Now, this post is not about why churches let youth pastors go or what the struggle is in churches - there's a chapter about that in my book, Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World. But what I do want to talk about, or rather, who I really want speak to today are three groups: the fired youth worker, the newly hired youth worker who is replacing them, and those of us who are seeing this from the sidelines.
Now for those of us who have never been in this position or maybe you've never even seen it, let me explain. First, there are always two sides to every story. I remember when I was let go from a church a number of years ago and I have to tell you, it was extremely painful. Right after being asked to seek employment elsewhere, I flew out to San Diego for a round table meeting of leading youth worker voices. I felt fortunate to just be there in that room. But they asked me to share what had happened, so I did. As I told the story, I cried... I really wept. As I told my story, these amazing leaders in youth ministry were crying right along with me. That's called empathy, not sympathy. But after I shared, the leader of this organization spoke up and said, "Brock, we know that there are two sides to every story, but we want you to know that we don't give a _ _ _ _ about the other side. We're with you!"
Those might have been the most beautiful words I had ever heard up to that point.
But remember, there are always two sides to every story. If you are a newly hired person or if you are a church member whose youth pastor recently got let go, there are always two sides, but you're only going to hear one of them. Why? Because that youth pastor is probably just going to quietly leave, not really saying much because their church will make them sign a contract stipulating that they cannot speak a word. If that youth worker does talk (and they really shouldn't spout negativity to people in the congregation), then their severance pay will be cut off and they will be threatened by a lawyer. How do I know? Because when I told that round table my story, somehow my church found out. And they stopped my severance pay which put my family in jeopardy. Then they had their lawyer send me a VERY scary letter. That lawyer even showed up at an event I was speaking at to push home their message.
I walked away from that church extremely hurt (of course), but I also walked away very bitter, full of anger and unforgiveness. And that bitterness and unforgiveness nearly killed me. So I want this post to help all of us. As you process this please remember, we are never as awful or as awesome as people say, nor is anyone else. Most of the time, if you're replacing someone, please take what you hear with a grain of salt - both good and bad.
Let me just dedicate the rest of this post to help those youth workers who've been let go in a unjust or difficult way.
Here we go.
1. Keep a warm heart towards those who hurt you
For some of us this is a tall order, but it will rescue you. I walked away from a church full of anger and it began to affect everything. It impacted my next job, it impacted my relationship with my wife and daughter, and I became an angry dude. My wife eventually forced me to go get counseling, but the damage had been done. It took another 3 years before I could let go and forgive. And when I forgave, miraculously my heart became warm towards those who hurt me. See, this is a spiritual thing. Jesus wasn't joking when he told us to love each other - and when he said that the world will know this is true by how you love each other, he meant it. I had stopped loving. But when I finally softened my heart, the Holy Spirit empowered me and helped me to forgive. I just wish I would have done that from the get go. It would have saved me a whole lot of misery.
2. Don't read into the silence
A lot of times, and I would even say most of the time, when you leave a church, people tend to go silent on you. I've even seen friends and family members get asked to step down at churches and then they weren't allowed to say goodbye to the students or even get invited back to a staff gathering to say goodbye. It's very strange, but it's all about control. And the immediate severing of relationship creates a real awkwardness, and because of that, many don't reach out. But even when someone does leave a church and gets to properly say their goodbyes, many times the phone still doesn't ring. And when people go silent, the enemy will possibly use that to torture your thoughts. You'll be fine one minute and then all of a sudden your mind will start racing - thinking the worst, thinking people are saying or thinking bad things... This is called paranoia and it can come naturally in situations like this. If you haven't gone through it, you may think I'm nuts - but the enemy sees a vulnerable person and pounces. If you've been asked to step down you are probably already suffering from stress and anxiety, so find a counselor and spill your guts. Besides, people will believe what they want to believe, truth or not. And, in my case, I found that it really was mostly just in my mind. People love you, but they're busy and they don't know to reach out or they think they should give you space. Try not to read into the silence.
3. Pray. Without ceasing
This one will actually help you accomplish point #1 as well. Pray for those who have hurt you, pray for those who are staying silent, pray for the students, pray for your family... pray. Know that this is a prime time for the enemy to attack you, not just with bitterness, but also with all sorts of temptations. When stress and anxiety comes, we are vulnerable to attack. So pray. We have made that a habit and priority in our home and take prayer walks almost nightly. This has been an amazing and freeing and peace giving exercise.
4. Get counseling
I know, you think you're fine, but you're not. Trust me. Some of you have sworn off ever working in a church again. Some of you feel like you've lost your calling to students or maybe you feel like you might never even have been called to begin with. Some of you are just numb. Some, feel like complete failures. Go get help. I waited two years before I got help. Stress and anxiety can rip a hole in your marriage, in your friendships, and cause confusion in the minds of your children. Please get help.
5. Remember, you are replaceable in that church, but not in your family and friendships
Use this time to dream together, to play together, and to seek God together. Focus on being an awesome spouse, parent, brother, sister, and friend. Students may end up having more than one youth worker, but for your family and friends, you are the only you. Your kids will only have one mother or one father.
6. Let Yourself Grieve
No one died, but grief is real. I have watched myself and loved ones who have encountered trauma, stuff it down and act tough. Unable to cry and unable to deal with daily stressors. I have ignored the pain and the natural fall out for myself and my family and acted like I was above it. Don't read a book on doing ministry better, read one on how to deal with loss and trauma.
7. Exercise and Eat Right
Sounds like that's not connected? You are a whole person and you must respond holistically. Get the endorphins flowing! This is not the time to watch Netflix and eat Doritos (well, maybe a little). Put together a routine and try and sweat everyday. You'll thank me for it.
This is a perfect time to to reevaluate everything. There are things you probably could have done differently/better and maybe there are things that you just need to let go of. Decide to be a perpetual student. But not too quickly, because you have to do the work of grieving and getting help. So be patient and kind to yourself, but learn from this.
Go become the greatest version of you.
9. Don't give up on the Church
We are a messy, rag tag bunch, but we are God's picture of what his kingdom is supposed to look like. That means that we fight to stay warm and in love with his people. Don't swear off church, don't bail - instead, do the opposite. On the show Seinfeld, George found the secret - he realized that he needed to start doing the opposite of everything that he naturally would do. If he was afraid to go up and talk to a girl, instead of sitting there and saying nothing and regretting it all day, he decided to do the opposite and go up and talk with her. Of course hilarity ensues, but there's some truth for us. Right now your first inclination is to pull away from the church because of the hurt. You can't trust that in yourself. Do the opposite. I know, easier said than done and there's nothing wrong with a bit of a break. But love is easy when things are easy. When difficulty comes, that's when love can really be a beautiful picture. I have given my life to the church. I was a pastor's kid and trust me, pastor's kids do give their lives to the church - whether they want to or not. And I have served the church my whole adult life. Has there been hurt, difficulty, and struggle? You bet. But I have fought to stay in there and I am better for it. And hopefully, so is the Church.
10. Set the next person up well
Put your ego aside and offer encouragement and help. They may not take you up on it, but if they do, then speak highly of the church and help set them up for success. If you can, and if you have access, help prepare the volunteers, the leaders, the parents, and the students to welcome in the next person. Be an advocate for them. You don't want your hard work going down the drain because students refuse to open their hearts up to the next person. Try your best to launch them into a great season of ministry.
But my prayer is that we, as the church, get better at this stuff. If you're reading this and maybe you are on the sidelines watching something like this unfold, reach out to that youth worker. Tell them you love them and that you're grateful for their friendship and for their ministry. If you're heading into a new position, speak highly of the previous person. Reach out to them and thank them. Don't believe all of the hype that might color your perspective of that person. Lets love and live well.
I'd love to hear from you and if you haven't subscribed to the blog, then go ahead and lets take our relationship to the next level :)