Ending Shame Based Youth Ministry

  Don't get me wrong. I am for protecting students. For background checks, for policies where students are not left alone with an adult behind closed doors, for procedures protecting students and adult leaders. I absolutely believe in them. I have worked at churches who believe in them because they care about students. I like churches who take safety seriously.... as should we. Yet there is a downside. A slippery slope into shame and the damage of the very girls we seek to protect. Something I've been thinking about for a long while. 

     I am posing a question...something to consider. Are there girls who may be damaged by supervision policies? Have we perhaps, on occasion, made Jesus loving men who love spending time with their brothers and sisters in Christ feel like bad guys? Are we too quick to correct a male volunteer leader because a girl came up and hugged him? Are we perpetuated by fear into reprimanding men for doing ministry when they don't keep women at arms length? Maybe afraid to see them really love like Jesus....because someone else at sometime did something stupid, so we are afraid all of the time? Thinking the worst of everyone.

     I am not sure if Jesus would even be allowed to serve in student ministry. After all, he had dinner with women while engaging in deep conversation (Mary and Martha-Luke 10:38-42), laid his hands on children to pray for them (Luke 18:15), accepted gifts from women (Mark 14:3-6) and allowed a woman to rub her hair on his feet (John 12:3). Nope, I am pretty sure Jesus wouldn't make the cut in a lot of youth ministries these days. Maybe not even in mine. Why? Because he treated women like worthy, valuable, and respected sisters. He didn't refuse to speak to them. He didn't deny gifts from them. He didn't avoid eating with them. He didn't dress code them. I bet he even hugged them. Jesus didn't shame girls, so why do we? Are we leading in love or fear?

     I was hanging out with a student recently. I do that a lot. She was telling me about all the rules her youth pastor had recently implemented with the guy youth leaders on staff. Rules we all probably enforce as youth workers. What I had not really thought about until recently, is how the rules make girls feel. How the girls in our youth ministries feel like they aren't good enough. How they feel unloved and shamed because their gender sets them apart. Teen girls are already struggling with identity and self esteem issues with their changing bodies. I don't think our "rules" are helping them as much as we think. Maybe even damaging them.

     Should youth workers engage in what feels (to the girls) like misogynistic control over the normal and healthy behavior of teenage girls? Should we rethink how we are impacting the mental, social, and spiritual development of the very girls we all seek to protect? I know I am. Case in point...last night a high school girl ran up and hugged (for a very long time) one of our young and single male volunteers. Everything in me wanted to say..."hey leave room for the Holy Spirit" but when did a hug turn into misconduct? I am still trying to figure this one out too my friends. It was a long hug.

     Many girls in our youth ministries suffer from low self esteem, eating disorders, and engage in other damaging behaviors like cutting and sexual promiscuity. I worry if the Christian men in their life fail to treat them with dignity, respect, and continue to perpetuate an atmosphere of shame...are we sending them deeper into the lies they already believe about themselves? Are we "protecting" them? Really? When you are treated in an unworthy manner, you begin to view yourself that way. If I was 14 and my guy youth leaders constantly avoided hugs, refused to engage in conversation with me, would never sit next to me, and continually ignored me, I am quite certain I would have stopped coming to youth group all together. I would have felt humiliated. Like something was wrong with me. I wasn't good enough.

Something to think about...

"We cannot be a community of people who learn to love God and love others when it comes on the condition that one half of the community is a threat to the whole."
-Emily Maynard (check out her blog. She is amazing!)

     Exactly what I was thinking! I keep wondering how healthy our ministries really are to teen girls. Especially when more than one youth group girl has come to me with tears streaming down her face after being told not to hug a guy leader or forced to stop talking to one. We all have our reasons, our training, and expectations put on us by parents and church staff, but it's time to rethink supervision policies.

What if rules were given to youth staff such as...

"Don't engage in conversation with a different race. Don't sit by someone on the bus with darker skin than yours. Don't hug anyone with a disability. Don't sit in church next to people of a different socio-economic background. Don't accept gifts from the poor."

Can you imagine the uproar? The lawsuits? The protests? Civil rights movement anyone? So why is it ok to single out the girls in our ministries and treat them as less than human? Guilty. I know I have not done this well either. I am starting to think we've been wrong. I've been wrong. Genuinely wondering if we create more damage than the supposed "protection" these shame based rules are for. DO we make rules based on fear? Do we believe the worst in everyone?

Question: How can we create safe places for students, for leaders, while not promoting a shame based youth ministry? Ideas anyone?

"If we want to cultivate more courage, joy, and love in our lives, we have to understand how and why shame keeps us afraid and small." - Brene Brown

A few scriptures come to mind:

James 3:17

New Living Translation (NLT)
17 But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.

Galatians 3:28

New Living Translation (NLT)
28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile,[a] slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.

It's time to rethink shame and fear based supervision policies. What do you think? For more on this topic see HERE  and HERE


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