Saturday, October 6, 2012

After The Fall (Youth Worker)

Aftermath of fallen leadership:

"When leaders fall, ministries can be devastated. Moral failure is part of human nature, but misconduct by church and parachurch leaders can leave a lasting and bitter legacy among adults and youth who experience sorrow, anger and deep feelings of betrayal.

I never sought to serve in a post-fall context, but with the seeming increase in lapsed leaders, I have wound up ministering in a number of these settings. There is much I wish I had known before I found myself in these scenarios. Perhaps my experience can help you if you find yourself trying to pick up the pieces after a leader has fallen.

Many Ways to Fall:

Moral failure comes in many forms and from various sources: a senior pastor who can't control his sex drive; a youth pastor who engages in a sexual relationship with a student; staff members who have affairs; a children's minister who uses church credit cards to embezzle funds; or a youth ministry volunteer who views pornography with students.

Here in Colorado, we have seen big-league falls (Ted Haggard, head of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of a major megachurch, resigned after a scandal involving homosexuality and drugs. I talked to Ted during my research.) and less publicized failures (youth pastors who have sex or take drugs with students).

No matter the precise nature of the fall, the pain and suffering permeate those who are part of the ministry. I believe young people, who may be more idealistic or trusting than adults, can be shattered even more deeply by a leader's failure.

While each scenario is unique, there are some common issues and principles to consider when serving in these contexts.

Consequences of a Fall:

My own experience and research reveal that anxiety always follows a leader's fall. This anxiety may be expressed in various ways and often can erupt when you least expect it.

I experienced this kind of anxiety when travel for my doctoral work took me away from my youth group for two weeks. When I returned, I found that my group had experienced heightened drama and chaos. "We thought you were leaving permanently," said one student about my brief absence. This experience showed me that young people who have witnessed leadership failure can experience a free-floating anxiety that surfaces in surprising ways and is often uncontrollable and unpredictable.

Distrust is another consequence of a leader's fall. Trust is the essence of faith and the foundation of all our relationships, whether it's our relationship with God, a spouse, friend, mentor or leader. When betrayal occurs in a ministry setting, trust is always broken.

Teenagers typically struggle to trust the adults in their lives, and misconduct only further damages their trust of the church, its leaders and other adults. Trust takes a long time to build in youth ministry, especially in post-fall youth ministry settings. When trust successfully is built in these settings, it is often gradual, tenuous and fragile.

The combination of anxiety and mistrust can create a very reactive environment. A congregation member may get upset when he suddenly finds out you have a couch in your office. A mother of one of your students may question your sexual integrity when she finds out you travel to a different city in the state once a month to meet with other ministry leaders.

While post-betrayal youth ministry settings are complex and characterized by anxiety, distrust, drama and reactivity, they are also full of potential. It is often in the midst of pain, suffering and conflict that God's redemptive work can be most profound. Settings where a leader has fallen are ripe for redemption, and out of the misconduct and betrayal of the past can come great healing and hope.

Making the most of this potential depends on how a leader understands his or her role. In addition to all the important roles a leader typically has, those of us who serve in a post-fall context must embrace our role as healers.

Those who have witnessed a leader's failure are suffering, and without healing they may continue to live in the pains of the past. Leaders who want to help people heal must focus on building trust at all levels. We also must carefully examine our words and actions to make sure everything we do builds trust and healing.

Tips for Picking Up the Pieces:

If you find yourself in a post-fall youth ministry setting, there are some practical steps you can take in practicing things leaders can do to lead effectively while caring for those they serve and for self and family.

First, leaders must practice ferocious personal discipline in every area of life. Some youth workers are known for their lack of personal and professional discipline, which while endearing at times can be deadly in post-betrayal settings. The consistency that comes with personal (and professional) discipline is essential for youth workers and those they lead in these contexts.

Spiritual, physical, emotional and relational disciplines are critical. Additionally, leaders in these complex settings must establish, guard and maintain personal boundaries, especially as it relates to time management, Sabbath observance, personal availability to students and dedicated time with family.

Youth workers in these settings also must learn to manage and live within an anxious and reactive environment while keeping their focus on healing. One of my past supervisors loved to talk about being a non-anxious presence. What she meant was this: In situations where there has been misconduct, leaders need to accept the anxiety of their situations and encourage people to express their feelings without allowing the ministry to be dominated or held captive by people's fears.

Leaders cannot forget or ignore the history of betrayal in their communities or allow this dark history to dictate the ministry's future. Ministerial misconduct is a part of the story and history of the youth ministry, but because of the redeeming power of God, it does not have to be whole story.

Youth workers in post-fall contexts also should lead the effort to ensure the ministry adheres to appropriate, healthy policies in order to prevent further misconduct of any kind by ministry leaders. In some cases, this means giving existing policies greater prominence. In cases where current policies are nonexistent or lax, tough new policies must be developed and honored throughout the organization.

These crisis situations also demand that youth workers must think, lead, program and operate theologically instead of operating solely out of natural ability, giftedness or personality. Being a charismatic leader with great speaking and teaching abilities may have worked in the past; but in scenarios of pain and anxiety, natural gifts alone will not cut it.

Finally, leaders must communicate well and often. It is better to over-communicate in a post-betrayal setting than to under-communicate, especially when it comes to your personal, professional and ministry boundaries.

Brokenness is a destructive and powerful reality in churches, ministries and youth ministry settings. The key to being effective leaders and healers in communities that have experienced ministerial misconduct and betrayal is to think carefully about the unique challenges we face while remembering the great hope Jesus Christ offers for our healing and redemption."

--Marcus J. Carlson

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