids in secluded places is simply a bad idea, because it invites situations that lead to sexual temptation and outright abuse. We’ve got to stop asking our adult pastors to hang out in their private time with sixteen year old girls. At minimum, we’re placing both ministers and students in positions of temptation, and shame on our churches for doing that. Our churches need to have policies in place that protect our ministers as they serve our students, and we need to enforce these rules well. Stop private meetings with students … Stop giving students rides home … Stop using disappearing content on social media (i.e. Snapchat) … Stop individually texting students and use group messaging apps instead (i.e. Remind) … Get more parents involved in ministry … Eliminate events without mature, adult chaperones … Demand your ministers have oversight and accountability. You know, we can disciple our students without potentially compromising our integrity.
And if you’re a young youth minister and your church is asking you to do ANYTHING that could be either compromising or misconstrued as abuse, run away from that church as fast as you can. RUN. Do what the Bible says and flee from temptation. Your long-term impact for the kingdom of God is more important than your service at that church.
There’s a second dynamic at hand in our student ministries that invites abuse: Our churches generally don’t invest well in student ministry (or children’s ministry). The proof is in the pay grade for ministers that work with kids. A 2015 Group Magazine study found that the average student ministry salary was $32,300, which is a number that was actually less than their 2007 study. The most recent Lifeway compensation study shows that full-time youth and children’s ministers are generally the lowest paid of full-time church staff – behind executive pastors, sports / recreation pastors, worship pastors, missions pastors, senior adult pastors and even those nerdy media guys. (How do our kids ministers get paid less than the rec guy?!?) And if youth ministers are doing two jobs at once (i.e. youth / (something else) minister is your job title) then our churches actually pay less for that position!
It begs the question: Why are we paying the folks that work with our kids less? I would hesitate to give a sweeping, overgeneralized answer to that question, because there’s a variety of answers out there. Some churches treat youth ministry as “stepping stone” ministry, where working with students is considered a “starter job” for future pastors. The expectation is that student ministry leaders will one day “grow up,” and will finally have real skills to pastor real adults now that they’ve finished experimenting on the kids. There’s not a ton of statistical evidence out there regarding the age of student ministers, but I can tell you antidotally that you don’t see many 29 year old education ministers or executive pastors out there. Other churches are hiring younger people with less experience, so they generally garner less pay based on lack of experience. Still other churches treat youth and kids ministry as a virtual playtime replete with messy games and skiing outings, so it’s considered a less important ministry than “actual teaching ministries.” There’s different dynamics in different churches, but the result is the same: Children’s and youth ministry generally pay poorly.
In light of the Houston Chronicle article, our churches must start to focus on hiring well-experienced, well-qualified workers, and we should be compensating them accordingly. When our churches don’t pay well, we attract a pool of workers with scant actual experience being responsible for an entire ministry to actual children. And based on the pay level, we’re not attracting ministers willing to stick it out over the long haul. I mean: Why put up with the non-stop drama and unrealistic expectations that come with student ministry service if you’re getting paid the lowest of any of our ministerial staff?!? I know there’s the statistic floating around the internet that the average student minister only lasts 18 months. While I’m extremely wary of that statistic, I would hesitate to guess that it’s not far from the truth.
Please understand me here: The key issue is experience and not age. In part 3 of the Houston Chronicle series, Chad Foster, the serial abuser at Houston’s 2nd Baptist Church (who was hired at age 30), is quoted: “When I took the (youth ministry) job, I didn’t know anything about it.” Folks, that should be an absolutely frightening statement. Why would any church hire someone without any experience or notable track record and put them in charge of an entire ministry to children? Yet our churches do it all the time. (And – yes – our junior and high school students are still children.) We’d absolutely string up any secular organization, such as a daycare or private school, for having inexperienced and unqualified staff working with our kids, but we manage to give our church ministries a pass. Make no mistake: Inexperience is not a desirable job qualification for working with children.
Of course, I do understand that experienced children’s and youth ministers do sexually sin, so I’m not recommending a silver bullet here. But we’ve also got to understand that hiring a question mark of a person and letting them “wing it” in ministry is not really a sound ministry strategy either.
I think the big idea here is that our churches cannot treat children’s or student ministry as a lesser ministry. Ministry to children is not about crafts, messy game nights and summer camps. It’s about the Gospel. And the Gospel story shared on a Wednesday night in a kids classroom at church is as vitally important to the life of the church as the Sunday sermon. Our discipleship opportunities with students are just as important as the Wednesday night prayer meeting. We’re all sharing the same Christ story to sinful people who need the Gospel … The hearers just have slightly different ages. And the Gospel is important because it alone brings life to dead people. And if the Gospel truly is important, then our student and kids ministries demand excellence. 1 Corinthians 10:31 should be mantra of all of our ministries. Let’s set high expectations for our ministries to children and hold our ministers who work with children to higher standards.