In Mark Oestreicher's recent post, he wrestles with why so many youth workers are abused by their churches. After suggesting several reasons for this, he then turns the question on it's head and asks, “What if the reason so many youth workers are treated poorly by our churches is partly because of us?”
Yes, Marko, what if?
I have been in situations where I felt abused by my church. In fact, my first year in ministry was so horrific that had it not been for a few key mentors administering ointment to my wide-open, church-inflicted wounds, I would not still be in ministry today.
Even so, now when I look back on that year, I know I was not merely a victim. Don't get me wrong – that church treated me terribly; There are so many things I wish my senior pastor would have done differently.
But the truth is that I was, without a doubt, a big part of the problems I faced in that church.
I was young, arrogant, and unprofessional - all traits that made a bad situation worse.
Knowing this, there are so many things I wish I, too, would have done differently.
I wish I would have known and understood the importance of having good working relationships with my colleagues from the get-go. I wish I would have insisted on having a conversation with the senior pastor before I accepted the job. Rather than let someone else put words in his mouth, I wish I would have talked with him about values, philosophies of ministry, and expectations. As a 22-year-old youth worker, I wish I would have understood going into this situation that the only person I could change was me, not my senior pastor.
I also wish I would have been wise enough to ask to speak to their outgoing youth worker, to get an honest assessment of the joys and challenges of working in that context. While I suspect I still would have taken the job, such information would have allowed me to go into it with my eyes open, better prepared for some of the difficulties I'd eventually face.
I wish I would have done a better job of keeping my pastor in the loop. I wish I would have been proactive about establishing weekly meetings for us to not only deal head-on with problems, but also to celebrate the ways in which God was at work in our ministries.
By the same token, I wish I would have done a better job of looping my pastor in on potential conflicts rather than giving irate parishioners the opportunity to speak to him first. I wish that rather than always approach such problems defensively, I would have had the wisdom to ask my pastor for advice on how to deal with such situations, knowing that his 20-plus years in our congregation might have given me valuable insight into how to deal with difficult people. I wish that just once, I would have given him the opportunity to be the hero in such situations, knowing that if he was, his success would be my success.
I also wish I would have understood that the converse was also true: My success was my pastor's success.
Rather than do nothing but complain about him, I wish I would have looked for the good in this man and found even small ways to affirm him. I wish I would have understood just how much criticism senior pastors receive and just how defeating that is.
I wish I would have had the maturity to view this man not as my enemy, but instead as a valuable partner in ministry. I wish I would have invited him to participate in my ministry, both to foster connections between he and the youth and to help him see how God was moving.
I wish that just once, instead of whining, “Why can't you support me?” I would have instead understood that because he was the leader of our congregation, for better or worse, my job was actually to support him. Just once I wish I would have asked him, “How can I better support your ministry and vision for this church?”
I wish I would have understood that if I couldn't, rather than cause division in our congregation, I should have left, not as a martyr, but as a professional who understood Christ's call for unity.
Like Marko says, “It tears me up to see so many youth workers treated poorly by their churches.”
The truth is I know from first-hand experience just how painful those situations can be. But I also know from first-hand experience that the older and wiser I've gotten, the better my churches have treated me.
Maybe that's not a coincidence.
Maybe that means that just as we are partly to blame when things go wrong with our churches, when things go right, it's also partly because of us.
When it comes to our relationship with our churches, maybe we're more than just victims of our circumstances; Maybe we're people whose actions determine our fate.