Small group leaders are the front lines of youth ministry. These benevolent humans have answered a call to disciple young people, to listen to their sorrows and share in their triumphs. By nature of that unique relationship, our teens are often comfortable asking their leaders tough questions, including questions about sex. Here in the Bible Belt, we hardly ever mention the “s” word in our churches, but our students are not only inundated with sexual content but are also developmentally aware of their sexual nature. There is so much stigma around sex and sexuality that we’ve allowed ourselves to be muted out of fear. As a member of the front lines, here are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to talking about sex with teens.
Listen and Clarify
Talking about sex isn’t comfortable for everyone, and that’s okay. At the beginning of the conversation, acknowledge to yourself your own discomfort so that you can be a better listener. Give space for the student to talk and ask clarifying questions before giving your response. Not only will a safe space be created, but you’ll be able to answer their actual question. It also cuts down on that nervous rambling we’re so prone to (or is that just me?).
Provide Medically Accurate, Factual Information
Teens wouldn’t be broaching the conversation if they already had the answers. Because sex is taboo, there is a plethora of misinformation available, which can be harmful spiritually, emotionally, and physically to our teens if we pass it on to them. In the UMC, our Social Principles uphold the church’s role in providing medically accurate information on sex to people of all ages. It’s also important to examine our own knowledge of sex and fact-check ourselves. So do your research – read articles from reputable news sources, talk to a professional healthcare provider about their experiences with misinformation, or take a webinar from Rutgers at http://answer.rutgers.edu/.
Talk About Maturity
I had a student approach me about having sex with their partner. They were pretty sure they were ready, but they wanted to talk it out first. So I asked this student a series of questions: have you talked about sex in person – NOT via text; what birth control will you use and do you know it’s effectiveness; do you know how to get that birth control; are you ready to have a baby; have you both been tested for STIs? Each one of these is a different marker of maturity, and for the well-being of both partners, all of these answers should be a yes before making the decision to have sex. We talked at length about “being ready,” which is too often held in an emotional context. Heterosexual sex always has the chance of resulting in a pregnancy, and sex of any nature can result in an STI. Teens are trying out adult behaviors without all of the adult critical thinking skills, so let’s equip them with some so they can make smarter decisions.
Know Your Church’s Perspective
Regardless of whether or not you agree with it, as a small leader you must back the decisions of the church. In paragraph 161 of the UMC Book of Discipline, section G, it states, “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. The Church should support the family in providing age-appropriate education regarding sexuality to children, youth, and adults.”* If you’re unsure of your church’s understanding of sexuality, ask your youth director or pastor.
As a small group leader, you naturally share your life with your students. They know about your struggles and triumphs, but they do not need to know the details of your sexual history for two reasons: 1) Sexual predators use that level of intimate discussion to build trust and normalize sexual conduct with minors. We don’t want our students to think that is an acceptable conversation to have with an adult. 2) A student can either use your history as justification for their own actions (“They turned out fine, why shouldn’t I?”), or put your story on a pedestal and feel overwhelming guilt or shame if/when they fail to meet your standards. As adults, we are responsible for setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries with our students, and we are in professional leadership even if it’s in an informal setting.
Judge or Shame a Teen
In an informal survey I conducted among 150 people aged 12-60+ of which 91% attended church growing up, 52% struggled with their self worth because of the sex education they received at church. While this was no Pew Research Study, that statistic still speaks. There is so much stigma and shame connected with sex in the life of the church that it can haunt our students into their adult years, impacting marriages and church involvement. As small group leaders, you can take an active role in changing that stigma. When a teen approaches the topic of sex, don’t shy away or shut them down, and don’t condemn their actions. Instead, listen to what they have to say, and ask them what end result they would like to have, then discuss how they might achieve that result.
If a student is talking about sex, they trust you and value your opinion. In case I haven’t said it enough, don’t back away from these tough conversations. It’s okay not to know the answer; say as much when you reach that point. Do your research and get back to them with what you found.
www.TalkAboutItDallas.org (live 2/27/19)
*section is currently up for revision at the Called General Conference. The 2016 BoD states