“You’re welcome here on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights,” my youth pastor said, “but that’s it. You can’t volunteer or be in leadership positions, you can’t come to the activities on our summer calendar, and you can’t come to camp.” He paused, studying my face for a reaction. “I’m sure you understand,” he added casually, almost as an afterthought. I nodded, trying to ignore the flush of embarrassment that crept up my cheeks.
A week earlier, I had revealed to my youth pastor that I fought an ongoing struggle with self-injury. It was my biggest secret and deepest shame. The first time I drew my own blood, it was a misguided attempt to find peace and maintain control. Six months in, though, after trying repeatedly to quit on my own, my self-injury had spiraled into an all-encompassing issue. I knew I needed help.
Although I hadn’t known him long, my youth pastor seemed like a safe person to approach, a good resource. After all, pastors, I’d been taught, were there to guide and support their congregants. I’d revealed my self-injury haltingly at first, and then in a rush of words; I told him everything. I could see the confusion on my youth pastor’s face as he tried to process what I was sharing, and I realized how vulnerable I had made myself. Scared of the judgment I was sure would come, I couldn’t meet his eyes. I found a million other places to stare—the rip in my jeans, the place where the paint was chipped off the wall, the single piece of thread on the carpet that stuck up more than all the others—and I waited for him to speak.
My fears seemed unfounded when my youth pastor began gently questioning me, accepting my one-word answers, but pausing for extended amounts of time in case I found words to fill the silence. I left our conversation feeling proud of myself and encouraged—I had asked for help, and, ultimately, I had been met with care.
The Help That Never Arrived
When my family had moved to California two years earlier, I quickly found community in the shadow of the steeple, just as I did each time the Army ping-ponged us across the country. If the doors of the church were open, I was there. I participated in every youth group activity, went to every camp, and joined every mission trip. I volunteered weekly in other areas of the church: the fifth-and-sixth-grade class, a girls’ Bible study, and an AWANA group. Recognizing how seriously I took my faith, my youth pastor invited me to be part of a core group of students he met with weekly to help foster a deeper, richer understanding of God.
Because of my involvement with the youth group and my youth pastor’s intimate knowledge of my relationship with Christ, I was caught off guard that evening in his office as he delivered his monologue about the conclusion he and the other pastors on staff had come to regarding the consequences and implications of my self-injury. I had expected that he would present me with a list of resources or services, or perhaps some sort of three-step plan to quit cutting. No part of me expected to be met with anything other than the same kindness he had originally displayed when I revealed my struggle.
I tried to reconcile the harshness of his words with the grace and compassion Jesus modeled in his own life. It was Jesus’s example that shaped my belief of how a church, of how a pastor, should respond to an admission like mine.
The truth was part of me did understand the reaction of the pastors on staff. I understood I had become a liability in their eyes, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I understood I had obliterated the image of who they thought I was with my admission. I knew sharing about my cutting might mean some things needed to change.
But that night, without warning, the community upon which I had come to rely was stripped away. In a time when I most needed support and understanding and help, I was told I was not welcome. Nothing about me had fundamentally changed. I had been engaging in self-injurious behaviors for months while actively participating in youth group activities and serving in the church without anyone’s knowledge. Although my secrecy wasn’t healthy, had I not asked for help, I have no reason to think my youth pastor would have found out about my struggle.
Instead of being offered the help for which I had asked, I was ostracized and punished for my honesty and vulnerability.
According to a 2010 study, 15% of teenagers and up to 35% of college students engage in self-harm. This means self-injury is an unspoken issue affecting nearly every church, every congregation, every youth group. I probably wasn’t the only person in my California church who had engaged in self-harm; I just may have been the only one to confess it.
When I told my youth pastor about my cutting, it was with the hope that he knew the same thing I did: Christians, people who are faithful, people who have strong relationships with God, still struggle. I knew that no sin, no struggle, was too big or too much for God. His grace remains sufficient. The reaction of the church leadership made me question if they knew the same God I did.
The Way It Should Be
A few years and another move later, I was seventeen and had, again, become heavily involved in my new church. One night during our youth service as the worship band played, I walked out of our youth building into the warm evening air—an attempt to escape the heaviness in my chest. My battle with self-injury had persisted for years, and it felt like I’d never be able to get ahead of the cutting. My spirit was weary from the effort of struggling alone.
As I stood there staring into the darkness, I heard the door open behind me. My new youth pastor had followed me outside. He was quiet for a moment and then asked, “Is everything okay?”
I didn’t have words to describe the weight that sat in my stomach, the deep shame I carried, or the sense of desperation I was trying to outrun. Turning to face him, I pushed my sleeve up, and, before I had a chance to second guess myself, thrust my arm in his direction. He squinted at the map of cuts and scars in the dim light from the moon and simply said, “Tell me what I’m looking at.”
I stumbled over an explanation, panicking with the realization that I had put myself in such a vulnerable position again. My youth pastor asked if he could pray with me, said he’d give me a few minutes alone, and went back inside.
A few days later, a letter appeared in my mailbox with the church’s return address stamped in the corner. My heart sank when I saw it; I knew my faith community was going to be taken from me again. With shaking hands, I opened the note from this second youth pastor. It said his office was always open, that I was welcome to call or text him any time, and that he was praying for me.
Based on my previous experience, I assumed that, because I had revealed my self-injury, the dominoes of the life I had built would begin to fall. But, they never did. In fact, my youth pastor went out of his way to make sure I knew I was both welcome and wanted in our church family. He trusted I was who I had always been in spite of the new information he had. His heart was to help, not self-protect. Rather than leaving me to struggle alone, he pulled me in closer, surrounding me with a tangible example of the love of Christ.
Cover image by Alex Wong.