Sex and relationship educators, Lynn and Ian McKenzie, work for a Pregnancy Resource Centre in Northern Ireland. From their own experiences, they share their thoughts on sex education in the Church, Miley Cyrus, working together as a husband & wife team… and much, much more!
Lynn and Ian, tell us a bit about yourself and your journey?
Ian - I’m very fortunate to have found a vocation that not only allows me to engage and express my passions for young people, but one that also continually challenges me as a person. It’s been somewhat of an unforeseen profession and especially the area of sexual health isn’t one I would have picked off the shelf initially. That being said I have come to develop a passion for sexual health and the issues and challenges it raises. I am married to Lynn and we have four great kids, two teenagers and two toddlers. We are both very involved in our local community and church and really have a passion and vision to see this community transformed and have a restored sense of hope.
Lynn - Similarly to Ian I hadn’t expected to be in this line of work and love it as much as I do! I began the work as a volunteer and through various position changes at The Pregnancy Resource Centre I ended up as the Youth and School’s worker which then led me to the Coordinator’s role a few years later. This was a position I didn’t really want at the time but the organisation needed someone to fill the role and as the only other paid staff member I felt obliged to take the role! After much prayer I took the role and haven’t looked back. I am passionate about seeing women freed from whatever the past has held over them be it abortion, sexual regrets or negative relationship choices – I believe every one can have a more positive future once they recognize their worth and begin to live lives of value. I feel my work at The Pregnancy Resource Centre compliments the involvement and heart I have for Church and the community we serve. Isaiah 58 is what has guided me through life since a teenager and so wherever I find the need for restoration or service I prefer to give myself to that as much as I can. For now, the four kids take most of that service!
Give us a flavour of the work do you do as part of the Pregnancy Resource Centre in Carrickfergus?
Ian - My role as Youth & Schools Coordinator at The Pregnancy Resource Centre is one that has grown and developed over the years that I have been involved. Its main purpose is to engage and educate local young people in the areas of relationship, sexual health and personal development and to connect them with support services when necessary - a daunting task at first, and one that I really had to find my feet in. We run a range of topic specific programmes in secondary schools and youth organisations to raise awareness; highlight key issues and help break down the barriers for young people to positively develop themselves.
I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to evolve my own position in the work when necessary, and feel it’s important to keep pushing my role to support the young people in my community.
Lynn - My role as Coordinator covers many areas from admin, sourcing funding; liaising with local health professionals and community workers as well as training volunteers to work in our crisis pregnancy drop in. I love the variety and the uncertainty of what the day might bring. At The Pregnancy Resource Centre we offer free services, which include: pregnancy testing, crisis pregnancy support, miscarriage support, post abortion support, sexual health advice and parenting support. Most of these are run through the drop in on a casual basis with clients calling into the Centre, as they need. With the post abortion work we run a more structured support programme called The Journey, this can take up to four months depending on the client’s experience. All of our drop-in services are free and confidential. I also run some community based programmes such as The Princess Diaries – a teen mums development programme. This is a programme which I wrote to specifically target teen mums who are stuck in the limbo of being a teenager and a parent with the aim of developing the individual girl’s self esteem and worth and challenging her choices and beliefs in order to help her set and achieve goals for her future.
In terms of your work, tell us your most encouraging and uplifting experience...
Ian - When you have a real passion for a specific work you begin to develop a sense of vision as to where the work can go and whom it can impact. Seeing this vision realised in local schools and engaging local young people is a great feeling – there’s nothing like meeting a young person several years after you first worked with them and seeing their own development and trusting you had a part in that somehow. Living where we do often causes us to be in close proximity to clients or people who have attended our programmes, while we would never approach a client outside of the drop in (in order to maintain confidentiality) it gives us the opportunity to see how a person is doing and to keep in contact with those who attend programmes to offer continual support.
The Government-backed Bailey Review stated that we exist in a world wallpapered with sexualised images. How has this affected the young men and women that you come in contact with?
Lynn - with young women they feel the pressure to dress and act in certain ways sexually as what they see is perceived to be the norm – if you want a guy to fancy you, you have to offer him something to fancy. Most girls don’t see this as a pressure, they have grown up in a society that encourages sexual freedom and expression, but doesn’t connect the freedom it professes actually is a pressure and suppression to female individuality and personality. Girls feel like freaks or ugly if they don’t fit the beauty mould or feel they have to be sexually active in order to keep a boy’s interest. For many a loving and mutually respectful relationship is a fairy tale and they sadly don’t see themselves as the leading lady in their own lives.
Ian - working consistently with young men (and still considering myself a relatively young man too!) you only have to have surface conversations with your average group of 16 year old males to discover how their personal values and beliefs have been shaped by media, culture and social expectations. Young men learn from those men around them – be it fathers, brothers, friends they’re around or the musicians, sport stars and porn stars they watch. It’s difficult for anyone to break away from the perceived mould and young men especially lack the role models first hand that can show them how.
15 years ago, the majority of young people did not have a personal mobile phone. A recent news report states that children as young as 5 have access to a mobile. How has digital technology (mobile phones, Skype, facebook) changed the landscape of teenage relationships?
Lynn - I feel the facelessness of the Internet makes a young person think they can get away with things they wouldn’t normally say/watch/interact with. Young people don’t have the same ability to communicate face to face as they do with buttons and with a teenager’s nature being more open to immature disagreements it can be easy to read into what some one has said and make untrue assumptions. This can add a lot of emotional pressure onto a person’s life and can consume their thoughts and focus that could be used elsewhere.
Ian - It’s always easier to say something via a text message. Technology has countless positives in terms of connectivity and social interaction and at the same time opens up countless risks and opportunities for abuse. Young people can now easily connect with people they would otherwise never come into contact with.
Pop star Miley Cyrus has recently come under a lot of heat for her sexualised performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. From your experience, do you really think celebrities have an impact on relationships between young people? If so, how?
Ian - I find young people will criticize and ridicule displays like that of Miley Cyrus, along with the majority of the population – my biggest concern with celebrities is that they create for young people an unrealistic and often unattainable lifestyle and in the process normalize a lot of things. The danger is that young people then find it difficult to determine the difference between unrealistic celebrity choices and the real-life choices right in front of them.
Lynn - I agree with Ian, young people look at celebrities as if they are something to aim for and think if they dress and act like a pop star then they will become them and have their lavish lifestyle. Obviously this isn’t true! Young people don’t know or understand the real lives of celebrities, the hard times and the incredible pressure to keep an image up. Miley Cyrus has been a star for so long and it has left her with a warped sense of how to fit in and be admired publicly, so we see a talented and attractive girl belittling herself in the name of the power of sexual expression? I don’t think young girls would have unprotected sex in graveyards or perform sex acts on boys in cricket pitches if they believed a good relationship is about mutual respect and value. The media, especially music videos suggests that women are sexual objects and sex is a casual interaction with no lasting meaning.
You both have a strong faith, which underpins your work in the Pregnancy Resource Centre, yet you are required to work with secular partners. How difficult is this?
Hopefully our faith is the driving force for what we do – our compassion and desire to bring hope to people flows from, we believe, the heart of God. Our organisation itself is underpinned by a Christian ethos and this impacts our values and directs a lot of our background decisions. At the ground level we don’t feel a pressure either way to directly express our beliefs to others, as we understand the negative feelings others have towards Christians and the risk of judgment they fear from the Church. We don’t hide our faith and the secular partners we work with know that we both are Christians and the organisation itself is faith based – we hope we have helped to dispel and disperse fears or misconceptions people may have about the Church and Christianity through our care and genuine attitude to those we work with.
You do important work educating young people about contraception, STIs and emotional health but sex sadly remains a taboo subject in some church communities. Church sex education can simply be 'don't have sex before marriage.' What would your wake up call to the church be? How can we move beyond 'dos and don'ts'?
This is a subject that comes up in conversation between us personally – the thought of doing or not doing something because the Bible says so. We believe and live our lives by the Bible, but what we value most is why God says those things.
So when it comes to sex and relationships we love that God wants us to love each other and express that through sexual intercourse. The thought that a person can be so intimate and vulnerable with another person that they give themselves sexually to them is the greatest reason why God said sex is for marriage because sex is the marriage. Yes, there are vows and covenants to make publicly and before God of how we should treat each other in marriage but sex is the deal sealer, it’s the giving and receiving, the honouring and respecting. When one person’s aim is to satisfy another and the other person has the same aim then there is no greater place of trust and bonding.
Sex education in Churches should be the best sex education because we can talk about how God the creator gave us sex and how He gave us ways to protect the marriage and sexual relationship. We can link sex to relationships and using Jesus, the greatest giver we can read about and know personally, as the example of how to lay one’s life down for another – our sex education in churches should be mind blowing and freeing!
As for a wake up call to the churches about sex education, all we can say is – watch the Miley Cyrus VMAs video – you have to make your sex education as appealing as that – because that’s what young people have all been watching and learning from.
Many of our Sophia members are parents. What would be your best advice to parents wanting to chat to their children about dating, sex and healthy relationships?
Lynn - Being a good role model at home is a great way of setting your kids up to make good choices for themselves. Often this isn’t easy. I went through a marriage break up when my eldest children were 3 and 5 years old and decided to always be open and honest with them about what had happened. When they were young they didn’t need to know the in’s and out’s but as they got older we have talked about how the marriage broke down, the blame and faults on both sides and about forgiveness and honesty. You don’t need to have a perfect marriage to show your kids how to love and trust well or how to make good decisions.
When Ian and I got together my kids were older and I had to set a good example of how to behave in a relationship – it was really hard! We have fights and fallouts the same as everyone else, but one of the things that Ian has taught me most is how to say sorry. He would always have said sorry first after an argument and I was always the one to never admit being wrong. But Ian saying sorry broke that barrier down for me, he made it acceptable to say rather than be the ‘loser’ who said it first. I asked him why he always said sorry even when I was wrong and he said that the fact he loved me made him say it because he knew that I loved him too and that drove him to want to forgive me and if sorry was the first step then he would take it. He chose to believe my love for him meant that I didn’t want to hurt him. I have found since then that I can say sorry so much easier and have always apologised to my kids when I needed to. One of them in particular is great now at apologising genuinely when they mess up and I know that has come from example. Another little bit of advice I would give is to use easy opportunities to teach, for example in the car on the way home from school – less intrusive for a child not to have to look a parent in the eye when talking about sex or embarrassing things! Or when a topic comes up on TV – just come out and ask your child what they think about that. Young people are used to talking about the subjects we find embarrassing, they just don’t start the conversations with parents very often – but that’s out job as parents to do.
Ian - As parents we try our best to inform and support our children – dating, sex and relationships are never easy topics to bring up for the first time – but once you start those conversations they are much easier to go back to when needed. Don’t shy away from them, but listen to your children and find the best way to support them. The best advice and at the same time, most challenging is ‘be a good role model for them in your own decision making and relationship choices’.
You are a husband and wife team inside and outside the home. How do you find this affects the dynamic of your relationship?
At times it makes our relationship stronger and times more strained. Work is never 9-5 and often we are lying in bed chatting about ideas or problems in work. It’s not easy to record those on a time sheet or to differentiate chitchat from planning meetings at midnight. We both love our work and feel ‘called’ to it so enjoy the challenges it brings and also the flexibility it gives us as family. We both work part time for The Pregnancy Resource Centre and for our church and we both take care of the kids. Often we exchange the car keys for the kids and there are days when we pass each other in and out and only really meet up at bedtime or morning even if it’s been a late meeting. Those times are harder and we do miss each other, we love bouncing ideas and dreams off each other so when we don’t see each other as much it does feel like your partner is missing. We like being partners in life; it works for us and we hope our family. Neither of us could imagine doing anything differently, even in the hard times; we just cling closer.
Please keep the important work that Lynn and Ian are doing at The Pregnancy Resource Centre in Carrickfergus (NI) in your prayers.