recently i had dinner with a youth worker couple who had the kind of story i hear way too often these days. they’d been beat up, in one way or another, by a church. the pastor had said they were doing a great job, blah, blah, blah. though he did seem to have concerns about ministry style (they were relational, he was organizational). in the end, they got totally blindsided by the pastor or the board telling them they needed to leave. there was some kind of agreement on what would be said publicly, which the church and pastor (the way it was told to me) totally violated. lots of hurt. lots of pain. lots of mess.
i hear these stories every week. literally. there are variations, of course. some involve massive tension with a cold-hearted automaton of a senior pastor over a period of years, resulting in the ministry version of parallel-play (ministering alongside each other without any significant interaction with each other). some involve a spineless yes-man of a senior pastor and an overbearing board with some misguided ideas about what the youth ministry should be doing or valuing.
but the common thread is “abuse”. once in a while, i get the sense that the youth worker was in the wrong (even if only partially). but whether there was wrong on both sides or not, there are all-too-often scenarios where the treatment of the youth worker is unacceptable.
as i was flying home and thinking about and praying for this wonderful and sad youth worker couple, i started to ask myself some more macro-level questions. maybe it was because i was in a plane at the time, 35,000 feet over somewhere. that big-picture view. anyhow…
why is it that churches are SO bad at conflict resolution?
why is it that churches are SO bad at conflict resolution, particularly amongst their staff? so few senior pastors seem to have any ability in this area (surely, there are wonderful exceptions).
why do so many youth workers get abused by their churches? while they’re at the church, and especially in how and why they leave.
maybe it’s because our calling is so unique, so given to misunderstanding? maybe it’s because great youth ministry will never look quite like most senior pastors envision a pastoral role to look? when the senior pastor of my church in omaha re-inforced the office dress code, stating that jeans and shorts weren’t appropriate around the office, and that we would wear khakis or slacks and a collered shirt unless we had a specific ministry reason why we were dressed otherwise, i took him literally. and the summer day i was going to be hanging out with middle school kids off-campus, i wore a collered shirt and khaki shorts. he yelled at me in the middle of the office: “we don’t want to see your knobby knees around this office!”
yeah, maybe that’s true. and i’m sure it’s true much of the time. but here’s the harder thought that i almost wish i hadn’t had…
what if the reason so many youth workers are treated poorly by our churches is partly because of us?
what if it’s because we’re immature? or, unprofressional, sloppy and ill-mannered? what if we’re hiding behind our calling and job descriptions (and audience) as an excuse for not getting organized, not growing up, not being a team player?
i’m not suggesting we all start keeping office hours and wearing dress slacks (and clip-on ties!). i’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt as a type this, and i can’t imagine working in a church where they required me to “dress up” for the office.
i tears me up to see so many youth workers treated poorly by their churches. and with each individual case, my primary response is empathy and shared pain. i know what that feels like. but taken collectively–looking at the whole mess from a few tens-of-thousdands of feet in the air… well, i just wonder what role we’ve all played in creating a system that would treat us this way, over and over and over again.