Signs that you should back away from a church’s youth ministry position

Churches ripping off kids and youth pastorsIt’s really starting to anger me to hear so many stories from youth pastors about how their unhealthy, sick and twisted churches beat them until they drop out of ministry. Way too many churches have no business hiring a youth director. Seriously! They have ridiculous expectations with full-time salary packages that rival part-time pay at McDonalds. It’s no wonder their youth workers leave the ministry: they’re overworked and undervalued at church, financially stressed at home, and trying to maintain a healthy personal life that’s not manipulated and sabotaged by “ministry responsibilities.”

Granted, some of the issues are self-inflicted because the youth worker accepted the position in the first place, which probably means one of three things:

1. The youth worker didn’t do their homework about the church before accepting the position and was thus naively blindsided.
2. The youth worker saw the warning signs, but was impatient for a job and brushed off the yellow flags.
3. The church’s leadership changed since the youth worker first accepted the position and now they’re in a situation that could not have been foreseen.

In case you’re in the first category, here are some warning signs to know if you’re interviewing with an unhealthy church. Hearing any of these statements from a church be should reason for caution and further investigation.

Thanks to the other trusted youth workers who collaboratively helped me write this on Google Wave last week! The following list is a joint effort of me, Adam McLane, Ryan Nielson, Chris Day, Mike Kupferer, Adam Lehman, Roy Probus, and Brian Senecal. Thanks, guys!

1. Yeah, we have our vision statement written down somewhere. Hold on, let us find it and we’ll get back to you.
Translation: We’re not really sure what our vision is because it’s just something that’s written on a paper. The real vision that we actually function by is mostly unspoken rules, so we use the generic and poorly defined, “Love God, love people,” or “To make disciples” kind of jargon. (Hint: See chapter 4 in the book, “It: How churches and leaders can get it and keep it,” by Craig Groeschel.)

2. We don’t have a job description for the youth pastor.
Translation: We don’t really want to define what your role is here because we’re not really sure what we want you to do except for keep us happy. We like to have the freedom to keep you guessing as you default to a performance/numbers driven ministry.

3. We are a very friendly, loving church.
Translation: Our church is a very close(d) group of friends. (Hint: C’mon, not every church can be as loving as they say they are.)

4. You’ll have total freedom and support to build the youth ministry that you envision.
Translation: We would really like you to feel that way because we want to make a good first impression on you, but you’ll really only have freedom and support if we decide we like what you’re doing.

5. The salary might not look good on paper, but there are many other benefits to this job than money.
Translation: We’ll expect full-time hours from a slightly inflated part-time salary because you’re working for God, not for man, and your reward will be in heaven. Since this is your holy calling, you can’t say no, so we feel like we can get by cheap and thereby put undue financial strain on your family.

6. Will your wife lead a small group of girls?
Translation: We’re looking for a youth pastor whose wife will serve just as diligently as the paid guy. We want two for the price of one. (Hint: Make it clear from the very beginning that the church is hiring you, not your spouse. If he/she serves in the youth ministry, it’s with the same expectations and as any other church member.)

7. The position is part-time right now, but it will be full-time soon.
Translation: We can’t afford a full time guy nor do we yet see the need for 40 hours a week, but if we hire you and you bring in lots of new tithers, maybe we could do it then. (Hint: This never happens.)

8. From sr. pastor, “I don’t want to micromanage you – I just want you to do your job.”
Translation: I’m not really sure what your job is nor a vision of what it should look like. (Hint: Although many pastors say this with good intentions, you should still talk about it with other staff members confidentially.)

9. Are you an outreach guy or a discipleship guy?
Translation: Our last guy was too heavy in one area and we want to swing the pendulum back too far the other direction so we can complain about how the previous guy was better at it than you. (Hint: Biblically, you cannot separate evangelism and discipleship. Evangelism is the first step of becoming a disciple and witnessing should be an ongoing practice for any growing believer. The two go hand-in-hand. You cannot have one without the other.)

10. How do you address the teen drop-out rate from church?
Translation: Bad youth ministry is the reason teens are dropping out from church and we want to make sure you fix these kids so parents don’t have to deal with their spirituality at home.

11. We need a decision quickly.
Translation: We’re feeling pressure to get someone on board fast because, frankly, our youth ministry isn’t strong enough to survive on its own. Families might leave the church if we don’t get a youth pastor fast. If God is really calling you somewhere, we don’t need you to pray about it for too long, even though that probably tells you a lot about our church’s leadership.

12. Our old youth pastor this… Our old youth pastor that… How would you handle _____ because he handled it _____ way?
Translation: Since we’re willing to compare you to the old guy face-to-face, that means we’ll be willing to do the same behind your back. And since we’re publicly negative about him, we’ll probably handle you the same way. (Hint: It’s always a good idea to ask for the contact info of the previous youth pastor and talk to him or her. If the church isn’t willing to provide that contact for you, quickly check them off your list.)

13. We’ve had three bad youth pastors over the past three years.
Translation: Sure, you’ll get a “bad apple” youth pastor once in a while, but I’ll tell you how bad they really were because I don’t want it to be too obvious that the problem was really with the sr. pastor and church’s leadership doing a poor job of guiding and caring for our youth workers. The bad pattern must be with the youth workers we’ve hired, not with us.

14. We will interview you first, and if we have time you can ask us two or three questions.
Translation: It’s more important that we get to know all about you than it is for you to get to know all about us. You’re in the hot seat here, not us.

15. From sr. pastor, “This is my church. I run my church. Welcome to my church.” And other repeated usage of the phrase, “my church.”
Translation: I have a distorted view of ecclesiology and am assuming way too much control and power over this congregation. I will function more like a dictator than a ministry partner because my personal identity is wrapped up in this congregation.

16. What was your salary at your previous jobs?
Translation: “How little can you live on? If you’re used to working with cheap churches, we’ll be happy to follow suit.” (Hint: Your question to them should be, “Since you live here, how much do you live on?” Check what the local school district salary range is for a teacher with your level of experience and expect the church’s salary package to be competitive.)

What else?
We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas of other common yellow flag phrases and translations one might hear when interviewing for a youth ministry position. Continue this list by posting them in the comments below. Thanks!

[ UPDATE: ] If you or your church are struggling with job expectations, vision, what a youth ministry should look like, how it should function, and more, you definitely need to read, “Inside the Mind of Youth Pastors: A church leaders guide to staffing and leading youth pastors,” by Mark Riddle. It’s written for sr. pastors and has discussion questions after each chapter, so it’s perfect for sparking dialog with your church’s leadership about your position. It’s also a must-read for search committees before they hire someone.

YouthWorker MagazinePlease help support the youth ministry mentorship, the Online Missions Trip, and by subscribing to YouthWorker Journal. Get your FREE no-risk trial issue of YouthWorker Journal today, the best in youth ministry resources!

Posted on October 20, 2009

New eBookGo
Focused Youth Ministry ebook

85% off!

Focused Youth Ministry

This practical "how to" ebook will walk you through a 30-step process to discovering God's vision for your unique ministry context. The process also shows you how to implement that vision and put metrics in place to evaluate what is moving the vision forward and what isn't.

Price: $12.95 Limited time: $1.99