- Tabitha Caplinger
Cringing At Younger Youth Pastor Me
Updated: Oct 6, 2022
The older we get the more we learn. Hopefully, at least. With age comes wisdom, and with experience comes maturity, and the longer we follow Jesus and seek to put Him first the more we grow and learn and mature. I turned 43 this fall and will have been in youth ministry since I was 19. That’s a lot of time for growing and learning. And a lot of room to grow and learn.
*Pictured is 20-something Tab being super cool with a comic filter
flashing a peace sign for no reason whatsoever.
Add to my age the fact I now have a 13-year-old daughter. And. Well. Lots more growing and learning and a few gray hairs.
And lots of thinking about what I say and teach and what I’ve said and taught.
Now, I always pointed students to Jesus. I always challenged them to put Him first. I encouraged them to study and know the Word. My husband and I welcomed questions. And we loved kids. Every teenager we have had the privilege to pastor in these two decades we have loved deeply. (I hope they knew that even when I wasn’t good at showing it.) We have prayed for them and cheered for them and been nothing less than honored to shepherd them. We are still honored. And we still love each and every one of them. (Some of them have kids of their own now and if that doesn’t make you feel old I don’t know what will but it’s so beautiful too.)
But sometimes I cringe when I look back over the years. I think of things I said or taught that were by-products of a church culture that didn’t always get it right and had good intentions but poor impact at times.
I have wracked my brain as I’ve learned and grown, and while...
- I sometimes lacked grace (I could justify it with a discussion of all the people trying to make me feel small as a woman in ministry so I reacted by trying to act big but it wasn’t good and sometimes hurt and for those who felt my lack of grace I’m truly sorry),
- I certainly used cheesy illustrations (I have been known to host a youth group bonfire to burn secular CDs but in my defense, it was an era. I mean did you even go to youth group in the late 90s or early 2000s without burning something for Jesus?),
- and I was the dating police (and still kind of am),
...aside from a few misguided youthful moments where Jesus was still working on me and my insecurities, fear, and maturity, I hold to 98% of what we taught. Perhaps not always the way we taught it. I wish I could go back and say some things differently. (Oh, to have a time machine so I could have a conversation with 20-something Tab.)
The part of the 2% that makes me sigh the most is modesty. I was the youth pastor who didn’t get it. I was the one who took what she had always been told and passed it on without diving deeper. I told girls they needed to wear one-pieces while hating it. Why? Because I never fully believed it was the right answer. But I guess not enough to question it out loud.
Because I was also the same youth pastor who would get so angry over the hypocrisy of dress codes or comments made about my youth girls' skirts/shorts. Yet I enforced those dress codes by the pool.
I can remember a fairly recent conversation with one young woman who questioned it. I did my best to give her a good answer. In the end, it became more about respecting authority and rules than whether a two-piece was somehow dangerous. Because so much of the time I was enforcing someone else’s rule and I didn’t even realize when it had become my rule and didn’t have a good why as to it being a rule. Until that conversation. (Teenagers can make really good points.)
After that, we stopped the rule.
If you grew up like I did you might have just gasped. The youth group one-piece bathing suit rule is so entrenched in our psyche that we don’t question it. We don’t question skirt length or crop tops or any of it. We don’t ask why.
We’d say we know why. Because modesty is important. Because we are protecting our brothers in Christ from lusting.
But that’s a bad why. (Or at least not a good enough why.)
Why is it a bad why?
Because when Jesus talked about lust he didn’t tell girls to cover up, He told boys to gouge out their eyes. (Technically, not just boys but I was doing a thing there.) We are responsible for our own thoughts and actions.
Before you crucify me, I believe in modesty. I just don’t think it has as much to do with hemlines and bathing suit choices as it does with the heart. I believe modesty is about rooting our identity and value in Christ so that we present ourselves in a way that honors Him. A modest heart understands that beauty and worth come from Him and within not from how we display our skin.
Biblical modesty is a heart issue.
You can be covered and still be immodest.
No one can be looking at you and you can still be immodest.
Modesty is about me and Jesus; not me and boys.
We should teach boys to take their lust to Jesus and not simply put it on girls to monitor. And who’s monitoring girls' lust by the way? Why don’t we ever ask that question?
I would argue that “boys will be boys” was and is harmful because boys should be taught to be godly men. They have ownership here. (And girls should be taught to be godly too but because it’s good and right for them not simply for the sake of their brothers in Christ. And the latter is too often what happens because modesty is often seen or taught as something just for girls to have to think about but it’s for everyone.)
When I am surrendered to Jesus, when my worth is found in His loving kindness as my Creator, I don’t need to flaunt anything. Not my body, not my wealth, not my intelligence. I can carry myself with beauty and humility. Even in a two-piece.
Plus, let’s be real, dress codes can’t create modest hearts. After twenty-some years of youth ministry, the only thing they really created was shame, guilt, and frustration--or a shallow modesty that didn't really reach the heart.
What creates modest hearts is time with the heart of the Fathe and learning who we are in Him. It’s also the thing that combats lust and jealousy and insecurity and all the other things that we think the right clothes will fix.
In twenty years of youth ministry we worked so hard to help kids prioritize Christ without fear and shame. To introduce students to a Savior who loved them as they were and could offer them belonging and freedom. Who would teach them what a real community—a community that guards and protects one another as it should—really looks like.
So, I wish I could go back and have some different conversations with some girls and guys. For the girls who felt like you were given a weight that wasn’t yours to carry, I’m so sorry. I’ll take it back (whether I was your youth pastor or you had someone else who was still learning). I’ll tell you now what I didn’t always tell you then. You are more than your body and your body isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s also not the source of your beauty and value. It’s just a vessel. You get to decide how you use it. I hope you will submit it to Jesus because His Way is life and love and freedom and protection. His way is real empowerment and not the false version the world hands us that often leaves us more broken. Modesty is a choice you will make and it is one that has more to do with where you find your worth and how you carry it than if your shorts come below your fingertips.
Modesty at its core is humility. It’s submission to Jesus in what you say, do, and even wear.
And beyond modesty, because that wasn’t necessarily the direction I intended when I started this post, the point is I was young when I started this pastor gig. I was still figuring out some things and who I was in Christ. In my twenties, I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. In my forties, I know how much I don’t know. A lot hasn’t changed as far as what I believe but I’ve come to offer it with more love and grace than pride. I’m still me, blunt and bold and a little pushy, but with less insecurity undermining agape.
That’s the cool thing about growth and sanctification and Jesus constantly transforming and maturing us...we learn and we change in good ways. Sometimes we change our minds and sometimes we change our approach. If it’s a change that leads us more to the heart of Jesus and the values of His Kingdom then it's a change we should embrace rather than fear or judge as though it's the same as being hypocritical or inconsistent. There’s a difference between those two things and growth. Growth is good and worthy.
So yeah, I sometimes cringe when I look back at the immature young adult who thought she needed to be some sort of way and say certain things to be taken seriously or have an impact. But she was part of the journey, a chapter in the story that helped me get where I am now. She's the reason I can be excited to still be growing because I better see the value in the struggle and stretching. In fact, I'm thankful for it...even when it makes me cringe.
PS: on the modesty stuff so you don’t come at me; I am not saying how we dress doesn’t matter, and it’s a free for all that never takes others into consideration, but we can’t boil modesty down to dress codes and boys who can’t control themselves and need girls to do the work for them (which doesn’t say much for boys does it? It doesn’t honor them). I am saying we are created in the image of God and that’s worth honoring in all areas of our life and actions. It's about God's standards for our hearts more than arbitrary rules that aren't even really in the Bible. So as we teach modesty--to boys and girls--let's get back to what it really is in its fullness and not settle for shorts below the knee as the determining factor.