Talk by Dr Conrad Gempf. Part of the Youthwork Summit 'Inspire'...
We need to talk about some things. There are a few issues in youth ministry that for reasons of awkwardness, pride or taboo, simply never get discussed. So it’s time for some radical honesty: time to talk about the things we don’t talk about. Welcome to The Elephant Room.
Even in an age when we’ve started to talk openly about ‘taboo’ subjects such as pornography, there’s still one question youth workers just can’t talk about. For some, it becomes so traumatically unresolved that it leads to them leaving youth ministry altogether; in other cases it ends up in a series of misjudged decisions and serious consequences. So let’s be grown-ups, and acknowledge a very real question in youth ministry: what do you do when you feel attracted to a member of your group?
We deliberately framed this question around feelings of attraction towards an older young person. Let’s be clear though: feeling a significant sense of attraction to a younger teenager (certainly one under 16) is a much more serious problem (especially from a safeguarding perspective). Yes, some younger teens look and act significantly older than their years, but that never, ever justifies an adult youth leader’s attraction to a child. If this is happening, it is of paramount importance that you step out of youth work immediately. You should also consider seeking some professional and confidential help.
In a situation where they’re over 16 however, and particularly when you’re not much older yourself, the whole area might seem somewhat ‘greyer’. After all, out ‘in the world’, 18-year-olds date 23-year-olds all the time… right?
The biggest problem with this kind of thinking is that it forgets both the power and responsibility of the context in which youth worker and young person are relating. Let’s say that Annie, a fresh-faced 21-yearold graduate in her first job, falls for Ben, a physically and emotionally-mature member of the youth group she’s just taken over. Ben is attracted to Annie too; and at 18 he’s only nine months from leaving the group and heading into the world of work. They could easily have met in a pub.
What this fails to acknowledge however is that as a member of her group, Annie has agreed to take pastoral responsibility for Ben. She’s employed to look after him and to provide unbiased spiritual support to him and his peers. Even ignoring the seismic effect any relationship between them would have on the rest of the group, dating him would be a breach of that responsibility. Annie isn’t just his church leader, she’s his youth leader: fulfilling a role that is part-parental. The power dynamic involved here means that any relationship would be setting off on an unhealthy and unbalanced footing; Annie could even be accused of abusing her power and taking advantage of Ben – and that stands even if Ben were to leave (or graduate) the group in an effort to legitimise a relationship.
So what should Annie do? She knows she shouldn’t date Ben, but she can’t help feeling attracted to him. She’s also aware – even if it’s partly to do with the perceived power dynamic – that Ben is developing feelings for her too. What can she do to stop it?
Accountability is powerful, but in cases like this it can also be very dangerous. The fear of judgement or gossip prevents us talking to friends about the darkest and most difficult areas of our lives, but often it’s that secrecy which gives them their power. So, if she can find someone really worthy of her trust, Annie should confide in them (making clear that she does not want to act on her attraction), and give them permission to ask about the situation whenever they want. This simple act could profoundly dissipate feelings of guilt and unease around the relationship, and more importantly, act as a practical barrier to its development.
Secondly, Annie should be careful not to acknowledge her feelings to Ben. This is incredibly tempting because, while she might convince herself it’s a mature starting point for them to work through the issues together, it’s both exciting and likely to have a dangerously inciting influence on Ben. By admitting her attraction, Annie will transform his aspirational crush into a live option; thus escalating the situation.
Finally, Annie should look to limit her contact with Ben. This should be done sensitively, and hopefully in a way that Ben isn’t really aware of, so might involve a reordering of groups or group activities, or slightly changing Annie’s role. Putting some clear blue water between the two of them could quickly help to weaken the sense of connection. Ultimately, if the above steps fail, the responsible solution may even be for the Annie to break contact entirely: either by changing responsibilities or even moving jobs.
The Ben and Annie example is perhaps the greyestseeming version of this sort of tension; of course it can also involve a 16-year-old and a 30-year-old, or a situation where a young person has essentially been ‘groomed’ while the adult youth worker waited for them to turn 16 or 18. I honestly believe the principles are the same in any case: when we take up the call of youth ministry, we agree to handle the power we’re given with real responsibility. This means that, however strong our attraction might be, however right or even ‘God-inspired’ that potential relationship might seem, our responsibility simply must overrule it.