Glen Guyton is Chief Operating Officer for Mennonite Church USA.
Maybe nothing better illustrates the need for clear boundary lines than the hymn by Thomas H. Troeger:
“God marked a line and told the sea, its surging tides and waves were free to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.”
Even in nature, we see that by design God created natural barriers to protect various aspects of his creation. They say good fences make good neighbors and I say healthy boundaries make healthy ministries.
Healthy boundaries make healthy ministries.
Having good abuse prevention policies in place and establishing healthy boundary practices help to minimize the chance of sexual abuse ever occurring in your ministry in the first place. While it is important for our churches and youth ministry programs to have a good reporting system, it is also important to understand how and why abuse occurs. The majority of sexual abuse cases in churches are not outright assaults. Typically abuse begins through a series of small boundary violations that eventually lead up to the more serious acts of sexual abuse.
What are boundary violations?
Basically, a boundary violation is when we cross lines that put our ministry and integrity at risk and also risks doing harm to those we are trusted to serve. Many times these violations may start off as innocent interactions, but interactions that start to weaken healthy boundaries. One thing that we as leaders need to remember is that while we must have our own professional and personal boundaries, we must also respect the lines that those we serve draw. Please understand, that often there are no hard and fast rules to what the boundary lines are because culture and context always matter in our social interactions. There is some common sense to this, but boundaries will vary, from person to person and will depend on the nature of the relationship. Here are some possible examples of boundary violations in youth ministry contexts:
- Spending too much time with one particular student
- Exchanging or requesting pictures
- Sending personal social media messages to students
- Commenting on a student’s body in a suggestive or sexual way
- Traveling alone with a student
- Sharing deeply personal and private stories
- Becoming a student’s “savior,” the source of their redemption
- Sending expensive or inappropriate gifts to a favorite student
- Lingering hugs
- Any unwelcome touch
Often these seemingly small boundary violations lead to more serious and damaging interactions. A prevention-minded ministry would have ways of intervening before smaller violations lead to bigger violations or sexual abuse. How are you protecting your students and your leaders from crossing boundaries?
Tips for creating a safer ministry
- Develop clear policies that establish clear boundaries and that define misconduct.
- Develop a mechanism to respond to sexual misconduct and abuse when it is reported.
- Train not only your leaders, but students and parents as well. Awareness is key to abuse prevention.
- Have clear guidelines for social media communication with students. I would suggest group messaging apps versus private accounts. Abuse often occurs via secret interactions.
- Have clear guidelines in place about when and where volunteers and leaders can interact with students.
- Pair male and female staff and volunteers. According to most data, the overwhelming number of abuse cases involve adult male perpetrators and female victims. While there are women abusers, men are more likely to abuse their power. Male leaders need to be proactive in abuse prevention.
- Screen all staff and volunteers.
Practice intentional self-care for staff and volunteers.
If abuse occurs
- Execute your plan with integrity.
- Don’t blame or shame the victim. Believe them.
- Do contact the police in cases of sexual assault.
- Have independent professional counselors available to deal with abuse or specialized counseling needs.
The serious nature of the abuse of power
Too often in ministry when abuse occurs, we quickly move past the pain of the victim and jump to giving grace and forgiveness to the perpetrator. I am not sure why when even Jesus himself said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.” (Luke 17:1-3 NIV). I don’t think Jesus was advocating for ministry lynch mobs or saying that forgiveness and restoration of someone in sin are to be ignored. I do think that Jesus was noting the serious nature of how damning it is for leaders in power to abuse that power at the expense of those they are called to shepherd.
There must be a rebuke for leaders involved in cases of sexual abuse and a time for healing and loving care for the victim. There will be plenty of time for forgiveness after the healing process starts. It is important the church doesn’t only rely on the law or legal advice in it comes to cases of sexual misconduct. We have a spiritual and moral obligation to our church members that extends beyond the court. Even if there is a legal case pending, the church has to do its part in the process to bring restoration to the victim and protect the integrity of the ministry.
Our first goal as ministry leaders should be abuse prevention. Having a response policy is a start, but it is not enough. It is crucial that ministries have a well thought out plan in place before abuse occurs. I have partnered with two great institutions that work to prevent clergy misconduct and child abuse prevention in ministry: Faith Trust Institute and Dove’s Nest. If you are interested in learning more about Healthy Boundaries Training for your leaders or your congregation, feel free to contact me.
This article first appeared on the Youth Specialties website.