“What hurt the most,” he said thoughtfully as he ran his fingers through his hair, “was that I told my parents what happened and they didn’t do anything. They actually got mad at me because it might cause trouble at school. They didn’t really believe me.”
“I believed you.” I leaned forward in my desk chair after a moment of silence, “I just couldn’t get you to open up about it.”
“Do you know exactly what happened?” he asked. The event in question occurred long ago, an almost-forgotten memory from his younger years.
“I could guess. Your friend did something sexually to you – not enough that you could press charges, but enough to ruin your friendship. You wouldn’t give me any details, though. I remember you said your parents knew about it, and so there wasn’t much else I could do without more details.”
He nodded his head thoughtfully. “You know, at the time I wouldn’t have said it was that big of a deal…but it probably was.” He said it in a matter-of-fact sort of way, the pain of the incident restored by time, processing, and the healing grace of God.
While this student has moved forward, those days remain fresh in my memory. I vividly recall feeling both anger and helplessness, a desire to fix what was causing this student pain, and yet knowing there wasn’t much I could really do due to the gray nature of (what I could piece together) had occurred.
It is important, as youth leaders, that we clearly distinguish between black-and-white issues of criminality (abuse, assault, rape, etc.) and gray areas where there is no criminality, and yet grave wrong has occurred. I encourage you to read up on your specific state’s laws on mandated reporting and consent. If there is any criminality or abuse, it must be reported to the authorities immediately. There are no ifs, ands, or buts on this. The legal steps of action are clear; follow them.
So what do I mean by a “gray area” issue? Let me be clear that I do not mean to imply that these incidents aren’t deeply traumatic and formative for those involved. A gray area issue falls out of the category of mandated reporting and consent. It involves students dealing with the consequences of their own actions, the actions of others, and how those two intersect (particularly in the area of sexuality). For instance: A guy is on a date with a girl and he pressures her to “help him out” before he drives her home. She consents, but never intended to go that far. A girl wakes up at a sleepover to her best friend’s hands where they shouldn’t be, but isn’t sure it wasn’t an accident. A make-out-session seems like something more when stories and rumors are spread publicly.
Lines are crossed, willingly and unwillingly, and there is crossover and confusion between consent and violation, sin and victimhood. These sorts of traumatic incidents are, thankfully, rarer than the normal teen rebellion, but I believe they require a great deal of wisdom.
Navigating Gray Areas
As leaders of young people, how do we respond when we hear stories like these?
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for real life, gray area situations. It is important that we find older and wiser ministers, mentors, and (if the situation warrants it) a licensed therapist or counselor to guide us through these situations. Do not underestimate the value of godly counsel that can be of critical assistance in helping us navigate difficult waters. While there is no replacement for sound, personal and professional advice, I believe there are basic helpful guidelines for us in ministry.
1.Get the parents involved. As youth ministers, we have an incredible position of trust with students, and often they do tell us things they wouldn’t be as inclined to tell their parents. The temptation is to hold on to that privilege. Let me be clear: it is not your place to hide something of this magnitude from a parent. Ephesians 6:4 tells us that caring for a teenager is the primary responsibility of their parents, not you.
It is my personal philosophy to always encourage my students to tell their parents directly, instead of agreeing to do it myself. The reasons are two-fold: first, it gives the student ownership over his/her story. I want them to be able to process through and own what happened, including either the choices they made or the choices of others that were inflicted upon them. Taking that responsibility away from them doesn’t develop the strength and courage necessary to live an honest life. Second, I always want to encourage my students to have strong relationships with their parents, and using me as an intermediary doesn’t build intimacy there, it just adds another barrier.
Sometimes students are unable or unwilling to talk to their parents alone. I always first try to see if we can come up with solutions (writing a letter they’ll read to their parents, or practicing what to say) that can still enable them to do it on their own. If that doesn’t work, I will go with the student to talk to their parents.
At the end of the day, if you need to get the student help and they refuse, talk to the parents yourself. There is no excuse for a parent to be surprised years down the road by a painful or traumatic event you knew about and didn’t tell them.
2. Students need to know that you (and the Lord) hear them, see them, and it is okay to feel victimized. Often because of confusion, hormones, and a desire to forget the incident altogether, students will minimize how much they are hurting. Psalm 12:5 shows us how God’s heart is for the oppressed and the abused, how He longs to bring rescue, healing, and safety. In this moment of pain and confusion, our students need to know that God is very present. Psalm 22:24 says, “For he has not ignored or belittled the suffering of the needy. He has not turned his back on them, but has listened to their cries for help.”
Simply telling a student what happened to them was wrong, that it was not okay, and you are sorry they were sinned against, is incredibly healing for them. Never underestimate the power of weeping with those who weep.
3. Perhaps most importantly, it is essential you take students to Jesus. In gray area situations, where students may both have been sinned against and perhaps also actively sinned themselves, it is important they see their role clearly. As human beings, we often want to see ourselves as either the sinner or the victim.
In Genesis 3 we see the story of Eve taking of the fruit of the tree and eating it, bringing sin and death into the world. She clearly sinned of her own volition, and it was her responsibility and action that brought this destruction. But she wasn’t alone in her action. Right alongside of her was the serpent, whispering lies and deceiving her. She was deceived, and she chose to eat. She wasn’t simply a victim, but she wasn’t simply a sinner either. She was both.
Here’s the good news. When John 1 speaks of Jesus coming in the flesh, it describes Him as one who is full of grace and truth. He is full of grace and truth because we need both. Jesus brings grace for the sinner and truth for the victim.¹ On the cross, Jesus made it possible for our shame, of both sin and victimhood, to be fully wiped away. He knows what it is like to be oppressed and victimized, to be lied about and deceived (Luke 22:48). And while Jesus had no sin in Himself, He took the weight of all our wrong choices and rebellion and bore it on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21). Now those who are in Christ have grace in the form of no condemnation (Romans 8:1). We are clothed in His perfect righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30).
The encouragement for you today as a youth minister is the same – you are both a sinner and a victim, and yet you are loved and atoned for. You are not alone in facing the challenging gray areas in the lives of your students. The Holy Spirit is willing and able to lead and guide you as you seek to lead, guide, and love your students. Whether you’re in the midst of a situation like those above, or the Lord is simply preparing you for the future, my prayer is for you to fix your eyes on Jesus in the midst of the mess. Because of Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death, and sin-crushing resurrection, we can offer real hope to our students in the midst of the confusing and messy gray areas of their stories – and by God’s grace, see them experience healing.
¹ I am entirely indebted to a former Bible teaching colleague and pastor, Jim Thompson, for this insight. It has been immensely helpful to me in ministry, and you should buy his book.