Close the Door; Don’t Slam It

businessman in blue room with doors open

You will lose your job.  Everyone does.  Some get fired. Others resign. Eventually you will lose your job by retiring. Therefore, transitioning out of a job becomes important.

But, what if you are the one providing the “opportunity for transition?” There are horror stories of people arriving for work one morning only to find out they have been laid off. Armed security watches these ex-employees as they clean out their desks into cardboard boxes. Should such harsh human resource practices be used with church employees? Some churches have answered “yes” when it comes to their youth minister.

In the name of “good business” youth ministers are sometimes asked to resign without saying, “goodbye,” to the young people to whom they were charged to develop relationships.  They are ushered out quickly without an explanation, often times to the detriment of the young people they have been serving.

Let me first offer a disclaimer. If a youth minister has done something illegal, unethical or immoral to the extent to get him or her fired from the position, then that person has lost the privilege of saying, “goodbye.” It is an easy explanation to the young people as to why that person isn’t allowed back in their lives. There is certainly a mess to clean up and broken relationships to mend. But, in these horrible instances there is direction and, more importantly closure that makes sense.

 

DON’T DO THIS

So, if a youth minister hasn’t broken the law, a moral or ethical code, then what are we talking about? I have observed this scenario way too many times. Here is how it happens.

Time for a Change

I tell youth ministers all the time, “You get hired for who you are.  And you get fired for who you’re not.” This most often happens in the 12-18 month window after the youth minister is hired. Read more about that here. Staff and parents realize the youth minister isn’t living up to expectations. Instead of working on some compensation strategies, skill training or a realignment of expectations, staff and parents keep a running record of all the mistakes.  Instead of dealing with each issue individually, the record is cumulative, resulting usually in the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s (or, in this case, youth minister’s) back.  At 18 months the church is looking for a new person to take the job for the next 12-18 months.

There is a List

Early in the 12-18 month window “The List” is given.  I wrote about The List a few years ago.  The List contains the tasks which need to be completed by the youth minister. The List always has a deadline.  The deadline is often days before a critical staffing meeting. The List usually means the youth minister is about to get fired.

The Decision

If The List isn’t completed, then it is an easy decision for the church to ask for the resignation of the youth minister.  If everything on The List is completed by the youth minister then it makes for an interesting game of chicken. Rarely do churches recommit to their youth minister after the successful completion of The List. But, in these unusual instances I have seen an entire church make a dramatic positive shift. Unfortunately, it isn’t often about the tasks on The List. The church (clergy, staff or parents) just doesn’t like the youth minister.  Usually (almost always) the kids do.

The Transition Process

At this point the church asks for the resignation of the youth minister, negotiating a severance package where the youth minister is paid for several weeks after resigning. Part of the severance agreement includes clauses that preclude the youth minister from speaking about his or her dismissal and permanently and immediately cuts off contact with the young people. If the youth minister were to break the agreement, he or she would leave needed money for personal living expenses on the table.

Youth ministers who are dismissed in this way are left to field endless text messages from youth about what happened.  They are forced to lie one text message at a time.  Of course they tell young people they chose to resign (kind of not a lie, right) and that everything will be okay.  If they told the whole truth (I was asked to resign and was told to stay away from you) they would risk not being able to eat or pay their rent. The church also isn’t offering the whole truth. Why would they? It would make them look bad.

The real victims are the young people in the youth group. From their perspective they have been abandoned by someone who recently communicated interest and love for them. Their intuition tells them there is more to the story. Instead of being given more information, they are left confused. Often youth are given an announcement and asked to move forward. There isn’t an opportunity to express feelings in these scenarios. Communicating grief or thankfulness to the youth minister is not allowed.  There is no closure, only raw feelings of hurt and abandonment.

This year I have experienced three youth ministers (with whom I am close) let go in this manner. In each instance the church plays into the role of abandoning young people and the young adults who serve them. These churches caused broken relationships and did little to heal them.

 

A BETTER WAY

There is a better way. Fortunately, I have seen other churches do a more than admirable job of transitioning employees. It still hurts. Yet, there is closure, respect and space to grieve. Here is how it can work.

Time for a Change

In healthy churches where an employee isn’t meeting expectations the church works way beyond the 12-18 month window (usually 3-4 years) developing the right relationship and culture.  The church acknowledges that every employee is not good at everything. Training is offered. Compensation strategies are considered and tried. The church is patient and sees itself as helping others, even staff members, to grow into who God created them to be.

There is a List

There is a different list, one that directs the ministry. The deadline on the list doesn’t coincide with some ultimate staffing meeting. In fact, there are many deadlines, one for each task on the list, spread out over a reasonable amount of time. The list isn’t just for the youth minister. Other people have tasks on the list, too. The entire ministry, not just one person, is evaluated by this list.

The Decision

At some point the church may determine the youth minister is not meeting expectations on a consistent basis. Or the church may need other skill sets. Or the church experienced a change in clergy leadership and the youth minister no longer fits the dynamics of the staff. All of these contribute to a well thought out decision about the direction of the ministry, often times occurring over the course of a year or longer. In these situations the church strategizes, with the input of the youth minister, on what needs to happen after the youth minister leaves the position. A plan exists.

The Transition Process

Part of the plan includes encouraging the youth minister to begin looking for another job while still performing the duties as youth minister.  Usually a reasonable timeline is given (2-4 months). There are expectations within the timeline that, if not met, will result in immediate termination. In other words, the youth minister needs to continue to perform his or her job.  This gives the youth minister time to look for another job.  Once found, it gives time for closure with the youth group.  The church, meanwhile, can begin an informal search for a replacement, ramping up their efforts when their present youth minister announces their next job.

There is still pain in this second scenario. The youth minister’s self-esteem is damaged. The youth are sad. But, it is manageable pain which everyone can talk about.  Closure is complete. In every situation where I have seen this process happen, both the church and the youth minister have eventually (almost immediately) landed in a better place.

Why don’t churches choose this method of transitioning employees? Often times they are not aware of alternative options. In fact, some churches just make it so difficult for the youth minister to perform tasks, the youth minister gives up and resigns. This isn’t helpful either. When there is disagreement, disappointment and distress, it is very difficult for people, even church people, to determine a Christian perspective. Emotions are involved. People rely on what they have observed in secular culture. Many justify their actions as “best for the kids” without consulting the kids to see what is best for them.

Honesty, transparency and time to grieve are what is best for young people in times of transition. When 50% of our youth experience divorce causing loneliness and abandonment, why would the church abandon them one more time, divorcing them from a person who loved and cared for them without an explanation or closure?

The church needs to think about young people first. And, secondly the church needs to extend love and care to a soon-to-be former employee. This love and care needs to be tangible and real, not just empty words. In other words, a two week severance package isn’t loving if it will take two months to land another job.

You will lose your job. This is inevitable for every person. Possibly we simply take a line from Jesus and treat others as we would like to be treated.

 

Steve Schneeberger is the Executive Director of the Youth Ministry Institute. He is also adjunct faculty for Florida Southern College.  Beginning in 1985, Steve began a vocation as a youth minister serving churches in Kansas and Florida. He is a 1981 graduate of Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park, Kansas, has a business degree from Baker University (1985) and a law degree from the University of Kansas (1988). He is married to Carol, an elementary school teacher and former counselor. They have three children. Steve consults, coaches and teaches Program Design 101, Teaching 101, Budgeting, Helping Youth Over Developmental Hurdles, and Expecting Great Behavior for the Youth Ministry Institute.  His teaching duties at Florida Southern includes Teaching and Learning Theories for Youth Ministry, Leadership and Administration for Youth Ministry and Bible and Theology in the Youth Ministry Setting.

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