Maybe you’ve seen the show “Survivor.” It’s a competition of physical survival, sure, but it’s primarily social survival. A fascinating part of the plot is when a contestant falsely believes he’s secure in his tribe, safe at tribal council and then is completely blown away as he’s cast out from the tribe. The old blindside – like watching a train wreck – it’s intriguing to watch from the safety of our couch, isn’t it? In his post-tribal council interview, he is full of shock, hurt, anger, disbelief.
Ever felt that way in youth ministry? I have.
It’s hard for me to share this so publicly, but a few months ago I was blindsided when I learned on a Tuesday morning that I had lost my youth director job and that the next Sunday would be my last one serving the church. I was told that my ministry gifts were appreciated, but I was “just not a good fit” for that specific church.
From my perspective, here’s what happened: I knew without a doubt that I had done all that I was asked to do and that I had poured my heart into my ministry. I could see the fruit of my hard work in the form of new missions, new excitement and even in the form of youth being called into ministry. Good discipleship was happening. Although there had been some snags along the way, things seemed to be on a good path.
Back to the game of social survival. Clearly there were members of the tribe that were dissatisfied with how things looked from the outside and they had the social power I lacked. I wasn’t given much in the way of warning signs – although in retrospect, there were a few. It turns out “the tribe had spoken” months earlier when I wasn’t in the room… I know this because someone had already been hired to replace my role.
That hurt. My head still spinning, I had a great conversation with my friend, Len Evans (perfectly gifted for his role at Simply Soul Care) about the five main reasons youth ministers get fired. Here’s the deal – I had believed I was immune to getting fired, but getting fired in youth ministry is fairly common. After talking to many a fired youth worker over the years, Len had found basically 5 common reasons. His advice helped me to better understand what had happened in my own situation, so maybe it can help someone you know too. Here’s a great excerpt in Len’s words:
The phrase “It wasn’t a good fit” is often used to explain transitioning and turnovers between ministries and ministers. It’s an ambiguous phrase but it speaks volumes. I’ve always wanted to establish a long-term ministry at one church and yet I’m serving my third church in nine years. I learned through the transitions the importance of finding the mystical “good fit”. A good number of hurts that require healing can be avoided if you know which fits to look for.
1. Theological Fit: This should be obvious but too many youth workers who grew up Baptist wonder why they have a difficult time in a mainline church, or the other way around. Unless you plant your own church there will rarely be a 100% theological match so know your theological non-negotiables.
I had a perfect fit theologically at my first church because the entire pastoral staff went to the same seminary. The differences do make a difference. Just because you are able to get along with someone that holds different theological views doesn’t mean that you can serve in the same church with them. I have a lot of friends from the entire spectrum of Christianity, we can pray together and I know they loved Jesus but I would never be able to work in some of their churches. It’s a matter of conviction and integrity.
2. Philosophical Fit: You and the church may value evangelism but if you don’t agree on how to do evangelism eventually you will have conflict. If one person in your church wants to hand out tracts to anyone and everyone and another person wants to have a holistic approach to reaching their friends, there will be a conflict when they discuss evangelism. If the church defines youth worker as events coordinator and you think of yourself as a pastor who is about equipping others for ministry, there will be problems eventually.
Spoken or unspoken, there are different expectations about a youth ministry’s role in the church. Is the purpose of your youth ministry primarily outreach to the unchurched, discipleship of the saints, just keeping kids busy and out of trouble? What do you think it is? What does the senior pastor believe it is? If everyone was really honest, what would other members of the church think it is? Unless a clear, consistent message is communicated from pastoral leadership, and especially if different factions of your church disagree, you might find your own views (and your job) ending up on the fault line. The tricky part to navigate is when the ministry’s stated purpose does not line up with the real expectations on your role. In other words, even if your job description might say “equip students to be disciples,” your success or failure might really be measured by how many students attended your ski trip, retreat, etc.
3. Personal Fit: This applies primarily to the working and personal relationship with the senior pastor, although it also impacts other church leadership and personal interactions. A friend of mine spoke to almost 400 senior pastors at the ’96 National Clergy Conference in Atlanta. He asked “Who’s really close to their youth pastor”? Only one pastor slowly raised his hand. Everyone in a church setting should do what they can to ensure that more hands are raised at the next Pastor’s Conference when that question is asked.
Another challenge to personal fit is change in leadership…which happens a lot in the UMC. At the first church I served, the pastor who hired me stated clearly “When it comes to disagreements between the church council and staff, I am going to side with the staff person. I’ve got your back.” I didn’t understand the value of that statement until, two senior pastors later, the new pastor called me into a meeting to question me in front of a lay leader about a “concern brought to her attention” that really was just a misunderstanding I could have clarified if she’d only asked me first. She clearly did not share the same philosophy as the pastor who hired me.
4. Vocational Fit: Does the job description really fit who you’re wired to be? “Youth Pastor” can mean nursery through College at different churches. Make sure your church’s job description reflects your passion, your abilities and your calling.
The first question you should ask is “Can I do the job as it’s described?” The more important question to ask is, “Do I want to do the job as it’s described”? There will always be part of work that are not enjoyed but hopefully the majority of what the job description requires is what you are able to do naturally and with skill.
5. Cultural Fit: This applies to regional, socio-economic, education and more. My wife and I grew up in Alabama but we loved our time in New England. We were accepted and if you know any New Englander’s you know being accepted is a big deal. This is not a right or wrong issue but just a matter of personal preferences and deciding what you are able to live with because you will not change the culture of where you are living.
These Five Areas are not the only areas to consider but I believe they are the five key areas. One of the hardest things about the interview process is it involves people. I don’t believe that youth pastors or search committees ever mean to mislead one another just so they can find someone but I do think the problems come to the surface after they begin their working relationship because they don’t know themselves well. So people articulate the proper phrase but they may not have the actual values that put the words into action.
Most of us have been in situations where we didn’t have all of these and probably very few of us have all five so I’m not saying “Unless you have these you won’t have an effective ministry” but I am saying, “The closer your fit in each area the better chance you’ll have at having an effective and long-term ministry.
You could add a #6. Practical Fit. Can you live off your salary? You might have the perfect job in every other area, but if you can’t practically live on the wage you are getting paid, it can’t be sustainable.
In my story, I probably lost my job for reasons somewhere between it not being a good philosophical fit and personal fit. I worked for a church that is still working to identify a clear purpose and vision for its youth ministry.
Why I am better for having been fired: I know better now what my gifts are, what kind of youthworker I am and what to look for in a youth ministry position. I was asked to leave a good church, but I have learned that it was probably not a good church for my gifts and passions. In hindsight, I probably sensed something wasn’t working there for me, but now I can articulate what went awry. I imagine that God might call me to the perfect youth ministry church for me someday, but for now I love having this opportunity to minister to youthworkers and volunteer in youth ministry.
Even in the moment of being told I had lost my job, I knew God had a hand in all that was going on.
In God’s own creativity, He prepared me to minister to youthworkers in a way I could not have learned better any other way. God has been able to use my experience to minister to others in similar situations. Does it still sting? Yes. But the pain’s worth it when I share in the truly holy moments of understanding what another person in youth ministry is going through. By surviving my greatest fear, I have learned to depend more on God, embrace change and be brave about following my heart. God is good, all the time.
Theological, Philosophical, Personal, Vocational, Cultural and Practical Fit – Are there other areas of “good fit” you’d add to this list? Do you have your own story to share about being fired over this?
By the way, if you know someone in youth ministry who might benefit from this article, please pass it on…we are, after all, our own best resources.
Erin Jackson is National Director – Community & Care for the Center of Youth Ministry Excellence and the YouthWorker Movement. She is a veteran & certified youthworker as well, and loving her current role as a volunteer Senior High Bible Study teacher. She lives in Arlington, Texas with her husband Dennis, three kids and a dog. She can be found blogging at http://umyouthworker.com/
More about Len Evans at his blog: www.lenevans.net
More about “The Five Star Fit” http://lenevans.net/2010/09/the-five-star-fit/
More about Simply Soul Care: http://conference.youthministry.com/ForYourHeart/SoulCare/tabid/158/Default.aspx