It's been a good morning, and I finally have some time to blog. I had back-to-back coffee dates this morning with a couple of different folks at the Fuller Seminary bookstore. I'm caffeinated and stimulated from some good discussion; I'm also still high from a hard workout. I want a diet Coke badly, but am restricting and "offering it up."
It's a very short trip from an email like this to an accusation of impropriety. If that happens, even though you have not done anything wrong, you will find that your entire life will become an instant nightmare. Best case, you will spend a lot of time and money defending yourself against a false accusation and succeed, but find that your reputation has been ruined. Worst case, you will fail and find yourself labeled a criminal as well as losing time, money and your reputation. You may even find yourself in jail.
I hope you will think long and hard about these possible consequences.
I'm a mental health professional (Child & Adolescent Neurosychologist) and for the last five years I have refused to treat any female patients of any age for any reason. I do this not because I dislike females, but because I need to protect myself to the extent that is possible, and I see no other way of doing it. This doesn't protect me from an accusation that I did something inappropriate with a male patient, but at least it lessens the odds a bit that something bad will happen to me.
Perhaps we need to work to change "the reality that we live in a climate of heightened suspicion of adult men who work with teens" instead of just passively accepting it.
I feel compelled to respond, because I'm so saddened by what Shfwilf has written. He -- and some of my other commenters -- invite me to become outraged at having been the target of suspicion. They imply that it's our "culture of misandry" (man-hating) that is to blame for perfectly innocent remarks being misconstrued, and perfectly innocent men being falsely accused of harassment, boundary violations, and molestation. They encourage me, it seems, to rail against the injustice of it all!
But I'm not gonna get angry at that "parent in Mission Viejo" who took issue with my language. I'm not gonna take issue with the parents who, learning through the rumor mill about my extremely "colorful" pre-conversion past, contacted the All Saints Church staff to express concern about my service with the youth. I'm not going to get angry when I'm asked to sign -- as I was asked to sign -- an agreement never to be entirely alone with a teenage girl at church. (Not a special request made of me, but one made of all male volunteers.)
You see, abuse and molestation and boundary violations are not the figments of the collective and overactive imagination of worried parents. Too many men in positions of responsibility have proven themselves unworthy of the trust placed in them. Too many men have crossed lines that ought never be crossed with the boys and girls for whom they were responsible. Yes, we are all aware that a small number of adult women have also been guilty of sexual abuse of the young; those rare stories grab extraordinary public attention, largely because they represent only a fraction of the actual number of cases. There still is every reason to be more suspicious of male youth leaders than of female ones. I can wish that it were otherwise, but to be an effective youth leader, I've got to acknowledge the reality of the problem. I'm not going to complain about being "guilty until proven innocent"; I'm going to buckle down and get to work at the task of proving myself innocent.
Of equal importance, I choose to work with other men to help them set up appropriate boundaries with female students, youth groupers, clients, what-have-you. Rather than sulking because I'm not trusted thanks to my sex, I'm choosing to be proactive. That "proactivity" means working to help create an environment in my work and in my avocation where we can honor three equally important principles of youth ministry:
The kids need to be kept safe emotionally, physically, and sexually. The youth leaders must be accountable to God, to the church, to the kids, and to one another. And we must accomplish these first two goals without in any way sacrificing the third priority, to create a loving and intimate environment where we can all share our stories, our hugs, and our love in His name. I'm committed to all three of these principles, and I'm not willing to give up any one of them for the sake of another.
Here's a brief example of how this works. Sometimes, one of the youth group kids will ask to meet with me privately to talk. I traditionally meet with 'em on Wednesday afternoons before youth group. No matter whether I'm meeting with a boy or a girl, I let someone on the church staff know. "Hey, so-and-so is coming by to talk to me. We'll be out front on the bench" (or in the glass-doored junior high room, or wherever). I check in with another adult right before and right after I meet with the teen, and I always meet somewhere we can both talk without being overheard yet still be seen by others. Everyone is kept safe, I'm staying accountable, and my kids are able to meet with me intimately and privately. Yes, setting this up involves some conscious thought -- but it's not that big a deal once you get used to it.
I could never imagine doing what Shfwilf has done; it makes me desperately sad to contemplate such a radical decision. I would never close myself off to "my girls" for fear of what a false accusation could do to me personally and professionally. That doesn't mean I'm reckless; I left behind my disastrously self-destructive streak when I came to Christ! I trust myself, but I also create opportunities for others to verify my trustworthiness. It may be tedious, but it's necessary. It's necessary because so many of my brothers have betrayed the trust that was placed in them, and it's up to guys like me to earn some of that trust back. I don't share in their guilt, but I must carry -- and carry cheerfully -- the burden of suspicion that their foolishness created.
Anyone who sees me in youth group knows I'm a "lover." If it moves, I hug it! Mind you, I don't foist my embraces on those who don't want to be touched; immodestly enough, I believe that my ENFP-ness and my own experience have made me acutely sensitive to what is welcome and what isn't. When I'm in church, I want to share the excitement and love I feel with everyone, and I want to make it manifest in physical contact. I do it publicly and openly, mindful of those three commitments I've written about above. And in the end, I never stop asking God to show me exactly how it is that He wants me to love His lambs As Caedmon's Call sing in one of my favorite of their songs, I go into youth ministry walking "with grace my feet and faith my eyes." If my heart is right, if my prayers are fervent, if I practice common sense, trust my instincts, and let others hold me accountable, then by these things and by divine grace I won't ever cross the lines I shouldn't cross.
When God redeemed me from my life of selfishness and misery, He made it clear to me that I was supposed to love boldly and fearlessly. And that's what I'm going to do with the lambs I am privileged to help to feed.