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Among the conversations that most Christian youth workers dread, the announcement of unplanned teenage pregnancy must rank quite high. We’re all painfully aware of how badly the average church deals with ‘sexual sin’, and of how disastrous the reaction of the average congregant might be when they hear that a member of the youth worship band is soon going to struggle to hold that guitar. Perhaps on some level we fear that moment because we can’t help but see it as a reflection on our poor discipleship, but that’s actually a terribly self-centred reaction. The truth is that if we’re not careful, this is one of the key areas where Christian youth workers can offer young people a much less helpful service than our statutory counterparts. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When I was growing up in a Christian youth group in the 90s, I watched this situation unfold first hand. Beth was one of my best friends in the group, and in her late teens she took us all by surprise with the announcement that she was pregnant. While the reactions of some in the church were painful, she was fortunate that our group also had some truly first-rate youth leaders who instinctively seemed to know exactly how to respond; to support, rather than shame her. We’ve reconnected since; most of the good advice here comes directly from her experience.
Beth tells me: “When a woman in her late 20s, who’s married and settled, finds herself pregnant, she usually looks forward to telling other people. When you’re still a teen, that’s a daunting thing to do, and most expect some difficult reactions. Some people I told were wonderful, others… less so.” Listening to Beth’s experience, I’m struck that in these situations we have little time to reflect on ideas of “moral failure” - a truly horrendous term that has no place in youth ministry - or on our own perceived inadequacy in somehow ‘letting’ this happen. The world of the just-pregnant teenager is a maelstrom of emotion, fears and other people’s reactions; as youth workers, there is perhaps no point at which it’s more vital that we bring our A-game.
What to do
Rather than focusing on the baby, or the act which has created it, our role as youth leader is to become the girl’s biggest advocate. It’s helpful to ask her who she has already told, and to offer to accompany her when telling others. We can also offer to tell some people on her behalf - church leadership in particular, and perhaps also the rest of the youth group. If she’s happy for this to happen, we can also offer the opportunity for the group to talk about it if they need to, and offer them some guidance on what to say, and what not to say. This, of course, needs to be guided by the teenager in question.
We also need to be crystal clear with her about how God feels about this baby, and about her. Beth says: “How does God view a pregnant young girl? With love. He knows, as does she, what has happened. They both know what is right and wrong, and there is no question that that has to be faced at some point. But when a young person first tells someone else, they absolutely don’t need to have further condemnation heaped upon them. It’s bad enough that’s they’ve ‘ruined everything’, but to have let down God too, and the church…” She also suggests that while the conversation about options (adopt, keep, and yes, abort) should take place, it should be done sensitively, and not straight away (and never, ever judgmentally).
What not to do
Perhaps the most important advice though is around what to avoid. As their advocate, it’s our job to ensure they’re not placed in a shaming situation, particularly with adult church members. And however kind and accepting we might think our congregation is, the surprise of a pregnancy can sadly bring out the worst in some Christians.
Beth recalls how many people seemed entirely unconcerned with how their comments might affect her as she battled with raging hormones and a mounting list of worries about what the future might hold. “Being asked ‘why didn’t you use protection?’ is completely irrelevant,” she recalls. “And people asking ‘what were you thinking?’, and ‘how could you be so stupid?’, only reinforces the idea that this was a deliberate choice, and also an awful, dreadful situation.” Words have enormous and lasting power, especially at a moment like this, and for some reason some people believe they can talk to a teenager in a way they’d never dream of addressing a person ten years older. We have to fiercely protect these teenagers from the idea that they’ve ‘ruined their life’ through one decision.
The surprise of a pregnancy can sadly bring out the worst in some Christians
Beth continues: “A baby changes your life - beyond imagining, but it doesn’t ruin it. Education for the parent(s) can be continued, dreams fulfilled and many things never yet thought of, achieved.” This has to be our own starting point in counselling a pregnant teenager, even if we might naturally mourn the loss of the more straightforward life they might have lived. If we can believe that their future can still be bright, they’re much more likely to overcome their own fears about it. Perhaps most important of all, we need to make it clear that we’re not going anywhere, and that we and the church will support her... for the long-term.