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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ask the Matriarch - Ministering to a Troubled Teen

Our question this week comes from a pastor who is trying to figure out how to minister to a young and troubled parishioner, while feeling some pressure from other parishioners about how to handle the situation. Our matriarchs have some wonderful responses. Read on...

I have a real problem in my area of teenage pregnancy, which of course goes along with drugs and alcohol. I have written to this column about it before, but I am under a great deal of pressure at the moment from some parishioners. There is a young girl (15 or 16) who used to be very connected with the church, a valued server in the sanctuary and really committed. Her family background is highly dysfunctional with parents divorced, one brother in jail for drug dealing and a sister who committed suicide (under the influence of drugs). Just over a year ago she began to use drugs and dropped out of school. We tried our best to keep her in church, with the bishop even making a special visit to confirm her as she had missed the scheduled confirmation because she was in care. In the last year we have seen little of her though occasionally she comes to church. 

On Christmas Day she was in church but did not take communion, and again the following Sunday. I immediately guessed that she was pregnant, and she confirmed this. (The ruling before I came was that unmarried girls who were pregnant could not receive communion till they had been to confession - I stopped that at once.) Today she was in church again and keen to join a new music group we are forming. But one parishioner has spoken very firmly about the fact that this girl is taking us for a ride and must be "disciplined" and that if she is allowed to join the music group she and her family will not support it. I'm sure she is not the only one who will take this stance.

The girl has assured me that she is no longer using drugs and has told me that after the baby is born she wants to go back to school. She says she is no longer in a relationship with the father. Maybe, maybe not. Her track record of telling the truth is not good.

The problem is that I can see the parishioner's point to some extent. The church should not be seen to be condoning what is a very prevalent problem in this place. But I feel very strongly that God's love is more important - that if we reject (or "discipline" this girl) we may lose her completely. But should there be some form of "tough love"? What would Jesus have done?  I also feel it is not up to me to judge if she is repentant or not - let's face it, anyone can make an empty confession! Apart from anything else, it seems to me that the message we are giving is that it's ok, do what you want and be accepted by the church, as long as you don't get caught!

Any advice would be welcome!

Jennifer offers a series of questions for reflection:
What is your congregation’s stance on becoming involved in addressing the problems teenagers and their families in your community are facing?
What does it mean to you and to those you serve to be a welcoming congregation?
What does it mean to be in relationship with the people you and your congregation already serve and people you’ve yet to meet who need you?
Do you find yourself with opportunities to reframe the conversation—is it really about this young person or about the issues in general?
Or is it just about rules around communion?

You and your congregation will be much in my prayers as you seek answers to what it means to be loving, prophetic disciples of Jesus.

Kathryn offers:
I remember you and continue to pray for you and your congregation. Your context is so much different than mine. I wish I had more complete and practical advice to give you, but all I can offer is: err on the side of grace.
This is so hard, especially knowing that the reward for doing so may not be seen by you or by any of your parishioners. It may not even happen in this earthly kingdom for that matter. Prayers ascending...

Anne reflects:
I heard a pastor talk about the child of drug addicts who died of an overdose.  The night the young boy found his parents dead, the pastor's family adopted him.  Just like that.  There were many lessons learned around the table in their home with this loud and lively addition to their family.  Everything from manners, to chores, to appropriate conversation, to love, care, and respect, to forgiveness, to responsibility.  The refrain from the pastor's mother that was often heard at the table was, "No, no, Roger.  We don't do / say that here."  That boy who had spent the first years of his life with addicts for parents, and no rules or regular meals, learned a whole new way of being, thanks to the lessons learned around the table.

Should the church be any different?  I pray that those who gather at our table are also learning lessons of love, acceptance and forgiveness.  If they aren't, they should be.

I am attaching a picture which I included in the slideshow I put together each year for our congregation to lift the ministries done in the life of the congregation in the last 12 months.  This slide I put in as a reminder of who we are and our responsibility to one another as a community of faith.

Should you accept this young woman into your praise team?  Seventy times seven times a resounding, "Yes!"  Will you get taken advantage of from time to time?  Undoubtedly.  Should that stop you from loving, accepting and offering new life?  Absolutely not.  Think of the story that young woman will tell when she has grown into a responsible adult.  

Blessings to you as you invite the congregation into a new learning curve of being the church.  It is, after all, what we are called to do.

Sue writes:
I see this as an opportunity for learning on the part of the congregation. I don't know your congregation of course, but I'm guessing that like all churches these days, they would love to see the always-coveted "young people" coming back to the church. You have one. Is she perfect? No. Are any of us? No. Is she in a terrible situation? Yes. Can you help her through it by showing her the love of Jesus? Definitely.

The congregation has the opportunity to show the radical healing love of Christ to a beloved daughter of God. I would focus more on that and less on the way it is perceived by others. I see compassion and condoning of behaviour as two separate matters. If we expelled from our churches everyone who has fallen short of God's best hope for us - none of us would be welcome. As for her repentence, while you can encourage her to confess, in the end it really is between her and God. With the church's support and care, she will grow into a spiritual place in life where she can truly repent. Without it, she may never know how to come before God in the wholeness of her being.

I'm unsure about what she has been "caught" doing. I don't see her getting away with anything here. There is no consequence to impose on teen pregnancy - teen pregnancy IS the consequence. This young woman will live with this pregnancy and its outcome for the rest of her life. Isn't that consequence enough?

This one is easy, in my view. Do what Jesus would do - forget about judgement and "discipline" - just listen to her and love her. Why else does the church exist but to help people who are despairing, lonely, and burdened by life's circumstances? It isn't for anyone in the pews to judge her for how she became pregnant - it's our job as Christians to show her compassion.

Rev Red advises:
This is a complicated scenario which I find is not uncommon in the church because human beings are complicated.  As I have pondered this situation, several items to discern come to mind.
1. We often find that a change in a person's pattern of worship attendance and participation otherwise in the church is related to a change in their life or a desire to change their life.  When I discover someone has not attended for several weeks a phone call is in order.

2. The described dysfunction in this young woman's family has to be a factor in considering how the church family reaches out.

3. The history of untruths should not be overlooked.

4. The church can be a loving as well as supportive place that also asks for accountibility.

With these thoughts in mind,  I hear in your description a young, probably scared, woman who is tryng, at least with her words and her desire to be involved, to make a change in her life.  It sounds as if the music group would be a good place for her. Is there a way to create a mentoring and/or accountability contract of some sort with her which must be met in order to be a part of the group?  This could be helpful not only in the music group, but also to help her feel support as she tries to put her life on a better path.  Peer and family pressure are probably pulling her hard back to her former path.  Her concern for the child she carries may be just enough to help her stay turned if she gets some strong support within the church body.

God's grace and love poured out for us in the gift of Jesus is our gift to extend to those we encounter in the world around us.  I hope that you will be able to find ways, whether in the music group or some other way, to share this with this young woman.

And Sharon writes: 
At the very least, please help them to see that she is a real person, not an "issue" or "statistic."  Please don't let this young woman (still a child herself, with child) become the scapegoat for the congregation's fears -- fears about what's going on in their community and fears about church being the kind of place where (gasp!) pregnant teenagers want to get involved.  They might even be afraid that someone will find out their own secrets and judge them. When you are warned that she could "take us for a ride," get them to identify what is really the worst that could happen if she is welcomed and loved.

Some possible ways to reframe the conversation:  
                A great question that I heard the other day:  "What in your community is God crying over?"  Teen pregnancy and drug use might be one of those things in this community. If God is crying, maybe tears, rather than judgment, the best place to start.
                What if, in the arrival of this young woman, God sent you a leader for your church's next mission field?  God has surely done more unlikely things through less likely people.  Youth ministry these days is ministry with youth, rather than ministry to (or for) youth.  What can you do with her?  
                And there's always: What did Jesus do?  (Not "What would Jesus do?")  I would help them think theologically by asking: "What Bible story does this sound like?" (So many choices!)  Help them to see that God is most powerful when the hero of the story is someone who is outside the "approval zone."  Sometimes the hero of the story is a group of people drowning in fear.  Just sayin' . . . 
This could be an exciting opportunity to see God at work!  Or they may miss the good part altogether.  

I hope you can identify at least one or two people who are willing to risk some love actions.  Really, this young woman might just want to make some music, and maybe that will lead to some loving relationships.  I've heard (somewhere) that love has salvation power.  Could that be true?  In church?

Wow! Thank you, wise and wonderful matriarchs, for your good and faithful responses!

What about the rest of you? What thoughts do you have about ministering in this situation? Please join us in the comments section to continue the conversation. And, as always, please send us your questions for discussion at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com. Our queue is nearly empty, so we will be able to get to your question soon!


  1. I agree with Sue regarding the question of what exactly she has been "caught" doing? I mean yes presumably she made a choice that got her pregnant but she also made a choice to give birth to the child (rather than abort), to keep the child (rather than put it up for adoption) and going forward she will have many many choices with regards to what sort of mother she is going to be. So it seems to me there are plenty of positive things your church could be "condoning" by having her in your community.
    Another question it occurred to me to ask is how safe a place is your congregation for her or others like her to tell the truth? A history of untruths is certainly a bad sign but some of them could be a way for her to protect herself if she doesn't see the congregation as fully safe. I don't mean this to fully excuse her lying to you or other church members - but some congregations tend to encourage people to try and put up pretty masks more than others.
    You mentioned a history drugs/addiction do you know if she is any sort of drug rehab program or something like Narcotics Anonymous? That might be a good way to encourage accountability for her from people who will speak from experience.

  2. It was me who posed the question and I am really grateful for all the responses! They say just what I think. In fact, as an update, the girl had medical tests that showed no sign of drugs - praise God for that! Shortly after I had had a chat with her and her mother (when she said she didn't want to see the boyfriend again) she disappeared with him! However, she is now back and indeed has applied for a protection order against him. When they went to court, he actually assaulted her in the lobby so case proven! I purposely don't spend a long time chatting to her because whenever I do it seem to provoke a reaction of her running off (I really am not scary - just loving and accepting and I am very fond of her!) -- it's almost as if there is this real tension within her of wanting to be in the church and wanting to run from it. Lately though she has been attending church regularly (although the music group hasn't taken off the ground) and I just greet her, examine her bump and talk about how she is. As you all say, love is what it is all about.

    I am always in some sort of trouble with the congregation because I am not conventional so this can just be added to the list! (But we rub along well despite it.)

  3. Continued prayers and I am grateful for the timing of the thread. Without hijacking it I am dealing with a not dissimilar issue involving an 11 yr old girl and the wisdom here is sustaining!

  4. reading this must remind each of us of a situation we've seen, I've always followed the overly simple principle of "God is love" and that we are called to love everyone. it's not always easy, but since when have we been called to judge. I pray that everyone who ever has this situation is able to find a way through it with love and support.

  5. "Erring on the side of grace" - I would like to do that more often in many arenas in my life. Definitely she needs your love, encouragement and kindness. And unless she's robbing the offering box, really, what is she doing other than crying out for love?

  6. Ongoing prayers for you Pat as you navigate this path.

  7. I'm with everyone else on the concept of love, encouragement and grace. Perhaps you could use her desire to be in the music group as a way to gently nudge her towards some responsibility and structure ? Tell her you'd love it if she played, but she needs to commit to showing up for rehersals and on time to play. And then encourage the heck out of her every time she does it ?

  8. has anybody else pointed out (I'm sure everybody else has noticed) -- that the usual pattern of punitive ostracism isn't applied to the "party of the second part" in these unmarried pregnancies... Prayers for you, Pat, and for the young woman, and her baby...

  9. has anybody else pointed out (I'm sure everybody else has noticed) -- that the usual pattern of punitive ostracism isn't applied to the "party of the second part" in these unmarried pregnancies... Prayers for you, Pat, and for the young woman, and her baby...

  10. Hauerwas argues that the Christian community's care of vulnerable pregnant women can remove much of the need for abortion. Perhaps this is a revelation of a new ministry area for the congregation. Baby clothes sewing classes? Support groups? Surrogate grandparents, aunts, uncles? Accommodation? Baby equipment? Blessings for the prophetic ministry to which this child is calling your people! RevR

  11. Prayers for you and her, Pat, and I would suggest reminding your judgmental congregation members that 1) the younger a girl is, the more likely the sexual activity and pregnancy were abusive and not consensual, which makes her a victim and not a slut (not that any woman or girl is that...). Clearly that is the case here since the boyfriend is a proven abuser and her family of origin almost certainly was as well. 2) They are taking the same approach that drove Mary out of her village to take refuge with Elizabeth and that, like Mary, this young woman's decision to give life to her baby is in fact heroic and deserving of emotional, spiritual, and material support. 3) Anyone this judgmental of teen pregnancy would undoubtedly be even more condemning of girls and women who terminate theirs, and if they hope to prevent abortions they should not drive women to them by precisely such judgments. I counseled many Catholic college students who made that choice against their values and ripped out their hearts because of the condemnation they knew they would face at our huge name Catholic university that took no steps against date rape and in fact fostered it by a very liberal alcohol policy.


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