thinking about why so many youth workers are abused

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.

khaki shortsmaybe 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.


28 thoughts on “thinking about why so many youth workers are abused”

  1. i think some of this is also due to the personality of a youth worker – highly relational, visionary, lots of energy. and with those positives, also a bit disorganized, likes chaos and gets bored easily, etc. [and i’m not saying every youth worker is like this because that certainly isn’t true…]

    i would also agree with your take on staff conflict resolution. absolutely. i ran across this article a few months ago which is a great read. the premise is: “But the one thing that amazes me more than what leaders will do for their enterprises, is what they so often won’t do – endure emotional discomfort at work.”

  2. Mario – would love to speak with you sometime about this. About the very dark side, hurt so bad it is dibiltating.

  3. marko — this is perfectly timed. i was actually thinking about my own journey. my personality is given to staying in things (even in abuse situations). my first church i served right out of college was abusive according to the spiritual director i talked to at NYWC. i was shocked when she used “abuse” to describe what was happening. i spent a year of parallel play (may be that the senior minister didn’t want to be along with the only person on staff — a female youth worker). interesting that you are also calling us to reflect on what part we play in all of this. i heard a message from a church i used to attend where the youth minister said from the stage “i don’t like rules” and “i’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission”. parents are trusting this man with their teenagers.

    churches have this set stereotype of who they are looking for to fill the position of youth minister… then they are disappointed when the people they hire say things like my youth minister friend did from the stage…

    i’m interested to hear from others if you think it matters if there’s a youth ministry team vs. one person on staff with youth ministry. i’m sure abuse can happen to anyone in any situation, but it seems that it might be healthier to have teams for youth ministry. there’s only so much one person can do.

  4. I spent 18 years as a student pastor. I’ve spent the last 5 as a lead pastor and have just hired our first full time student pastor.

    Having been on both sides of fence, there is a tension that is going to always be present between the two positions. One does ministry with a focus on one (maybe two) generation, the other has multiple. There are other areas of tension but I would argue that not all tension is negative.

    It is tension that makes the guitar beautiful – if it’s tuned correctly.

    One of the tunings for student pastors is understanding their role. They (we) aren’t the lead pastor. It’s very different being the lead pastor. It’s harder and heavier. Things come at you from all angles, there are multiple layers to every single decision. I had no idea all the noise a lead pastor has to deal with. It’s not always about protecting our enterprises, it’s about leading a multiple generation/cultured church in unity to advance the kingdom. Everyone can’t win every battle.

    Another tuning for both the lead pastor and student pastor is keeping mission at the macro. Our mantra is love, live, serve, multiply. It is okay and right for me to push that to every ministry in our church. That’s larger than just student ministry. How it gets fleshed out in our student culture – different discussion. that’s the student pastor’s strike zone. I’ve got to create space and resources for him/her to figure that out and it’s not going to look like what I did all those years ago.

    I can help our student pastor avoid mistakes and think big picture on mission. Student pastor can help me stay relevant and keep changing because our culture is changing constantly.

    But it does come down to if both sides want the relationship over anything else. And I would put the lions share of that on the lead guy. He has to make it work and keep at it. There’s a lot more at stake than just two jobs.

  5. Without my saying much more, just thanks so much for this entry. Abuse sometimes masquerades as “benign” neglect and apathy by senior pastor/staff…for me, being treated as if me and my ministry is invisible and has no value is worse than having someone take me on verbally and scream at me. And the abuse can have a tendency to be contagious… I’ve got my own theories about this issue in general but there’s no safe way to express the thoughts or concerns to the people who could actually do anything to remedy bad situations. :(

  6. Wow so many thoughts on this one. Obviously there is not one answer to this but here are a few of my thoughts.
    1. Many Lead Pastors and by extension their congregations see you ministry as a short term calling. Something you do for a little while.
    2. Many Lead Pastors served as youth workers ands probably were abused in some way.
    3. The rate of depression among clergy is through the roof, I am sure that doesn’t help. Especially when all youth workers really do is fool around (sarcasm).
    4. I think the calling of a youth worker is to push for change so that worship experiences, theology, and preaching are accessible to this generation.
    5. Finally I think the world view of the average youth worker is so different. The world view of many lead pastors is about perpetuating their church or their congregation or in some cases their brand (there are some good reasons for this i.e. the bills). While the world view of many youth workers is focused almost solely on relationships. I think these two world views are extremely difficult to reconcile.
    6. Yes , it will help if we were a little more organized.

  7. Situations like these make me wonder if the church’s idea of what conflict resolution is accurate. In my experience, it seems like churches feel like there should not really be conflict. I guess because we’re “the church”, and “the church” isn’t messy like that. I can understand that they want to see things like that but it’s just not the case.

    I think, in many cases, the Youth Pastor is the “easy target”. It’s easier to get rid of the Youth Pastor, which will (hopefully) make all the unhappy people happy, than it is to deal with the underlying issues on both sides. They’re hoping that the removal of the staff person will make it all go away and that there are no underlying issues that will create similar situations in the future.

    To me, it’s like putting out the flames of a fire but ignoring the hot coals underneath. To the Pastor and/or church leadership, they feel like they’ve made a tough leadership decision (which they have) that will minimize present and, hopefully, future conflicts. Sometimes it works, but it’s often a case of taking off a burnt piece of wood and putting another piece of wood on the fire. It’s only a matter of time before the flames rise again. But, for the church, as long as things seem happy, everything is good.

  8. “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 think this is partly true, in that our tribe has embodied–and even celebrated–an ethos of disorganization, sloppiness, and immaturity. We can often become the odd goofballs on the staff team, the ones who make messes–both literally and relationally–and can create administrative havoc when we aren’t prepared well.

    But I also don’t think it’s entirely our fault. Abuse is abuse, and the victims of that abuse aren’t to carry the blame. Our disorganization or youthful impetuosity isn’t an excuse for abusive and unethical behaviour from senior church leadership.

    I wonder if many church boards and senior pastors haven’t been prepared well to lead organizations. Seminary gave them Greek and Hebrew and theological ideas, but few practical tools for creating healthy teams and systems, and for leading those teams with humility and empathy.

  9. I think a lot of issues Senior Pastor and Staff have is a dealing of Calling vs. Career. My experience shows most youth pastor or staff are young and beginning to live out God’s call on there life. Where more Senior Pastor’s have been around for a while and are no longer focusing as much on a Calling from God and more about protecting a career.
    When ministry is a career we do things very different than when we view it as a Calling. I have a lot of thoughts about the differences, but I will not post them here other than this. What a pastor think needs protecting can really affect their ministry to Christ.

  10. This is what I love about you Marko…calling it like it is. You are such a blessing to me and countless others not only because of the perspective you have, but because of the love that is in your heart for youth ministers.

    We ARE abused. If it’s not by church leadership and their protecting of whatever it is they are protecting and their misconceptions of youth ministry, it’s by high expectation, high demanding, high insecure parents. Or highly-broken, good hearted teens who let us down because they have a hard time committing to the Gospel truths we’re sharing and modeling.

    Youth ministry is a cross. A very heavy one at that.

    Yet, while this burden of abuse (in whatever form) is hard, we know that there is power in the cross. And that power is not passive.

    I just had my performance review before Christmas. Overall it was very positive. But, during the review, my pastor gave me a sort of back-handed compliment when he said, “I wish you were not so passive-aggressive in meetings with staff members”. I was not insulted at all by the comment (I know that I am passive-aggressive), but left his office wondering if he actually wanted me to be more vocal, even at the risk of rocking the parallel play continuum that he and I both know exists in our leadership.

    The point? Yes, we contribute to the way we are treated by all of the different touch points in our ministry. Our organization, administration and overall professionalism could always be better. But we are NOT office people. Even though we should be obedient to the rules and operation of our communities, our spirit and our hearts are missionary.

    And the missionary nature of youth ministry causes us to be misunderstood. But, couldn’t we use that to our advantage for advancing the love of the kingdom.

    What if the answer to our “misunderstoodness” is facing this conflict head-on? Being a part of the solution, instead of perpetuating the problem? What if we could all learn how to be proactive in conflict resolution, instead of waiting to be called into the pastor’s office or to be at some council meeting? Better yet, what if we earned having a voice in the overall life of our church community that our advocacy was not just for our teens, but also perspective to help other ministries grow and thrive?

    Perhaps our missionary field is not just wherever our young people are. And perhaps our longevity in youth ministry is also about knowing how large this missionary field really is.

  11. Abuse is one thing and realizing that we, youth workers, have some problems is another. No one deserves abuse and if anybody is in an abusive relationship in their ministry, that person needs to get gone. That being said, I think that the hiring process is flawed from the get go.

    The biggest obstacle I had to overcome at my current church was ageism. I was 35 and the committee wondered if I was able to minister to young students given my advanced age. What?! It was ridiculous. Nonetheless, this church wanted someone who is able to relate to youth and thought that was done by hiring someone who was still an adolescent. Or at least close to it. Thankfully they were open to hear my response to that and I was hired.

    Anyway, I would argue that churches set themselves up for failure from the very beginning. The need to hire someone “who relates” to students forgoes the need to relate with parents (the biggest influence to our students), school administrators, the old ladies in the middle pews, the rest of the staff, etc, who lives and breathes adult life. A big personality, hipster glasses, and Chuck Taylors does not make up for organization, love and grace for all people, and management.

    Truth is, I am a better student minister now than I was at 30 and am far more capable than when I was at 23 (I’m 41 by the way). I am not as flashy as I used to be and my students have no problem telling me I’m old. But I know that student ministry is more than just the students. It is also about relating to the whole church and being the ambassador of the church. I have also come to terms that some battles are not worth the fight.

    So yes, youth workers need to do better but churches need to ask better questions when looking for people to lead students in a church setting.

  12. Being hurt by the church, twice now, it seems like a one sided battle. The pastors only heard the bad things and never asked anyone else involved what happened. I kept getting negative things said to me, and not many positive. I had parents go and tell them what happened wasn’t my fault, but I was still asked to leave.

  13. Thanks for addressing this issue. There are a lot of churches that seem to set their youth pastor up for failure. But you know, us youth workers also seem to lack those conflict resolution skills. Too often I see youth workers who have been doing ministry for ten years and already worked for 5 churches. Each time there is an excuse, but maybe we need to take time to know expectations before running headlong intoa bear trap, communicate early and often with those boards and pastors, and learn how to fess up to our mistakes before we are found out. Of course there will be problems that are just unavoidable, but I think us youth pastors can do something . That being said, everytime I hear of these messy ministry divorces, my heart breaks for all involved. These things are never easy and seem to always leave all involved with scars that are hard to heal.

  14. as in marriages and families, most ministry problems no matter how big can be worked through if we are committed to honoring Christ through the process

    sadly, like many marriages and families, we usually wait until it’s too late to address the issue and/or take the easy way out (leaving/termination) rather than reconciliation

    thanks for writing this one Marko

  15. Haven’t read all the comments, but I especially liked Josh and Grant’s comments, which could go under Josh’s statement, “Obviously there’s not one answer to this.” I think both of those writers made some very valid comments about possible causes for the situation. I would like to add my two cents.

    I worked for a para-church youth ministry for fourteen years, then a church ministry for three as their first, paid youth pastor. I would suggest, after my experiences, as well as observing many other church government/pastor/youth pastor relationships (good and bad) that some of the conflict could also stem from – or at least be exacerbated by – the type of church government that runs the church. Obviously, there is a personality and character issue for each leader that comes into play – no type of government is perfect. However, I wonder if the relationships between elders, pastors (who are also often abused), and youth pastors would be better if the governmental structure put them as equals rather than one over the other. I am aware this comes with its own set of difficulties (How can a lead pastor truly be first among equals – how do you be first, but equal?), but this type of government is less prone towards power abuse because no one person (or group of people) are in charge.

  16. I think a major reason is because most pastors & youth pastors don’t understand what it means to really have God be our father. Most pastors are out there trying to ‘prove’ something to their biblical dad or are trying fill the need for a dad by gaining influence/significance over others. These are very unhealthy positions to lead from. To me most youth pastors are looking to their pastor to be a father/mentor to them, instead of looking to Jesus to be the one that leads them. So when their pastor doesn’t care about them mentor them it builds resentment which leads them to us vs them mentality.
    I think these unhealthy views get magnified anytime there is conflict or unrest of any kind, this is where the deep issues begin to surface in very tangible ways.

  17. Don’t even know how to respond except to say that abuse takes place to those who don’t fit the YM stereotype who are, for whatever reason, a threat to the Sr Pastor.

  18. I floundered through my first year of ministry and wasnt going to last long. Then a new senior pastor came on board. Instead of giving up on me he guided me. He showed me the ropes and gave me new opportunities while equipping me to do my job better. A true gift. When i left after 5 years to pursue another route i left not the same as i came in, all for the better.
    I know yp’ers certainly get treated poorly and i do not take for granted the gift that my senior pastor was to me.

  19. Such a great (painful) topic, Marko! While I am certain there is plenty of tension in the YP/SP relationships in churches everywhere, I think the church is full of strained relationships among staff:
    – Children’s Pastor and SP
    – Worship Pastor and SP
    – Children’s Pastor and YP
    – Janitor and…..EVERYBODY
    – Etc.

    A couple things I’ve learned over the years concerning my relationship with my senior pastor:
    – I’m not responsible for his/her behavior, but I am responsible for my response.
    – Once I identify something as truly abusive (which has happened to me, in my opinion, anyway) choosing to ignore it isn’t an option. We aren’t helpless victims.
    – Certainly part of the problem lies with us….how we lead, minister, serve, etc.

    Youth workers will always be viewed as the “gym teachers” of church ministry. That used to bother me, but now I’ve embraced it.

    I hate to be the guy who posts to his own article, but I wrote about this a week ago and it may be worthwhile.

  20. something that would help many situations is if YPs would treat staff meeting less like a burden or curse and more like the “family dinner” that it is
    – no, it’s not always the most exciting part of the day
    – but it’s vital for connection and unity
    – and it’s something we should value

  21. It has been 20 years since I was asked to step down from the lead teen ministry position in a small church (volunteer position), and I haven’t returned to doing that type of work since. (I did this sort of work in two different churches for 12 years prior to being asked to step down). I agree with several of the earlier observations about being expendable; I got caught up in the politics of a wealthy member who bribed the pastor to replace me and another youth worker because he didn’t like us/our approach (which focused more on community service than bible studies). We were easy to get rid of, even though over a 4 year period we had grown the teen group from 7 kids to 15, and those 15 held bonds for the first time that went beyond the church walls (they went to 5 different high schools, which made it hard to create a cohesive group). Politics and conflicting personalities abound everywhere.

  22. My entire life has been in ministry. Dad is a pastor and I followed that calling and am now a yp in Illinois. As I look at what my father experienced and some of my own experiences in ministry I would have to say that pain/abuse of pastors runs rampant…but one thing that I noticed was that my father never played the victim (even when he was) but embodied James 1. Count it all joy. When I look at the Scriptures I see the Father using the people with the deepest scars to advance the Kingdom.

  23. I really appreciate all the thoughtful comments and found myself agreeing with many as “been there, done that, very sad”.
    I have been doing youth ministry in one form or another for 35 years. I am 60 years old and have great ministry stories and horror stories.
    I am also in one of those “tension” times – conflict resolution where our assistant pastor had formerly done the youth ministry and so, as my supervisor, continues to tell me how wonderful it was when she did it and if I did it that way, it would be perfect. Hmmm…well, she has also set me up for a big sucker punch from one of my advisors, but I bore the brunt of it and tucked her leadership style in my back pocket. Each ministry is different and I will learn from this poor way of handling a situation and continue.
    As for the age and being a yp – I feel I have worked my way into the entire church – especially the parents and those who so generously give to our program. Yes, I wear jeans to the office, but dress for meetings and church functions as appropriate. Other adults see me as fun for the kids, but someone to whom they can communicate about other issues.
    With age and experience comes a little wisdom, but I’m still learning and know that when I “retire”, I’ll be the first one to sign up as a volunteer to work with the youth at any church who will need me.
    Oh – my desk is a mess, my floor is littered with toys and pool noodles, and everyone loves coming in because they can play a little!

  24. Pingback: Chowtime - 2/8
  25. thanks for the post – was just alerted to it by a friend of mine this week so only catching up on it now.

    firstly two random thoughts:

    [1] it is so exciting to see someone who blogs like me [no capital letters for example] – i do this quite intentionally as part of creating my own style and it’s refreshing to see someone just post the way he wants to and still see it impact people – down with caps!

    [2] it was funny to me that you spelled ‘unprofessional’ wrong which just seems, you know, unprofessional – i’m secretly hoping that you did it intentionally as some kind of subversive irony you were hoping to slip in there although you started your last paragraph with the phrase ‘i tears me up’ and unless you were intending to sound gangsta i will assume that is a typo – not to come across as the grandma police but for me when i blog i appreciate it when people point those kinda things out as they can be distracting [especially to teacher types] and so better just to jump in and correct them and neaten up the post a little…

    in terms of the rest of your post my dad was a pastor and i have worked various years in various denominations as youth pastory types and left two churches with quite abusive/sad/negative experiences [or pastors who probably didn’t have me on their speed dial party lists] and so i resonate a lot with what you are saying…

    and on the one hand it is completely the most healthy thing to stand in front of the mirror and question myself and examine my heart and look at where i might be wrong and correct those things first before looking at the bigger picture – so good, so necessary always so great that you made a call to that.

    but to be honest i had the strong feeling when reading your post of the kind of ‘rape culture’ [i did say strong] mentality that feminists have been so strong against – the idea of blaming the victim – and even going so far with the comparison as saying ‘maybe it was the clothes you were wearing’ – and while this comparison may seem uber strong, i think it is important to note that no matter what the youth pastory person did or didn’t do, there may be grounds to dismiss them or move them on and discontinue their services but there is NEVER an excuse not to love them or treat them with respect… and it is that what i have seen and experienced and witnessed in a lot of these stories – that the youth person is pretty much discarded and when discipline is given it often feels oppressive and abusive and not Godly or loving at all – and the victim can and should never be blamed for that…

    so while i think it is good to get the youth person to examine themselves and make right where necessary [and definitely a strong call to say ‘how much of this have we invited by not being the best we could be?’ i think it is [at age 40 in case i am sounding like a hot-headed 18 year old here] so so so so SO important that churches learn to treat staff with love and respect and the strong call should be as you suggested for churches to learn to deal with and model conflict so much better…

    all the best
    brett fish

Leave a Reply