Opinion

I’m a youth pastor who made a one-piece swimsuit ultimatum for church camp. I was wrong

After helping my fiancee and stepdaughter shop for a church-camp-appropriate one-piece, I knew I had to do better.

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I never meant to go viral. I am just a follower of Jesus on a journey to love people better.

As a leader in various capacities, including youth leader, youth pastor, lead pastor, camp speaker, camp director and other church roles, I have made numerous mistakes — big dumb ones, little missteps and everything in between.

As a person trying to lead well, I believe in admitting your mistakes and apologizing when you screw up. So that is what I did on Facebook on a Sunday evening while making salsa with my fiancée.

A few days earlier, I was the chauffeur for the evening as she tried to find her daughter an appropriate swimsuit for her first middle school church camp experience. It was my job to tag along to the swimsuit departments of several stores as moral support while they searched for the elusive church-camp-one-piece-swimsuit.

In the several hours and multiple stores we went to, I watched as frustration and dejection built. There was very little to choose from that would make most females feel confident and comfortable, letting them enjoy the various water activities at camp.

I found myself in the middle of difficult situations and emotions that I had never experienced before. My own middle school daughter didn’t get to go to summer camp last year because of the pandemic, so this was my first chance to live the dreaded one-piece-swimsuit shopping experience.

As a ministry leader for over 20 years, I had also been responsible for issuing the one-piece-swimsuit edict for nearly every summer camp or waterpark retreat I had been a part of. I can tell you, with much reflection, I did this with the best intentions. I felt a sense of biblical responsibility to uphold the diminishing value of modesty in our culture.

But after experiencing the girls’ side of this rule, I knew I had been wrong. So I posted an apology to my Facebook page, excerpted below:

“I have been a youth pastor on and off for over 20 years, and I have issued the ridiculous ultimatum to my female students at summer camp: one-piece swimsuits only. First of all, I am sorry.

“I am sorry that I didn’t teach boys to control themselves.

“I am sorry I laid the weight of purity on a girl’s swimsuit while she was swimming, and not on the boy’s responsibility to not be gross.

“I am sorry to all the girls that frantically searched for an appropriate one piece so that some male youth pastor could deem them appropriate. I am sorry that we have deemed a young woman’s body as something that needs to be covered and let young men’s bodies be OK to be seen.

“I am sorry I ever let this be an item of discussion, usually led by men, at any youth leader meeting. This must have been awful for female leaders and students to be part of.

“I am still a fan of the no-produce rule: No buns, bananas or breasts need to be seen. But why are stomachs overtly sexual? Why is a little cleavage sinful? Why are women meant to feel they are responsible for another person’s actual sin of lust?

“Youth pastors (male especially) — stop being chauvinist and making female students feel bad for having breasts. Christians — live like Jesus.”

I cared about our female students and never wanted them to be the object of potential harassment, especially at a church event where we were trying to create a safe place. I also wanted to create a safe environment for young people to develop friendships away from the stress and temptations of our sexualized modern world.

But even with the best intentions, I took the easy way out. Instead of having tough conversations with trusted and wise female leaders, I issued ultimatums that unintentionally hurt those put in my care.

In reflection of that experience, I took what seemed to be a very biblical and humble approach to being wrong, especially as a leader in the church. I said I was sorry. That apology was intended for my friends on Facebook. That is, other pastors, personal connections, family and most of all former students.

I have great relationships with many people I have led over the years; some of them I have to had to apologize to and reconcile with. To my surprise, this swimsuit post struck a chord with many of them, and they began to share it with their Facebook friends, and the cycle of virality began. What also began was healing, an overwhelming voice of healing from females within my circle and beyond, from harrowing stories of modesty culture, camp experiences, sexualization — all because of the one-piece-only rule.

That is why I posted the apology. I want healing, and I want people to follow Jesus as the ultimate source of the healing.

What I also got were vicious attacks from religious leaders, especially men. I was accused of causing divisiveness, seeking attention, watering down the Gospel, being a poor student of theology. More than one commenter is “glad you aren’t my pastor.” I was even called the devil.

And these responses included a lot of Scripture. By a lot of Scripture, I mean my detractors posted a lot of the same two Scriptures: one about modesty and another about not causing someone to stumble. Dropping these Scriptures into social media comments seemed to give them a feeling of righteous entitlement to claim they are right and I am wrong. I would have never imagined that an apology would garner so much hate based on a belief system that is rooted in love.

I can handle the hate, the misquoting of Scripture, the assumptions about my character, and other negative feedback. Because something good came from this social media post. It brought healing and hope to the broken.

As for the actual issue of modesty in relation to the one-piece vs. two-piece swimsuit debate, trust me I have never advocated for skimpy or revealing swimwear, for males or females. We must exercise some common sense here.

When it comes to leading teenagers and making healthy guidelines, I was a teenage boy, and there are some very easy edges to define as inappropriate for both the girls and boys wearing the garments and both genders viewing it. But there are some gray areas, too, based upon physique, body type and age. That is where Scripture implores us to use wisdom, especially when we are relational in our approach.

Our female leaders should define those guidelines for our female students. A one-piece swimsuit doesn’t equal modest. Two-piece doesn’t equal immodest. Let’s apply wisdom, led by females, to how women and girls should be dressed at church camp.

I was given a very quick education from friends and family on the impractical nature of a one-piece rule for any public swimming or summer camp. I also was reminded that people come in all shapes and sizes; there are a number of reasons why a two-piece can be more practical and modest for many people.

Others told me I was wrong to call young men gross or to ask them to control themselves. Let me address that. Any person, male or female, who cannot look at someone having fun in a bathing suit at a church camp without having lustful thoughts that lead them to sin, is being gross. It is gross to lower the God-created human body and God-ordained natural attraction to the physical form to the animalistic urge of sexual lust alone.

Sex, sexual attraction and the Imago Dei are from God and should be celebrated. There is nothing wrong with them, ever. But we must control our thoughts and emotions and urges, submit them to Christ who died on the cross to heal and redeem our broken condition.

Such gross lack of control might come out of hurt, abuse, religious affliction, sexual exploitation, pain, or just plain unholy desire. That is all called sin. And that sin and brokenness can be truly healed through Christ.

That healing might take place instantaneously in a moment of prayer, it might be solved at one night at camp services, it might take professional counseling. But to lay that sinfulness on the style of a swimming suit at summer camp, that is ridiculous and just an attempt to excuse the responsibility for each of us to come to Christ with all our brokenness.

As followers of Jesus, let us drop our religious tendencies that Jesus fought so hard against and love people. Those who do not follow Jesus, at least grant those of us who are trying to lead well the grace to apologize and be better.

If you have been hurt by the church, because of a rule like this or something way more heinous, let this apology be the first step in healing. If you are struggling with uncontrolled lust or sexual addiction, get help from those you trust, and use resources within the church and professional counseling outside the church.

In the end of all this I implore you: Love God and love people.

Bryce Brewer is a pastor and youth minister in Spokane Valley, Washington. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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Bryce R. Brewer

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