For many of us in the Southern Baptist Convention, the series from The Houston Chronicle was heartbreaking. We read story after story of victims who were silenced, shunned, or mistreated by churches and pastors who covered up or dismissed their pain. Over 20 years, more than 700 victims were identified and over 300 abusers were named. The worst part was learning that some of these abusers were still serving in churches, unchecked and unaccountable for what they had done.
Rightly, the response has been anger, hurt, grief, remorse, and reflection. We realized it had gotten to this point because we as a denomination had looked the other way (at best), and had dismissed legitimate concerns and pleas for help. To paraphrase SBC President, J.D. Greear, we are now known in the culture for something besides the Gospel.
Perhaps the hardest story to read in the initial Houston Chronicle piece was toward the end, and was focused on youth pastors and youth workers and their abuse of teens and young adults in their ministries.
It broke my heart as a former youth pastor to read those stories; stories of real teenagers whose faith in Christ and trust in the church had been destroyed by predators. As those victims came forward, they were often blamed or shamed. And the one who had robbed them of their fragile trust either left or was swept under the rug.
If you’re reading this and you’re a youth pastor or youth worker, the next six months and beyond are going to be hard. Undoubtedly, many of us know or are familiar with cases of abuse and sexual assault in churches. The parents of your teenagers know those stories too. As youth workers, you must ensure the safety and well-being of every student who is a part of your ministry. And as pastors, we must be diligent and committed to the safety and well-being of our churches, and the protection of our congregations from those who would use Jesus’ name for their own perverted lusts.
These steps aren’t exhaustive, but they’re first steps moving forward:
- Review your policy – I know it’s a hard sell, but in light of the sexual abuse crisis I want to at least encourage you to consider adopting a policy where adult workers and youth leaders aren’t alone with any minor. We’ve long applied the rule towards mixed gender situations, and rightly so. But my fear is that the prevailing attitude is that this isn’t going to work anymore. Maybe it’s still possible in certain instances to pick up students for a McDonald’s visits or to take them home after youth group, but let we as leaders take a much-needed re-examination of our policies to ensure the safety of our students.
- Everyone who has any contact with kids is background checked, Google searched, and interviewed. Allowing anyone to have contact with minors is like walking into a gasoline store with a lit match. Anyone who wants to work with youth needs to be vetted and screened. Background checks are a first step. But we need to look beyond the background check, which is why it’s important for us to contact references and to do our own Google searches.
- Commit now to report – The decision to report an instance of sexual or any other kind of abuse that comes to your attention doesn’t happen in the moment. It happens now, when you make the commitment to yourself, your spouse, your church, and your pastor that you will make the call no matter who it is. Even now, as a pastor, I make it clear to our staff that they have a duty to report, even if it’s one of my own children, and if they don’t they’ll be fired immediately. When you get hit with an allegation, emotions are high and life feels like a whirlwind. Commit to report now, before you’re faced with it.
- Put away whatever strongholds you have – Very few people wake up one morning and decide they want to throw away their life by breaking the law. Some do. But most find themselves there after giving in to strongholds of sexual sin, lust, pornography, and more. If you’re in the midst of those, get out. Put them away. Fight. Run. Flee. Talk to someone. Sexual sin is the most destructive kind, because it feeds on a never-ending cycle.
If we’re serious about the Gospel, then we preach forgiveness and repentance and hope. We tell the victim that even though they carry shame, Jesus nailed that shame to the cross and they no longer have to live with it. We tell the abuser that though they may face serious consequences, they can still find peace. We believe that Jesus’ command to let the children come means more than attending, it means they can come freely and safely, with the trust that they will be loved and protected.
Youth pastors and youth workers, you’re still my heroes. You work hard in the trenches of messy ministry. My hope is that this tragic, painful, heartbreaking story leads to genuine repentance and a restored trust in our churches and ministry leaders.
Check out the following links for more resources on Background Checks: