When a leader falls

Published in the Nov/Dec 2012 Edition of Youthworker Journal

Read the online article here

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 has worked with children and youth for more than 14 years. He currently serves as associate pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he lives with his wife, Jessica, and two children, Micah, 7, and Abby, 4. Marcus also serves as a spiritual director, volunteers with community organizations, and teaches at a community college. In his spare time, he contributes to YouthWorker.com and writes a column for a denominational publication. Learn more at MarcusJCarlson.com.

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