I’m a young pastor who made a one-piece swimsuit ultimatum for the church camp. I was wrong
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I never wanted to go viral. I am just a disciple of Jesus on a journey to love people better.
As a leader in various capacities including youth leader, youth pastor, senior pastor, camp speaker, camp director and other church roles, I have made many mistakes – big stupid ones. , little missteps and everything in between.
As a person who tries to lead well, I believe in admitting your mistakes and apologizing when you make mistakes. So that’s what I did on Facebook on a Sunday night while doing salsa with my fiancee.
A few days earlier, I had been the driver for the evening as she tried to find her daughter a suitable swimsuit for her first college church camp experience. It was my job to accompany the swimwear departments of several stores as moral support as they researched the elusive church-camp one-piece swimsuit.
Over the hours and the many stores we have been to, I have seen frustration and despondency build. There was very little choice to make most of the women feel confident and comfortable, allowing them to enjoy the various water activities at camp.
I found myself in the midst of difficult situations and emotions that I had never experienced before. My own college daughter was unable to attend summer camp last year due to the pandemic, so this was my first chance to have the dreaded one-piece swimsuit shopping experience. .
As head of ministry for over 20 years, I had also been tasked with issuing the one-piece swimsuit edict for almost any summer camp or water park retreat I had attended. I can tell you, with a lot of thought, that I did this with the best of intentions. I felt a sense of biblical responsibility to maintain the diminishing value of modesty in our culture.
But after experiencing the girlish side of this rule, I knew I was wrong. So I posted an apology on my Facebook page, excerpt below:
“I was a youth pastor on and off for over 20 years, and I gave my summer camp students a ridiculous ultimatum: one-piece swimsuits only. First of all, I’m sorry.
“I’m sorry I didn’t teach the boys to control themselves.
“I’m sorry I put the weight of purity on a girl’s swimsuit while she was swimming, and not on the boy’s responsibility not to be rude.
“I feel sorry for all the girls who have desperately searched for a suitable room so that a youth pastor can deem them appropriate. I am sorry that we considered the body of a young woman to be something to be covered and the bodies of young men to be seen.
“I’m sorry I ever let this be a topic of discussion, usually led by men, at any youth leadership meeting. It must have been awful for women leaders and students.
“I’m still a fan of the no-production rule: no buns, bananas or breasts to see. But why are the stomachs overtly sexual? Why is a small cleavage a sin? Why are women supposed to take responsibility for another person’s true sin of lust?
“Young pastors (especially men) – stop being chauvinistic and making female students feel bad about having breasts. Christians, live like Jesus.
I cared about our female students and never wanted them to be the subject of potential harassment, especially at a religious 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 modern sexualized world.
But even with the best of intentions, I took the easy way out. Instead of having difficult conversations with trusted and wise women leaders, I have issued ultimatums that unintentionally hurt those in my care.
Reflecting on this experience, I took what seemed like a very biblical and humble approach to error, especially as a leader in the church. I said I was sorry. This apology was intended for my friends on Facebook. That is, other pastors, personal relationships, family and especially alumni.
I have great relationships with many people that I have led over the years; some of them that I had to apologize to and come to terms with. To my surprise, this swimsuit post struck a chord with a lot of them, and they started sharing it with their Facebook friends, and the virality cycle began. What also began was healing, an overwhelming voice of healing from women in my circle and beyond, poignant stories of the cultivation of modesty, camp experiences, sexualization – all at because of the one-piece rule.
That’s why I posted an apology. I want healing, and I want people to follow Jesus as the ultimate source of healing.
What I have also had are vicious attacks from religious leaders, especially men. I’ve been accused of causing divisions, of seeking attention, of watering down the gospel, of being a bad theology student. More than one commentator is “glad you are not my pastor”. I was even called the devil.
And those answers included a lot of Scripture. By a lot of scripture, I mean my detractors have published many of the same two scriptures: one on modesty and one on not tripping someone up. Dropping these scriptures into social media comments seemed to give them a legitimate sense of entitlement to claim that they were right and that I was wrong. I never imagined that an apology would spark so much hatred based on a belief system rooted in love.
I can deal with hatred, incorrect quotations from the scriptures, assumptions about my character, and other negative comments. Because something good came out of this social media post. He brought healing and hope to the broken.
As for the real question of modesty versus the one-piece versus two-piece swimwear debate, trust me, I have never argued for skimpy or revealing swimwear, for men or women. We have to use common sense here.
When it comes to leading teens and developing healthy guidelines, I was a teenager, and there are edges that are very easy to define as inappropriate for both the girls and boys wearing the clothes and for both sexes who see them. But there are also gray areas, depending on the physique, body type and age. This is where Scripture implores us to use wisdom, especially when we are relational in our approach.
Our leaders should set these guidelines for our students. A one-piece swimsuit is not synonymous with modesty. Two pieces is not equal to shameless. Let’s apply the wisdom, led by women, to how women and girls should be dressed at church camp.
My friends and family taught me very quickly about the impractical nature of a one-piece ruler for any public pool or summer camp. I was also reminded that people come in all shapes and sizes; there are a number of reasons why a two-room apartment may be more practical and modest for many people.
Others told me that I was wrong to call young men rude or to ask them to control themselves. Let me address this. Anyone, man or woman, who cannot watch someone have fun in a swimsuit in a church camp without having lustful thoughts that lead them to sin, is rude. It is gross to lower the human body created by God and the natural attraction ordered by God to the physical form to the only animal drive of sexual lust.
Sex, sexual attraction and Imago Dei come from God and should be celebrated. There is nothing wrong with them, ever. But we have to control our thoughts, emotions and impulses, subject them to Christ who died on the cross to heal and redeem our broken condition.
Such a blatant lack of control can come from injury, abuse, religious affliction, sexual exploitation, pain, or just ungodly desire. That’s all called sin. And that sin and that breaking can be truly healed by Christ.
This healing could take place instantly in a moment of prayer, it could be resolved overnight during camp services, this might require professional guidance. But spreading this sin over the style of a summer camp swimsuit is ridiculous and it’s just an attempt to excuse the responsibility of each of us for coming to Christ with all of our broken pieces.
As followers of Jesus, let us let go of 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 try to lead well the grace to apologize and be better.
If you’ve been hurt by the church, because of a rule like this or something much more heinous, let that apology be the first step in healing. If you are struggling with uncontrolled lust or sex addiction, seek help from people you trust and use resources within the church and professional counseling outside the church.
At the end of it all, I implore you: Love God and love people.
Bryce Brewer is a pastor and minister of youth in Spokane Valley, Washington. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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