For those of us in youth ministry, a “perfect storm” of cultural forces and vocational nuances makes us especially susceptible to waking up one morning to realize that we’ve somehow made a fine mess of things like our integrity, our marriages, and our ministries, oftentimes resulting in a brokenness that destroys marriages, families, friendships, ministries, and much of the Kingdom work we eagerly set out to accomplish when we first said “yes” to the call to minister to kids. The fallout from what we’ve chosen to do relationally eclipses and undoes everything we’ve ever accomplished or done in ministry.
We’re susceptible to the hazard of emotional affairs for many reasons.
First, there’s the fact that our position puts us in the place of serving as a hero and positive influence in the lives of broken people. They are looking for someone to connect with them, validate them, make them feel like they’re worth something, and to love them. We do that, and then they look up to us. I’ve had youth ministry friends get tangled in the mess of an emotional affair with needy kids, parents, co-workers, and the volunteers they lead. Then, there is the personal hurt and emotionally difficult back-stories we all carry with us. Sometimes, the wake of our own emotional baggage is just enough to push us over the edge as seek intimacy and validation by entering into inappropriate emotional relationships with people who are not our spouse. We justify it all and are easily sucked in if our marriages are marked by emotional distance. Rather than seeking the help we need, we escape to the someone else we think we need. Finally, our digital world floods our lives with social media technology that allows us to stay connected with anyone, anywhere, anytime. . . . and to do so without the people who should be closest to us even knowing it. In recent years, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Texting, email, and mobile phones have made it very easy for more than a few of my ministry friends to pursue and nurture inappropriate relationships. We must recognize that we live in a cultural soil that feeds and even encourages improper emotional attachments with people who should only be friends.
Defining an emotional affair seems rather easy. Identifying it in our own lives is a little more difficult, so difficult in fact, that we often don’t see an emotional affair for what it is until it’s too late. We lie to ourselves when we call an emotional affair a “friendship,” and justify it as such because after all, isn’t an affair something sexual? Not true. Affairs aren’t always sexual in nature. If we seek out or rely on someone who is not our spouse for any kind of intimacy that should only be shared with our spouse, what you’ve got is an emotional affair. You are cheating. . . . and usually, those who are cheating know it. Still, I’ve heard many friends justify what they are doing as “innocent” or “right”. . . even to the point of believing they are helping or ministering to the other person. . . and it’s all OK because nobody involved has ever taken off their clothes. But emotional affairs are correctly defined as “sexually chaste infidelity.” Sadly, experts report that 50 to 80 percent of emotional affairs eventually lead to a physical/sexual affair. . . all of that happening with someone who at first, was “just a friend.”
Beyond recognizing that emotional affairs are increasingly pervasive – especially among us in the youth ministry world – what proactive steps can we take to prevent the scourge from visiting our lives and ministries?
First, recognize that anyone – even you – could become enmeshed in an emotional affair. To think or say “it can’t/won’t happen to me” . . . well, that’s just plain stupid. We are sinful and fallen human beings who have a bent towards evil. Entering into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and answering a call to youth ministry doesn’t serve as some kind of fool-proof vaccination against this stuff. Instead, it opens us up to a whole new world of temptation, opposition, and spiritual oppression that should cause us to put our guards up even more.
Second, we should recognize the signs of an emotional affair, exercising diligence in regular, prayerful preventive self-examination. Not only that, but we should be developing the kind of friendships with our ministry peers that allow us and them to call each other out if any of these warning signs rear their ugly head. You’re wandering into a minefield if you start to notice any of these signs of an inappropriate emotional attachment:
- Developing a relationship with someone who is not your spouse that results in seeking out and eagerly looking forward to opportunities to connect personally.
- Longing to be with someone – in a group or alone – who is not your spouse, and finding ways to make that happen.
- Secretly using social media, e-mail, or text messaging to communicate back and forth with the person. . . . and hiding the relationship from your spouse and/or being concerned that your spouse will find out.
- Your “friend” feels closer to you than your spouse.
- There is a shroud of secrecy as you exclude your spouse from the relationship.
- You fear what might happen if your spouse would discover the relationship or witness your interactions with the other person.
- You are turning to them, rather than your spouse, for encouragement and support.
- You are sharing things with them that you should only be sharing with your spouse. . . sometimes following up with statements like “don’t tell my spouse I told you this” or “I can talk to you about things I can never talk about with my spouse.”
- Saying things to that person that you would never say if your spouse was privy to the conversation.
- Comparing the other person to your spouse.
- Your spouse gets upset or expresses concern about the relationship. . . even going so far as to ask you to cut it off.
- Lying to your spouse about the relationship.
- Fantasizing about what it would be like to be married to the person, and not your spouse.
In addition to keeping your eyes and ears open to these warning signs, why not regularly ask God to protect you from entering into an emotional affair? Ask God to raise warning signals if you are wandering too close to the minefield. Pray that you’ll find out. . . or even be found out! . . . if you decide to walk where you shouldn’t. And if you go there, pray that your sin would be exposed and brought into the light. Submit to counseling and a process of accountability that walks you from confession, to repentance, to restoration, and to redemption.
Finally, all of us should exercise a heavy dose of prevention. Know yourself and your sinful tendencies. Fill the well of your life with God’s life-giving Word, and draw from that well as you live your life in relationships with others. Seek joy in God alone.
If you are single, cultivate the gift of your singleness and set up the boundaries that are necessary to keep you from wandering into an emotional affair.
If you are married, cultivate your marriage. Build parameters and hedges together so that your intimacy with your spouse will be fostered and protected. Make sure there are no secret places you keep from your spouse.
And whether married or single, don’t use social media to converse deeply or secretly with people as the end result could be an emotional affair. View social networking like your virtual car or virtual office. . . places where you would never be alone with someone of the opposite sex. If you are married, share accounts and passwords with your spouse.
Let’s pray that as a youth ministry community God would guide and protect us as we live in accountable community to the glory of God.