Southern Baptists are a trusting group. It’s one of the best things about us. And it’s also proving to be an Achilles heel in dealing with sexual predation and pastoral abuse. Brave women like Jules Woodson, Tiffany Thigpen, Susan Codone and many others have sounded the alarm that there is an abuse problem in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Two more women have recently come forward alleging pastoral abuse by their former youth pastor, Wes Feltner. Megan Frey and JoAnna Hendrickson released statements saying Feltner manipulated each of them into intimate, physical relationships with him while they were students in the youth group he led at First Southern Baptist Church in Evansville, Ind.
At the time, Feltner was in his early twenties and the women were 18 years old. Feltner was the pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, Minn., when the accusations were made. He has since resigned from that position.
The chairman of a search committee for First Baptist Church in Clarksville, Tenn., which was considering Feltner as their pastor, said the alleged sexual acts between Feltner and female members of the youth group occurred “in a dating context.”
It’s easy to assume there is no clear problem, since both women met the legal age requirement for consent. I think many of us are prone to slough this off as young people being young people, as sexual interest and hormones getting the best of them.
Even putting aside alleged details of what happened between Feltner and these two young women as reported by the Leaf-Chronicle, there is something important in this narrative that Southern Baptists need to hear: Feltner was their youth pastor.
In other words, a Southern Baptist congregation charged this man with the spiritual care of its children. Though close in age with at least some of the members of the youth group, he was recognized as their pastor, Christ’s under-shepherd. That charge comes with weighty responsibility.
I’m afraid, though, that we as churches do not always make clear the responsibility and authority of youth pastors, particularly when they are young and inexperienced.
I’ve known many very young youth pastors, youth interns and youth volunteers. Often, they are young men in college. Such positions are seen as opportunities to develop pastoral skills and perhaps do some good for a small church struggling to hire candidates with more training or experience.
Young people are inexpensive labor, and their age proximity to students appears to give them an advantage in relating to youth in the church and community. This makes sense, but have these practical considerations led us to play a part in ruining the lives of many young people? Have we failed to set up safeguards that would protect them? I believe so.
We should pause to ask whether it is wise to give a young, inexperienced person pastoral authority over a group of people just slightly his juniors, particularly without clear guidelines concerning whom he can and cannot date or engage with sexually.
The legal age of consent should not blur our vision on these issues. No youth pastor should “date” or engage in any sort of sexual relationship with any person under their care.
Local churches have a responsibility to ensure the flock is protected. We need bright orange guardrails that remind youth pastors exactly what they are – shepherds of God’s flock, not bachelors surveying the field.
The time has already passed to save Megan and JoAnna from years of trauma, but there is still time to save other young people who will grow up in our youth ministries.
Rather than excuse a relationship between a youth pastor and youth-group member because of age, or because the parents know, or because the two are “dating,” we need to take seriously the role of youth pastor as a pastor, and that means demonstrating what it means to care for people in the church.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Russell Meek is an author, editor and lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at Ohio Theological Institute.)