Over the next few weeks we will take a look on both sides of the blog at how we — as both youth ministers and parents — might love and disciple our boys and girls well and with prayerful, thoughtful intention, within their God-given genders. This week, we will begin with a look at boys.
Female youth ministers often encounter questions like, “So your job is just to talk to girls about boys and appropriate swimwear, right?” or “What could a woman have to teach my son about Jesus?” or “Could I speak to the real youth pastor about my son?”
While I am a woman, my ministry is not only to my female students.
I have sat with male students as they confessed their addictions to pornography. I have sought them out when their parents called me to say they found drugs in their room. I have called them on the phone when I saw they had made a racist and insensitive comment to one of our other students on a social media platform. I’ve pulled them aside in the middle of an event to explain to them why they can’t scream “RAPE” in a joking manner. I’ve stood at their Eagle Scout ceremonies and prayed over them. I’ve watched with joy as they have introduced their girlfriends and fiancés and wives to me. I’ve called them out when their actions, words, and lives were not “worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27) they said they believed. And as of this year, I’ve watched some of them become fathers.
Different traditions have various practices for the roles of men and women in the church, but God’s Word is clear in calling both men and women to live out the gospel. The apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome in Romans 12 that as Christians we ought to “let love be genuine” (v. 9), to “outdo one another in showing honor” (v. 10), and to “contribute to the needs of the saints and to seek to show hospitality” (v. 13).
As a female youth minister, my desire is to live out and teach the gospel to both my male and female students. But knowing that the world is broken and desiring to be faithful to the call God has put on my life, there are three things I keep in mind as I minister specifically to male students.
1.) Establish Personal Boundaries.
Most of my personal boundaries for relationships with students are not gender specific; however, when it comes to caring for guys in our youth ministry, I add a few additional safeguards:
- I am more mindful of the time of day that I text with them compared to my female students. Students have emergencies and deep life questions all the time, yet for some reason they often want to talk about a crisis in the later hours of the evening! I’ve noticed a pattern that late evening conversations tend to go deeper in topic than afternoon conversations. I always prefer to have those conversations face to face in a public setting if possible. I try to take extra safeguards with my guy students, showing them how to respectfully have those conversations by asking if we can set up a time to talk after school one day instead of talking over text message.
- I meet with male students in a public place, and I check in with their parents to let them know when and where we are meeting beforehand.
- I remember that I don’t have to be the only one speaking into a student’s life. When possible, I help facilitate relationships with older Christian men for a student to keep talking. This creates a broader range of care for male students on specific topics that can easily tiptoe over lines of appropriate conversation between men and women of any age.
Several years ago, a 15-year-old male student texted to ask if I would meet with him to talk through some questions about the Bible. We had known each other for several years and had a good rapport, and although my church had recently hired a male youth worker to serve alongside me, this student didn’t feel comfortable with him yet. So we met a couple of times to talk through questions from his reading in Genesis and Revelation.
Before we met a third time, this student texted to tell me that his heart had been broken through a relationship that didn’t quite get off the ground. When we met the next day, I expected to find him deeply upset, but instead, he wore a huge smile on his face.
“I met someone today!” he told me with the pure delight that comes from unburdened hope.
He told me the story over some food at a local burger place. When we were halfway through our fries, the student leaned back confidently and asked, “so…why am I supposed to wait to have sex?”
The past two weeks we had talked about mostly about Scripture, faith and doubting, so this marked an abrupt shift in the conversation. And now I had a decision to make. As a female youth minister in my late twenties at the time, should I have a conversation about sex with a 15-year-old male student? My decision in that particular situation was to see it as a God-ordained moment, so I stepped into the conversation, not away from it.
It’s important to think through possible scenarios like these before they happen. What you might choose to do with one student could be entirely different than what you choose to do with another. This can depend on your past experiences with a given student, as well as your relationship with his family. Some churches and denominations do not allow youth workers to meet one-on-one with students of the opposite gender, and some prohibit meeting one-on-one with students at all. We need to ask God for wisdom in helping us to navigate our relationships with students appropriately.
2.) Be Transparent with Parents.
My student and I had a great talk that day over burgers and fries. And after I dropped him off I sent an email to his parents letting them know that our conversation had shifted from the study of Scripture to the topic of pre-marital sex. I wanted them to know what we had discussed and told them I was comfortable to continue to meet with him, but that I would prefer to come up with other arrangements of transportation so that he and I wouldn’t be alone in a car together. The parents were shocked (naturally) to learn of his question, grateful that I had reached out to them (thankfully), and hopeful (graciously) that he would continue to meet with me.
I typically send the parents of a male student a quick message overviewing what we discussed without breaking trust with the student. I also encourage (and sometimes require) the student to go home and share with his parents what he has shared with me. Parents and even students themselves have almost always thanked me for prodding them to have these important conversations.
I’ve done many of these things for my female students as well, but they are even more essential in ministering transparently to the boys in our church.
3.) Partner With Male Colleagues.
Each time I step into ministering to a male student, I make sure to debrief the conversation with a male leader (whether on church staff or a volunteer). I never want sensitive conversations with a male student to remain private on my end. The Evil One lurks in the darkness and would love to hold those dark secrets, struggles, and confessions over us. In the very same way I want to shine the light of Jesus into my students’ lives, I want to invite someone else to shine light into mine – never giving Satan a chance to get a foothold.
Men and women are created in God’s image and according to Genesis chapter 1, have received the call to care and grow the world and God’s kingdom together. One of my favorite authors and theologians, Carolyn Custis James calls it the blessed alliance– the original relationship between our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the garden. This relationship was a “kingdom strategy – designed to be an unstoppable force for good in the world.”
A few weeks ago a male youth pastor from a nearby church asked me if I thought it was necessary for him to work toward hiring a female youth intern. He understood why it would be helpful with his female students, but was it really necessary? Couldn’t he find women in the church to disciple them on a volunteer basis instead?
I strongly encouraged him to make a hire. Having both a male and a female leader to speak into students’ lives on gender-specific issues is a wise decision. It protects against an array of uncomfortable temptations and provides a unique well of care and trust.
There is an added benefit to having male and female youth workers serve together: Our young men need to learn from older women regularly, and our young women need to learn from older men regularly. This alliance between male and female leadership provides a venue for students to begin to understand how God has wired men and women differently, yet given us the same call to honor Christ and serve the world together. It teaches students how to lovingly honor their sisters and brothers in Christ outside their home environment. Men and women (no matter the age) are wise to listen and learn from one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Still, the most important reason for our students to learn from both genders is because both men and women received the gift of salvation from eternal death through the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. His work on the cross gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, sanctifying us and reminding us of the power of the resurrection given to us. That power is not gender specific; instead it acts as the bonding agent to the family of God that gives both sons and daughters of the King wisdom that is meant to be shared and taught to our students. Both men and women are needed in this endeavor to point our both our boy and girl students to the gospel.
Carolyn Custis James, Lost Women of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).