Grilling the youth pastor

It's the question that preachers, teachers and parents dread, especially if they were shaped by the cultural earthquakes of the 1960s. But no one fears it more than youth ministers, who hear the private questions that young people fear to ask their elders. Youth pastors work in the no man's land between the home and the church.

This is the question: "Well, didn't you do any of this stuff when you were a kid?" The young person may be asking about sex, drinking, drugs, cheating or, perhaps, lying to parents about any of the above.

If youth ministers stop and think about it, they will realize that they usually say something like the following while trying to answer these questions, said the Rev. David "Duffy" Robbins, a United Methodist who teaches youth ministry at Eastern University near Philadelphia.

"If I answer that it's none of your business and the answer is between me and God, there's a pretty good chance you'll hear that as a 'yes,' " said Robbins, writing in Good News magazine. "If I answer 'yes' to your question, there's a pretty good chance that you'll take that as permission to make the same mistakes that I've made. If, on the other hand, I say 'no,' there's a good possibility that you might reason that then I couldn't possibly understand what you're facing or what you're going through right now.

"So, what that question amounts to is a lose-lose proposition for both of us, and I'm not willing to put us in that position, so I'm not going to answer that question."

There was a time when youth pastors -- not to mention senior ministers -- would have felt more confident answering.

There was a time when adults thought it was their duty to tell young people that some things were right and some things were wrong -- period. The assumption was that adults had a sacred duty to serve as moral examples and that was that. Candor was rarely part of the equation.

Then the pendulum swung in the other direction, said Robbins, and many religion leaders joined what is often called the "authenticity movement." The goal was to open up and level with young people in an attempt to impress them with displays of openness and vulnerability. By sharing the details of his or her own sins and temptations, the youth pastor hoped to gain credibility -- inspiring young people not to make the same errors.

But there's a problem with letting it all hang out, said Robbins.

"It so easy to get carried away and, before you know it, your whole body language and the relish with which people tell these stories can send the wrong signal. You may end up leaving a kid thinking, 'Well, I wonder if I could do something really bad like that. That sounds kind of cool.' "

The problem, he said, is that it's hard not to cross the line between honest, transparent disclosure and imprudent, naked exhibitionism. Nevertheless, it's true that young people need to hear that it's normal to struggle with sin and temptation and that there are adults who want to help them, because they have faced many of the same issues -- in the past and in the present.

"It is completely appropriate, for example, for the students in my youth group to know that I struggle with lust," noted Robbins. "On the other hand, if I continue by saying, 'In fact, Sally, your mom is a fox!' -- that crosses a line."

This kind of self-exposure has to have a purpose, said Robbins. It's a good thing for adults to acknowledge that they struggle with sin, but it can be destructive if that's the end of the story. Young people need to know that God "loves us the way that we are, but he doesn't intend to leave us as we are," he said.

"It's one thing for me to tell my youth group that I struggled with this or that sin and, with God's help, have managed to put it behind me," explained Robbins.

"It's something else to just say that I struggled and struggled and struggled and that there just doesn't seem to be a way to be forgiven by God and go on to lead a better life. ... That isn't much of a Gospel, now is it?"