Anatomy of a Scandal
By David Pasternak* (not his real name)
Technically, I resigned—I didn’t get fired. And that’s how we like it in the church, as neat and presentable as possible. But the truth is that I got fired. And that fact alone was inconceivable to me, in my mind the least-likely guy to get fired from a church or any job, for that matter. I had very successful back-to-back stints as a youth pastor. I had a knack for connecting with people—teenagers, parents, and volunteers. I had a great relationship with my leaders, and maintained a high level of integrity in my ministry.
But it was not my present that got me fired; it was my past. Sin has consequences, and my sins as a youth ministry intern not only hurt the people involved, they also derailed my ministry nearly a decade after they were in my rearview mirror.
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I’m the product of youth ministry in the church. I was the kid every youth pastor would love to have in their group—I invited friends, never missed a trip, and labored alongside the adult leaders. I worked my way into leadership roles in ministry, and by the time I was mid-stream in college I served as a leader in multiple ministries, “giving back” through a youth ministry near campus. I emulated what I’d learned in my own youth group experience and was an avid practitioner of “relational ministry.” I was a good kid, too—I didn’t drink, never touched drugs, and was saving myself for marriage.
It’s still hard for me to believe I was later fired for my “moral shortcomings” during this time in my life. The downward spiral started innocently enough—a lapse in judgment, follow by some poor decisions, ending in plain-old sin. And my sin was the worst kind, according to the Bible, because “all other sins are outside one’s body,” but sexual sin is not.
The First Steps Into Darkness
I was a college-aged intern at a church, serving under a great youth ministry role model. He’d adopted a Young Life model of relational ministry—at the time this approach was rare in the church. We intentionally showed up where kids lived rather than waiting for them to show up at church. And we had great success, spending lots of time in kids’ homes and schools, building tight relationships. We took teenagers to camp, on mission trips, and were there for them in their most important moments. We counseled and encouraged them in the midst of their struggles and challenged them to grow in their faith.
The parents of these kids were profoundly grateful to us, because their kids were excited about God—they looked forward to church and youth group and were reading their Bibles on their own. Many of these parents invited us to their homes for dinner, for holiday gatherings, and for movie nights. Some of these families called me “family.”
One of these families was particularly special to me—I spent lots of time with them. The parents loved me. I felt at home with them. And their sons and daughters enjoyed spending time with me. My family was far away in another state, and I felt lonely. I thoroughly enjoyed the hours I spent with this family, and I was very close to their high school daughter. She was a beautiful girl who loved God and, in retrospect, loved the attention she received from the church intern.
Our friendship developed as we served together on mission trips and over dinner at her house. It was obvious this high school girl was infatuated with the ministry’s older intern, and vice versa. At first I tried to deny the feelings, and told myself this shouldn’t and couldn’t happen. This relationship, we both knew, was off-limits until she graduated from high school. So we never spoke directly about our feelings for each other—we both knew nothing could come of it.
But over the course of many months temptation gave way to indiscretion. First there was a conversation about our feelings, both of us acknowledging we could not act upon them. Because I was working so hard to fight temptation, and felt shame for even having conflicted feelings, I kept my struggle to myself. I didn’t confide in my supervisor or my mentor because I feared their reactions. My secrecy created space for my longings to give way to touch, and then a kiss, and then many more kisses, and then even more inappropriate, sinful touch.
Satan knows our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and he’s a master at taking something God meant for good and twisting it for his own purposes. Even so, I’m not shifting away any responsibility for my sin. Yes, the enemy took advantage of my vulnerabilities, but I pulled the trigger myself. I felt guilty because I knew what I was doing was wrong on many levels. But I couldn’t bring myself to end this relationship, or seek help to do it.
Hounded By Guilt
I was living a double-life—a well-loved youth ministry intern who had a secret relationship on the side. We went on this way for months, all the way through this young woman’s graduation from high school. Many in the church saw our chemistry (unaware we’d crossed barriers that shouldn’t be crossed) and encouraged a relationship between us. So we openly dated at church, and everyone seemed supportive of us. But my shame and guilt for the way this relationship started was too much for me to overcome.
After only a few months of openly dating and continuing to struggle with physical purity, I ended the relationship abruptly. The girl was crushed. But I knew I had to regain my God-honoring life. I felt terrible for hurting her and was burdened by the guilt of my sin. I was unsure whether I was cut out for any type of ministry, let alone youth ministry. So a few months later I wrapped up my stint as a youth ministry intern. During this time I tried to work through my sin—I repented of it and resolved to never go down this road again. I sought and was granted forgiveness from the girl for my abhorrent choices. We left on good terms and I’ve never had contact with her again. Later, I heard from her family that she got married a year or so after I left town.
When my internship ended I had no idea what to do next. So as a stopgap I decided to work at a Christian camp for the summer—yeah, sounds like a great plan for someone who’d already made some terrible decisions. But God in his wisdom knew what he was doing; that summer began my season of redemption, one of the most significant times in my life. My struggle to deal with my sin and the growth that resulted changed me. But I never did publicly confess my sin—at the time I didn’t feel it was fair to the girl and her church community.
I considered my work at the camp my “last hurrah” in full-time ministry. I planned to get a “real job” in the fall and move on with my life. But that summer God put a few amazing youth pastors in my life—they were humble, obedient, God-fearing men who challenged me with their dedication to Kingdom work. Their example somehow opened me to God’s leading again. It seemed to me he was encouraging me to follow my original purpose and calling. So instead of a “real job” I started responding to a few invitations to candidate at churches following the summer. I ended up at one of those churches as a pastor to youth, a changed man with strong convictions to serve God with honor and integrity.
Sin Hunts Me Down
God took a wretched, selfish, decrepit person and allowed me to be part of a building an incredible youth ministry community. My approach was still “incarnational” and relational, but I put safeguards in place so that I, my interns, and my volunteer leaders would not fall into sin as I had. I saw God work in powerful ways for many years at that church.
While there, I decided to share my previous sinful indiscretion with a couple of confidants, but never with someone who had any connection to my previous community. I think I was still trying to protect the girl and, honestly, was not sure what good would come of it if I did address it. But years later, at a second church far away from my old life, my world came crashing down around me.
At the time, my sin was a distant memory—a springboard that had launched me into a ministry that had high standards for integrity. I was a stickler about our rules for adult leaders and myself: don’t give rides home alone to kids of the opposite gender, always meet in a public place, and always keep the door open when you’re meeting with them. After ministering with thousands of kids, volunteers, staff, and interns I never again had an issue of sexual misconduct on my watch. I felt like I’d made my mistakes early and had learned from them!
That’s why it felt like a blindside tackle when, one summer day when I was away in another state for a speaking engagement, a denominational official asked me to meet a couple of church leaders. They asked me if I’d done anything wrong—anything I needed to share with them. I was pretty sure they weren’t referencing my questionable driving on foreign mission trips or the time I accidentally left a teenager at the beach. So I told them about my sin as a youth ministry intern, and as soon as I shared it I knew this was the reason I was facing an interrogation team.
From the few details they revealed, I gathered that the woman I’d had the inappropriate relationship with had revealed it to family members, who then brought it to the attention of the church. There, far away from home, the church officials told me my ministry would be coming to an abrupt end. They fed me my “last supper” and herded me into a hotel room. They told me to not speak with anyone—anyone—about this. Far from friends and family, I spent the most lonely, hopeless, sleepless night of my life. The next week I was home again, in and out of meetings with denominational leaders. I had to tell my friends and youth-group kids some oblique excuses about why I was suddenly “off the grid.” But I decided to submit myself to whatever was best for my local church—to trust the leaders there. That, it turns out, was a big mistake.
I’d always heard that the church “shoots their wounded,” but I’d never lived this horrifying reality firsthand. A couple of leaders at my church quickly determined I was now more of a liability than the asset—they asked me to resign or be fired. When the wider congregation learned what had happened, those who knew my heart, character, and integrity were not happy. They made a big stink out of it, and church leaders responded harshly. The situation was messy, and the easiest way to clear it up was to get rid of me. The ripple effects from this approach are still impacting my life, and I feel disenfranchised from the church.
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In my story there are two poor displays of sinful humanity:
• First, my selfish sin and abuse of my church intern position many years earlier.
• Second, the shabby way my denomination and my church treated a young pastor who was full of remorse for his decade-old sin.
The “throw the sinner overboard” approach is not God-honoring, shows a deep level of insecurity about sin, and sends a message that Christians aren’t willing to work with the real issues we deal with in our world. I told my pastor I was fine if he needed me to step down, but I believed the church needed to see that I was a sinner who was loved, not discarded. Instead, the worst-case scenario happened—I was a problem to solve, not a person in need of redemption. Still, many in the church stepped up to love a broken sinner like me. I will never forget the words of one of them: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
I give praise to God that we serve a King so merciful that he claims as his own one as decrepit in my sin as I have been, and as I am. ◊
Helping Sexually Abused Kids
-By Dan Allender-
Sharice's face was heavy with sorrow. She stared at the floor when she spoke, and her words trailed off into oblivion at the end of each sentence. Her eyes invited no entry into her soul. She was normally a happy kid, and the changes in her behavior left Mark, her youth leader, confused and deeply concerned.
He called her at home, but she was curt and quiet. When she agreed to meet him for breakfast, he knew it was probably his only shot to help her. She was withdrawing more and more from her friends. And she missed most youth group activities. Something awful was turning a bright, engaging, friendly young girl into a moody, irritable, withdrawn teenager. Mark wondered if Sharice's erratic behavior was due to normal adolescent ups and downs. Or was it something more sinister—like sexual abuse?
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Allegations of sexual and physical abuse are common in our culture. As a youth worker, it’s a daunting challenge to intervene in an abusive situation. And false accusations of abuse have ruined reputations and destroyed lives. So how do you move with courage when you suspect one of your teenagers is a victim of sexual abuse? A few common-sense guidelines:
1. Address the data, not the cause. Look for the following behaviors that are common in kids who've been abused:
• Recent and radical changes in personality (moodiness, depression, suicidal thoughts, withdrawal, outbursts of unprovoked anger);
• binge drinking, drug abuse, and promiscuity;
• a significant drop in grades or a shift in friendships; and
• self-destructive behavior (addictions, burning or cutting themselves, running away from home).
Once you've collected the data, avoid directly asking the young person what's going on. Mark wisely never asked Sharice the leading question: “Have you been sexually abused?” If a young person believes you want to hear a particular “cause” underlying their problem, it's possible she'll confirm whatever you suggest. It’s crucial to first paint her a picture of the negative changes you've observed.
For example, Mark said: “Sharice, you know I'm concerned. Three months ago, I began to notice small changes in you. You were late to youth group. You seemed to care less about your appearance. Then you grew more and more depressed, moody, and closed to interaction. At first, I assumed you were going through some life changes, but I’m beginning to wonder if there’s not more to the story. There's no way I can ‘get’ you to talk, but I’m not willing to drop this issue until you slam the door in my face.”
2. Focus on your relationship, not the young person's reluctance to talk. Teenagers who are afraid to talk for any reason are unlikely to open up simply because you want them to. They expect you to ask what’s going on inside, and they’ve already planned a “defense” that will eventually degenerate into a power struggle. It’s better to take a different route.
If you talk about the nature of your relationship, you can open the door to a question that’ll take the interaction in an unexpected direction. Talk about why the young person may find you untrustworthy.
For example, Mark said: “Sharice, I've known you fairly well for five years. During that time we've had some good times and some bad times. Remember when I stupidly embarrassed you at that campfire service? I do. I know I’ve meant something to you during a few hard times as well. But in the midst of what you’re going through now, I wonder if our relationship is strong enough for you to let me be part of your life? If it’s not, then I’d like to hear how we can build a better relationship so you might eventually trust me with your battles.”
3. Invite the young person to talk about her change in behavior, not the cause. If the young person is open enough to talk about your relationship, then you’ve set a context to ask her to talk about her behavior change. When you focus on irrefutable data, you’re challenging her to admit something is wrong—radical changes mean something is going on. Once you both acknowledge the data, ask when the “change” began. This focuses the problem along a timeline rather than labeling it in general terms.
Mark asked: “Sharice, do you agree there’s been a radical change in your life in the last three months?”
Sharice: “Yeah, but I don't know why.”
Mark: “From what we talked about, you know me to be a trustworthy friend, even though I know I’ve failed you before. Do you want to talk about what occurred three months or so ago? People just don’t make that kind of radical change without a context—without something happening that sort of pushes them to give up the life they were leading. True?”
Sharice: “Yeah. But a lot has happened that I can't tell you about—I could get into a lot of trouble.”
4. Offer the protection and hope your church has promised to abuse victims. I would never minister in a church that didn't have a written policy on dealing with abuse—sexual, emotional, physical, or spousal. The policy ought to cover how to handle reporting to the church leadership, the civil authorities, and relevant helping agencies. How will the claim be investigated? How will the person be protected and honored during the period of exposure? What will be the safety net to ascertain truthfulness or possible false accusation? These are crucial issues.
In a war, front-line soldiers shouldn’t have to wonder if the supply lines will collapse. It’s insane for youth leaders to minister in this crazy world without an official undergirding of support from their church. This will free you to move confidently with kids who are hesitant to share.
Mark said: “Sharice, I sense you fear what will come out if you talk. Right?”
Mark: “I know you feel caught and hopeless. Let me tell you what’ll happen if you tell me about a significant problem. First, I have the support of the church. They won't leave you high and dry. If the problem is with someone in your family, or with someone you know, we’ll work with you and that person to make sure the problem is dealt with. If it involves even bigger issues, we'll make sure we walk you through it until it’s resolved by other means, including counseling or confrontation with respected, strong leaders in the church and the community. You're not alone; nor do you have to suffer this problem without help. But no one can make you choose it. I just won’t have you believe you’re alone. Do you understand, Sharice, this puts you in a terrible bind? You cannot continue to believe you’re alone and hopeless. If you want help and hope, it’s available. What direction do you want to go?”
Dan Allender is Professor of Counseling at Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, Washington. He’s the author of The Wounded Heart and The Healing Path, and directs an outreach to abuse victims called Wounded Heart Ministries.