Hi, My Name is Derrick, And I Just Got Fired
group magazine: May-June, 2011
“All of us who serve in youth ministry know it’s a profound blessing to serve the Lord by serving teenagers and their families. But we also know that, sometimes, a blessing can feel like a curse. That’s my story. And while my family perseveres through the curse-that-was-a-blessing, I’m waiting for the blessing to resurface…”
by Derrick Houston*
Four years ago I moved my family across the country to take a youth ministry position at a church. People we knew and respected had given the church a high recommendation, and a couple of face-to-face visits confirmed what we were feeling: This church looked to be a great place to serve! I was about to step in as the church’s third youth pastor in two years—in retrospect, that probably should’ve raised a red flag. But all of the reasons why the two previous youth pastors left seemed valid, so we weren’t concerned. Besides, they’d just finished a big building project about a year prior to our arrival and the church felt like it was buzzing with life!
For four years we tasted the blessing. The ministry experienced tremendous growth, both numerically and spiritually. Every year we had teenagers graduate and head to Bible college for youth ministry training, and we regularly saw many students move from a place of spiritual apathy to a life of spiritual passion. My favorite “symptom” was that our students were slowly moving from a church-consumer mind-set to a servant mind-set.
Last March my annual review by my senior pastor confirmed what I was feeling: “You’re doing a great job! We love everything that’s happening. Keep up the great work!” And so I did.
REFLECTIONS ON A TERMINATION
We asked Mark DeVries, founder of the consulting firm Youth Ministry Architects, co-author of The Indispensable Youth Pastor, and longtime columnist for GROUP, to read and react to Derrick’s story throughout.
I read just the beginning of Derrick’s article with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Sadly, we’ve heard the story way too many times already. Of course, the characters and details may change, but the storyline stays the same: A youth worker (or others in ministry, including senior pastors) is driven to his knees—and out the door—by the powerful, toxic dynamics that seemed to have come out of nowhere.
Scott Peck’s stinging words give a little context to the principalities-and-powers reality that most of us seem to forget as we step into our ministries: “Since the primary motive of evil is disguise, one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church” (The People of the Lie).
So if Derrick and I were to sit across the table from each other, I would share his outrage, his sheer disappointment, and try out the ancient spiritual practice of lament. To jump to advice-giving would be unfair and ill-informed. If later he asked, then—and only then—I would try to give a little input on how he might best prepare for his next ministry, how he might use his brokenness to make his trust in Christ more resonant and less bitter, and how he might leverage his experience into deeper compassion, grace, and wisdom.
If and when Derrick seeks to return to the world of ministry—and I sure hope he does—my dream is that he would be more prepared for the toxic insanity that can rear its ugly head in churches.
A CREEPING SHADOW
Previous to my annual review, I’d already sensed that the church was wandering a little—the building campaign that was completed before we arrived had effectively driven the vision of the church, and its impact was wearing off. And that made perfect sense: A massive construction project is a tangible focus for the staff and congregation, generating lots of feelings of excitement and accomplishment. But as people got used to the new building, the “vision void” surfaced. We defaulted to the rut of just doing church, sustaining ministries with no true evaluation or real direction.
When attendance and giving are higher than ever, it’s easy for church leaders to be blind to cracks in the foundation, to unhealthy patterns working like a cancer beneath the skin. But when momentum stalls, anxiety skyrockets, and we can often find ourselves as the target of floating anxiety. It’s at this point that trust is either built or lost.
But it’s often the place where we join the hand-wringers around us and can easily become receptacles for other’ gripes about the church. I have fallen into this trap more often than I care to admit. Someone says, “You got a minute?” The door is closed and I’m flattered that someone wants to confide in me their true feelings about the church.
When this happens, we must run, not walk. Nothing good can come from the staff gathering to share their laments about the church’s lack of vision. The most important thing you can do during this season is to let your senior pastor know that you’ve got his back, and steadfastly refuse to entertain (or invite!) any negative conversations about the church. If you need to process your own anxiety, by all means find a spiritual director or counselor, but don’t be trapped into multiplying negativity by being a part of any destructive conversations about the church’s leadership.
Once-committed families were leaving the church on a regular basis. The positive, energetic atmosphere that was present when my wife and I moved to the church was gone. An atmosphere of criticism and anxiety crept into the congregation. We became inward-focused and, in an effort to “fix our issues,” the finger-pointing began. Those who retained the most power got to decide where blame was placed, and their “solutions” won the day.
It was an emotionally charged environment—in a 12-month span three-quarters of our church staff had resigned or been fired. It felt like a dangerous place to be. And the church’s vision-confusion only compounded these problems for me—earlier we’d hired a consultant to help us address our issues, and a few of us vision-driven staffers realized how stifled and frustrated we’d been feeling.
Here are a few questions to ask in a situation like this:
1. If my pastor could overhear every conversation I had with fellow staff people or confidants in that church family, would he trust me more or less?
2. Knowing this is a highly anxious environment in which trust is diminishing, what am I doing this week to build trust with my senior pastor and with other senior leaders in the church?
3. Am I prepared to give 100 percent public support to my pastor and the senior leadership of the church as long as I am on staff?
4. Is the situation toxic enough for me and/or my family that faithful stewardship of the ministry God has given me/us requires that I/we seek another ministry?
During one meeting with the consultant, the “big picture” people were supposed to sit together for a demonstration—my senior pastor was not at that table. But soon all of the people who were at my table, except for me, were out the door. So I did my best to stay out of the politics and just serve the youth ministry the best way I knew how.
I like your intent here: Continue to “deliver the goods” in the youth ministry. That’s certainly the first step. But just having a thriving youth ministry is not enough to protect you from the crushing weight of the political millstone that is rolling in your direction. “Staying out of politics” seldom helps our cause. It may, in fact, make us more vulnerable. We can ignore church politics, but we usually do so to our peril. I remember reading something from the Wall Street Journal years ago that said something like this: “In research on people who were fired from companies for ‘political’ reasons, deeper digging revealed that what was meant by ‘politics’ was really a breakdown of relationships.”
If we’re going to thrive long-term in ministries that periodically experience turbulence (and don’t they all!), we can’t afford to ignore key relationships, what some people call “politics.” Here are a few “polite” (this word shows up mighty close to politics in the dictionary) things a youth worker might do to be an effective “politician” in a dicey political hotbed:
• You might celebrate publically the ways that the church’s vision has yielded fruit in students’ lives. Tell enthusiastic, non-anxious, nothing-to-prove, grateful stories about kids’ experiences at camp and kids taking stands for Christ. And point to ways that the church’s investment in youth ministry has made this possible.
• Assure your pastor and your senior leadership that you are on their team and ask directly for their coaching.
• Refuse to engage in behind-closed-doors prayer meetings against (I mean, about) the senior leadership.
• Make sure your face communicates your support of the senior pastor and the church’s senior leadership. Your unintentional scowl or frown at staff meeting has a way of communicating that you are not on the team.
• When coaching or criticism is given, avoid defensiveness (working on managing your own anxiety more than proving your supervisors wrong) and leave the meeting with a clear game plan about what you are planning to do differently.
THE FIRST SHOE DROPS
One day last August I was called into a surprise meeting with my senior pastor, our new church administrator (because the former one had “resigned” weeks before), and three members of our church board. Over the next 30 minutes they marched through a list of concerns they had about the youth ministry, none of which I’d heard of before. They ended the meeting ominously: “Tomorrow we’ll meet again at the same time to determine if this relationship can continue or not.”
I was shocked and confused. How could we go from “You’re doing a great job—keep it up!” to possible termination in just a couple of months? The list of concerns seemed put together in a rush—they were poorly researched and none of them had been brought to my attention before. Every issue laid at my feet felt like a lame excuse to find something wrong with the youth ministry. I remember thinking, over and over, “Are you kidding me?”
We’ve seen it enough that it’s almost “normal”: Senior leaders in a church lose trust in the youth pastor, and they create a list of grievances to justify a decision to end the relationship. Usually these grievances have only minimal connection to reality. Don’t be confused: The message here is about trust more than about not fulfilling the requirements of the job description.
Of course, the first thing we want to do is to justify and explain “what really happened.” But when we realize that the real issue is trust, a more helpful question might be, “How can I regain the trust and confidence of the senior leadership?”
As soon as the meeting was over, I immediately called two people I trust: a senior pastor at a church in another part of the country and a consultant who works with churches and youth ministries across the country. I asked both of them, “What the heck just happened?” I spent most of the morning talking with these two men—later, they both mentored me through the painful journey I was about to take.
In the follow-up board meeting the next day, I systematically addressed each concern. But one issue led to another—soon the issues were piling up like dirt on my grave. The concerns they presented were clearly not at the root of their problems with me. I’m sure their hearts were in the right place—they were only doing what they felt was in the best interest of the church and the youth ministry. But it was clearly a no-win situation for me.
The first issue they put on the table: “You don’t have enough relationships with your teenagers.” Well, we had 200 students active in our youth ministry and I felt like I had healthy relationships with a critical mass of them, but they expected more. When I pushed back by pointing out how impossible it would be to personally connect with every teenager in our ministry, my senior pastor countered by telling the story of his seminary friend who, (a few decades ago) connected with hundreds of teenagers every week. To clarify, I asked a few questions: “Do you know for a fact that he did this? Was he married? Did he have kids? Is it even healthy to spend that much time meeting with kids?” My questions were brushed off, and we moved on to other topics.
Next up was an assertion that I was a poor planner. When I asked for an example they described our recent junior high retreat which was, indeed, planned poorly. Our associate pastor had resigned, so I had to take over the church’s Mexico missions trip. Because of this huge new responsibility, I handed over the junior high retreat to our ministry’s paid administrative assistant.
When I followed-up on the retreat a few weeks before our registration deadline, the retreat information packet I’d handed the assistant was still sitting sealed on her desk. That meant we had to throw together a last-minute, rushed retreat. I took responsibility for the situation because the buck stopped with me, but when I asked the board if they believed poor planning was an ongoing problem with my performance, they said, “No, this was pretty much the only time.” I wanted to throw my hands in the air and ask, “Then why is this grounds for dismissal?”
Later in the conversation, I told this review team that church consultants recommend one full-time paid staffer for every 50-100 teenagers in a youth ministry, and that we were already well over twice that number with me in a solo role. But people were leaving our church, the budget was getting tight, and I knew they had no intention of hiring additional staff. But that very next week our church administrator pulled me into her office and said, “We hired a part-time high school coordinator—he starts tomorrow.” Crazy, crazy, crazy. I thought: “Well, okay, maybe this isn’t so bad. Maybe they’re really serious about putting resources where their expectations are.” But inside I knew they’d just hired my replacement.
THE OTHER SHOE DROPS
At the end of that second meeting the group decided to proceed with me as the youth pastor, but under strict supervision from my senior pastor and the church administrator. This meant that my pastor would give me directives each week, I would complete them, and then report back. It also meant that I would need to log all of my work hours—every email and every phone call, in detail. I did so gratefully, hoping it would help my church’s leaders to see exactly what goes in to running a youth ministry of this size. It was actually helpful for me, too, because I quickly realized I was working 50- to 60-hour weeks and needed to back off a little.
But tracking my hours ended up working against me, too. Although I consistently worked more than 40 hours a week, the three weeks after my son was born I only put in 35 hours a week. My senior pastor, church administrator and board told me that my short weeks were a “slap in the face,” especially when I knew that I was under strict supervision.
Derrick, I wonder what might have happened if, a month or so before your son was born, you’d had a conversation with your church administrator asking permission to work just 40-hours-a-week in the three weeks after your child was to be born. If your supervisors had said, “Absolutely not!” you would’ve known what the expectations were and could have easily found a few hours to get you to 40. If they’d okayed the request, you would have avoided “assuming” approval, which almost always gets us in trouble.
This is a great example of how avoiding “politics” (in this case up-front communication) can erode trust and damage key relationships necessary for us to do our jobs with freedom.
The “Are you kidding me?” moments continued for the next several months. Once I spent 20 minutes at Wal-Mart picking up supplies for our junior high meeting that evening. The church administrator pointed out: “Well, if you’d planned better you could’ve sent a volunteer to go pick up those items so we wouldn’t have to pay you to do it.”
One day I spent an hour on the phone with a parent.
Senior pastor: “It took you an hour to talk with the parent about small groups?”
Me: “Well, no. That part only took 10 minutes. The rest of the time the parent just wanted to talk.”
Church administrator: “Well, Derrick, you know there are ways to get off the phone with someone after 10 minutes when you’re finished with your conversation.”
This is where we would be wise to practice the advice given to C3PO: “I suggest you let the Wookie win.” Rather than arguing about whose philosophy of ministry is right (an argument we youth workers are almost certain to lose), we can save ourselves a lot of headache by taking the recommendations we receive and making the requested (actually commanded) changes.
If we’re ordered to do something unethical, it’s probably time for us to consider a new position in a different church. If, on the other hand, it’s a different philosophy of ministry, we can save ourselves (and our supervisors) a lot of pain just by working the directive we’ve been given without discussion.
The confrontations continued, and I was miserable. But I didn’t want to be the guy who quits just because things are tough. I wanted to push through it, hoping that it was just a hard season of ministry—the same thing we all have to endure from time to time. But it wasn’t long before my senior pastor and church administrator recommended that I start searching for a new job. They gave me paid time off to start looking. They also hinted that a resignation would be welcomed. But resigning would eliminate any chance for restoration, and it would simply mask the reality that I was being fired. If it came to that, so be it, but I wasn’t going to camouflage it. Finally, if I resigned I would be accountable for the decision; but if I refused to resign and got fired instead, the accountability would rest on the church’s leadership. I knew my reputation in our congregation and community was very positive, and if I was fired there’d be lots of good questions asked.
On a cold day in late November, I walked into my weekly report meeting with my senior pastor and church administrator, but this time our church chairman was present as well. My pastor said: “We’re sorry to tell you that today is your last day. You can choose to resign or be fired. Which do you prefer?” I went with the firing option and they said: “Okay. Today you’ll pack your office and turn in your keys and leave.”
We then talked about how we would handle questions from people in the congregation. I said I would direct anyone with questions about the grounds for my dismissal to my senior pastor so there would be no risk of misrepresenting the church leadership’s heart or intentions. That was received very favorably, so we went with that plan.
In that quick 15-minute meeting, I was given four weeks of severance and was told to stay away from the church.
Leaving was very difficult. I had no chance to say my goodbyes—no chance to wrap things up. I packed my office that evening, walked out the door, and was done with my ministry within a few hours. As hard as that night was for me, the weeks following were even more difficult. I consistently referred people with questions to my senior pastor. Not once did I share any information regarding the grounds of my dismissal with anyone connected to our church or community. But it was hard because the church was sweeping the whole thing under a rug. There was no announcement at church. The senior pastor showed up at youth group that week and said nothing about my departure.
This step was probably the most difficult you had to take in the whole process, and it was full of integrity. Not stepping into the mud but, instead, taking the high road was just right. Sending people back simply to hear the story from those who’d made the firing decision created a context for holy healing and prevented folks from creating a martyr cult around you (evil can hide in the church on both sides).
A week after my dismissal I got an email from my senior pastor asking me to stop referring people to him with questions. He said it was too draining. I wrote him back and said, as tactfully as I could: “That’s not my problem. It’s okay to have some accountability to the congregation.”
Perhaps the hardest part was hearing back from people at the church the list of reasons they were hearing for my dismissal—they were either complete lies or they were issues that I’d never heard about before. One of them didn’t have anything to do with me—somehow I’d been blamed because a few people had tithed to a missions trip instead of the church’s general budget.
Over and over again I had to remind myself that it’s more important to protect God’s reputation than it is to defend mine. People can think what they want about me. If my pastor wanted to share bogus reasons for my dismissal in order to avoid accountability, then so be it. I felt good that my integrity was still intact, though it did nothing to lessen the pain.
Right now I’m hesitantly searching for another church youth ministry position. To make ends meet, I’ve started a business and I’m working for myself. It’s a lot of fun, but I have no idea if it will work as a long-term plan, or if I even want it to in the first place.
When I think about the possibility of working in a church again, I’m not filled with excitement and anticipation. My wife and I feel so burned and so hurt that we’re not sure we’d ever want to put ourselves in that position again. It’s hard not to be cynical toward churches. In interviews they all say, “This is such a great place to serve!” Yeah, my former church is telling their new guy the same thing. I know it’s unfair to transfer negative experiences and expectations from one church to another, so I don’t know what we’ll do.
I’ve observed two kinds of senior leaders in churches: Broken, imperfect ones, and pathological ones. I have no way of knowing which kind of leaders you found yourself following in your church. If they are first kind, you are now equipped to imperfectly follow the next imperfect pastor God gives you. If the second kind, no amount of learning or strategy or coaching can protect you from the destructive, toxic power they yield. And you are a blessed man to be out of the radioactivity, even if not at your own choosing.
We’re just trying to heal and not become too jaded toward Christ’s bride. If he can love it, even when it killed him, then I can choose to love it, too—even when it’s difficult.
*Derrick is an assumed name for a longtime youth pastor who now lives in the Midwest.
WHAT I LEARNED IN THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH
Although I don’t really understand all the forces at work that eventually led to my termination, I do know that this experience has fueled a season of soul-searching in me. I’ve had many profound and insightful conversations about my ministry and myself with older, wiser friends that would not have happened otherwise. And through the input of these people, I’ve learned about Edwin Friedman’s theory of Differentiated Leadership—it exactly describes what happened in my church.
According to author Arthur Paul Boers (Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior, Alban Institute), differentiated leadership…
“…Is the ability to be a ‘self’ or an ‘I’ in the face of pressure by others or by systems to be part of, or blend into, the ‘we.’ To be differentiated is to know and act on one’s own mind, especially when our position is different from the group’s. It means to know one’s opinion, stand, or stance without imposing expectations or demands on others. It is the ability to state clearly and calmly our position without suggesting (with ‘must,’ ‘should,’ or ‘ought’ language) that others need to have the same position…
“Differentiated leaders realize that their primary and ultimate responsibility is taking charge of self and not changing, motivating, or shifting others. As the truism goes, ‘We cannot change others, only ourselves.’ This is far less debilitating and draining than focusing all one’s energies on getting others to do things right; one focuses on oneself, rather than on everyone else in the system.”
In Friedman’s theory, relational systems gravitate toward chronic, systemic anxiety created by reactions to disturbances in their system. Friedman’s five stages of chronic anxiety are:
3. Blame displacement
4. A quick-fix mentality
5. Lacking in well-differentiated leaders
I experience all five stages in my story. As a differentiated leader at my church whose emotions were not dependent on the system around me and as someone who was self-aware and staying out of the mess of the staff turnovers before me, I was able to live without the emotional anxiety that my senior pastor and church board were feeling. Because of that, Friedman says the anxious people in the system will triangulate the differentiated leader and sabotage him for doing exactly what he should be doing: being a stable, mature presence that disrupts the emotional system.
My takeaway is this: Of course we should always humbly evaluate our leadership in ministry and be open to correction, but sometimes the people around you will bite even when you’re doing exactly what you should be doing. In such cases, take it as a compliment. And, by the way, every church leader should Google “Friedman’s theory of differentiated leadership” to learn more, or read Friedman’s book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Seabury Books).
Derrick, I hope the church gets the benefit of having you back in leadership with kids again. As Julian of Norwich has said: “May your wounds become your womb and, in God’s outrageous economy, may you know Jesus more fully, serve his people for profoundly, and love with a the compassion of the One who asked forgiveness for those who wounded him the most.”
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