Saturday, February 07, 2009

Whoever Said Youth Ministry Was Easy

I was recently asked to contribute my story to a book that is being published about the pain that is caused by unhealthy churches. I thought I would put my answers to their questions here. I hope it helps. If you have been through a similar situation and are experiencing pain feel free to e-mail me so we can talk ( :

a. What’s your story?

I grew up in a non-denominational mega-church that had a lot in common with conservative, right-wing ideals. The Northern part of Ohio is a very blue-collar, liberal-leaning, and heavily-Catholic area. So in a little pocket of this average-sized community this conservative church emerged out of the corn fields of Ohio. I grew up there and attended the Christian school. After a few years of walking away from the faith, I believe that I sensed God’s leading in my life to return to my faith and to go into youth ministry.

After completing a M.S. in Biblical Studies at Liberty University and pursuing a Master of Divinity at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, I got accepted on staff at the only church I thought at the time that I was destined to work for, my home church! Through all of the excitement though, I failed to listen to the advice of my father who was a teacher at the Christian school. He had strong misgivings about me working for the church because he believed that the church was extremely political and overall not a healthy working environment. With my rose-colored glasses of the church I grew up in firmly in place, I did not heed the warning and was too excited to come back to my hometown.

I was hired on as the Youth Pastor. I answered directly to the Pastor of Student Ministries who oversaw the Junior High through College ministries. I was hired on specifically to disciple the Senior High students while the Pastor of Student Ministries focused on College and many speaking opportunities he had throughout the schools in the area. I was the young guy fresh out of seminary ready to attack hell with a squirt gun! I was so excited and so thrilled to have the honor to begin my first job in a church that I considered quite prestigious. Not many started out in a mega-church. I also believed that churches like these were the wave of the future. The mainlines were on the sidelines and the mega-churches were where it was at.

About 2-3 years into my ministry at this church, an immoral relationship was discovered involving the Worship Pastor and a lay person. It seemed that this event was the beginning of the end for the staff. The Senior Pastor liked to preach about grace often, yet his administrative style behind closed doors had very little to do with grace. When the Worship Pastor’s secret life came to the light, the Senior Pastor took this as his life goal to demonstrate how he believed grace should work through this situation. Unfortunately, I watched as he alienated a large portion of his staff who, if they expressed any questions, doubts or concerns, he would strongly oppose them. After the initial pain of that experience subsided it appeared that all was well, but deep within a lot of the staff, lines were drawn, opinions were formed, and sides were taken.

After two years went by from that one incident, an issue occurred with the Senior Pastor and one of the other staff member in which the Senior Pastor asked for his resignation. That opened up the door for 4 other staff members to hand in their resignations. A lot of pain and anger rose back up in the staff. A counseling organization that helps with staff mediation tried to come in but was unable to bring any reconciliation through the situation.

I being a young ministry staff leader saw things in quite black and white categories at this time. I saw the Senior Pastor as the “Lord’s anointed” and who are these staff members to attack him like this. If they have a problem with him it is time for them to move on. I even spoke up very forcefully in defense of my Senior Pastor at a staff meeting once when I felt overwhelmed by disappointment with the behavior of much of the other staff I have worked with and looked up to over the past few years. But it was at that moment too, that I remember “the little voice in my head” saying maybe, just maybe the Senior Pastor is not completely innocent in how this whole thing was handled. After these staff members all left I wanted to believe that the negativity was all gone now and we can get back to the business of the kingdom work! Unfortunately things didn’t turn out that way.

As the years went on I began to notice a pattern develop. The Pastor of Student Ministries would be excited, thrilled and fired-up about all we were doing. He was a big dreamer and a big talker. Hanging around him was inspiring and challenging. But then out of no where, I would get a call from the Senior Pastor who wanted to set up a formal meeting with me. I asked the Pastor of Student Ministries what this was all about and he acted ignorant about the meeting. Then as I would walk into the meeting the Pastor of Student Ministries would come right in and the next thing I know the Senior Pastor is hammering me for things that I didn’t see coming. Many times he would bring things up to me that I felt were an exact description of himself and he was transposing his issues onto me but I would dare not ever tell him that. So I would suck it up, learn from the areas where I believed there was some truth, consider the rest lightly, and go back to doing the ministry I loved.

After a while, this pattern developed where I didn’t know what to think. It almost seemed as if the Pastor of Student Ministry and Senior Pastor looked for way to create issues on staff when there wasn’t any. And these two became so tight that the Pastor of Student Ministries could literally walk into staff meeting late, sit in a chair in the corner, act disinterested and disconnected, and nothing would be addressed about it, but if I blinked wrong I was hauled into the Senior Pastor’s office and drilled about my attitude and insecurities. It was becoming an unhealthy cycle but I loved my home church and believed that this was where God wanted me.

Over some time I began to notice that the college ministry was not taking off like the Pastor of Student Ministries had hoped. Eventually, he began to spend more and more time in the Senior High ministry and started talking about taking on more responsibilities in that area. I began wondering why a church would want to pay two guys full time to run just the Senior High department. Almost as soon as that thought went through my mind, an issue came up between me and the Student Ministries Pastor in which I was told it was time for me to move on. I had no say in the matter. He now had the opportunity to step into a ministry that had more success and fulfillment that he was experiencing with the college ministry.

Unfortunately, all of this played out in very black and white terms, but this time, I was labeled the black sheep. Groups of people stopped talking to me and would look at me with judgmental expressions. I knew stories were being exaggerated about me. I was very firmly told that if I spoke to anyone using the term, “I was fired” that I would be immediately removed from the building. With my father being a school teacher and the Junior High director for the church, there were times where the Senior Pastor would say things to me and demand that I could not talk to anyone in my family about these issues. This I believed was an impossibility as my father was the number one guy I fell back on in any situation I was going through.

In an ironic twist, the Senior Pastor had me see a professional psychologist. It was in those talks that that doctor reaffirmed many of my initial observations of the toxic work environment I was in and that I would be much better off getting out of there. I was aloud to stay on staff until I found another church but what seemed like a kind gesture was actually quite painful. To sit in an office, watch my job get stripped away from me, be given menial tasks to bide my time and to be shut out of staff meetings and be treated as if I did something horribly wrong for months was very difficult. I also had a brother on staff who became the Contemporary Music pastor. He and I were always very close, but during this time, one of the best traits about him, actually became a wedge that would take years to heal. He tried to get along with everyone. My sister-in-law would express that there are two sides to every story, and my brother was acting like nothing ever happened with me in his behavior towards the Senior Pastor and the Pastor of Student Ministries. I was deeply hurt by the staff and it caused a division within my family.

After I left many other things came to the surface that were going on in the youth group of which I had concerns about while I was employed there but I was told again and again that it was none of my business and I just wasn’t a team player. Situation #1 involved my worship leader for the youth group. I confronted him on a couple of occasions about how friendly he was with some of the girls in the youth group. I emphatically told him to discourage that type of attention. In expressing my concerns to one particular mom she told me that it was none of my business and that he was a close friend of their family. It turned out he was having a physical relationship with her daughter, who was in 9th grade, right under her nose. This leader ended up serving prison time for this incident.

Situation #2 involved a youth leader who was very close to the Pastor of Student Ministries. He came from Canada and integrated himself within the church and school. Once he was established he began giving financial advice and encouraging people to invest with him as he would give a huge return for their money. The floodgates of people in the church, in the community, and even at another local mega-church dumped literally millions of dollars on this guy to invest. The entire thing seemed so suspicious to me but every time I questioned it, I was told I was not being a team player. Many people, including the Pastor of Student Ministries, became intoxicated with this man’s apparent promise of wealth and prosperity. Months after I left the church, the Security and Exchange Commission descended upon this man and his money operation. In their investigation it turned out that he was running a Ponzie scheme that he was funneling through Canada. Many in the church continued to believe he was a “good Christian man” while others who invested everything through him wanted his head on a platter. I had two family members who invested a lot with him and lost it all. This man is currently serving a prison term while many families who put their trust in him have been left financially devastated. In both of these situations I was made out to be the village idiot who did not know what he was talking about.

After several years of being out of my first church experience, I was pulled right back into it with two depositions that involved the financial scandal that the church found itself in. I spent a lot of time with the Pastor of Student Ministries during my time at that church and we had many conversations about the financial schemes of his close friend. He spewed a lot of information of which much of it still didn’t make sense to me and seemed all very suspicious. Once the legal system got involved and I moved back into Ohio, I became fair game for a pair of depositions. I sat through a full day of lawyers who treated me like a loyal insider that they needed to crack. I had no loyalties and I was willing, more due to my faith convictions, to tell the truth as I saw it. But, on the other hand, we were dealing with my home church and there was a completely new administration there which had nothing to do with this mess. I was torn as I could see their demeanor changed when they began liking my answers. None to worry though, I was served my second deposition from the church lawyers who took an even longer day to tell me in many different ways how bad of an employee I was, how I deserved to be fired, and I was just disgruntled and had an axe to grind.

After a difficult transition from my first church, I landed in Erie, PA at an average-sized Baptist church. This church was fun and exciting to be at. I made quick friends with many of the people on staff and found a lot of joy working there. As I began to get to know the youth group I discovered a group of teens going through a tremendous amount of pain and confusion in living out their faith. I had one student look me in the face and say, “Why should we trust you? You’re gonna be gone in two years anyhow.” Many others were dealing with a variety of issues in relation to their sexuality, school, broken homes, suicide, eating disorders, cutting, etc. This was a hurting group and they needed a lot of love, attention and security. So I dived right in and did what I love doing, discipling teens to live out their faith. On the side, I was also a very active speaker for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the local school. I was able to speak to many teams on a weekly basis integrating my faith to the lessons they were learning on the field or court.

As time went by though, concerns were being raised that a “youth movement” wasn’t happening like the executive pastor would like to see. He suggested that I do not concentrate so much on the hurting teens and go find one’s that will inspire a “youth movement”. I told him that his movement will happen over time. This youth group needs to confront their pain, and live into their faith and the fruits will come, it just takes time! Also, I reminded him that I was speaking to well over a hundred teens every week when you factor in my FCA speaking. Apparently, this was not good enough. He made it very clear that he wanted to see big numbers within the physical walls of the church.

Just when I really thought things were beginning to grow and expand, I was approached on Easter Sunday (of all Sundays) by my supervisor that he would like to meet with me the following morning. I thought that was odd since we had the day off. In an attempt to fish about if this was serious or not, I called him up and suggested we go out to breakfast. He shut that idea down, stuck to the plan of meeting at the office, and I had another restless, sleepless night.

Sure enough, the next morning I am being confronted with the Executive Pastor and my supervisor that they want my resignation because I have not inspired a “youth movement” in the way that they had hoped. After being through this once, I refused to resign and told them they would have to fire me and explain why to the youth group, but there was absolutely no way in God’s green planet that I would every stand before a youth group again and pretend to act as if I woke up one morning and thought, I am going to abandon these teens for a better job. I stuck to my convictions this time. Unfortunately, many teens were devastated by this news and there was not a darn thing I could do about it. I just didn’t want them to think that I gave up on them. At this point in my life I was done with the church. I wanted to never step foot in any other church, work a simple job, and protect and look out for my family so that my kids wouldn’t hold on to these scars from the church.

In a strange sort of circumstances, within less than 48 hours an old high school friend of my little brother’s called him to get my number. He was a pastor at a Methodist church in the suburbs of Cincinnati. His church decided to hire someone full time to oversee the youth ministry and he wanted my number to see if I knew of any people who are looking for a youth ministry job. My brother told him that I just became available. He immediately called me. I unloaded on him with all of the anger I had toward the church at the moment and didn’t know if I ever wanted to work for a church again. He heard me out, asked me to give it one more shot with him, and laid out the advantages of him and I working together. I decided to interview at his church and was offered the position. Now I am in a mainline church, in the healthiest work environment I have ever been in, with a youth group that is just doing phenomenal, and a staff and congregation that takes me seriously (at least when I am acting seriously!).

At the beginning though, my transition between churches here was also rough. While I was still in Erie and going through the interview process in Cincinnati I had a parent in the Erie church commit suicide and a former student in my first church in Ohio commit suicide within weeks of that. With the Erie family I went immediately to their home to offer my assistance and help with the teens regardless of the fact that I was no longer “officially” a youth pastor at the church. With the other suicide in Ohio, I was asked to do the funeral of the student. This was by far one of my most difficult times of ministry as I felt pulled right back into two churches that “rejected” me. It was strange to know that I was not wanted at either church by the administration, but in a crisis, even though technically at the time I did not have a church family, I still did what I believed God called me to do in assisting these families. It was in a way a reminder to me that God’s calling comes above the affirmation of a church. I need to function within the capacity that God has gifted me whether or not I am receiving a paycheck and have an office at some church.

b. What did you go through during and after your termination?

Both situations were extremely painful. I remember reading an article from Youth Specialties founder Mike Yaconelli that you are not a real youth pastor until you have been fired twice. I thought he was crazy. I believed at the time that I was at the church I would eventually retire from. Little did I know that Yaconelli’s words would become prophetic to my life. The best way that I could sum up what I went through is simply what I would think a divorce would be like: the ripping and tearing of a relationship that I had very deep feelings for that I did not want to see fall apart but was entirely out of my hands. I felt a deep sense of betrayal from people I looked up to, admired, respected and looked to as close personal friends. I had a lot of pain within me for each one of the youth groups because I knew that with this generation this was devastating to have people coming and going in their lives like a revolving door. They need people within the church to commit for the long haul to do life with them. I had a lot of anger for specific individuals as well as the church in general. I wanted to retreat from the confines of the church and protect my family from them. My view of the church as that light on a hill shining forth and the world as being the dark and evil culture controlled by evil forces was quite literally shattered. I saw the church and the world with very, very grey colors after these experiences.

c. What questions would you currently like to ask your previous community and/or its leadership, if you thought they were listening to your story?

Church #1: Why did it have to end this way? Why did those who were ruining the church from within get a free pass while I was told I was just being insecure and not a team player? Why does the church resemble corporate American principles more that the principles taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount? Why don’t you see the trail of disgruntled employees who have left the church and simply asked the question, maybe, just maybe, I might be doing something wrong? Why did people on the leadership team who questioned things ended up leaving the church? How did the Leadership Team and staff eventually fall in step with whatever the Senior Pastor wanted? How does a Senior Pastor get so much power handed to him without anyone holding him accountable? What goes through your mind when you see the pain you have done to the flock that was entrusted to you by God?

Church #2: How could you possible do this to me, my family, and this youth group? Once again, I believed with all my heart that this was where God wanted me and I committed myself to these teens for the long haul. You have no idea what you have just done to them as well as me and my family. I believed in this church, the leadership and I saw you guys as personal friends. Do you understand that youth ministry has significantly changed? Offering free pizza on a Friday night does not guarantee a crowd anymore. A huge percentage of youth ministry occurs outside of the church walls. Once again, are we more like corporate America looking at numbers and quick results or are we about discipling the next generation, being patient and nurturing, coaching them for the long haul understanding that spiritual results may not be seen for a long time?

d. What are some of the statements you would like to make to the leadership or people of your previous community? (above)

e. How many people do you know that have gone through a similar situation as yours?

Unfortunately it seems to be a problem as the older generation resembles the approaches to church growth that attract baby boomers but those working in youth ministry know that those approaches simply do not work. Everybody has been a teenager at some point in their lives, some longer than others. Therefore everyone thinks they know “teenagers” or what makes youth ministry tick. Just emulate the things that we used to do! Unfortunately this puts those in youth ministry in a tough spot as they are really trying hard to create new approaches to ministering to teenagers because the old models that worked with their parents simply do not translate well into the younger generations. As they are doing that though, many times they have an administration hanging over their head thinking if you just have a great, entertaining program they will come. Afterall, it works with their parents!

f. What do you think causes such painful situations as these?

I believe that there is a huge problem within the church of emulating corporate America more than modeling ourselves within the context of Christian discipleship. We admire the “Walmart-style” churches that are offering all of the fun and excitement and look very similar to the giant corporations that represent our economy. “Leadership” has become such a big buzz word yet we forget what Jesus put up with in his disciples yet continued to serve, teach, and love them through every situation. If Jesus set himself up as a corporation all those guys would have been fired at some point! Barnabus would have fired Paul (too bull-headed about John Mark), Paul would have fired Timothy (too freakin’ timid!), Peter would have been fired over his denials, John’s exile would have been seen as an abject failure, and on and on it goes. A wonderful group of misfits! Yet God was able to use them all in their imperfections. God is in the habit of taking the least of these and turning them into prophets, priests and kings! We need to stop aligning ourselves with the American economy and the political system and rise above all of that and be the church that Jesus called us to be.

g. What do you think would help to address this epidemic?

1. The church needs to stop building empires and emulating corporate America. Power has a way of corrupting even the best of people. We need to get back to servanthood within our neighborhoods and communities and get back to doing long term discipleship and stop with the apparent quick fixes and Walmart-style churches.

2. We need to understand generational and geographic differences. Change is a constant. What worked 10 years ago may not work now! What works in Orange County, California or Colorado Springs, Colorado may not work in Cleveland, Ohio. What works in Cleveland, Ohio may not work in Cincinnati, Ohio.

3. The government within a church needs to have an objective outside source that can help and assist everyone, including the one that might just need to move on. Many of the mainline denominations have a long tradition of this style of governing. It is time we see the wisdom in it.

4. We need to make a much greater emphasis on discipleship and a lot less on evangelism techniques and models. Quick numbers are intoxicating. It works on Wall Street, why not in the church. Everyone loves to hear stories of people turning their lives over to God. The question we must wrestle with is: Why are the younger generations for the most part walking away entirely from the church? The art of discipleship has been lost. I would propose that if we really invested in people’s lives like Jesus did with his disciples, evangelism would be a natural outgrowth of their lives. (Just do a study on Andrew!) There would be no need for a new evangelism program, it would just happen because they have lived into being salt and light to this world.

5. The church needs to be inter-generational, and stop dividing the generations all the time. The older generations have so much wisdom and experiences to pass on to the younger generations, teens need to be more connected to the older and younger generations, and on and on. I know this may be unpopular in some conservative circles but I really think Hillary Clinton was on to something when she said that it takes a village when it comes to raising children. We need to demonstrate this in the church more than ever.

6. Another world is possible!!! We need to lead the way in demonstrating the body of Christ in a holistic way. We need to serve the poor, stand up for social justice, champion life, lead the way in caring for God’s creation, invest in marriages and raising children, impact the greater culture for good and allow our ACTIONS to speak much, much louder than our words. The divorce rate within the church is HIGHER than those outside of it! That alone begs the issue, what in the world do we have to offer that is different from what the world already has?!?!?!?! The reason the church has become such a joke to the younger generations and the culture at large is that they absolutely DO NOT know us by our love. They know us by our hate, our hypocrisy and our judgmentalism. We need to remove the very, very large beam from our own eyes and get back to serving with a humble and loving heart. Pride and arrogance has entered into the church on an unprecedented scale. We need to get back to our actions being those of Christ.

7. We need to not allow our culture to divide us into simplistic categories that label and judge each other: conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, right, left, Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennial generation, etc., etc., etc. We are the body of Christ coming together as one body that celebrates it vast differences that make each part unique. We need to network with other churches, even the ones that are very different from us. We need to celebrate our unity and our diversity!

8. Stop recreating the wheel. Too many churches are putting time and resources into new programs that are already there and in existence within their community. If you see God at work already through various ways in your community then join together and jump on board with what God is already doing. If churches, local governments, and communities networked together for the greater good of their neighborhoods I believe we would have a much greater impact instead of trying to be our own little isolated church doing our own thing.

9. Create a culture of BALANCE! Do not pride yourself in being a work-a-holic for Jesus. Too many pastors have sold off their families for the sake of the church. I have worked for staff administrations that sold their souls to their work while their families suffered from their absence. I have felt the pressure of having to put more hours in to appear more loyal to the cause of the church while growing increasingly resentful over the fact that I am spending literally seven days a week at the church. Ironically, I now work at a church that has its office doors open four days a week until 3PM excluding Sunday of course. And yes, I get paid full time. In this work environment I feel that I am encouraged to be involved in the lives of my wife and kids, I have time for my own spiritual development, I have time for a social life outside of my ministry, and I have never felt more creative and organized in my ministry, ever! It is strange how with less, I feel I am able to give more. When there is balance in my mental, physical, spiritual and social life I feel more able to give the best I have to offer. I rarely feel burn-out or discouragement. I was overwhelmed at first. I remember thinking how am I going to get everything done that I want to do with so little hours? That reasoning comes from working at churches that demand an unrealistic amount of hours and expectations. I am able to capitalize on my time, make use of every minute, and organize my schedule better.

10. This may not be a popular piece of advice but in looking for a ministry job, if you have a choice between a church job that has history versus a church that is hiring for the first time in a particular position, take the second one. Whenever you take a job in which you are replacing someone who has established a historical precedence, for better or worse, you will always be compared and contrasted to that person. If you take a job where you are their first pastor, youth leader, worship minister, etc. you are the one who is creating and crafting this ministry within the church. It is a much more exciting and rewarding position to be in. Besides, I think we honor God when we expand his church through planting more churches instead of maintaining and building bigger churches. Established churches give a sense of security but when you enter into an established church you need to be aware of the stream of history you are entering into. If you help start a new church or a new position you are making history. It is a more fun and interesting way to start. In taking a youth ministry position which has history, I would have teens say things like “Can we still do this activity, mission, program that the ex-youth pastor used to do?” When I came to this church that did not have an established youth ministry position prior to my arrival, I remember asking the teens what they imagine this youth group to look like years from now and they simply said they did not know what a good youth group looked like because they have never had one where they had someone committed to building the ministry full-time. At that point I realized I had a blank slate to work with in which to create a new ministry and I did not have to tread lightly for fear I might be stepping on some sacred cows from the past. But it is not just the memories of the lay people you are dealing with but also the ministry staff and lay leaders. In some churches you will fail no matter how good you are just because you might be compared to someone else from the past who is being idolized by the leadership and have unrealistic expectation placed on you as a result.

11. Be willing to reinvent yourself. You will go through different stages of life and work. There will be times when you need to take a step back, reevaluate what you do, consider all of the other areas of your life, and seriously consider making some changes for the sake of your ministry and personal life. In both transitions that I went through I took some time to think very hard about what I could learn from what just happened. I would ask questions like: What just happened? Why did it happen? If I could change how I did things what would they be? What worked well and what did not? What do I want to carry over into my next ministry and what do I not want to carry over? Who do I need to forgive? How can I focus on moving forward and put closure to the past? What areas can I take responsibility for and learn from instead of playing the victim? How do I become a better person through all of this instead of a bitter person?

12. I was once given the advise by the person most responsible for dicipling me that when it came to leaving a church or occupation, he would rather be one day early than two days late. This was profound advice that I have yet to put into practice. Be willing to see the proverbial “writing on the wall”. If you believe that you are in a toxic situation and the odds are against you, then you might be better off initiating your resignation on your terms before it gets to the point of you being asked for it.

13. And finally, once you leave a bad situation, as hard as this may be, really do some deep introspection on what happened and why. The easy thing to do is look at everyone else and point the finger at what they did wrong. But be willing to look at yourself and ask the tough questions like: What could I have done differently so that this might not have happened? What fault do I bear responsibility for? Is there an area that I can improve on for my next occupation that will help to avoid what I just went through? As you do this, be sure to go to Scripture for comfort, seek out council from those you trust, and spend time in thoughtful prayer. Do not let bitterness or anger get the better of you. Accept the fact that only through situations like this are we tested and refined to become more like Christ.


Brian said...

Wow. This is really some amazing reading. Thanks so much for sharing this. I work with seminarians, many of whom are serving at their first churches, and I often worry about those who talk about wanting to be pastors because they grew up in such loving churches and just want to be around that environment all the time. I just keep thinking "I hope they aren't in for a big fall when they find out churches are not always loving, always grace-filled, always compassionate."

Anonymous said...

Who is the publisher?

Mike said...

Thank you so much for your thoughts. I just recently resigned from a church in Michigan and relocated my family to Iowa. I can completely relate to the "divorce" feelings, my life has been uprooted and turned upside down, I feel alone and angry and... well, you know. Your words are encouraging, thanks so much!

St. Brianstine said...