For me, thinking about TeenPact is a painful experience of very mixed emotions. While I was involved, I loved my experience. TeenPact offers homeschoolers who are often without significant social opportunities a country-wide network of friends. My TeenPact friends spanned the country from Maine to Virginia to Hawaii and New Mexico and I loved it. I was very socially gregarious and TeenPact gave me a place to channel my energies. I got to travel all over the country, at first attending different events as a student and later as a traveling staff member. But most of all, I craved and cherished the sense of shared purpose. We called it fellowshipping, and that’s what it was – we shared a cause, but more than that, we shared a fundamental belief system – beliefs about what God was like, what people were like, what we were like – and there was comfort in that. There was security.
TeenPact made me feel good about myself. I was energetic, passionate (but not too passionate), mature for my age, and funny – a combination that turned out to be what TeenPact values in staff members. My year of being a travelling staffer was my senior year of highschool, and at the end of that year one of the interns came to me and asked me to put off my first year of college to stay in the program as an intern for the upcoming year. I was legitimately torn, but ultimately decided that I couldn’t give up my spot in an honors program at the college I had been accepted to. Looking back on that decision, I am so glad that I did what I did.
TeenPact gave me security. It gave me a place in the world and a sense of self. It validated many true things about myself – that I’m good with people, that I’m a natural leader, that I can help mediate and resolve conflicts. And all these things are why I’m so conflicted over my time in TeenPact. TeenPact was good to me – I have no right to be so disillusioned. Right?
But ultimately, I can’t help but be disillusioned. We were 15, 16, 17 and 18-year-olds in positions of power over our peers. There were obvious in-crowds and out-crowds. At the beginning of each class, the staffers almost immediately established who were the “good kids” and the “problem kids” and treated them as such throughout the program. Some of these judgment calls were valid, but often they were based on appearance (the kids who looked too “homeschooled” were out), personality (too energetic? Talk too much? Awkward? Out), and religious affiliation (Catholic? Good luck). There was a huge sense of superiority that none of us recognized at the time but that, looking back, I recognize in myself as spiritual pride. We were the best. Why else were we staffers? There was a culture of judgment that was accepted and disguised as “discernment,” but we were highschoolers judging other highschoolers based on trivial things. Those of us that were able to appear most spiritual, mature and “discerning” were able to rise.
I am personally ashamed of some of the things I did as a staffer. I wish I had never had to ask girls to change their “inappropriate” clothes. I can’t forget the look on one girl’s face as I handed her a pair of “appropriate” jeans and asked her to change. The humiliation, obvious confusion and embarrassment she felt makes me feel sick when I remember it.
I’m ashamed of my spiritual posturing. I really meant all the prayers I prayed, all the “wise” bits of advice I gave out to the girls I was leading, all the devotionals I wrote, all the worship services I helped lead. I really meant them, but to convince everyone else I really meant them I cultivated a very spiritual appearance. My Bible was highlighted everywhere. My prayers were long and effusive (and very public – we prayed in prayer circles outside senate chambers and offices of high officials at every capitol building). During worship I “lost myself” in the music, swaying and raising my hands. This was partly the style of worship I was raised with, but I judged those who I did not consider similarly moved, and I made sure to align my worship and prayer styles with what the interns were doing. These were not conscious decisions – I was trying to fit in with a program that valued obvious and public Christianity.
I’m ashamed that I was so quick to judge others, and that I couldn’t see that that’s what I was doing. I judged based on trivial things – appearances and differences in personality.
I used to be very angry about my experiences in TeenPact. I blamed TeenPact for teaching me negative beliefs about myself as a woman, about others who didn’t qualify as godly enough, about non-Christians who were trying to steal our government. But since then I’ve become less angry. My anger has changed into a confusing mixture of sadness and shame right alongside memories of the truly good times, and a strange ennui for the assurance that I knew exactly who I was and where I fit. I realize that the assurance that I felt was the assurance of childhood – I did not understand the world or even myself, though I was convinced that I understood it better than most adults.
That assurance passed with time and education. That was perhaps the problem with 16-year-olds as staffers – we were really only a little older than children.
I actually have a lot of hope for TeenPact. The upper staff has recently changed, and the new leadership is actively seeking to change some of the more negative aspects of the program. Management has reached out to former TeenPacters, asking for their thoughts and suggestions on how to change the program for the better. I am so hopeful that TeenPact is on a healing journey. The ultimate results of the changes remain to be seen, but I am confident that it is people like us – who spoke out about the damage that we experienced during our time in TeenPact – that have set this process of change in motion.