no, i haven’t been fired from ys (yet).
but i mentioned in my birthday post, yesterday, that i did get fired from a church once (and was asked to resign from another). and brian asked me to tell the story — so here it is. i used to think this experience was, at least, nominally unique. but since coming to ys and hearing youth workers stories every day, i’ve found this kind of story is hideously common (including stories way-worse than mine).
i got hired at a church in omaha, nebraska, as their first-ever junior high pastor. and it was my first full-time junior high pastor. and (surprise), it went fantastic. in many ways, as i look over my decade and a half of “professional” ministry to young teens, i often think of these three years as my glory days. i had larger ministries elsewhere. i certainly had bigger budgets and more support and more paid staff elsewhere. but this was the only time i was ONLY a junior high pastor. in subsequent churches, i was always “junior high +” (student minstries, or family ministries, or whatever). the ministry grew in every way — we developed a passionate and equipped volunteer team, a multi-level missions trip program (yes, for young teens), amazing connections with local public schools, and other great things.
but a parallel thread was developing…
three “power elders” were quietly building a case against me. this wasn’t a formal process for them — it was taking place in their minds. two of them really ran the church, and had done so for decades. they even had a by-law that stated that an elder could be elected for two terms (3 years each, or something like that), then had to take some time off before being eligible for re-election; unless that elder was part of the exec team (or whatever it was called — chair, vice-chair, recording secretary, treasurer) — those roles never had to take a year off: “to provide continuity”. all this meant that these guys had been in the roles of board chair, treasurer and secretary or vice-chair, for decades, literally. does anyone know how to spell dysfunctional? (sidebar: these same guys, the year after i got booted, convinced the rest of the board to pass a motion that all elders and pastors had to submit their completed tax return to the treasurer, so he could verify that they were giving 10% to the church; anyone not giving 10%, or not willing to submit their tax returns, was not considered fit for the role).
it all started to spiral downhill the day i bought a jeep.
when they hired me, they expressed that they really didn’t want my wife to work. (ok, i’m embarrassed by this next part now) we didn’t have a problem with that, conceptually; but we couldn’t afford it on what they were offering, as we had a good bit of college debt. they “approved” jeannie working based on her income going to pay off our debt. most of it did — but we never understood this to be an “every penny after taxes” kind of thing. they did. after the jeep purchase (which they also considered a highly irresponsible vehicle for a youth pastor), i got called into a meeting. they accused me of violating our agreement. i was baffled. once we got our two perspectives cleared up, they demanded i provide an accounting of all my income and how i was spending it (a personal budget is what they actually said), as well as a plan for when the college debt would be paid off (so jeannie could stop working).
this is where i blew it. i was too young and naive to realize that i either needed to walk, or get political. instead, i did nothing. i thought their request was absurd, and pretended (to myself) that it would go away.
9 mos later i got called into an emergency meeting, and told to bring my personal budget. i quickly pulled one together that showed the basics of what they were asking for. it wasn’t enough, and it was way too late. suddenly, the problem was much bigger than the budget thing. they now had a list of character accusations about me, including: you are a liar, a manipulator, deceitful (and a bunch of other things).
two weeks of scrambling on both sides ensued. i sat in the senior pastor’s home and cried like a baby (heaving, can’t speak — you know the kind), begging for him to intervene. he never said he refused to do so, but in essence that’s what he did. at the end of those two weeks, they told me to clear out my office that night, not to show up at any junior high group functions (i was allowed to write a statement, which they read to the students and volunteers). and they said they would generously give me two weeks severance pay. geez. it was a good thing my wife was working, or we would have been jacked!
i asked a handful of older guys i trusted (actually, other elders at the church) to meet with me and pry into the character stuff. i wanted to know if there was any truth to the accusations. and i wanted someone else to tell me if i was still ok for ministry or not. their eventual stamp-of-approval was the green-light that began a tiny bit of restoring my soul and calling.
i’ve had a reasonably easy life. so this was one of the two most difficult things i’ve ever gone through (the second being yaconelli’s death 18 months ago). it left me extremely wounded for years (none of these people, including the senior pastor, ever followed up with me after the day i was let go).
i don’t share this now to ask for sympathy — this is really old stuff, and now seems very clearly a place god has taken evil and used it for good in my life. i wouldn’t trade that experience for anything — it is part of who i am today, and essential. i share this story for those of you in tough church situations. yours might be very different. but you’re not alone. there are those of us out here (many, many more than me!) who know. we understand.