I remember the first time I was afraid of my own body, afraid to put it out into the world as it was. I was only seven or eight years old in elementary school, and some boy called me a name that would haunt me for many years to come. This was not the trigger for my eating disorders, but it would play a part in it. Societal standards, being an athlete, family dynamics, and my own mental health would all combine to form two eating disorders that would change my life dramatically. It was in college when I finally received a diagnosis, but the behaviors started when I was only a girl. A therapist named it for me, and I thought about seeking treatment but was afraid; it was not until I was too sick to function that I finally admitted myself into a Partial Hospitalization Program. It’s been three years since I was discharged, and since then, I have been attempting to remain in recovery. If you want to hear more about my story, you can find my personal blog here.
In treatment for my eating disorder, I realized I wasn’t in the career God was calling me to. I grew up in the church, spending hours weekly at youth group and working in the nursery. In my senior year of high school, I even interned for my Youth Director with the goal of the program growing after I left. In college, I tried to join multiple Student Ministries. Eventually, I joined a Christian Sorority, and then I became an interim Youth Director at the church I began attending right beyond my campus. But, I never thought ministry was where my life was being led – I didn’t think I was the right person for the job. It took breaking down to my lowest point to realize God was calling out to me over and over again to lead. So, I called my job in the midst of a therapy session and quit. That night, I started reaching out to churches in my denomination in Kansas City, looking for any job opportunities I would be a match for. Within weeks I had the pleasure of accepting an internship and applying for a Youth Director position. Starting both simultaneously in June of 2018.
When I was applying for these positions, I made it abundantly clear that I was still healing – recently out of treatment but excited for the future. One thing that has never been difficult for me is opening up about my own experiences, especially to trusted adults in church settings. I never shied away from my reality; recovery for an eating disorder, for my other mental health struggles, is ongoing – and I needed support from supervisors to do my best work. From the get-go, I was completely honest about where I was, what I needed, and how I was doing. I took days off when needed and worked on my communication skills with them. It wasn’t always perfect, and it still isn’t, but it opened the door to honest conversations. My supervisors checked in with me when I would pull away, offering me grace for days when I wasn’t able to show myself any. The open arms of my supervisors gave me the strength to show up for myself, the youth I work with, and the church as a whole. Over the next year, I would not only grow as an individual, but I would show the youth I worked with what it meant to live into one’s truth through a community built in grace, honesty, and love.
For most of my life, I have perceived that I needed to have everything together, especially coming into adulthood and a career. As women in ministry spaces, specifically leadership roles, we’re expected to hold it all in to make others comfortable, to show that we’re in control of our emotions. But the reality is by holding our emotions in, hiding our true selves from one another, from our leadership, and from the youth we work alongside, we miss the opportunity to show what life is for so many of us. We miss that key connection point with youth who are already living in a world where they are told to hide away. When youth see candor, they are more likely to return it. None of us have it all together, and I find that when the youth see me for who I am and what I’ve experienced, they feel less alone in their own struggles. I could only have wished for someone to have seen me and the pain I was in at their age. I work every day to offer spaces for all youth to enter and feel seen.
Now, I’m not saying to share your deepest, darkest secrets with teenagers. Boundaries are important. Youth need to know it’s okay to be open and honest, but in a way that is safe and healthy for them. When I want to share a piece of my story, I always start with a note that this is my experience and no one else’s, and if anyone has questions, they can come to me, but that there are some parts of my story that are mine and mine alone. The youth of my youth group know I’ve been in treatment for an eating disorder, they know about my struggles with mental health, but I have limits on what they need to hear, and I will explain that, if someone asks a question that wouldn’t be beneficial for them to hear, I kindly say, “I’m not sure I’m ready to share that right now but thank you for asking.” When youth see trusted Christian adults who don’t mask perfection, they learn it’s okay to let their own walls down in Christian settings. I encourage you to find ways to offer vulnerability to your group in a healthy way for you and them.
Join us this month as we break down the barriers within ourselves and show our youth what it looks like to be truly vulnerable. This blog is the first of a three-part series that will talk about how we as Christians, leaders of young people, women, and humans, relate to our own bodies in a way that is healthy and life-giving for both us and the people we serve. We’ll be talking about practical steps for creating more body-positive spaces in youth ministry and how to help our young people see their bodies as what they are: not problems to be solved, but gifts from their Creator, given endless worth, and made in the very image of God.