the youth specialties/zondervan/youthworks story, from where i stand

now that the youthworks deal is public, i think i can tell the story and add my thoughts, as so many have been asking me to do.

let me start with a few preliminary thoughts:

– first, i’m really sorry i’ve had to be so silent this past month. the reasons for this are many, of course, and include both my own need to lay low and process my emotions and thoughts, as well as an appropriate respect for the process happening with zondervan and youthworks.

– so many have blogged wonderful sentiments that i agree with. these include (but aren’t limited to) tic, karla, doug/walt, and wayne. if you haven ‘t read those gracious and moderate posts, i encourage you to do so.

let me back up and re-cap some of what was written in those posts:

when yac died, 6 years ago now (geez, hard to imagine it’s been that long), everything at ys changed. of course, he’d been the soul of ys in so many ways. tic and i stepped it up in the years that followed, and learned new things about each other and leadership. karla was fond of saying, in those days, that yac’s death was his final gift to us; and, as weird as that might sound, those couple years really were an amazing time of healing and growth — both as an organization and as individuals. tic and i learned to deeply respect each other’s gifts and roles, and we forged a whole new way of leading ys collaboratively. and, as much as we loved karla, and grew so massively close in those days, it was clear to tic and me (and to karla) that her role as owner/ceo wasn’t the best fit for her. so when our long-term friends and partners at zondervan came around, asking if it would be ok to consider discussions about buying ys, we all felt it was the right direction.

this is important for me to state as clearly as i can. tic and karla and i all felt selling ys to zondervan was the right decision. and, in hindsight, i can say with 100% certainty, that if karla had not made this choice, ys would not exist today. ys would not have survived the financial turbulence of these last two years.

now, let’s fast forward a bit.

the changes we made at ys early this year (resulting in letting go of 14 staff, including tic) were brutal on us. but we saw those changes as the only path forward for survival. i’m an evergreen optimist, sometimes at the expense of good business sense. i say that to couch my next comment: i think ys would have turned around, financially, in the next 12 months. but i also realize that my belief in the mission of ys, my passion for the “customers” of ys, and my natural optimism and hopefulness colors that greatly. i also know that the leadership of zondervan was deeply challenged in the complex stew that was made up of a genuine affection for ys and the financial pressure and scrutiny they are also under.

all that to say: when i was first informed that zondervan was considering selling ys, and that the organization on the other end was a ministry non-profit, i saw it as good news. i felt this was, potentially, a win for everyone (zondervan, youth specialties, youthworks, and youth workers in general).

and here’s what i really want you all to hear from me: i still think this whole thing is, potentially, a win for everyone (zondervan, youth specialties, youthworks, and youth workers in general).

i spent time with the leadership of youthworks, and can affirm what tony jones has written, they are good and honorable people with a heart for youth workers.

i had thought, over the couple months leading up to my dismissal, that i would go along with ys to youthworks. that was my hope. but, ultimately, they had other plans, which is fully their right to do. and my former boss at zondervan felt it would be better for me, ys, and youthworks, if i were out of the picture during the final days of that agreement and the announcements to follow. whether i agreed with this or not is hardly the point. i certainly wasn’t a fan of the process, but i’ve come to see that it was what it was, and – from a corporate kind of perspective – i’ve been dealt with fairly. my 6 days in the desert this past week (which i’ll blog about separately in the days to come) were instrumental for me in turning the corner and letting go.

here’s another truth i want to go on record with: zondervan is not an evil empire. zondervan is made up of good and honorable people who love jesus. yes, they’re a business. yes, they want to be profitable. yes, they’re more corporate than ys (which isn’t a bad thing!). but so many of the people there became dear friends of mine. really, the loss for me in all of this is not limited to leaving ys and the youth workers we served — it’s also leaving zondervan and my friends and colleagues there. moe girkins, the president and ceo of zondervan, is a brilliant and compassionate leader with a commitment to doing the right thing. we didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but that was always part of what we appreciated about each other.

i have been out of my role as president of youth specialties for over a month now. it almost baffles me to even type that. but, i can say this: if i ever had any ability to predict the future for ys, it is most certainly gone. really, i don’t have a clue. what i do expect is that youthworks will do everything in their power to make wise and god-honoring choices about the future of youth specialties and serving youth workers. what that looks like remains to be seen for everyone. i’m not a huge fan of the “system upgrade” metaphor used to describe this process at the nywc this past weekend in atlanta. that doesn’t feel honoring of the past enough to me. but i do think change is — while often hard and painful — completely necessary at times, and often the only way an organization or organism will survive. i think it’s highly likely that we will all look back, in a few years, and realize that ys would not have survived had the sale to youthworks not occurred, just as these last four years with zondervan were an absolutely essential part of the ys story, as well as the story of my life.

i pray god’s richest blessings on zondervan and youthworks, both organizationally, and on the lives of the people leading the missions of each.

and, my heart will always have a very special place for youth specialties, that amazing and wonderful idea. i cannot imagine my life story without the 11 years i worked there (plus the many prior to that where i was speaking and writing for ys). i love the staff of ys, and i love the mission of ys, and i love the quirkiness of ys, and i love the place ys has in the kingdom of god. but mostly, i love the “recipients of ys” — youth workers in the trenches, loving teenagers with the gospel of jesus, sticking it out through times much tougher than my own, and following god’s calling into unappreciated and challenging corners of culture. and i’m full of anticiapation about how god will have me play out that love on a daily basis, as my story continues to unfold. in the mean time, and no matter what else happens, i’ll still be with the five 7th grade boys in my small group each week, living out my own youth ministry calling.

42 thoughts on “the youth specialties/zondervan/youthworks story, from where i stand”

  1. Very well written. Honest, real, yet graceful and supportive. I have a lot of respect for you. May the best still be yet to come for you, your family, and whatever ministry God calls you to.

  2. marko…
    i have learned immeasurable amounts from reading your blog and watching how you handle conflicts and disagreements. and this entry is yet another piece of that. thanks for your ridiculous integrity and generosity. pumped to see what the next leg of the journey is for you.

  3. wow man. that’s well done. I’m impressed with your integrity and honesty on this. I think it your shoes, I would have a REALLY hard time being angry in my writing about things.
    My prayers are for you & the fam though man. I hope that YS continues to do things well, and I hope that you guys find God blessing you with something amazing.

  4. Great man. Although I am sure you are past it, I would hope YS would look to you an Tic to try to get some of the sence of what is was that made YS “TIc.”

    It still remains to be seen if Youthworkers at least the ones that have supported YS will buy into it, but having an org like Youthworks take it is not a bad thing. Certainly better than Z.

    System Upgrade? Hardly. You are right. I wasn’t at the convention for the first time since 1993 , and for all the reasons mentioned here, so I am glad I didn’t hear that.

    Nessary decisions in the past 5 years? Debatable.

  5. Marko, Thanks for this. And thanks for your consistant leadership to youth workers. My only real comment is this.. Sitting in the general session with Reggie Joiner in Atlanta, it did not occour to me that someone might connect his message to ys changes. I heard it as a message to local youth ministers about local churches. Everyone I talked to felt that it was the strongest message of the convention.

  6. Thanks for being an example of grace and humbleness to us, Marko. You are an example to all of us youth workers and especially in how we need to handle tough decisions like this if, and when, they happen to us.

  7. Hi Marko,

    I’m not a typical blogger, or even a blog responder, but after seeing your message, and that of Tony Jones, I really feel a need to respond. And for all those involved, this is my opinion, not that of Zondervan.

    I’ve always respected you, And whether you knew it or not, you were one of the primary reasons I became a Christian, way back in the days of Ward Presbyterian Church in Livonia, Michigan. Those days were really some of the best of our lives. I am so thankful for the choir and the message they – and you – shared with me. Because even though my family weren’t christians, I was still able to see the Lord in yours (the youth group’s eyes) and make a conscious decision for the Lord.

    I’ve been let go before and yes, it’s tough. Because you actually have to look at something different. A new reality. A new way of looking at the future. We will always be grateful for your presence at Youth Specialties in both leadership and in stewardship. But to address Tony’s comments about the committment since being purchased by Newscorp, I find them totally off base.

    Yes, there is a fiscal responsibility, as with any business. This is not new to you and I find it interesting that “the Ministry” is being attacked because we are also a business. And our commitment to ministry is as strong as it ever was.

    We can all have great ideals, but in today’s world, a world that is sanctioned by God, we do indeed have bottom lines that are part of our lives. As you said, Zondervan is not the evil empire. And yes, it’s easy to say negative things when we’re hurting because we’ve lost our jobs and suddenly have to think about ways to live everyday. Yes, regretfully, YS lost 14 jobs, many of these people friends of mine. Friends I still have and am glad to have as a part of my life. Just because they don’t work for YS doesn’t mean that they have any less reality in our lives.

    Zondervan has lost MANY more than 12 positions and is now on the verge of a new, positive future. Yes, we’re a business, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. I find Tony’s comments particularly interesting as I was with both he and Doug Pagitt this weekend with Ed Dobson as closed out his book tour at Doug’s church, at Doug’s invitation. And his comments were written after he had the opportunity to ask questions about the business that is Zondervan.

    Life is not a vacuum and I know that you are someone God has special plans for. Sure, you can blame Zondervan for where you are and your lot in life. But then again, maybe you could do what you taught me to do: Look to the Lord for where the next great adventure is. None of our lives are perfect. But isn’t that also the beauty? Life is Good. God is Greater.

    I leave you with a final thought: Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

    Amen, my brother.

  8. Marko,
    We first met many years ago at a Lutheran JH event as floss went in one and out the other. That repeated itself a couple years ago at another Lutheran event. Thanks for sharing your gifts (even beyond floss) with kids and youthworkers all around the country. Your passion and faithfulness is inspirational.
    Peace, Tom

  9. Marko,
    They had this table set up for us in Atlanta (maybe everywhere else…) as affirmation of you and Tic. I would love to tell you what to look for in my note, but I’m a youth worker, so I kept telling myself I’d do it later. I’m in Pittsburgh now, and as much as we love you guys, there’s no affirmation station to be found. So….
    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for a lot of things. The first and biggest obviously must be the support you gave to us as youth workers during your time at YS. Is it cheesy to say “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for you” if I actually think that it’s true? Well either way…
    But also, please be affirmed in this, I really respect the way you’re handling everything that’s going on in your life right now with the transition. I’ve learned a lot from you about youth ministry, and how to think about youth ministry, but I think right now you’re teaching us all a super valuable lesson in how to handle situations like this. I’m sure that doesn’t make it suck any less, and I’m sorry for all that you’re going through, but I think it affirms that God works all things for the good.
    You said a while ago that you’re looking for speaking gigs. We don’t have anything now, but you bet your bottom dollar we’re putting our brains together to bring you out to cold, snowy, rainy, disgusting Pittsburgh. Maybe we’ll try again in summer time…
    And of course, after so many years of being served by you, if there is ANYTHING I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to ask. We’re in this together man.


  10. As I have told you before, you have handled yourself well and honorable during this time. This piece is just another testament to your willingness (as hard as it can be sometimes) to allow God, in all his Glory, to shine through you. You will conutine to be used for His honor.

  11. (Sorry I posted my last entry before editing or finishing)

    Great man. Although I am sure you are past it, I would hope YS would look to you an Tic to try to get some of the sense of what is was that made YS “TIc.”
    It still remains to be seen if Youth workers at least the ones that have supported YS will buy into it, but having an org like Youthworks take it is not a bad thing. Certainly better than Z.

    System Upgrade? Hardly. You are right. I wasn’t at the convention for the first time since 1993 , and for all the reasons mentioned here, so I am glad I didn’t hear that.

    Necessary decisions in the past 5 years? Debatable in many minds to be sure , but I think you guys have all set the record straight. Blessings.

  12. Marko,

    Reading this blog post was such a spiritual experience for me–as odd as that may sound. I was greatly blessed, encouraged and personally challenged by what you had to say. Thank you for your honesty and your gracious approach to what I am certain has been a gut- and heart-wrenching experience. Bless you on your journey of faith in the weeks and months to come. And so glad to hear you’re committed to that middle school small group. That really is what it’s all about, isn’t it?



  13. Marko: You have demonstrated to many of us over this last month what it means to be a gracious leader in the middle of a job (ministry) transition. We’ve watched with baited breath to see when you were going to unleash on what many perceived as the corporate villain; you never did and many of us are glad you took the high road. I prayed for you and your family because these changes can take the air right out of your gut (spouses and children are not immune). Your response from your initial words, your retreating to pray, and your latest words in this post have shown you to be the man and the leader that you truly are. Many of us will benefit from the lessons we learned from you during this time, but the ones that will benefit the most are your family because they have witnessed what a man after God’s heart really looks like. P.S. I prayed for you today when I was in El Cajon.

  14. Mark,

    This may not make any sense to you today, but it might in the future. About 50 years ago two young guys left the safety and familiarity of Youth For Christ. One was Billy Graham, and the other was Bob Pierce. You know the rest of the story.

    Happy Thanksgiving

  15. Marko: As previously said, this message is filled with integrity and honesty. After being let go from a church youth ministry that I had poured my life into for 5+ yrs. in 2008, when the news about Tic, then you, became known, I certainly felt the pain and the ‘unknown’ for you both. But as we all know, with God, ALL things are possible….and He has the Master Plan…and it will be revealed. I also must say that Stu’s comment about Reggie Joiner’s msg. at NYWC L.A. was definitely a powerful one and I felt he was speaking to me….I bought the DVD and plan to share it with the church I currently serve early after the new year. Thank you for sharing your insight about the changeovers at YS, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens….NYWC, YS One Day, etc. have been events that I look forward to each year….hope they remain close to the same…..I am fed and revived through them!
    May God’s blessings be upon you and your family! Peace be with you!

  16. Marko,

    Well said my man, well said. Thanks for lloking out for the Kingdom first, and not yourslef. Classy.

    Love you bro.


  17. really missed you and jeannie in cincy and atlanta! you all are in my prayers and i hope you have an amazing thanksgiving!
    i am very thankful for both of you! for all the encouragement and support and opportunity i’ve had through YS and NYWC! you and jeannie have been and are a big part of that!
    looking forward to more collaboration in the future!
    have a wonderful advent and happy christmas too!
    hugs to the whole family!

  18. I skipped Reggie’s lesson to go hear Loui Giglio that night. The reason was two fold: 1: I wanted to worship at Loui’s church and hear him and see Chris Tomlin 2: I knew what Reggie would be talking about.

    Reggie’s lesson was the same that he has shared at many other conferences. It was part of his class in Nashville last year, part of his Orange lessons. One of our team stayed and I asked him did he say this, this, this, use the illustration of upgrading his Mac, etc. The answer was yes to all the things I asked. I say that to say that Reggie’s lesson wasn’t prepared with the YS / Zondervan / Youth Works transitions in mind. It is his can lesson he does everywhere he goes.

    I did however miss you and Tic at the convention. It had a different vibe without you there. As one guy said this year the convention had a MC where in the past we had a pastor.

  19. rusty and (someone earlier?) – i wasn’t referring to reggie’s talk. of course, i wasn’t at the convention, but i did hear that talk of reggie’s at the LA convention, and it was wonderful. i’m only referring to the hearsay that came to me that one of the announcements (the 2nd one, i think) about what’s happening with YS referred to it as a system upgrade.

  20. Hey Marko,
    I am the one who referred to YS as going through a system upgrade. I was in no way referring to the changes in people. Losing you, Tic and many others has been painful and a great loss. I do apologize if it was misunderstood as a slam on the past, that wasn’t the intention.

    My comment referred to the organizational structure of YS becoming non-profit and having new infrastructure to operate under. This is the type of “system upgrade” Reggie shared and I played off it.

    As with any upgrade … we have yet to see whether it will be Snow Leopard or Vista :) But I’m hopeful, whether I am part of the YS future or “released”, that this is a good thing.

  21. Hey – just to put in my two-cents – I am so sorry my message got mixed up with the transition issues of YS – that was unfortunate – I actually think you guys (Marko and Tic) are the reason a lot of churches around the country continue to upgrade and improve their ministries significantly – we are all extremely grateful for the influence you have had and will continue to have

  22. Marko,
    When we read this blog, we thanked God together for His work in you and through you in this tough situation. What better explanation could parents hear. None. We love you son.

  23. Marko- I want to say you’re someone I look up to. As a fellow middle school ministry person, I have valued all the insights you’ve provided over the years, and found my ministry thriving as a result! I want to encourage you and your continued relationship with students, especially those 7th grade boys. They look up to you, and you’re playing an IRREPLACEABLE role in their lives. To them, it doesn’t matter if you’re president of a company or unemployed. You care about them and point them to Jesus. That is all that matters. Thanks for handling all of this turmoil with grace and confidence in God.

  24. Marko – If I can be completely honest…I am not your biggest fan…also not a hater. (we have crossed paths before through the evangelical presbyterian church.) I say that only to give a glimpse of where I am coming from – this is my first ever blogging type thing…

    The convention in atlanta was awkward at times. i thought the speakers were awesome! knocked it out (didn’t stay for monday am – but the rest rocked) Yet throughout the entire convention I was wondering (as were others around us) where you were. While I may not be a Marko slappy – you gave YS something it greatly needed after Yac passed – a face. I knew half of that face would be missing with no Tic…but where you were – and your awesome hair dos – was a mystery. Shame on the peeps running the convention for not addressing all this at the convention. Maybe it wasn’t a large group convo – but at least a breakout group discussion. The future of YS is a big deal to a lot of us. That convention was a big deal to a lot of us. And why the speakers rocked – and God worked in chaos – I felt like I went to buy a piece of bread and got the heel – even though they charged for the middle piece! I say all this to state I hope that we as a body of those who love God by loving youth can come together and promote more forward/positive thinking. These are things you and YS have done for me for years and I thank you for that Marco…I pray you will find time to enjoy your family in this season.

    sorry if this didn’t make sense…I just lost my blog v…

  25. Marko-
    You know that my family has been watching all this closely. 1) We genuinely love and appreciate you and your passion for youth workers and youth ministry. But more importantly 2) our 7th grade boy spends weekly time with you in small groups. Your mentoring and guidance has been a major piece in God’s shaping our son into a man of God. We are grateful! I am so thankful that you have chosen to hang in there with them, when you had every reason to “take a break” to process and get your wits about you. Our son is watching and you have done nothing by show what character and integrity look like. From a parent of one of “your boys”, THANK YOU for how you have walked this part of the journey, for what you have said and written, and for what your actions have said. God is a good God and continues to use you in big ways-especially with our 7th grade boys.

  26. Marko,

    I want to thank you for the energy you hvae led with these past few years. I always looked forward to NYWC as a refueling for my passion for ministry. Sadly, this year was different. I was very disappointed that they started with the annoucement at the beginning of the weekend. It set the tone for the entire convention.

    I love Big Stuf. I love Lanny. I love the Big Stuf band. I go to their camp every year. But to have the exact same theme I experienced three months ago was really disappointing.

    I also always looked forward to hearing the different bands and special guests. I dont know if it was the economy or the change of direction but those were definitely missing this year.

    Again thanks for all you have done, you will DEFINITELY be missed!

  27. Wow – had no idea. Thanks for sharing your thoughts (quite graciously, I might add). Wondering what’s next for you? I imagine you’re still figuring that out yourself. Whatever it is, I look forward to seeing how God will use you in this next season.

  28. Marko –

    Thanks for serving the body of Christ through your leadership at YS – I agree with what some have said, that you gave YS a wonderful “face” and, i think that is extremely important. Back in the days of Wayne and Mike, YS was a huge part of my youth ministry training, and exposed me to superb youth ministry pros like Les Christie, Duffy Robbins, Doug Fields, Chap Clark, and many others whose books lined the most accessible shelf next to my desk for over a decade. You did a great job taking over YS for the last 6 years. Youth ministers all over the globe are eternally grateful.

    And thank you for a great demonstration of graciousness in public. In an age when so many air their private affairs and dirty laundry out for everyone to see, it is refreshing to see someone have the patience and wisdom to take the high road and bless those who may or may not have acted in your best interest, or possibly with or without integrity.

    You have allowed the folks in YS,Zondervan, Youthworks a chance to reflect, pause and return to you graciousness and blessing. I hope they really seek God’s face for the future of YS. I hope they pray and fast and humbly admit to themselves that slick ideas is not what is needed at this hour, but the miraculous power of the Spirit through the message of the Cross to change teens and shape their lives as authentic Christians.

    I guess I just felt a lump in my throat as I read your explaination of what has transpired, and you showed me a glimpse of Christ.

    I hope people see that you continued to shape leaders even in the very act of resigning with the attitude of Christ.

    There is a time to fight. There is a time to stand up for convictions. There is a time to confront and rebuke and even tack our theses to the door. But this was not that time. Thanks for always being a leader. Blessings in all that you do in your future!

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