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?"

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  • Guest

    When I was younger, I lead a secular lifestyle.  I did not attend Mass on a regular basis, I engaged in premarital sex, and I used artificial contraception.  My instinct is to be honest about this with my kids when/if they ask, and to tell them the problems that this lifestyle caused for me and how much better my life got when I came back to the Church and started following the Church's teachings in these areas.

  • Guest

    read the article quickly

    my impressions:  it is exceedingly protestant, it does not belong on a Catholic website — where in our Catholic World have you ever seen a 'youth pastor'?

     danger:  by posting protestant atricles the unwritten implication is that their theology is sufficient, and it is in fact, quite lacking (even though it does contain elements of truth). 

    If this is the direction Catholic Exchange wants to go — perhaps the name Catholic should be changed to 'Believing in some of the truths Jeuss Christ taught us'.

  • Guest

    I think you have a valid point Charles Ro.

    But the first thing that struck me is that (for the second time ins less than a day) we are being presented a false dilemma regarding children who ask if we committed sinful behaviors at their age between telling them, "none of you business'" and telling the stories in detail. 

    How about telling them that we, unfortunately, made mistakes and are trying to help young people avoid repeating those mistakes?

    I use the analogy of walking through a dark room and bumping into furniture. A young person can choose to take the warning of someone who has gone through it that, say, there is a coffe table three steps in which will hurt your shins, or they can ignore the help and walk in darkness and find out themselves that, sure enough, it is true and they get hurt. You can't go through the dark room with them, but you don't have to say you "just know" these things are bad out there.  And you don't have to tell them in lurid detail how you encountered each of them.

  • Guest

    According to his website, he and his wife attend Holy Cross Antiochan Orthodox Church.
    While Protestants are famous for "discovering" things we were doing before Luther tried to break the Church, it is not impossible for them to come up with something that is original and helpful to us, in terms of devotion or community.

  • Guest

    Wow, I don't think Charles has a valid point at all.


    First, many parishes have directors of youth ministry, which essentially are the equivilent of youth pastors in non-Catholic fellowships. The parish in which I live has not one youth minister, but THREE. We are certainly an anomoly, but we have simply decided to value, minister to and mentor our adolescent members in ways many parishes don't. Still, many parishes in our diocese have full- or part-time youth ministers on their paid staff.


    Second, it is utter folly to presume that just because the full deposit of the faith subsists in the Catholic Chuch (ecclesial), therefore then there is nothing of value its members can learn from our separated brothers and sisters in Christ.


    I applaud Catholic Exchange for offering this article as a way for subscribers to think about dealing with questions adolescents typically have for their parents. Perhaps there could have been some additional commentary discussing the Grace that flows through the sacraments, particularly reconciliation. Perhaps there could have been additional commentary about the reality of spiritual warfare, but all in all, I certainly don't see anything out of bounds in posting this article.

  • Guest

    I think Charles had a point about the use of the term youth "pastor" but I certainly agree that Protestants can sometimes teach Catholics since they also know the Lord.

  • Guest

    I don't mind Charles' objection to the term "youth pastor," but the point he asserted with more vigor was that CE shouldn't post anything protestant lest it be perceived as an endorsement for insufficient theology.   That's tantamount to suggesting there's no value in anything a protestant has to say about salvation.   I, for one, am glad Pope John Paul II never turned a deaf ear to men like Billy Graham or James Dobson.

  • Guest

    Once again, CE has to defend that we are presenting an article written by a non-Catholic. Once again, a failure to note that we are not trying to just talk to Catholics.  Once again, a failure to note that our byline is "Your Faith. Your Life. Your World."

    Terry Mattinly is a Orthodox Christian, but here is the very interesting thing for anyone out there awake enough to observe it — he is not writing merely for the religious press. This is a syndicated column. The language it uses is going to be the language that most ordinary readers will understand. As part of the arrangement with the news service that distributes his column, we are not allowed to alter it in any way.  So even though I am the editor for this section, I could not have changed "youth pastor" to "youth minister" even if I wanted to.

    But it is becoming par for the course now that instead of focusing on the very interesting CONTENT and ISSUES raised in the article somebody is going to come along and start ranting over a single word and make the preposterous claim that CE — faithfully serving our fellow Catholics for 6 years — is going in some Protestant direction. Mr. Ro, you owe CE an apology.

    Mary Kochan, Senior Editor, Catholic Exchange

  • Guest

    Absolutely, if there was anything in this article that blatantly opposed Catholic Church teaching, CE never would have printed it.  I have been a viewer of CE for the past 3-4 years, and have never seen anything other than Orthodox Catholic viewpoints endorsed.  Just because the terminology is slightly different from traditional Catholic terminology doesn't mean that the content opposes Church teaching.

  • Guest

    Maybe in the italicized blurbs at the end of the article, CE could prominently note whenever the author is not Catholic, so it would be more obvious to all readers.  Then perhaps it ouwld be less likely to have a faithful Catholic reader get the wrong impression that CE is presenting it as Catholic.

  • Guest

    My thoughts about all this…

    Why do adults/parents feel like they are hypocritical if they proclaim NOW that something is wrong…even if they did it as a kid/youth?

    Are we to always be defined by our past?  Or doesn't the sacrament of Confession remove sin effectively…so much so that God "forgets" the sin?

    But I do think it is wise for kids to know that their parents are not perfect.  When parents also respect their children as human beings…asking to be forgiven when they have wronged them (which implies that they have to actually say that they were wrong), and to let them know that parents struggled and still struggle with sin, then some of these issues vanish – or, really, are naturally dealt with in honesty and humility.

  • Guest

    I don't think anyone needs to go to into explicit detail about sins they may have committed when they were younger. There are may be times when it is appropriate to share some of them, but it would seem that general statements about not living the faith as we should have when we were younger and causing ourselves pain and sufferring through the mistakes we made would probably be sufficient. That allows someone to be honest, to not glamorize any past misdeeds, and to use the openess and vulnerability you do display to show that your primary concern is to lead youth away from sin and towards Christ.


    -Fr. Ryan

  • Guest

    PTR, the problem with what you suggest is that it is irrelevant. There are plenty of Catholics out there who are writing things opposed to the truths of our faith.  There are plenty of non-Catholics writing things that agree with Catholic principles, especially when it comes to morality.  All truth belongs to God and therefore is the possession of us, His children by water and the Spirit.  What is more important is for every Catholic to be a discerning reader, regardless of the source of what they read. It is also important for Catholics to understand what the areas are in which they may legitimately disagree and in such areas to listen and learn from one another — that is to say, to have a genuine Catholic Exchange.

    That is why we have provided so many places on this site where Catholics as well as non-Catholic visitors can discuss with one another what they read here.

  • Guest

    I certainly agree that there is hardly likely to be a need to go into detail but at least for parents there are circumstances where there is a real need to admit that they went astray.  If the child is likely to find out through other means then it may well be necessary to talk about matters that  otherwise the parents may not have choosen to discuss.


    I can state that even knowing that my parents had not lived a perfect life and indeed that they made some bad choices , I still did not feel that they were lying or hypocrites  for not wanting me to make the same choices they did.

  • Guest

    Amen Mary!

    If you can't read an article and recognize valid content and understand what is or is not consistent with Catholic teaching perhaps you need to study the Catechism, the documents of VC II, and John Paul the Great prayerfully and in more detail so that you can be properly prepared for living in the modern world.

    Regarding impressing on children the struggles they and we as adults go through in giving up sins we have a whole family of brothers and sisters whose lives we can hold up to them as example, the Saints, and in particular I have in mind St. Augustine of Hippo.



  • Guest

    Mary and dado,

    Why are there imprimaturs and nihil obstats in the front of publications? It is to let the reader know they are reading something that has been reviewed by a bishop and found to not have anything contrary to the faith.  It is a help.

    My suggestion is is kind of the flip side of that.  It simply lets the reader know that the author is not a Catholic.  On a Catholic website, that can be a help.

    I submit the periodic appearance of comments which express disappointment or anger over non-Catholic articles demonstrate that it is not irrelevant. It may or may not be a big help, but it may at least moderate the tone or stridency of those who post such comments.

  • Guest

    So now it is "youth Pastors". And they wonder why I long for the times before Vatican II. At THAT time, a "pastor" and  "minister" was reserved to an ORDAINED minister. Sorry gang but I am not a Protestant.  I am Catholic in heart, soul, mind, AND, language. Those terms should be reserved for ordained clergy only. No wonder the distinction between ordained minister and  lay faithful is becoming more blurred with each passing day.

  • Guest

    A PS:


    Mary Kochan you owe all faithful Catholics an apology. Since when is one of our separated brethern an "Orthodox Christian" I don't know Terry's background, but if he is indeed a "separated brethern", i.e. a protestant, by definition he is NOT an orthodox Christian. Mary, learn your catechism.

  • Guest

    I think it's important to note that Mr. Mattingly is writing from the viewpoint of a youth minister.  We have to differentiate what we would share with our own children, with whom we have a very close relationship, and what we might say to someone else's child. 

  • Guest

    um…I must be missing something, tomfortino.

    Maybe I'm mistaken, but I believe he is of the Orthodox faith.

    Not protestant.

    What would YOU call someone of the Orthodox faith if you don't want to call them and Orthodox Christian?


  • Guest

    If they truly knew the Lord they wouldn't be protestant.

  • Guest

    This isn't the sixteenth century. Not every protestant is someone who committed heresy and split from the Church. The majority I know are quite unfamiliar with the actual teachings of the Church.

    Most protestants I know are protestant for the same reason that most Catholics are Catholic — because they were raised in that faith tradition. It is the small minority who convert, lapse, revert, or become something else. 

    Given the tremendous failure we witness in successfully teaching cradle Catholics the faith, is it any wonder many protestants are not being convinced of the truth of Catholicism?

    So while it may be a help to know up front that an article is from a non-Catholic perspective, it is certainly not true that non-Catholics have nothing to teach us.

    Last time I checked, pride is a sin.

  • Guest

    There are a lot of Catholics who don't know their faith well enough to discern on their own.  When I first started learning the faith several years ago, I avoided anything Protestant because I just couldn't discern for myself.

  • Guest

    Tari, that's very true.  I live in a very liberal diocesese where there is a big push toward ecumenism, but not in a good way;  the way that compromises the truth of our Church.  This is particularly evidenced by the Charismatic movement in my area.  It is infiltrated by evangelical protestants, and most charismatic meetings teach faulty theology.  Many Catholic Charismatics have left the Church for a variety of protestant denominations.  I think you're right that unless a person is very well catechized, it is a good idea to avoid Protestant writings, Bible studies, etc due to challenges with discernment.  However, I also know that it is safe to read anything on Catholic Exchange, because Catholic Exchange would never post anything that conflicted with Church teaching.  There might be some Protestant terminology occasionally, but that's as far as it would ever go.

  • Guest

    A sample response for youth could be, "Someday I might tell you my story. I'm not ready to share it right now." Or something to that effect. With my own kids, I've sometimes asked them if there was ever a speaker at their school who talked about not doing drugs. I ask if that person was a former drug addict, and it usually is. I explain that often the person who best can give advice about a certain vice or wrong behavior is one that has been there and truly seen the wrong-ness of it. Another point I make is that the circumstances of my growing up are radically different from his or her own. 

    By the way, I'm a bit surprised at all the discussion about the authorship of the article. When I read it I recognized the language but focused on the content as being of importance, otherwise Catholic Exchange probably wouldn't reprint it.
  • Guest

    I would like to point out that this is not an article about theology.  It is not presenting theology from the Orthodox (Eastern) perspective.  It is about kids and the questions they ask.

    Substantively this is a problem that parents and youth workers in every faith deal with. I thought it would be of interest to CE readers, which is why I featured it.

    I will add to Terrry Mattingly's bio that he is an Orthodox Christian, since that will alert every one to be on guard — although the need for that considering that he is never writing about theology (and in fact does not even write about his own opinion, but just about what others in religious circles are saying and doing) quite escapes me. Apparently though, saying that he is an Orthodox Christian is still going to tick off some of our readers who think we should call the members of eastern apostolic churches "Protestants," for Pete's sake!

  • Guest

    Mary, I'm going to put a note in the CE Suggestion Box that you get a raise. Sometimes–as in the case of this very worthwhile article–CE's open invitation for readers' comment turns into a room full of deaf people all shouting at the same time. Your patience with the theologically challenged is edifying.

  • Guest

    I agree.  I, for one, am very glad that this article was featured.  The article and the comments that are actually relevant to the content of the article have been very helpful for me as a parent who will inevitably face these types of questions from my children some day.

  • Guest

    I agree Mary Kochan is a treasure.

    but… where is the CE suggestion box?