Over the last few years I’ve been collecting stories of youth workers who have had terrible times in their job because the pastor didn’t know how to properly mediate between the worker and the church.
A year after starting in full-time youth ministry, I had my very own initiation to this issue. I had run my first very large holiday club and someone on the team had decided to create, distribute, and compile people’s feedback of the event. That was a good idea!
What this person actually did, however, was to take in the feedback forms, distill all the ‘good’ feedback into 4 very clipped bullet points, then proceed to berate me across several full pages of prose. It was clearly their own perspective, rather than a compilation of feedback. It was also deeply personal, it was heavily exaggerated, and frankly it was legally slanderous.
To make matters worse, they circulated their heavily biased report to forty members of the church leadership and holiday club team. This included several young teenage helpers.
It wasn’t sent to me. Instead, I found out about it when three young people came to me incredibly upset, saying they never wanted to serve in that church again. They didn’t just disagree with the feedback, they were shocked that a Christian could speak so ungracefully about another person.
As a 21-year-old youth worker, I was totally broken. I took this to my two Senior Pastors who were equally shocked and dismayed. They went through the tirade with me point-by-point, to see whether there were actually some genuine areas that needed to be improved upon. Mostly it simply came down to producing earlier communication, and trying to print T-shirt logos straighter.
What didn’t happen, however, was any conversation with the person that compiled the feedback. They were not challenged or rebuked. They were not asked to produce the original forms. There not held accountable to what they wrote, and no further communication happened with the forty recipients of the report.
I was left very confused and totally vulnerable.
Not only did I feel abandoned, but the lack of response gave the person who made the report free license to continue to make my life difficult in the following years. They served in a position on the church council, and continually destabilised my work personally. They were individually responsible for the cancellation of some projects, they started to pool people into a gossip group against me, and they regularly sent me rude, upsetting emails.
This was ten years ago now, but it still smarts. There’s no closure and nothing that can be done about it now. It needed a firm, and properly directed response from the person charged with my care. But to maintain decorum, and out of fear, I was left without the protection of a Pastor.
This comes up now because I’ve just heard three more stories from great youth workers who have lost health, security, and jobs because the Pastor failed in one of their most basic tasks.
I know you have a very difficult job, but get your priorities straight. Your first task is to be responsible for those under your immediate care. That’s your family, and then your team. Youth Workers have it hard. They are often young, inexperienced, with new families, and thin skin. Don’t train them to defend themselves from a congregation that they need to integrate within.
Sometimes, Mr Pastor, you have to be the bad cop, and take very special care of those charged with looking after the most vulnerable members of your congregation.
Let’s get this one right.