Crossing the Line: 8 Warning Signs of Inappropriate Relationships with Students.

This is a guest post by my good friend Marv PennerMarv is a global youth ministry leader, the author of several books, a professor, leader of Youth Specialties Canada, and prayer warrior. You can follow Marv on Twitter at @marvpenner.

I heard another tragic story today… another youth worker crossed the line and betrayed the trust of a teenager, a family, a youth group, a congregation and a community when he became sexually involved with one of the students in his care.

It looks like it will cost him his marriage, his relationship with his own kids, his job, his home and his reputation. Even if some of those things can eventually be salvaged, it will also inevitably cost him his self-respect. How do you look in the mirror and feel good about what you see, when you begin to count the cost–not so much to yourself, but to all the others who get caught in the crossfire.

I have a theory on why these sad stories seem to occur with such frequency.

It’s because most of us sincerely believe that it would never happen to us. The thought of an immoral relationship with a teenager or fellow youth worker seems completely beyond the realm of possibility… and for most of us, the chance of it happening tomorrow are very slim.

But here’s the problem. These stories rarely happen “tomorrow.” They almost always happen after a long gradual unraveling… an almost imperceptible slow slide down a slippery slope of multiple compromises where the final fatal steps aren’t that big–and are quite easily rationalized.

Here are 8 warning signs that might reveal you’re on a slippery slope with one of your students or co-workers.

1. You are having sexual thoughts or relational fantasies about them.
2. You are jealous when you see them spending time with a fellow youth worker–especially if they seem to be deepening their relationship.
3. You look for excuses to be together as often as possible and you look forward to those times because of how you feel when you are with them.
4. Someone who cares about you–a spouse, fellow youth worker, or even one of the other students in your group expresses concern about your relationship
5. You find yourself flirting with them and enjoying the power it gives you.
6. You often feel self-conscious about how they see you and find yourself hoping that you’re making a good impression.
7. You find yourself probing for information that is titillating or sexually explicit under the guise of “counseling” them.
8. You rationalize feelings of guilt that you have about any of the above telling yourself that it’s no big deal, that nothing wrong could possibly happen and you’re nowhere near the line you have established for yourself. You may be getting closer than you think.

When a trusted adult spiritual leader falls morally, the damage to the souls of teenagers is immeasurable. Youth ministry is a sacred trust. I can’t think of a greater responsibility than to guard the hearts of the next generation. The best way to do that is for us to guard our own hearts.

1. How were you impacted when a leader you respected crossed a line and betrayed your trust?
2. Why do you think inappropriate relationships are so common?

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  • Patrick M Leahy

    This is an awesome topic to address. To answer your question, I think Proverbs 5:3 says it all, “For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil.”

    • Fischaplain

      An adulterous woman? I think the youth worker needs to be the one to shoulder the blame here–a mature adult should not take advantage of a teenager (not an adulterous woman!) I think we need to protect ourselves from being alone with a teen of the opposite sex as much as possible and when we must be we should make sure it is a fairly public place (no closed doors!). When at all possible, pass off counseling of opposite sex students off to other volunteers in the ministry of the same sex to avoid any kind of temptation. 

      • J CTime Nia

         And, if I may add sir, not just the opposite sex (if you know what I mean). Temptation can come from both sexes, the sad reality in our fallen world. And I agree very much that the full accountability will be largely on the ‘breaker of trust’. Truly, temptations come from the enemy or from our inner desire, but how we respond is our own accountability. Just like bribery: Bribes may come from someone else, but whether we accept it or not is our own accountability.

        The Lord pour abundant grace on us all.

    • Rachel Blom

      Thought about it a bit before repying. You see, as a woman I find your comment quite offensive because it suggests that of a male youth worker has a sexual relationship with a female student, the female student is to blame…But I’m hoping that’s not what you meant, that your short comment can be interpreted in more than one way because of its shortness and lack of explanation. I’m gonna choose to believe that you’d consider the adult youthworker more at fault than the underage student, no matter what the circumstances…

      • Marv Penner

        I found myself extending the “benefit of doubt” as well. Thanks for both modelling grace in your response and reminding us of the very important principle of adult responsibility. Whenever there is an imbalance of power (which there usually is in an adult-teen relationship) the person with the power has the responsibility to ensure that appropriate boundaries are kept. Teenagers who express their sexuality in ways that may appear to be aggressive or provocative are usually doing so out of woundedness and pain – which makes the imbalance of power even more significant – and our responsibility as leaders to protect the young person even greater.  Thanks Rachel,  for reminding us of that important principle

  • wmueller

    Crucial stuff for us all to reckon with Marv. . . thanks!

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  • Robbie Mackenzie

    Great stuff Doug.  Boundaries are huge in this respect.  I read a formative book by Stanley Grenz called Betrayal of Trust.  Recommend it. 

    • Marv Penner

      I’m familiar with it and I second your recommendation

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  • Rob T

    great post.

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  • Annonymous

    This was my dad 20 years ago.  He crossed a line and as a result, he lost his marriage, his church and the respect of my brother and I.  The problem is that the church not only turned its back on him, it turned it’s back on me.  I didn’t go to church for 7 years.  When I did go back, I found a church that was unwelcoming to me.  i found another church that was more accepting of me.  My older brother never went back.

    When 15 years later (after the incident), God called me into ministry, some people were vocal that God would call the son of a pedophile into the ministry.  Finally someone gave me the best advice I could have gotten.  If you want to be taken seriously as a youth pastor you need to leave the state.  So I did and I’ve had a thriving ministry ever since. 

    But here’s my greatest problem.  People say that the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree so everyday, I worry that it one day might happen to me so I stay so far away from that line of immorality, that I I seldom have any ministry to girls at all.  Some even accuse me of favoring the guys.  I think to some degree they have a point, but I don’t know what that line is (for me anyway).

    • Marv Penner

      Thanks so much for sharing this sad but amazing story of grace… God’s grace – not the grace of the church, unfortunately. 

      So glad that your ministry is thriving and healthy. Obviously it’s best to err on the side of caution if you’re not sure where the line is – but let me say this. Old adages like, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” aren’t actually biblical so need to be taken with a bit of a grain of salt. And even more importantly, they do not  take into account the powerful grace of God. The Bible (and church history) are filled with stories of men and women who grew up in the unhealthiest families ever – and were able to establish themselves as powerful and positive Kingdom voices. Commit yourself to being the “transition generation” that becomes the first in a long ancestry of godliness and grace, rather than seeing yourself as one more in an ancestry of unhealthiness. 2 Cor 5:17 says “the old is gone – the new has come. Live in the promise of that truth. Remain cautious, but don’t live in paranoia. The enemy will do anything to paralyse you – including generating unfounded fear. Caution is appropriate in all cases, but panic and fear is not helpful. Just one small ps – We all need to be cautious about the way we process “statistical tendencies.” the fact that there is a statistical correlation between two things – eg sexual abuse and eating disorders DOES NOT mean that all anorexics have been sexually abused or that all sexual abuse survivors will develop an eating disorder. Again – We lean on the power of God to transform lives – to demonstrate his grace in our lives, to heal brokenness and to grant fresh starts.The bigger issue I would challenge you to think through is the deep longing you must have in your heart fro a dad you can trust. Abba is a father to the fatherless – He sets the lonely in families – He announced his arrival as the Everlasting Father. Lean hard into that truth and minister with freedom, joy and appropriate caution!And by the way – I took a moment just now to pray for your brother – would love to see his faith re-established. Blessings  

      • Anonymous

        Marv: you’re a stud! Not only do you write great “guest posts” but you interact so well. I appreciate your ministry…more importantly (and selfishly) I appreciate your friendship.

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  • Rachel Blom

    Absolutely fabulous post. As a woman, I’d like to add two things. First this: it can happen as easily to a woman as it could to a man. Let’s not assume that only men are sensitive to this! Which brings me to my second point: there’s also such a thing as having an ‘emotional affair’. While it may not include sexual relations, it can be just as damaging to a marriage or a youth ministry. I have a sneaky suspicion that these occur even more often than we think…Especially when our spouse is busy, has little time or attention for us, and one of students does give us that emotional support and attention we need…we go down another slippery slope with possible disastrous results. I think we need to address these emotional affairs just as much as the sexual ones.

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  • Mark

    I have two female volunteer youth workers that like to do
    things on their own with some of the youth in our ministry.  I don’t have a problem with this, but with
    the recent Sandusky tragedy I thought maybe I should have some kind of
    oversight.  I talked to them last Sunday, explaining as
    best and gently as I could, that since I’m responsible for the safety of
    everyone involved in the ministry, I would like them to let me know when they
    are planning to do things with the youth. 
    What, when, who, etc.  And that the
    parents approve.  If it’s last minute,
    to just text me so that I know.  That way
    if anyone says, “Did you know I saw so and so at the mall…”  I can say, “Yes I know all about it and it’s


    One didn’t like it at all.  She said I didn’t trust her and that I was
    saying she couldn’t be friends with the youth anymore.  She told me she had been taking a 15 yr old
    boy to Walmart and even to midnight movies, all with no oversight and no one
    else present.  To be fair, she has been
    friends with him and some of the other youth since she was in school, she used
    to work for the family’s farm.  She said
    his parents were OK with it, and I believe her, although I haven’t talked to
    them about it yet.  


    My question is, am I asking too much for my volunteers to
    keep my aware of these extracurricular activities?

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