Content note: child abuse, predatory ministers, pedophilia.
I’d say I don’t know what it is about youth pastors that makes these stories so common, but I’d be fibbing. I have a few suspicions.
If you remember our discussions of Matt Pitt, the youth pastor with the serious cop fantasy, then you can now add Tony Waller to the long line of youth pastors caught doing something bizarre and wrong. Today I want to talk a little about why this story dismays me, but really doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s just part of what’s happening in Christianity.
With a tip of our hat to JT Eberhard, we attend the tale of Tony Waller, a youth minister at a fundagelical church, Jonesboro First Assembly (JFA). His wife found herself in a devastating position: she found kiddie porn on her husband’s computer. She says she was simply innocently looking for a file on it, but given that just one month previously a former pastor from their general area had been caught with that filth on his own computer, one wonders very seriously if maybe she had some other motivation. Or maybe she was policing his porn usage but only thought she’d find regular legal porn there–plenty of fundagelical wives, convinced that porn is some kind of competition with them, snoop around to ferret out their husbands’ habits. Who knows? She did it, that’s all, and this time it worked out for the best and she’s quite likely saved some children–perhaps even her own young daughter!–from horrific abuse.
This kind of story exposes the vulnerable flanks of evangelical thinking. JFA is a tongues-talking, faith-healing, water-dunking church, though they are Trinitarians and not Oneness Christians so obviously they are total heretics who are going to Hell. Unfortunately, Jesus didn’t heal the heart of their youth pastor, or keep him from seeking child pornography. And I haven’t heard of any supernatural rescues of the children in this predator’s collection of many thousands of images and videos.
The youth pastor of this outfit, Tony Waller, confessed to his wife that he’d been totally addicted to kiddie porn for twenty years, according to this news story. He’s almost forty, so that means he began his secret sidelight as a predator when he was just a teenager and before marrying his wife. But he was hired for his role as the youth minister at JFA fifteen years ago, well after he’d become fully aware of his dark proclivities.
For five years after admitting to himself that he had this problem, he lurked around some church–probably JFA or one nearby it–thinking who knows what about the children around himself. Then, he sought–and got–a position that guaranteed him close and near-constant contact with children. Since many pedophiles don’t have criminal records, they can slip past whatever background checks churches employ, and that appears to be exactly what Tony Waller did. He clearly knew he had a problem, clearly didn’t communicate that problem to the pastor of this church, and most importantly, clearly knew that Jesus wasn’t going to tattle on him either.
I’m bringing this story up for a reason. If I just wanted to dog on Christians being total hypocrites and call attention to blatant and glaring holes in the Happy Christian Community facade the religion puts up, I could do that every single day and twice on Sundays. I consider that low-hanging fruit. It does hold a certain satisfaction at times, yes, but there’s just too many stories like this one, and it’s not like people reading my blog aren’t already well aware that Christianity is simply great at producing hypocrites.
No, I’m actually bringing up this story because it illustrates an overarching trend and a deeper problem in the religion: Christianity is failing its young people. To understand how someone like Tony Waller could end up in a church ministry involving children, we have to dig deep into what evangelical churches think about youth ministry.
Today we’re going to deal with one aspect of that problem as I see it: youth pastors’ overwhelming lack of qualifications for leadership. Saturday we’re going to examine the culture that comes along with having an unqualified youth pastor, and how that culture is actually repelling the very people it’s meant to pander to–and opening Christian churches to pedophiles and other abusers who seek out these roles because they’re easy to obtain and come with next to no real oversight.
Christianity is losing young people so fast it’s making their ship visibly lean to port as they leap off the starboard side. At this point, there are now more young people withdrawing from Christianity than there are staying in it.
Those young people are the next generation of pew-warmers. Out of every single demographic that Christian leaders could possibly want to retain, it’d be teens and college-aged folks. And these are the people who are most likely to have close family ties and deep friendships with other church members, making their investment in the religion considerably higher than that of some rando encountered on the street or pestered on a plane! How hard could this seriously be?
Apparently, it’s super-hard.
I find myself marveling anew that with the stakes being what they are for fundagelicals, with their entire future resting on how well they prepare the next generation to take the torch, churches are still turning to a corps of largely untrained, uneducated, untested, undisciplined amateurs to nurture and teach the minds of their youngest, sharpest, and most inquisitive members. I’ve run into some youth ministers who really take the time to educate themselves and learn theology and doctrine so they can better educate young people, but most don’t. I knew a lot of youth pastors when I was Christian, as you can imagine, and most of them were using volunteer youth ministry to angle themselves into full time ministry work. That was Biff’s strategy and that of several other young men we knew. Their only other option was to go through Bible College (which is like vo-tech seminary for fundagelicals), which was expensive, time-consuming, and not terribly fun. So they considered youth ministry to be a sort of perpetual-partytime internship, like Pastoring Lite except it let them continue to dress and act like college bros. Teens and kids aren’t hard to stoke into frenzied displays of fervor, which church leadership teams often mistake for anchoring faith that’ll hold those kids in Christianity well into adulthood. Once the pastor saw how diligent and anointed (read: successful) they were, then these youth pastors expected to move into either paid positions as youth pastors or else even become “real” pastors.
Pretty much anybody who can talk to kids and teens without getting terminal side-eye back, and who is willing to babysit, can work him- or herself into one of these positions in many churches. Even small churches often have trouble filling volunteer roles, and as money dries up, pastors find their incomes shrinking along with their congregations’ size–making even fewer of these churches able afford a paid youth pastor and thus more reliant on the pool of available volunteers–who will lack the training and education needed to really do the job right.
Churches turn those amateurs loose with as small a budget as they dare and hope to see results in the form of increased retention later. I’ve read countless contradictory guesses about how to keep kids indoctrinated that don’t even reach the level of “pulled out of someone’s ass” from these youth pastors. It’s like they’ve been running this decades-long social experiment on their own children. I really think they think that when those kids blow out their candles on their 18th birthday cakes, they will magically turn into disciplined, seasoned, gentle, loving, obedient, meek, knowledgable Christians.
It’s like giving a green foal to a first-time rider.
For all the “anointing” and “blessing” a youth pastor might claim to have and for all the enthusiasm these people bring to the role, there are simple nuts and bolts skills of leadership they need to have and certain theological underpinnings they need to know. Even someone as dangerously oblivious as I was could tell when a youth minister knew less than I did about the Bible or how to handle groups of kids. Worse, even I could tell when one of my leaders was less emotionally stable and mature than I was. Regular ministry might not tolerate quite so much of that tomfoolery, but youth ministry hides such people and camouflages them. A certain amount of childishness and immaturity passes right under the radar. I didn’t know any youth ministers when I was Christian who weren’t floppy kids at heart galumphing around all proud of how boyish they were (they were all men). I’m guessing mainline non-evangelical churches are very different, but that was my reality as a Pentecostal. If one of those men had been a pedophile, there’s no way we’d have caught it. We took a few precautions, but not enough.
Tony Waller was no exception to what I’m describing here. You can see the biographies of the other leaders of this church, and all those bios detail the ministers’ educational backgrounds. In other words, the church’s ministers all have formal training of some kind from somewhere–except for one! Tony Waller seems to have no educational credentials listed at all, not even a secular associate degree from some community college. Nor does he seem to have any formal credentials with his denomination (something their associate pastor’s bio says he’s pursuing).
Transcript: Tony grew up in Marion and joined the staff of First Assembly in April of 1999. In November of 2000, he married the love of his life, ******, and together they minister to the kids of JFA. They welcomed their first child, ******, in June of 2010. Tony is a huge fan of Star Wars and ****** is a lifelong collector of beautiful rocks. In their spare time, they enjoy spending time with family, vacationing in Branson, watching the Atlanta Braves and checking out the caves of America.
Though some folks might say that I should view this systemic laxity about standards among youth pastors as a point won for secularism, I don’t completely. There are many good people in Christianity–quite a few of them young people–who are growing up in the religion and trying to do the best they can. Christian policies that don’t adequately protect kids or ensure that they’re being taught by credentialed, competent instructors don’t do those kids a bit of good either. They’re being taught by people who have no idea what end is up, but who can talk a big game and bounce around an arena-rock-lit stage screaming for kids to clap their hands for Jesus. These factors might be leading more and more kids to question their religion’s claims, but oh, what a high cost comes with them. I know how devastating it is when a young person starts to realize what a bill of goods he or she got sold, and has to start all over again to build a worldview. And I know a lot of youth ministers now who are quite committed to getting the training required to do their jobs well, so that if a kid does question the religion, it can be done in a safer and more loving environment. But the system as it stands now all but guarantees its own imminent failure. Its leaders are squabbling about equal marriage and who owns women’s bodies while clowns entertain and offend their kids right out of the religion, instilling in those kids an entirely false sense of bravado and confidence that is going to make their lives ten times worse later on than if their pastors hadn’t hired a youth pastor at all. It makes me think of people arguing about what music they’ll listen to while the ship sinks. (If you see parallels between church culture and public schools, well, maybe you should.)
Jonesboro First Assembly is like a little microcosm of what’s wrong in youth ministry and, perhaps, a sign of why young people are finding Christianity so uncompelling of late. When you and I run into one of these super-chirpy, artificially-giddy young Christians eager to “share the gospel” with us as if it’s the very first time anybody’s ever done that, we ought to be thinking of the piss-poor education those young people have gotten at the hands of barely-theologically-literate youth pastors. Maybe thinking of that will help us treat them as courteously and gently as we can so that they can start to question their misinformation and false certainty. These kids come from a culture that has set them up to fail; they very likely learned at the feet of youth pastors who themselves are only a symptom of their culture’s problems.
That culture also doesn’t make it easy at all for women to bring forward minister husbands when they’re doing something this wrong. I don’t know what gave Tony Waller’s wife the courage to do it, but I’m glad she found it somewhere. We’re going to talk about why her act was doubly brave come Saturday, and I do hope you’ll join me.
On a final note, I’m sure that the many victims of this depraved pervert’s lust will be very happy to know that his ex-employer, the pastor at Jonesboro First Assembly, has requested that everybody keep loving their onetime youth pastor (reported toward the end of the attached video to that story). Man, I’m more glad than ever to be out of that religion. Even a guy poised to molest children and who was collecting thousands of images of victimized children doesn’t have to worry too much about being completely ostracized–but oh, I betcha I know what happens if someone comes out gay or says he or she is an atheist.