Q: I am a volunteer in our junior high ministry. Some of the young women flirt openly with me. I'm really uncomfortable with this, but I don't know how to respond to their advances. What should I do to discourage their behavior without humiliating them?
A: I'm impressed that you (as a man) are seeing your interaction with these young women for what it is. Often it takes a female leader to clue us male leaders into what is happening with young women. What most men perceive as fun and harmless often looks different to the female adult leaders. Listen to them. They usually have good intuition and instincts about how female students see their male leaders.
You should talk to your supervisor about this situation and document what has caused you to ask this question. Talk to the pastor and leaders of your church privately about how you will respond to this situation. Keep them informed about what you are doing to protect yourself and your youth ministry.
Here are three proactive responses to this flirting:
1. Cut back your time and interaction with these girls. Focus and stay busy with the boys in your group. Select and prepare a female leader to work with these young women. Inform her of your intentions so she will help keep these girls busy apart from you.
2. Be very careful and strict regarding your physical contact and verbal interaction with these young women. Don't encourage their flirting, which is normal at this age. The maturity gap with their male peers, popular media endorsement of eroticized relationships, and the lack of relationship with a consistent loving father in many homes can all lead to the flirting directed at you. You can't change or control any of these forces. But you can focus on building positive relationships that limits physical contact with them—for example, an occasional, neutral, side-to-side hug in a group setting, never in private.
Avoid conversations about their physical appearance or sexual topics. When "sex" enters the conversation, respond positively and pleasantly that this isn't an appropriate subject for you to discuss with them. You may have to remove yourself from where they are, or you could ask a female leader to join the conversation and respond appropriately to them. Let them know you care about them, but don't meet or travel with them alone.
Follow the guidelines your church has set up regarding appropriate adult-student contact.
3. If the flirtatious behavior persists, have a forthright discussion with these young women—with an adult female leader present—to explain the reasons you are being so careful with them. Explain that you love them with a Christ-like, fatherly love that requires you to set physical, emotional, and verbal boundaries with them. Your goal is to be their friend and spiritual advisor, helping them to follow Christ for the rest of their lives. That goal is so important to you that it means setting boundaries in your relationship with them. You need to have an appropriate male-female relationship with them during this time of their lives, so they can build mature, lasting friendships in the future.
If you are married, consider getting your wife involved to show your love as a couple to these young women.
You are wise to be cautious with these relationships. Tragically, many young people have been abused and deeply scarred by youth leaders who allowed romance and sex to be part of their ministry relationships. Don't break the trust with these young women and their families. If you or any of your youth leaders cannot do what is necessary to have appropriate relationships with young people, you should leave the youth ministry and find another place to serve in the church. Keep talking to your senior pastor and other youth leaders about appropriate responses to these young women.
Copyright © May 2009 by the author or Christianity Today.
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