“Often in Error, Never in Doubt”: on leaving All Saints and a penchant for always ending up in leadership

When I first started blogging four years ago this month (at a now long-defunct site), I was in active leadership at Pasadena Mennonite Church. After several years of worshipping at All Saints Pasadena, I left for the Mennonites in mid-2002. I remained, however, active in youth ministry at All Saints.

I left the Mennonites and returned to All Saints in late 2004. It was exhausting to be part of two very different church cultures, and though I felt more at home theologically among the Anabaptists, I felt more culturally comfortable with the Anglicans. I’ve written about this journey back and forth before (see here, here, here).

While at times I’ve been unhappy with what I’ve heard from the pulpit at All Saints, I’ve stayed at this flagship church of progressive Episcopalianism out of my devotion to my beloved senior high youth group. For nearly eight years, I was active as both a confirmation class teacher and Wednesday night facilitator, and believe I played a valuable role in the lives of many young people there. Though at times I had theological and political differences with the church in which I worked, I was able to put those aside (most of the time, anyway) because of my loyalty to the teens.

But this past spring, the church leadership and I came to what I can only describe as a fundamental philosophical disagreement about what youth ministry is and ought to be. Because so many people (including teenagers) associated with All Saints Pasadena read this blog, I’m choosing to avoid sharing details of this profound split between myself and at least some members of the church staff. I will say that all the adults involved were passionately committed to the well-being of “our” teens. But that shared commitment was not enough to bridge a gulf over what it means to pastor teenagers and what it means to provide them with a safe, nurturing, loving spiritual environment. We hit an impasse, and as a result, I chose to leave. Everything remains amicable.*

I hate “church shopping.” I learned early on in my life as an adult convert that no one church was going to be perfect. As in some of my youthful romantic relationships, my church experiences followed a tiresome pattern: initial enthusiasm and idealization followed by gradual disillusionment, separation, and the repetition of the cycle. I broke that cycle with women at long last, and had hoped to break it with churches. But I didn’t make the kind of pledge to All Saints Pasadena that I did to my wife. And sometimes, being on a spiritual journey means moving on.

I’m not a cradle Episcopalian, a cradle Catholic, a cradle Mennonite, a cradle Pentecostal. I was raised by atheists, after all. I was baptized and confirmed into the Roman Catholic church as a college student, and began a spiritual journey that took me from studying (very briefly) to be a Dominican to the Assemblies of God, the Mennonite Church USA, and in and out of the Anglican Communion (at least twice). In that sense, there has indeed been some symmetry between my chaotic romantic life and my quest for a spiritual home in which my relationship with Jesus can flower.

Even before this serious disagreement with the All Saints leadership over what was best for the youth emerged, I was beginning to think it was time for me to find a different spiritual home. All Saints does many things well, but one thing it doesn’t do as often as I’d like: preach the central importance of relationship with Christ. Like many progressive, liberal churches, All Saints does a wonderful job of calling people to action. All Saints not only encourages political activism, it encourages valuable social work in the community. Faith without works is indeed dead faith. But works without faith often leave those who do the works exhausted and alienated and in desperate need of spiritual refreshment. And for me, that spiritual refreshment comes in the reminder that Jesus is Lord. And that reminder isn’t offered at All Saints as often as I’d like.

So I’ve been going to the Warehouse. I sit quietly in the back, participating with enthusiasm but without any desire to step forward into leadership. I have a bad habit with churches: I join them, start volunteering, and within six months, am invariably asked into leadership. I was only at All Saints Pasadena for two years before I was invited onto the Vestry (if you know how vestries work at large Episcopal parishes, that’s a fast trajectory); I was at Pasadena Mennonite for all of five months before I was placed on the Leadership Team.

Whenever I’ve joined a church in the past, I’ve compensated for my feelings of anxiety about a new experience by throwing myself into the center of that church’s life. My inner ENFP kicks in, and I start signing up for committees and volunteer opportunities, showing up early and staying late. And I’m a pretty smooth talkin’ guy who can project a considerable amount of enthusiasm when called upon, so invariably I end up in leadership much too soon. By the time I start asking questions about whether the church and I are really compatible, I’m enmeshed in responsibilities and duties. Heck, I asked each of my first three wives to marry me within four months of starting to date them. My family motto, passed on for generations, is “often in error, never in doubt.” In church and in relationships, I’ve lived that out for years.

I’ve known she who is today my wife for many years. We dated for nearly three years before getting married in 2005. Never before had I moved so slowly, and that willingness to do what is so against my impulsive nature has paid enormous dividends. It’s time for me to start practicing that same degree of care and caution in my church relationships. That doesn’t mean diminishing the intensity of my love for Jesus. It does mean allowing myself to go to church just to worship, without feeling compelled to start taking over. It means resisting the urge to move into leadership before I am ready. It means being okay with going somewhere where not everyone knows my name.

The other reason to be hesitant about doing more than worshipping at my “next” church: when I’m in leadership, I have an obligation not to make public statements that are at odds with church teaching. When I was at Pasadena Mennonite, I got into trouble because I take a publicly affirming position on gay marriage — and I also feel quite strongly that pre-marital sex is not always offensive to God. At All Saints Pasadena, I’ve taken issue with a variety of stances adopted by the church and its leadership. When I represent the church as a senior youth leader or a Vestryman or a Prayer Team coordinator, I have an obligation to conform my public reflections to church teaching. But as someone whose views don’t fit easily into any particular political or theological template, that’s very hard.

I know full well I don’t share every view held by the leadership at Lake Avenue (the parent church of Warehouse). I like the way folks get together there to praise God, and I want to be with them as they do it. But I’ll be in the cheap seats rather than right up front, at least for now. And though I’m sure I’ll end up in leadership and youth ministry again somewhere soon, I think it’s okay to take a time-out for now.

*2012 note: an earlier version of this post suggested that I had strained relations with one particular member of the ASC staff. I’ve altered the wording as I think that was a bit of an exaggeration, especially since that staff member and I have smoothed things over nicely since this was originally written.

Girl talk, depression, and culturally conditioned rivalry

As a volunteer youth minister, I was very interested to read this in my morning paper: Girl talk linked to depression, anxiety. It opens:

Constant venting over crushes, popularity or other personal problems may lead to anxiety and depression in girls — but not in boys, according to new research.

A study of 813 students ages 8 to 15 found that excessive discussions and rumination about problems strengthened friendships for both sexes, but those tighter bonds came at a cost for girls.

The study appears in this month’s issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.

Lead author Amanda Rose, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said the results might reflect a cultural tendency among girls to blame themselves when they aren’t invited to parties or when boys don’t call back.

“The more they talk about it, the more depressed and anxious they feel,” she said.

The findings add a cautionary note to the perennial advice to the young that they should share their problems rather than bottle them up.

“Talking about problems is a good thing, but too much talk is too much of a good thing,” Rose said.

I don’t spend much time working with younger kids (say, those in the 8-12 range). I have spent a great deal of time volunteering with both boys and girls in early-to-mid adolescence; if there’s one age group I spend more time with than any other it’s high school frosh, who are usually around 13-15.

I’m no expert in adolescent psychology, but the study does “ring true”. It’s certainly not the case that those girls who are the most consistently verbal and open about their feelings are always the emotionally healthiest. My concern, however, is about the reaction of adults to this study. The last thing that we need is moms and dads deciding, having skimmed an article or heard a television report, that their daughters need to spend less time talking to their friends and more time bottling up their feelings! Even more worrisome is the thought that some parents and teachers might overtly or covertly discourage girls from approaching them with their anxieties and doubts for fear that providing a listening ear will only worsen the problem.

One popular trend these days is to focus heavily on the “boy crisis”; pop psychologists (and men’s rights advocates) have loudly complained that we’ve spent too much time collectively worrying about girls, and not enough about boys. These advocates for boys are often convinced that love, time, and resources are part of a zero-sum game, and that the trend of the 1990s (epitomized by Mary Pipher’s colossally influential Reviving Ophelia) towards focusing on girls was misplaced and led to boys’ needs being systematically ignored. Boys, these folks argue, are actually much more at risk of low self-esteem today than girls.

But the study reported today suggests that peer support systems are still less effective for many girls than for boys:

Researchers first looked at whether depression or anxiety increased the likelihood that students would obsessively discuss their problems. They found that boys and girls with emotional difficulties were more likely to ruminate about their troubles.

Researchers then examined the effect of rumination on students’ emotional well-being and friendships.

Boys reported no change in feelings of anxiety or depression, but girls said they felt worse.

Since the boys in this study were already self-identified as depressed or anxious, their tendency to report that they didn’t feel worse as a result of discussing their problem can’t be attributable to a masculine desire to appear strong and impervious to psychic pain. Rather, it seems clear that something about the way in which “girl-talk” functions among the young serves to exacerbate rather than relieve many emotional problems.

In my own youth, I struggled with both an eating disorder and chronic self-mutilation. I often found myself in support groups for those who suffered with similar issues; typically, I was (as a male) very much in a minority. I also was often the oldest person in the group, as my anorectic and self-mutilating behavior peaked in my early twenties rather than in my early-to-mid-teens, like many young women. And in these groups, I saw quickly how vital it was to have all discussion moderated by either a therapist or a mature fellow sufferer who had a lot of recovery. Unmoderated, discussion about dieting or cutting quickly turned competitive; a girl would say something like “Yeah, I’m not doing so good, I only ate a banana yesterday.” You could count on having another girl say seconds later, “Yeah, me too, I only drank water and diet coke yesterday.” The subtle one-”upwomanship” often left many of the young women in the group even more depressed and alienated, and it took good and aggressive therapists to keep things positive. (This was back before the proliferation of the “pro-ana” sites on the web that offer “support” to those who are competitively anorexic or self-mutilating.)

As feminists, we need to recognize that the way in which girls talk to each other about their bodies or emotions is heavily influenced by a culture that encourages bitter female rivalry. We know that anxiety about body image and boys begins well before physical puberty, and that that anxiety is shaped in ways that emphasize competition with other girls. This rivalry is much stronger among girls than among boys. This doesn’t mean boys don’t compete, it means that their competition is far more limited. Boys tend to compete only about sports and grades and (later) real or imagined prowess with the other sex; girls compete over their appearance, and it seems, over their very identities.

To get a sense of this, listen to how girls use the word “hate” much more frequently to describe other women whom they envy. “She’s so pretty and skinny, I just hate her!” is a fairly common phrase to hear from fifteen-year old girls. When was the last time you heard a teen boy say of a peer, “He’s so handsome, I hate him” or “Peyton Manning is such a great quarterback, I just hate him”? (Boys may hate the star of the opposing team, but they are much less likely to loathe the lad who’s leading their own squad.) Intra-female conversation among teen girls is much more likely to be self-deprecating than that among boys, and it’s also far more likely to include disparaging remarks about the appearance or identity of perceived rivals.

It’s not the case that girls are “naturally” more introspective, or more filled with self-doubt, or are more cruel than their brothers. But because we inculcate in girls an absolutely impossible, unattainable ideal of physical and emotional perfection at such an early age, we set many young women up both for self-loathing and for hostility towards their female peers. It’s little wonder, then, that this study finds that talking about anxiety and depression isn’t as helpful for girls as it is for boys. It is a sign that those of us who care about young people need to be particularly attuned to the lack of resources that young girls have for safe and healthy opportunities to talk. Safe and healthy, by definition, means an uncompetitive environment, and it means providing them with understanding listeners whom these girls will not perceive as either judges or rivals.

Jack and Jill again: a response to Father Figure about mentoring and attraction

It’s genuinely flattering that I get several e-mails a week from people who have read my posts and are asking me for input on issues ranging from chinchilla care to student crushes to youth ministry to older men/younger women relationships. I want to make it clear to those who do write me, however, that I assume all unsolicited email is “bloggable”. I am not able to offer replies or advice outside of the format of this blog. I will, of course, change names and details in order to protect the writer’s anonymity. That seems a fair policy.

Got an email last week from a fellow who calls himself Father Figure. Father Figure is married, and though he doesn’t specify his age, seems to be forty-something (I take great delight in calling myself a forty-something these days). He writes:

You seem to be very perceptive on the area of
crushes developing on mentor/father figures.

How does the mentor/father
figure disengage from such a relationship as he sees
himself being attracted to the young woman [half his
age!] who’s paying so much attention to him?

The last three years have been among the worst of
my life, mainly from being unable to forget about the
attention that this young woman gave to me for a few
months, but also from incredible guilt for the way
that I totally broke off contact with her. Even now I
tend to feel that if I see a mutual friend, I should
casually inquire about her, not so much because I want
to know, but out of concern that if the conversation
gets relayed back to her, it will hurt her that I
didn’t even ask about her. Her own father died or
left the home when she was a young girl, and it seems
that in some ways she related to me as a sort of
“safe” father-type figure. The problem was that I
fell for her, and so I found the only way to deal with
my feelings was to stop contact. But my breaking off
contact [when we had been fairly close friends] must
have come across to her as rejection of her as a
person. Hence, my profound feeling of guilt.

It’s a painful situation for Father Figure, and clearly equally painful (if not more so) for the young woman whom he has pushed out of his life.

My first thought is that those of us who do enjoy mentoring young people have an obligation to set strong boundaries with ourselves. I meet with and mentor a small group of young people; some are former students and some are former “youth groupers.” I mentor both men and women. One of my chief jobs as a mentor is to never, ever forget that my relationship with my mentees is one of mutual respect, but not one of mutual support. I am there for them in a way that they cannot and should not be there for me. In my relationships with my mentees, I make very little mention of my private life (less, in most cases, than I do on this blog). When I do talk about myself, it is usually only in order to share an anecdote from my past that may prove helpful to the mentee.

The mentor/mentee boundary is not as rigid as that between therapist and patient. No one is on a couch, and there’s no strict psychological protocol to observe. But I always remember that this young man or this young woman with whom I am sitting in my office or drinking coffee under a tree here on campus is there as an opportunity for me to be of service. My mentees are not potential “best friends forever”. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them, and heck, it doesn’t preclude me from starting to care very deeply for some of them. I love working with young people; it gives me a great sense of purpose and satisfaction to do so. But my students are not my dearest friends, and I don’t confide in my mentees as they confide in me. That’s not about power, that’s about respect for boundaries.

I wrote a long time ago about the story of Michael Gee, an adjunct professor and journalist who was fired from his teaching position after posting to a website his feeling that one of his female students was “incredibly hot.” As part of that post, I wrote about how we as teachers and mentors can respond to students whose bodies might be distracting to us. I wrote about an old student of mine named “Jack”, whose cigarette stench and body odor made our office hours together difficult; I wrote about “Jill”, whose unusually revealing clothing posed a different challenge. Jack and Jill were wonderful students, solid “A” students, both interested in having me mentor them. Jack’s smell was burdensome; Jill’s state of near-perpetual underdressedness posed a similar problem. With both students, my job was the same: to not allow their bodies to become my focus. I made a conscious effort to be there for Jack in all of his malodorousness, and to keep my eyes on Jill’s face. I’m not an instructor in grooming, fashion, or deportment; if I am only able to be present for those who are bathed and reasonably covered up, then I am a piss-poor mentor and teacher and ought not to be in this job. I learned a lot from Jack and Jill.

Perhaps it’s because I’m happily married, perhaps it’s because I’ve worked so hard to establish excellent boundaries, perhaps it’s because I’m in my forties now — but for whatever reason, I don’t any longer have the trouble “Father Figure” has had with this woman he mentored. That’s the result of some hard work on my part, and also the result of being willing to ask for grace to come into my life and guide my mentoring relationships.

With the Jacks and Jills of this world, there’s a prayer I use. It was one I learned many years ago, and it has served me in good stead. I use the same prayer with the potentially attractive as with the potentially hostile:

“God, show me this person not as I see them but as you see them. Help me to be for them what I am called by you to be. Remove from me my fears and my selfish desires, and show me how to love them as you love them”.

Yeah, we have a problem with singulars and plurals here, but you get the point. I really do use that prayer, though much less often than I used to. God has been faithful to me, and I can say that when I have prayed that prayer sincerely, it has always been answered. I have never had to break off a relationship with a mentee because I was worried about my own growing feelings of attraction towards him or her.

Does that make me better than “Father Figure”, who did choose to break off his mentoring relationship with a younger woman to whom he was increasingly drawn? No, not really. It was far better for him to abrogate their relationship than to act on his feelings. But while seducing her would have been a profound betrayal of his commitment to her (and, of course, to his marriage), breaking off their contact (which had become important to her) without telling her why is a serious form of abandonment. There’s a general rule in working with much younger people, even when they are in their twenties: if you as a mentor cut off contact or withdraw from them, they will almost always assume that it was something they did. They will very rarely conclude that the problem was with the mentor; they will assume that they did something to drive him or her away. They may feel ashamed or guilty without quite knowing what they’ve done. It’s a serious wound, and I’ve seen it inflicted many a time.

Father Figure inquires as to what he should do. In the best case scenario, he would be able to resume his mentoring relationship with this young woman, taking responsibility for keeping his own feelings and desires strictly in check (and asking for spiritual help in order to do so.) Given that the young woman is an adult, his next best option — but not the best — is to be candid with her about his reasons for terminating their time together. He’ll have to be very emphatic that the responsibility is his and his alone, and that she did nothing wrong. It’ll be hurtful, but she’ll at least have (oh, overused word) the beginnings of some closure. The worst thing to do would be to continue to be distant and unvailable without giving a reason why.

I am absolutely certain that I will not cross a line with my students and youth groupers, either in act or in fantasy. I am confident that my intent will remain clear and my goals pure. Is this hubris? No, because I don’t rest this certainty on my own will alone. I’m a mortal human being, and I know all too well how quickly my own unchecked desires can run riot. My confidence lies in my faith in a faithful God, a God who will not give me any challenge I cannot handle if I ask for His help. I also have faith in my peers who hold me accountable, who ask me questions about my motives, who watch me. If I seem to be crossing a line, they’ll gently inquire and remind me of where it is that my priorities lie, what my obligations are.

If I can only mentor the unattractive, the well-groomed, the polite and unchallenging, I’m not doing my job. (Of course, the reverse is true: if I seek out only the beautiful and the brilliant to work with, something else is amiss!) If I were to find my own feelings getting in the way of my work with a mentee, I am confident that I would be given the strength to overcome those feelings. And by overcoming, I don’t just mean the strength to not act upon them. I mean the strength to eradicate them altogether. My wife is the human being in whose company I am happiest. If I were to be more excited about spending time with a friend or a mentee than with my wife, that would be a colossal red flag. And I am prayerfully, quietly confident that God would give me the strength to redirect my desires and my thoughts themselves if I asked Him to. But if for some reason that sustenance didn’t come, then I would have to terminate the mentoring relationship.

Some more thoughts on All Saints, youth ministry, and making choices at the crossroads

Another year of youth ministry at All Saints Pasadena came to a close this past weekend. Another group of seniors heads off to college. Once again, I’m awed by how fast “my kids” grow up. Four short years ago, they were beginning ninth-graders, wriggling and squirming in hyperactivity and anxiety and awkwardness. Today, they are (mostly) legal adults, increasingly poised, increasingly confident, increasingly compassionate and empathetic. Kids I towered over in 2003 now have blown right past me — and I’m not merely referring to height.

Two days ago, on Trinity Sunday, we had our annual “youth service.” The teens serve communion bread and wine, the teen choir handles the music, and two teens help design the sermon. One young woman who preached on Sunday has been dear to me for many years. She spoke of how she’d been a member of our church since the womb, of how she’d grown up safe and loved in this large, unruly, vibrant community.

She spoke of how she’d gone through our Seekers confirmation program (which I co-led from 2001 until this year) as an agnostic who flirted with atheism. As she put it, she got confirmed at the end of her frosh year in order to honor the eight-month process of Seekers, not out of any newfound certainty in her faith. Interestingly, she reported from the pulpit on Sunday that she has — at last — begun to experience a sudden openness to God. After years and years of living by the All Saints creed of the “gospel of social justice”, the creed that suggests that “Jesus was a heckuva nice guy and an important advocate for change”, she’s begun to find a more evangelical faith. She found it through her school’s gospel choir, and in the rhythm and emotion of gospel, she’s opened herself up to the possibility that Jesus was and is more than a human role model.

It was a brave thing to say from the All Saints pulpit. It contained both praise and a rebuke for All Saints. This flagship church of American Anglican liberalism is very, very good at encouraging individual exploration. We are very good at raising awareness of suffering in the broader world. We are very, very good at teaching young people how to ask the right theological questions. We are very, very good at instilling suspicion of any person or institution who cllaims to have The One True Answer. We are, most of the time, pretty good at loving kids “where they’re at” instead of where we think they should be.

But we liberal Episcopalians are often not so good at helping kids to come to certainties. Too often, when a young person in pain asks “where is God when I need Him?”, the institutional response is to say “Ah, my child, that’s an excellent question, one asked by many people over the centuries. We invite you to pray and reflect on God in His Mystery and His Apparent Absence, and know that we support you as you wrestle with the Great Dilemma of Faith.” We’re really good, we Episcopalians, at encouraging a process of discernment. (Heck, is there any word we love more than “process”?) We revel in “acknowledging dichotomies” and “appreciating uncertainty” and “holding apparent contradictions in simultaneous tension”. This is great, heady stuff, but it isn’t really helpful to a teen wrestling with the suicide of a friend, an eating disorder, the decision to terminate a pregnancy, their parents’ divorce.

What I try to do in my youth ministry — and what I see at least a few folks trying to do as well — is fuse an evangelical passion for Jesus as Savior and Best of Friends with an appreciation for theological pluralism. In other words, Jesus may not the be the Only Way, but to live in relationship with Him is certainly One Way, and I am unashamed to proclaim that for me, He has turned out to be the Best Way. It’s healthy and right and good to ackonwledge a multiplicity of equally wonderful choices, but at some point (particularly in a time of great existential crisis) it’s helpful to make one choice.

We all know Frost’s poem about the road less traveled. Too often among my fellow liberal Anglicans, I sense a real delight in remaining permanently stuck at the crossroads. One of the penchants I really dislike among some of my friends is the tendency to see the refusal to make any theological commitments as evidence of great wisdom. Some elevate “analysis paralysis” to the level of a high virtue. That’s fine for adults, but it’s not helpful for most teenagers, who, despite their natural suspicion towards authority, really need at least some certainties, even if the primary certainty that a good youth leader can provide is that they are loved.

When you’re a child, you take the path your parents tell you to take. When you’re a teen, it is right and good to become aware of options, of choices — and the church ought to point out that other choices exist. But after we acknowledge that there are other paths, perhaps just as worthy and good as ours (the ocean refuses no river, after all), we need to say definitively: this is our path. This is our way. And we will walk this path with you.

A misunderstanding about youth ministry, boys, and the meaning of “work”: a response to Toy Soldier

I often refer to what I do, professionally and avocationally, as my “work.” I talk about “youth work” and “pro-feminist work” and “men’s work”. I had thought that everyone would understand that what I meant was clear, but a recent comment by Toy Soldier below my “Sheer desecrated hurt and anger” post makes it obvious that I need to be more explicit.

I wrote:

Real men’s work is about reaching young men where they are. Not just the ones who are obviously willing to be reached, either. Real men’s work — especially in school settings — is about initiating relationship with the shy, the bookish, the brooding and the hostile. It is frustrating, difficult, painful, and very tiring work. It is also joyous, especially when the breakthroughs happen. I’ve been working to do this for many years now, with a wide variety of young men. And it may be the most important thing I do.

Toy Soldier replied:

If one considers it work to aid a young man in need then one has already missed the point. Speaking as a “brooding” young man from Cho’s generation, I think the above attitude is one of the many reasons why Cho’s hurt and anger remained suppressed. As John mentioned above, one must approach helping young men with the intent to actually help them because it is the right thing to do for them. It requires respect, which the above–no offense–selfish, self-serving attitude completely lacks.

Whoa, cowboy. I’ll ignore the “selfish and self-serving” bit and focus instead on the misunderstanding of what I mean by “work.”

Sometimes, it’s fairly obvious that (at least on my mother’s side) I am descended from a lot of Scots-Irish Calvinists and North German Lutherans. The “Protestant work ethic”, stripped of its theological nuances, is one of my family’s secular religions (the other being good manners). Somehow, early on in life, I picked up the idea that there was no greater sin than idleness. Sin was, I believed and still often do believe, more about what you didn’t do than what you did. From my cousins, I picked up a “work hard, play hard” ethos. As long as I was doing the former, I was allowed great (perhaps too much) latitude for the latter. Getting straight As or making money weren’t vitally important, mind you — but having focus and goals were.

So I end up talking about almost everything as “work.” I’ll be the first to say that my marriage is blissful. It is also challenging work. Indeed, if my marriage wasn’t sometimes a hell of a lot of work, I’d figure that there was something amiss. If I’m too comfortable, I’m stagnating; the only way to fight decay is to keep in constant motion, in near-constant effort. My teaching is work. I am good at what I do, I think, but I know I could be better. I could be kinder, more sympathetic, even more passionate. Teaching is joy — teaching is hard work.

I “work out” every day. I do it for the thrill of the endorphin rush to which I am most definitely addicted, but I also do it because I like working at physical things. I like pushing up mountain trails and doing ever-more difficult positions in Pilates. Is there an element of playfulness, of creativity, of fun in all of this “working” out? Of course there is. But is it also mental and physical work? Abso-flippin’-lutely.

And my youth ministry is also “work.” I work at being a better, kinder, more intuitive mentor to girls and boys. I work at new ways to reach the kids who are toughest to reach. Is it often exhilarating and fulfilling? Sure. But it is also often tiring and disheartening. If I only did youth ministry in order to be adored, to be wanted, and to be validated, I’d be a piss-poor volunteer. If I only did youth ministry with the kids whom it is easy to reach, I’d be a fraud and a coward. Every danged week, I have to push myself out of my comfort zone to try and connect with the sullen, the angry, the hurting, the defensive. I have to be willing to have my initial efforts at connection rebuffed, knowing that building trust with a wounded, alienated kid takes a long time and is frequently hard work.

Toy Soldier — and some other men’s rights activists — think that pro-feminist men have only one motive to work with boys: we want to make sure that they don’t hurt women. The implication, and it’s one that I hear often, is that men like me don’t really like or care for other men or boys. Yet because as pro-feminists we see the colossal harm men and boys inflict on women and girls, we apparently consider it our distasteful duty to reach out to our little brothers in the hopes of molding them into respectful egalitarians like ourselves. According to this theory, men like me have no interest in working with boys as boys, only in working to “defuse” their toxic masculinity. It’s a cute theory, but it’s simply not true.

I work with girls, and I work with boys. Ask anyone who has seen me do youth ministry: my time is evenly divided with all of “my kids”, and my joy in their growth and my concern at their setbacks is equal, whether they are male or female. I do youth work because I want these teens to grow up into empowered, socially responsible, authentically happy human beings who delight in their own createdness and who feel a strong desire to help heal the world. I want them to do justice and love mercy. I want them to know that they are loved and adored no matter what they do or who they do it with. And I am willing to do a hell of a lot of work to help get them there. And make no mistake, it is frequently very hard work.

There’s a lot of work to be done, people! The earth needs savin’, the animals need protectin’, the poor need housin’, the naked need clothin’, the rivers need cleanin’, the kids need lovin’. We need God’s help to get all this done, but we are His co-workers, His commissioned agents, His proxies. There’s too much pain in the world for us to be self-indulgent or lazy for too long. Let’s get crackin’.

Fourteen Marthas, not one Mary: a retreat report and a long meditation on girls, pressure, parents, and people-pleasing

I’m in my office, just before 8:00 on a Monday morning. Daylight Savings Time has arrived early, as almost everyone knows, and I am happy. (Even if getting up this morning at five for my boxing session felt particularly challenging.)

I had a wonderful time once again with the All Saints confirmation class this weekend on our retreat in the San Bernardino mountains. (I’ve written about past retreats on this blog: here are the 2005 and 2006 reports.). I was a bit disappointed by the abnormally warm weather and the nearly complete absence of snow, despite the fact that we were up in the mountains three weeks earlier than usual.

Though in 2005 we had more boys than girls in our confirmation class, this year our gender ratio was wildly skewed. After a couple of cancellations, we ended up taking fourteen girls and one boy up to Big Bear for the weekend retreat. (The boy, a very outgoing and relaxed kid, was more than delighted at his unique status.) In our intimate and emotional discussions Friday night and Saturday, one clear pattern emerged in the stories these young women were telling about their lives.

After years and years of teaching confirmation classes, I’ve noticed that each class has a slightly different “feel.” The 2007 “Seekers” confirmation class is not merely notable for being overwhelmingly female; this year’s crop is also marked by an often frantic desire to live up to the expectations of the outside world. Never have I gone on retreat with so many young women who were so completely exhausted! I’m not talking about temporarily underslept; I’m talking about girls who are 14-16 years old whose daily schedules are as demanding as that of a young Japanese businessman trying to climb the ladder at Sony.

Never have the youth leaders had to work so hard to convince so many kids to take a weekend away! These girls weren’t worried about missing dances or parties. They were worried about missing speech tournaments, SAT prep classes, and biology homework. They were worried about not being able to exercise and stay fit for their various team sport commitments. Many begged to be allowed to bring some books to study from “in our free time.” (We have a fairly strict “no homework” policy; the kids know about this weekend six months in advance.) And the thought of spending forty-eight hours away from their elaborately programmed schedules and responsibilities was terrifying for many of them.

Before a retreat, I always joke with the other youth leaders about “packing plenty of Kleenex”. We expect a lot of tears as we go through our emotional, spirit-filled weekend. But rarely have we had as many sniffles and wet eyes as we did these past few days. On Friday night, as we “checked in” with our fourteen girls and one boy about their lives and their faith journey, it was as if a massive dam had suddenly broken. One after another, they broke down. Some were angry at themselves, others angry at God, many confessed feeling utterly overwhelmed by pressure and expectations. The most common phrase I heard all night was one I don’t always anticipate to be the most common: “I feel so guilty.” These girls had guilt and shame weighing them down. I could see it in the slump of their shoulders, in the puffiness of their eyes.

The specific pressures vary. We have one girl who’s a dancer, a very good one; she’s trying to get ready to audition for professional companies at the same time that she’s carrying a full load of advanced placement classes as a sophomore. Another girl is captain of her debate team and active in student government at her school. Her days begin at five and end at midnight. She does three to four hours of homework a night, tutors underprivileged kids, prepares for speech tournaments and is gearing up to run for class president for next year. She’s a tenth-grader, but her anxiety about not “getting into a good school” and “letting everyone down” is so palpable that when she tries to relax she ends up sitting and shaking rather like a wet chihuahua.

As a feminist and a Christian, the desperate “people-pleasing” of so many of these young women troubles me. Many of them acknowledge carrying the double burden familiar to so many modern women: these girls know that they are expected to live up to traditional feminine standards of behavior and looks, at least much of the time. (Three girls talked quietly about their struggles with disordered eating and body self-loathing.) But in addition to the cultural expectation to be bright-eyed, cheerful, virginal and pleasing, they also feel pressured to be intellectually, athletically, and professionally successful. They all volunteer (often as part of school-mandated community service). Their parents have told them all their lives that they can “be anything they want to be”, which sounds great — until the girls are forced to excel at virtually everything they do in every facet of their lives so as “not to miss out” on any opportunity to succeed. The superwomen complex is alive and well in girls so young that some were born after Bill Clinton became president! That breaks my heart.

As we wrapped up our first session Friday night, I pulled out the Bible. I read two sections. From Matthew, I read my beloved 10:37:

Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Honestly, it’s often twice as hard to get young women, raised since birth to please and to perform, to grasp this than young men. We are so much more tolerant of male rebellion; we are more tolerant of young men who “take time to find themselves” or who “are going through a slacker phase.” And to put it more simply, more young men seem to have an easier time daring to disappoint their parents. (Of course, there are plenty of boys near collapse from trying to meet other’s expectations. But their numbers are fewer.)

What I wanted the girls to grasp from this passage is that a real relationship with Christ is one that comes unmediated by parents or peers. To live in Christ means to follow Him with the very likely expectation that His plan for your life is not the same as your parent’s hopes. That doesn’t mean that Jesus is an excuse for narcissistic rebellion. But it does mean that if you put pleasing others, especially your parents, ahead of discerning God’s unique plan for your life, then you have missed the point. I made it clear to “my kids”: Christ comes to set captives free, and sometimes the jailers are the very people who love you most.

After praying silently for quick inspiration, I felt called to read Luke 10:38-42:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Earlier, as our fourteen girls shared, I had realized that I was sitting in a room filled to the rafters with Marthas, with nary a Mary to be found! Like Martha, they are “worried and upset about many things”. They don’t know how to rest; they are “distracted by all the preparations that (have) to be made.” These Marthas — my dear, beautiful, brave, overachieving, anxious, exhausted girls — live lives that are governed by an endless series of “to do lists”. They wake up with “have to’s” and go to bed with “ought to have’s” and spend their days thinking about their “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” But only one thing is needed, and that is to sit at the foot of God.

It says in Kings, “after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” The earthquakes and fires in these girls’ lives are all that they hear; they hear only noise, only storm and fury. As I said to them, that “gentle whisper” (what the KJV famously calls the “still small voice”) can’t be heard until you learn to press the mute button at your peers, at your coaches, at your teachers, at Facebook, at Youtube, at Jane Magazine, and yes, at your parents. Martha is too busy to hear the gentle whisper. She worries too much, fearing what will happen if she stops to rest, fearing who she’ll be if she stops her endless motion, her endless people-pleasing. Choosing “what is better” is about placing one’s own spiritual growth ahead of everything else. Choosing Mary’s part over Martha’s is to risk the wrath of some who love and care for you; it is to risk disappointing those who raised you and nurtured you. It is to risk having to confront your own fear of not doing enough. And if you want joy, if you want fulfillment, if you want rest, it’s what you absolutely gotta do.

Thanks to the remarkable success of several waves of American feminism, the girls I work with today have more opportunities than virtually any generation before them. Though they have to confront a misogynistic backlash that has taken root in many aspects of our dominant culture, they have the chance to achieve more and do more and enjoy more than their mothers and grandmothers. But we’ve made the terrible mistake of turning opportunity into obligation. We’ve sucked the joy right out of their over-programmed, over-monitored, over-achieving little lives. True feminism and true Christian faith are absolutely congruent in their mutual opposition to the idea that young women ought to live up to an ever-more demanding set of duties and commitments.

As a feminist and a Christian, I want to see “my girls” becoming more like Mary, less like Martha. And if that means that some of the boys need to go and spend a few minutes taking over Martha’s duties so she can take a break, then they damned well can step up and do it.

UPDATE: My dear mother, long a defender of Martha, writes me today to remind me that many traditions say that Martha ended up in Tarascon, France, where she may well have slain a dragon. It’s a happy thought.

16 girls, 3 boys: a note on the sex ratio in a confirmation class

As I mentioned yesterday, we had a terrific time with the All Saints kids during our fasting fund-raiser on Friday and Saturday. Another night for Hugo in his sleeping bag on the floor, surrounded by snoring and wheezing boys. (Here’s my dilemma: I find it much easier to sleep on retreats when I have both ear plugs and one of those little night shades to cover my eyes; I have a nice pair from a British Airways amenity kit. But is it safe, given what teens get up to, for the youth leaders to be unable to hear a darned thing? Should I always sleep with one ear open, as it were? I go back and forth on the matter.)

Our confirmation class this year has a very skewed sex ratio. We have 16 girls and 3 boys, which is the most lopsided it has been in my seven years of serving as an instructor and mentor for the confirmation program. On Saturday, I was chatting with a parent as we were finishing things up, and this parent (whose child was in a previous confirmation class) lamented “We really need more boys. I’m so worried that all the young men are missing.”

I’ve heard a lot of this public anxiety about “missing boys” this year. I’ve heard it nationally, as the mainstream media frets that bright and talented young women are somehow driving young men off of college campuses. And I’ve heard it at All Saints, where for any number of reasons, we have a very small number of boys in our 2007 “Seekers” confirmation class. (I am happy to say that in terms of overall numbers, the trend in the raw number of confirmands is going up in our parish.) In the past, we’ve always had a few more girls than boys, say with a 10-8 split in favor of the females. But never as stark as the 16-3 ratio we’ve got at the moment, a ratio that is particularly obvious when we divide the teens for overnight sleeping arrangements.

Let me be clear that I’d like to see more boys involved in our youth program. But I’m growing a bit frustrated with the hand-wringing over their absence. The three boys we do have this year are bright, sweet, fun lads; the girls we’ve got are equally wonderful. As always, once I get to know them well, I find myself starting to fall in love with the whole danged pack of them. (In this paranoid age, let me be clear that this is a pure and uncomplicated passion!) And I’m worried that it is all too easy to become so concerned about the “missing boys” that we ignore the equally important needs of the girls who are seeking out confirmation and committing to our eight-month program. We are in danger of focusing too much on who isn’t with us, and why they aren’t, and too little on the precious, magnificent young people who are right in front of us.

As a male professor and youth leader, I take my job as a role model very seriously. I know that I have a role to play in the lives of both young men and young women. The fact that I am male doesn’t mean that the boys are any more or less important to me than are their sisters. But to some extent, adult males are particularly important for boys because they can model an alternative vision of what it means to be masculine. Teenage boys want very much to know how to live as adult men, and it is considerably easier for a grown man to show that in his actions as well as his words. This doesn’t mean that adult women can’t mentor boys, and adult men can’t mentor girls; it just means that we often learn differently from same and other-sexed role models. So I get that I have a special task when it comes to the boys.

The reasons why our confirmation classes have such a skewed gender ratio are hardly unique to All Saints. Like many liberal churches, relatively few of our prospective confirmands have been forced by their parents to be in the program; if it were compulsory, we would expect a more even number of boys and girls. And all things being equal, more girls than boys seem interested in exploring their faith and spending time in service. I’ve heard a variety of suggestions floated to make the program more attractive to boys (less talking, more outdoor activities), but most of those ideas, if implemented, would gut the program as it exists. It would also mean ignoring the generally positive responses of the few boys whom we do have in the program. And it would mean we were showing more concern for men than for women, more concern for those absent than for those present.

The current obsession in education is a hyper-anxiety about the well-being of boys, and an almost misogynistic fear that our current pedagogical structures favor girls. After all, if more girls than boys are showing up and being successful, this must be attributed to an anti-male bias rather than to a greater interest and effort on the part of the girls themselves! Too many girls and well-behaved boys have been ignored for too long by teachers and youth leaders who devote too much attention to coping with the few “problem boys” (chronic troublemakers, overly medicated hyperactives, etcetera).

Am I upset that we’ve got 16 girls and 3 boys? Heck no. Would I be upset if we had 16 boys and 3 girls? Nope. Jesus calls us to feed His lambs, and we feed the lambs who come for food. What point is there in searching endlessly after those who aren’t showing up, if the end result is that those who have come to be fed are ignored?

Abstinence, sex education, rape, desire, and who ought to be wearing the millstone

This week, many in the feminist blogosphere have been addressing the subject of date rape and sex education, primarily in response to this article in the American Prospect that ran a couple of days ago. The point of Courtney Martin’s piece is that an absence of sex education (particularly in the age of an abstinence-only message) increases the possibility that acquaintance rapes will happen on college campuses:

The lack of public, comprehensive, and complex sex education in this country contributes to this toxic sexual culture on most college campuses. The abstinence-only sex education that most young men and women receive does not teach them how to articulate their own sexual needs and respect those articulated by their partners. Teens who are merely told “Just don’t do it” are lacking more than an anatomy lesson or information on contraceptive choices. They are also missing out on essential communication skills and life-saving knowledge about sex and power. Which is bad news for teenagers in our paradoxically hyper-sexual and hyper-conservative contemporary America who are in desperate need of wise mentorship.

Though many feminists have responded and responded well, I wanted to write today as both a feminist and an evangelical. My faith tells me that sexuality is one of God’s great gifts; my own experience tells me that it can bring joy and heartbreak; my pro-feminism is keenly aware of how easily it can be misused. And as a Christian feminist, I am grieved that the unwillingness of the church (I use the term in its broadest sense) to talk frankly about sexuality has unwittingly created an environment that threatens the safety and the dignity of our young people.

The contemporary evangelical movement is rightly critical of many aspects of our hyper-sexuaalized culture. Christians are right to be troubled by the crass commercialization of sex, and they are right to speak out against the severing of sexual activity from loving, enduring relationships. Most serious and thoughtful Christians respect the tremendous power of sex: we honor the pleasure it brings, and we are awed by its power to overwhelm our senses and fill us with physical, emotional, even spiritual delight. It is no accident that even the unbelievers among us cry out “Oh God!” so often at orgasm; it’s a recognition of an transcendent quality of sex at its best.

But too often, Christians, particularly evangelicals, have been more concerned with preventing pre-marital sexual activity than we have been with encouraging honest and open dialogue. We imagine that if we can somehow keep our boys and girls in a sexual deep freeze until their wedding nights, the sex that follows will be mutually satisfying, blissful, and honoring to God. Too often, we assume that issues of consent are only important for the “sinfully promiscuous”, rather than for believers as well. But as we all know, marriage is no guarantor of mutuality, and the “Yes!” of the wedding day is not a “Yes” to every future sexual act that a spouse might want.

Christians are divided about pre-marital sex, of course. The mainstream evangelical position is that genital sexual activity is to be saved for heterosexual marriage, though substantial minorities of serious, devout Christians argue for a more inclusive understanding. But we ought not to continue to make the mistake that we have been making, which is to see all pre-marital sex as equally sinful and thus equally worthy of condemnation.

Surely, from the standpoint of a youth pastor or a loving parent, God’s “best” for their son or daughter might be that they wait until marriage to have intercourse. But as we’re told over and over again, we ought never let the “best be the enemy of the good.” From that same standpoint of pastor or parent, assume your child is having sex before marriage. Wouldn’t we all want our son or daughter in a safe, loving relationship rather than in an abusive one? Wherever there is love and mutuality, there is at least some reflection of God, even if it isn’t the best; wherever there is abuse and violation, there is surely profound sin.

The tragedy of abstinence-only education is that it fails to draw meaningful distinctions about non-marital sexual activity. It lumps together acquaintance rape with a loving, consensual relationship. It obstinately refuses to distinguish between random promiscuity and a committed, monogamous dating relationship. The abstinence-only crowd simply cries “all sin is equally sinful”, which grossly distorts theology. While it is true that all sin represents “separation from God”, not all sins separate us an equal distance away. Sins of malice, according to church tradition, are always worse than sins of desire (see our old boy Aquinas for that!) Sins that deny the dignity of the other (which is what rape always does) are inherently malicious; sins that honor that dignity (and honor can exist in a pre-marital relationship) are at worst sins of concupiscence, which is not nearly as serious a sign of separation from God.

In my circle of Christian friends, many of whom are youth leaders, we have a widely divergent set of views on sexuality. Some insist that sex is rightly only confined to the marriage bed; others (such as myself) believe in a more inclusive, broader understanding of sexual possibility outside of heterosexual marriage. But those of us who love young people, who work to feed them as Christ asked us to, who dream dreams for them and wrap our arms around them and worry about them even as we know that they aren’t really ours at all — for us, to a man and a woman, we want them to have joy. We want them to be safe. And we acknowledge that simply teaching kids to “wait” or “just say no” doesn’t do anything to equip them to cope with their own sexual desires and those of their peers.

When I first blogged about teaching sex ed at All Saints Church, I got an angry email from a conservative Christan reader. He quoted that passage that shows up in all the synoptic gospels about what ought to happen to those who cause the little ones to stumble. And I said to him, as charitably as I could, what I say to my “abstinence-only” friends: It is you who are causing the young to stumble. By refusing to acknowledge any possibility for healthy, blessed sexual expression outside of marriage, by refusing to equip our precious young people with the tools to talk about their hopes, fears, and desires, you teach them shame. You teach them silence. And you make them vulnerable, both before and after marriage, to abuse. Better the millstone for you indeed, my friends.

“Obscene gerunds”, the Christian life, and being in the world

Jendi Reiter, who actually does very well what the sound of her surname implies, has a great post up this week about her experiences as a Christian writing a novel about decidedly non-Christian characters living a “lifestyle” of, as she and the Times put it, “obscene gerunds.”

I’m working on a novel that is taking me to some pretty strange places. Places in my head, for now, but no less dangerous for all that. These people are doing things that I’ve generally been too sensible, uninterested or afraid to do…

My characters drink, swear, commit adultery, have one-night stands, choose rock ‘n roll over doing their homework, and otherwise follow what they think is their bliss because the gospel is not just for people like me who don’t find any of those things appealing (except swearing — I am from Manhattan). I see the beauty and joy that they are seeking, the genuineness of their quest for a life beyond rational self-interest, as well as the insufficiency of their answers…

Jendi and I are both adult converts, though our pre-conversion lives were clearly quite different. I have been called many things in my day, but “sensible” has rarely been one of them. I’ve done the obscene gerunds six ways to Sunday, collected the bagfuls of stories — complete with the photos, court proceedings and physical and psychic scars to prove it. As one of my exes put it to me, quoting (I think) Anne Tyler, “Hugo, you’ve spent years leading a ‘slipping-down life’”. Like more than a few sinners through the ages, I slipped right to the point of death — and by grace was saved. It’s a familiar story.

Jendi is called to write; it’s part of the gift set our God gave to her. And I’m so damned grateful that she’s doing writing that is grounded in the Gospel but isn’t saccharine sweet, isn’t, as she says, a pastel-covered Thomas Kinkade world. Christianity has to work in the real world, wide open to the realities of how people live and breathe. It has to acknowledge that people don’t just make love all the time, sometimes the sinners (and the saints) fuck. Authentic Christian writing, authentic Christian praxis, can be grounded in the transcendent (how’s that for an unworkable image), but it’s also got to engage people where they’re at, in all their messy, embodied, pleasureable, painful, earthiness.

At All Saints, I work with my share of teens who are trying out the “obscene gerunds.” Some of our kids are, like Jendi, “sensible” (or perhaps just fearful); others are more eager to explore their options. Lots of them have pre-marital sex, many get high. And while I know that for some this behavior is self-destructive acting-out, I know too much to believe that that’s true for all of them. Not every girl who loses her virginity at 16 is “troubled and looking for attention.” Modern conservative Christians tend to see pre-marital sexual behavior as not only sinful, but also indicative of some fundamental pyschological dysfunction. We confuse sin with pathology too easily, trying to get the language of a secular discipline (psychology) to reinforce our traditional moral views. (One of my ex-wives has her doctorate from Fuller Seminary in psychology, where they make a magnificent and spirited attempt to integrate the social sciences with evangelical theology.)

With my All Saints kids, I know my primary job is to love them as Jesus loved them, and to gently, softly, point them towards Him. But I make it clear to them that it is possible to love Jesus with all of your heart, soul, and mind, and still say “fuck.” It may even be possible to love Jesus with all of your heart, soul, and mind and do more than merely say it! As I’ve written before elsewhere, I reject the idea that experience is the best teacher. But I also reject the notion, common in Christian circles, that messy experience has no redemptive value. After all, my ability to pastor my kids when they are struggling is in no small way linked to my own past. I can say “I’ve been there”, and have it be true. Such authenticity often matters to teenagers, though it doesn’t mean that someone without such experience is a poor youth pastor.

And I will confess that I do enjoy the stories that some of my friends who are still “out there” share with me! When I first got sober and turned my life over, I was forced to end a lot of friendships with people whose influence was less than positive. They were interested in continuing to do with me what I had been wont to do, and that behavior was killing me. For a long time, I didn’t dare go to bars or clubs. (Now, I’m too eager to get to bed early, but that’s another story.) I avoided R-rated movies for a while, and in the first blush of conversion and sobriety, became — typically — a bit of a prig. It was what I needed to do, as my confidence was so fragile and my vulnerability so great. Just being around alcohol, just being around a culture of promiscuity, terrified me. And I had to withdraw.

That’s not the case any longer. I’m okay being the only sober person in the room these days, though I do find that most drunks aren’t nearly as funny as they think they are. I can be in an atmosphere of electric sexual tension, quietly confident that my faith and my devotion to my wife will keep me safe. I don’t flirt with temptation merely to test my conversion, nor do I seek it out for an illicit thrill, but I don’t run from it either. I like some of the wild stories I hear from my teens and my friends who are still “out there” doin’ the obscene gerunds. Often I can say, “Been there, done that, have the scar and the t-shirt”, but other times I can say “Wow, even I never tried that!” I don’t deny that for all of the pain I endured and inflicted, I often had a great deal of pleasure and fun. And while I don’t dwell on the memories of the past, I’m not reluctant to contemplate what others are still out there doing.

I’m looking forward to Jendi’s book.

More on youth group, boundaries, and accountability

Lauren not only designed this blog, she’s inspiring two posts from me today. Yesterday, our Indiana friend posted about her own church camp experience. She talks at length about one particularly creepy counselor, a man who was regularly and stunningly sexually inappropriate. Lauren shares some anecdotes, and notes that he acted out in full view of

other adults, all of whom were, as mentioned, too nice to say anything about how grossly inappropriate all of this was.

That strikes a nerve with me. I’m a veteran church youth volunteer; I help lead Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon teen groups. I’ve gone on many, many weekend retreats. And I’ve written at length about the importance of good, loving boundaries with teenagers. (See here, here, here.)

But I’m also prone to bouts of niceness. Yes, I watch my own behavior around teenagers very carefully; I make sure that I get regular feedback from other adult volunteers who see me hug and pat and “love on” the boys and girls with whom I interact. But reading Lauren’s post, I am struck by how trusting I am of my fellow volunteers! Let me be clear that I have absolutely no reason to doubt the integrity of any of them. I’ve never witnessed any inappropriate behavior — yet on the other hand, I’m not as zealous about checking up on my colleagues as I am in monitoring my own interactions with the teens. And like many people, I don’t like confrontation one bit. Challenging a peer — or a church leader — would not be easy. But I’d like to think that if I saw an adult behave inappropriately with one of our teens, I would intervene quickly. I’m hoping my desire to protect the vulnerable would trump my eagerness to maintain a “nice and pleasant” atmosphere.

In a comment below Lauren’s post, Thomas writes:

I’m very concerned at accounts I have read over the years about people knowing of and ignoring adults with a history of sexually charged behavior with and access to children. It is my experience that people can turn their heads more easily when nobody requires them to take responsibility. I recommend the following question:

“Will my child have contact with anyone here that you have reason to believe may be sexually attracted to children?”

Anyone with a brain knows that if they have been ignoring the rumors about Mr. Davis, and they say no, then their ass is now on the hook in both a moral and likely a legal sense.

It’s a tough question for a parent to ask, but I’d be pleased if a parent asked it of me or any other youth leader at All Saints. Thinking of my fellow volunteers and youth pastors, I’m completely confident I could give a hearty “no”. I wouldn’t be offended by the question at all, even if was directed at me personally. Asking direct questions like this set a clear tone: it makes it evident that the protection of children and teens is more important than avoiding putting adults on the spot. It makes it clear that parents expect that the adults to whom they entrust their young people will do more than simply refrain from harming their kids. A parent who asks the question Thomas suggests makes it clear that he or she is holding those of us who work with youth accountable. And I welcome that accountability, and am committed to living it out.

We had our final youth group meeting of 2006 on Wednesday night. We had a Christian rock band, Transistor Radio do a gig for the teens. We had tacos and Christmas cookies and a gift exchange. And we had lots of laughter, lots of hugs, and a bit of gentle “moshing” as the band performed. And when it came time to say goodbye until 2007, there was a lot of hugging. As I’ve written before, I don’t foist my embraces on anyone — but when hugged, I hug back with warmth and exuberance and enthusiasm. The kids I work with know that if they need to be held, I will hold them. They know that if they need me to keep my space while they talk, I can do that too. And I know that whatever I’m doing is seen by the wider community, and I welcome their queries or concerns. Lauren’s post reminds me that I can’t forget I also have a job to lovingly watch how my colleagues interact with our kids, and be fearless about challenging anything that seems out of place.