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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

No More School Lunch Privileges for Youth Pastors

LunchBEND, Ore. -- Central Oregon's largest school district has suspended a long-standing practice of allowing youth pastors from a local evangelical church to talk to students eating lunch in school cafeterias, according to EthicsDaily.com.

Representatives of Bend's Westside Church had been going to lunches about once a month at four middle schools and three high schools in Bend for about three years, church officials said.

They would check in on students who were part of Westside's youth ministry program, called 180.

"We're just there to visit with the kids and encourage them," said Steve Stern, Westside's youth program coordinator. "We don't have Bible studies or anything."

A few parents found out about the visits from their children and complained to officials at Cascade Middle School and the Bend-La Pine School District.

"For me it's a concern because middle schoolers are so impressionable, and if the school district is going to allow one religion to be represented, they have to allow other religions to be represented, too," said parent Judy Drake.

Bend-La Pine, with 14,675 students, isn't the first place such conflicts have occurred. School districts in Oregon and across the country often struggle with balancing state and U.S. constitutional provisions that protect religious expression while restricting entanglement between church and state.

"They also have to deal with parents," whose opinions on what's appropriate for their children can vary wildly, said attorney Nancy Hungerford. Her Oregon City firm counsels districts across the state on the issue.

School officials called Westside leaders on Tuesday and asked them to stop the visits until the district can revise its current visitor and volunteer policies to address the situation.

"There are some really tough legal questions that we have to sort through, and it will lead to a complete review of how we do this," Bend-La Pine Superintendent Doug Nelson said.

Stern, the youth program leader, said the Foursquare Gospel church has complied with all district policies and was happy to acquiesce to the district's suspension of the visits.

"We're not out here to ruffle feathers," he said. "We're just out here to love on kids and let kids know there are people there who care for them."

FOR DISCUSSION:  Do you or your youth pastor ever meet students for lunch at the cafeteria?  I know ours does.  What are your first thoughts about this article?

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June 13, 2006 in Trends in Today's Church | Permalink

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As a children's pastor, I've been going to visit kids for lunch at elementary schools for about three years now; but I only go at the specific invitation of a parent to have lunch with their child. I also ask these parents to fill out a form I provide and have them turn it in to the school office. It's a permission slip, not for the child, but for me. I've been amazed, however, at how many times I've been able to just walk in, sign my name, and walk to the cafeteria without ever being spoken to by a school official or teacher. I'm glad for the opportunity our district has given me, but I think other parents would be less inclined to complain if there were more definite procedures in place.

Posted by: Brent | Jun 13, 2006 10:04:56 AM

I believe that our youth pastors do make lunchtime trips to the schools our church serves. Our local YFC volunteers and staff count on access to students in public schools. We (@ YFC) have learned some lessons here the hard way. When things got a bit too free in our school district for the comfort of some more conservative Christians in the community (gay/lesbian after school programming became permitted) they began campaigning against “anti-family” groups being allowed on campuses with our kids. The result? ALL non-official student groups were banned, including Christian groups (FCA, YFC, churches, etc.). Since the gay/lesbian group was a student-led group, they stayed anyway.

I would urge caution. NEVER push the envelope. If you are allowed freedom to visit students in public schools, politely and respectfully follow the rules. Concentrate on building relationships with kids and don’t use time on campus for spiritual guidance. Build relationships with the administration and ask permission often. Today, in my community, things have quieted down again and we’re back on campus. Our YFC staff is often referred to as the “go to” organization if someone wants to find out what is and is not acceptable in our public schools.


Posted by: Wendi | Jun 13, 2006 11:39:57 AM

As a parent, I want to know that the school is looking out for my kids. A youth pastor or YFC staff may seem "harmless" but what if another group is allowed in and isn't quite so harmless? Would I want them to have access to my kids over lunch?

Christian youth workers are often fun-loving, gregarious kid-magnets...which means that even if they go into a school intending to talk only with the kids in their youth group, they may attract other kids they don't have permission to talk with. What then? Do they tell those kids to go away? Come talk to me on Sunday morning or Wednesday night? That's a sure sign for trouble. I think a much better plan may be to have a "formal" but unstructured get-together time where kids with appropriate permission come to them.

Wendi said it well, "Build relationships with the administration and ask permission often." I would just add, build relationships with the parents, too.

Posted by: Randy Ehle | Jun 13, 2006 12:44:07 PM

I know many youth pastors who visited the kids in their youth group over lunch and took pizza because they knew other kids would sit and talk to them for the free pizza. It is important to have pure motives and to not do what we would object to other groups doing in the presence of our children.

Those same youth pastors would have been irrate had a Muslim cleric (or any other religious leader) visited one of the Muslim teenagers and brought pizza in order to attract other teenagers.

Posted by: eric | Jun 13, 2006 3:53:36 PM

When I taught in a church school, I had lunch everyday with the kids. Loved it and they are real different at lunch opposed to the classroom.

Posted by: Jay Gainer | Jun 13, 2006 11:59:37 PM

The school district is simply developing a procedure for Westside's visits. The church has happily complied and has been assured by the district the youth pastors will be allowed back on the campsuses next year. It's not nearly as big of a deal as a lot of people have made it out to be.

Posted by: Wendy Johnson | Jul 31, 2006 3:05:01 PM

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