Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why I Should Have Been Fired. . . .


The other night I was telling my family that I wish I had a good nickname. The conversation was prompted after my girls had convinced me to watch the Justin Bieber movie - "Never Say Never" - (Ok. . . good to get that off my chest!)and we were introduced to "Scooter," the guy who manages Bieber. I'm always curious about how people get their nicknames. "Dub" is a guy whose name begins with "W," which means that could have worked for me. "Rusty" is a red head." "Lumpy" is. . . well. . . lumpy. You know how it works.

So my line of reasoning this morning goes like this. . . if my nickname had been chosen during my early days of doing youth ministry, you probably wouldn't know me today as "Walt." Instead, you'd be calling me "Bonehead," "Jackass," or "Fool." Seriously. I did many things during those early years that could have and should have gotten me fired. In addition, I was many things in those early years that could have and should have gotten me fired. . . or at the very least labeled with one of the aforementioned nicknames.

The youth ministry firing topic got some attention last week on my buddy Doug Fields' blog. Doug blogged on a youth pastor named Mike Lewis who shared his story, which Doug posted. I don't know Mike, but I feel for him. In an amazing show of compassion and support, several of Mike's peers ministered to him and encouraged him through the comments and stories they posted in response to Doug's blog. Doug made a good point, encouraging us to pray for our brothers and sisters who have been "hurt by churches." Yep. It happens way too much.

Now please understand that what I'm about to say is not a corrective to Doug or a disagreement with him. Nor is it in response to my evaluation of Mike (I haven't evaluated Mike!) and why Mike lost his job. And, it's not in response to anything written in the comments to Doug's post and Mike's story. Rather, what I'm about to say is prompted by how Doug's blog got me a) digging into my own memory of my personal youth ministry history, and b)thinking about something I've been picking up on more and more in our youth ministry circles.

First and foremost, I was a bonehead, jackass, and fool. Simply stated, I thought I knew far more than I knew, I thought the older people in my church knew far less than they knew, I was proud, and I did way too many things that I shouldn't have done. To be honest, I'm still struggling with some of those decisions I made over thirty years ago. In hindsight, I'm grateful for the advances made in the area of brain imaging. You see, if the human brain isn't fully wired until about the age of 25 or 26, then I was attempting to function in the adult world with a pre-frontal cortex that was functioning way below adult capacity. But that's no excuse - really. I was who I was and I did who I did because I chose to be who I was and do what I did. If people only knew, they would have called me out. Yes, there was one youth ministry job that lasted only a year. I walked away from it because I was getting my hands tied behind my back. I was called into the office and told that I was doing a great job, but I was talking way too much about Jesus. After sitting through a church board meeting where the room was evenly divided between supporters and detractors who were arguing it out, I went back to my apartment and made the decision to hang it up and move on. If I hadn't, I think I might have been one of the far too many stories of people who get fired for all the wrong reasons.

Which leads me to my second observation. . . the one about the youth ministry world in which I now live and move. I wonder if there aren't times when we play the victim, when in reality we've been the perpetrator. Maybe we rely on the "hurt by the church" thing when in reality the people at the church could have been more than justified in calling us "Bonehead," "Jackass," or "Fool." Let's be honest, we live in a culture where the younger we are the more we've been encouraged to do our thing with waning respect for authority. If that's what we embrace - perhaps unknowingly - then it's no wonder that conflict follows us wherever we go. One of the commenters on Doug's blog reminded me of what Mike Yaconelli once said. The commenter wrote, "Mike Yaconelli once said that you are not a real youth pastor until you have been fired twice." That never sat well with me for the simple reason that it might be used as a justification for embracing a cavalier or maverick "know-it-all" cocky attitude. I would add the words "for illegitimate reasons" to the end of that Yaconelli quote to redeem it.

Again, this is a complex issue and my comments are not in reaction to anything Doug or Mike have said. Rather, this is about me and my history, along with a growing sense of something dangerous that's building momentum in the world of youth ministry. One thing I know I'd do differently if I had it to do all over again would be this. . . I would make every effort to realize that because I'm a young guy, I'm going to be pretty idealistic and fairly non-diplomatic. I'd also make every effort to realize that my ministry superiors may be of the age where their idealism has been tempered by years of experience, a heavy does of realism, and some accumulated wisdom. Then, I'd go out of my way to do everything I could to appreciate them for who they are, work within the bounds that their authority over me allows, and to pursue ministry with great passion. I would hope and pray that that kind of approach would generate a respect for me that would be well-deserved. . . and we would work well together. . . to the Glory of God. . . for a long, long time.

4 comments:

john mcclung said...

These are great and timely thoughts--in light of what is going on my ministry right now. The Lord has used your words for my situation. Thanks.

jack radcliffe said...

Appreciate the candor and willingness to look at both sides of this volatile issue. Recognizing that all of us - youth pastors and church members and leaders alike - are boneheads, jackasses and fools is a first step in making changes in the landscape of how we deal with each others' failings. The truth is, boneheads, jackasses and fools we call church leaders and youth pastors are throwing each other away way too easily.

It's also too easy for the spurned youth pastor to blame the church and too easy for the church to blame the youth pastor. On few occasions is it one "side's" fault.

To your point, it is true that youth pastors do things that could and should get them fired. Or better, mentored.

It is also true that the church is considered justified in their reasons for letting the youth pastor go and their reputation remains in tact even when they have been the offender. The released youth pastor cannot expect the same level of performance from the church that they expect from him or her.His or her responses are viewed as excuses and reputation takes a hit.

The question must be asked: When will we decide to work through our issues, listen to one another, and help each other grow - especially those without a fully developed frontal lobe? The church and youth pastor who are committed asking and doing these things will have a long and fruitful ministry together and avoid the firing line.

Anonymous said...

This issue needs to be taught and retaught to those of us who are young and called into ministry. Thank you for keeping this in front of us and for sharing your wisdom from experience.

Adam said...

Walt, thanks for the honesty. I've spent the last 10 years in youth ministry and in January of 2010 I was asked to resign from a church where I had spent 5 & 1/2 years ministering. I felt much the same way that Mike felt. I had bought a house and would be moving out of the parsonage (yes, some churches still have them) and was given two days notice. I was asked to resign on a Wednesday and my last day was on Friday. I was absolutely angry in the decision but as I have had time to reflect on it, really they should have let me go 6 months before. The truth is I had gotten lazy in my ministry. I had taken the complacency of the church to mean that I could be complacent as well. I say all that to just say that we all have faults and we are all expendable but we have far too great a message to just throw each other away without cause and I think most churches realize that. Nobody likes to get fired, it hurts and sometimes it is necessary, but as I have seen firsthand God always has a plan.