10 Things That'll Get You Fired
group magazine: March-April, 2003
Is your job secure? Here’s a surprising rundown of “sins” that’ll get you the hook.
by Len Evans
Here’s some breaking news: It’s no fun to get fired. Just ask a youth leader who’s been through it. After years in youth ministry, I’ve seen enough to know what it takes to get the hook. Avoid these mistakes, and you have a shot at enjoying a long ride at your current church.
1. Whiffing on the “no-brainer.”
The quickest way to get yourself fired is simple—don’t do the job the church hired you to do. The search committee (or church staffer) who created the job description for the position has a determined idea of what the church is looking for in a youth pastor.(1) So, the first thing you should ask when you interview for a position is, “Can I do the job as it’s described?” The second question you should ask is, “Do I want to do the job as it’s described?” If the answer is “yes” to both, then you’ve got a green light until the next intersection.
2. Playing fast-and-loose with your sexual boundaries.
Be fanatically above reproach with all things sexual. A youth pastor friend of mine told me he’d viewed online pornography a few times at work, so he decided to tell his senior pastor about it. As a result, the pastor had a Web site reporting service installed on all church computers. Then the two of them shared my friend’s story with the church. He then made a public confession and received forgiveness and restoration.
This extraordinary act birthed a ministry to other men who are addicted to online pornography. If my friend had tried to hide what he’d done, he might have been fired. Instead, God used an act of integrity to redeem a bad situation.
3. Chronically bucking your church’s theological non-negotiables.
You don’t have to outright rebel against your church’s theological sacred cows to get fired—all you have to do is repeatedly offer tepid support for them. This should be obvious, but too many youth workers who grew up evangelical wonder why they have a difficult time working in a mainline church, or vice versa. Unless you plant your own church, you won’t find a dream theological match. So know your theological non-negotiables, and know your church’s. Differences here can make a huge difference.(2)
4. Ignoring conflicting ministry philosophies.
Your theological imperatives will drive what you do in ministry, but your ministry philosophy will drive how you do it. So it’s crucial that you and your church agree on the how to’s of ministry. You and your church might both value evangelism, but if you don’t agree on how to do evangelism you’re sailing into a major storm. Also, if your church functionally defines “youth worker” as “events coordinator” but you see yourself as a pastor, you’d better spiff up your résumé because you’ll need it sooner than you expect.
5. Continually asking for forgiveness but never for permission.
Sure, that old saying “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” is a nice excuse the first few times you blow it, but if it becomes a habit, your new hobby might be looking up youth ministry openings on the Web. Learn the processes and procedures your church has set up and expects you to follow, then follow them.
6. Forgetting that perception is reality.
Whatever people think of you, good or bad, is real to them. Make sure they know the truth about you and your ministry, and make sure the truth about you and your ministry is good. If one person decides to believe something insidious about you or your ministry, then shares that belief with others as a “prayer request” or outright slander, you’ve got a battle to fight. And it’s amazing how battles can quickly get out of hand (if your name is Trent Lott, you understand this intimately).
You’ll eventually lose the war, so make sure that perception is the truth by confronting misperceptions and “making peace with your enemies” (Luke 14:31-32). When a perception problem springs up, head directly to your senior pastor’s office first so you can clear it up before it gets to him.
7. Getting “a little crazy” a little too often.
When you were in college, it was fun to do crazy things in your car—but the fun stops when it involves your teenagers. My students still tell stories about a former volunteer who thought it was cool to drive on the grass to avoid the long line of cars stacked up on the off-ramp to Six Flags.
That same volunteer once drove a group of us home from a Yankees game in the church van. After he forcefully nudged his way into traffic, two guys jumped out of their car and banged on our windows, looking for a fight. They were probably drunk, it was New York City, and it was after the Red Sox beat the Yankees, but it wouldn’t have happened if he’d made wiser choices as a driver. Always be safe, and always be wise.
8. Marginalizing powerful parents.
When Powerful Parents Attack—it could be a show on Fox, but it’s not entertaining when it happens to you. Your Church magazine ran a series about forced exits a few years ago. They found that it takes only 3 to 4 percent of a congregation to spark a staff member’s firing. Know who the “power parents” in your church are, and do your best to make sure they’re on your side. Don’t succumb to pressure or let them bully you, but bend to their desires when it’s a neutral preference issue, not a core principle.
9. Pushing your church’s cultural and moral boundaries.
You must understand your church culture. I know a Texas church that hosts an annual Men’s Poker Smoker. It’s an outreach event planned by men in the church. Each one, including the pastor, brings a six pack of beer, some cigars, and 200 poker chips to the event. I know another youth worker who was fired because he drank a beer or two with some friends one night. Another friend who heads a large youth ministry network told me she knows of youth workers who pushed the boundaries by getting drunk, going out to clubs, doing drugs, and viewing porn. Know your church’s behavior standards and honor them.
10. Pushing the envelope until it rips.
For good or bad, youth workers have a reputation for pushing the envelope. And that can be a very good thing in the right situation. But if all you do is push the envelope, people will quickly tire of your act. Mark Twain wrote, “The only person who likes change is a wet baby.” Implement changes selectively and infrequently. Know exactly why you’re planning to push people out of their comfort zone, and count the cost before you do. Youth leaders who feel as though they’re not doing their job unless they’re changing something will soon find themselves...not doing their job.
Len Evans is a longtime youth minister in Connecticut. He teaches a youth workers’ seminar titled “Reality Bites and Some Churches Have Fangs.” You can reach him at SnaveNel@aol.com.
10 Things That'll Make You Indispensable
“Indispensable youth worker” sounds like an oxymoron. None of us are truly indispensable. But there are many things you can do to make your position and ministry more secure. These ideas are principles, not promises. (And one more proviso: What makes you indispensable in one church might get you fired in another.)
1. Push the envelope until it bends.
Your value will shoot up if you do things that help your church grow and stretch in ways the people appreciate. Timing is everything. Establish yourself before you change too much. You’re ready to introduce significant change when parents, volunteers, and teenagers respect you for who you are, not because of your position. In other words, make sure you have “change in your pocket” before you change too much.
2. Process paper promptly.
Youth workers are stereotyped as disorganized and unreliable. You can quickly crush that myth. If your church requires balance sheets, event evaluations, and other paperwork, make sure you fill out the right forms and turn them in on time (a good rule of thumb is that all your paperwork is in within one week after an event).
3. Handle money well.
If you can, avoid handling money in your ministry by assigning that task to a capable volunteer. Money mismanagement is one of the top reasons youth leaders fall. If you can’t train someone to handle the money, then set your own standards for taking care of it. Mike Work, Diane Elliot, and Ginny Olson, authors of Youth Ministry Management Tools (Youth Specialties), recommend using a “checks only” policy for all your events. If you do this, money is easier to track and blunts the possibility that others will wonder how you’re handling the cash.
4. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
Don’t fight the system. Honor the systems that are in place. If you want to change the system and help improve it, you have to work within it first.
5. Be above reproach.
In everything, take the high road. Don’t give people a reason to think anything less than the best of your character. When it comes down to it, character is all you have in ministry, so guard it carefully. Not many of us should presume to be teachers in the church because we’ll be judged by a higher standard, now and later (James 3:1).
6. Pay attention to doctrine.
Read more books about theology than about leadership, Christian living, or youth ministry. Theology is the foundation of all you do in ministry and in life. If you learn to teach theology clearly and relevantly, you’ll be valued as a rare commodity.
7. Pay attention to results.
Determine your standard of success, based on a combination of your calling and the church’s mission, then excel according to those standards.(3) Set goals and meet them. Life change in students is the strongest indicator that you’re indispensable. When parents and others see a real change in their young people, they’ll deeply value what you do. Work hard, but pray harder.
8. Value your church team, and contribute to its success.
A youth minister who’s a team player knows where youth ministry fits in the bigger picture of the church’s ministry. An “island mentality” won’t cut it—your ministry must be integrated into the church’s broader mission. Remain loyal, both in front of everyone and behind closed doors, toward the church and its leadership.
9. Contribute beyond youth ministry, but don’t lose your focus on youth ministry.
Strive to be a “lifer” in youth ministry, but become valuable beyond youth ministry. If your church will allow you, help out in other areas of the church when you can (preaching, adult small groups, a guest speaker for other church groups, and so on). A strong church makes for a stronger youth ministry.
10. Love Jesus.
People who love Jesus with all their heart are attractive—others who love Jesus want to keep them around.
1. The written job description and the church’s expectations for the job don’t always overlap, as you already know. In your interview process, ask to speak to one of the long-time volunteer leaders or a parent. Ask that person about actual job expectations and hidden responsibilities. Ask what the church liked about the last youth pastor, and what it didn’t like. You’re looking for clues to the real job—insights that will give you a basis for clarifying the job with your interviewers.
2. You know how marriage counselors always say you’re marrying your future spouse’s family, too? The same principle holds true when you move toward “marriage” with a new church. You may be enamored with the church in spite of its broader denominational or theological connections, but those connections will come back to haunt you if you’re not honest about your differences.
3. For a great primer on determining your standards of success, see the first in a three-part series in this issue, “Assessing Your Success,” starting on page 42.