‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility’: The Sheep Are Watching
“They're not being a church. They're acting stupid. So I'm quitting.”
These words still ring in my ears. They were my words, and several teens and their families heard me say them. None of them attend that church anymore. In fact, they don't attend church at all. With that single match, a bridge went up in flames. Did the church burn those families? Or did I? Admittedly, I have a lot of experience in leaving churches. I've been the walking eighteen-month model; the living breathing urban legend for short-tenure youth ministry. Interim is my middle name. What I became aware of recently wasn't the irresponsibility of church-jumping (which would be good for a different issue of Youthworker Journal…) but the influence youth workers wield, both in presence and in departure. The sheep are watching.
The Cult of Personality
While interviewing for a church position, I remember saying, “I'm not a lone-ranger youth worker. That can be dangerous.” What's funny is I've been that lone ranger, at least for many kids and families, by default. This cult of personality happens on its own, and while it's happening, a bad witness can pollute the waters. Youth workers are an oft-ignored power position within churches. Their power derives from their sphere of influence: kids and families. The disadvantages involve personal stumbling blocks (because you're human) and their manifestation in the people you serve. While I'm proposing that this almost always happens automatically, there is, of course, a point where this effect crosses into a dangerous zone. The following are the aspects of danger where the inherent power of the youth worker has the potential to lead sheep astray and undermine ministry.
Attitude, Perception, and Role Modeling
Youth workers have tremendous power concerning their witness through actions. A wise pastor told me early on that perception is reality. I heard this in staff training at camp, when we were going over safety and supervision issues; I heard this in church regarding gossip; and I heard this about myself during a personnel review. It concerned how I talked about committee meetings.
Honestly, I've never been fond of committee meetings. But then, who is? Show me a hymn written about a committee meeting. So I'd often humorously let everyone know that I wasn't looking forward to my Christian Ed committee meeting. Unfortunately, I discovered that when it came time to put some teens on the committee, (which would've livened things up, by the way) nobody wanted to give it a shot. The members of this committee were also offended at my wise cracks, and rightly so. I also had a bad attitude toward authority. They were giving up their time to serve, and their staff person wasn't being very nice about it. Will your sheep observe a haughty attitude or piety?
The families to whom you minister will also likely rely on you to be the number one source of information about the congregation. How will you color it? Are things going well? Are you “sick and tired” of things? Youth workers who take on the problems of their congregations often transfer those emotions to the people they serve. Often a self-fulfilling prophecy, these transferences can drive morale into a downward-spiral.
I also learned very quickly that certain kids will hold the same opinions, take the same actions, and oftentimes mirror their lives after their youth leaders. As a camp counselor, I used to swing my keys around on a lanyard—like a lifeguard with a whistle. One day, a fellow counselor approached me and begged me to stop.
“Why?” I asked.
Silently, she motioned over her shoulder. I noticed forty kids with their name tags twirling around their fingers—like a lifeguard with a whistle.
Particularly with students, a lot of what you say and do will be idolized for no apparent reason: a big “Simon Says” game. And you've been trusted as Simon.
Part of this also involves your attitude towards the church. Is church
“Big Brother?” Or is it a house of God? Is it a playground? Holy Ground? Maybe a little of both? How do you view time spent in worship? Do you play? Wear flip-flops? Pass notes? You decide. And be ready to be followed. Flip the bird at an intrusive driver with your teens in your car? Prepare to be followed. Download copyrighted music? Prepare to be followed. Got a mature-audiences-only sense of expletive vocabulary? I think you get the point. We're watched with regard to our conduct, attitude, and behaviors, so I'll just leave out the examples of drag-racing church vans and causing chaos in restaurants.
Doctrine, Discernment, and the Heavy Stuff
In college, prior to serving in my first congregation, I was very much a party-line-towing, theology-wielding, right-wing, Biblical-law-using opinionated guy. I couldn't wait to tell my first congregation, “Some of you are going to Hell, and there's nothing I can do about it.” I was extremely outspoken on what a proper Christian should be, and very wrongly judgmental of those who weren't. The fundamentals of faith, for me, were very different back then from what they are now. I can't say I'm more liberal, but rather more chilled about others' viewpoints. What interests me about looking back on myself is the message I had for the sheep I shepherded, and how it has changed. I believe I've always held the under girding belief that “no matter what, God loves you,” but I wonder how much of that soaked into the lives of my early flock, the ones I'd literally laugh at if they gave me a theological argument that I felt was contrary to scripture. It was lucky indeed that we had many leaders working together, back then; they might have been led astray.
This isn't meant to encourage you to water down your message, lighten up on your Biblical standards, or move toward being *gasp* liberal or *gasp* conservative. Rather, consider, prayerfully and carefully, what power your spoken words have, since they carry with them the authority and representation of Jesus Christ's church. I concentrate on teaching critical thinking, experiential learning, spiritual practice, and Biblical narrative; rather than straight history or straight issues clarification. It means the heart of a young person is opened to the Holy Spirit's leading, using the Bible, rather than my feeding them a dose of “snippet theology of the day.” If I feel strongly about something new, I try to tell them, “This is just something I'm struggling with as a theory.” A worldview takes a lifetime to form. James spoke aptly of taming the tongue and I don't feel he was speaking only to Howard Stern. He was talking to you and me.
They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Resignation
I don't know why, but youth workers do a lot of resigning. Sometimes they start resigning months before they quit. The power of a resignation is, unfortunately, something with reverberations for years to come. When leaving, consider this simple truth: you cannot control people's perceptions of you, the church, or your ministry after you've gone. You can plant seeds of good will, and that's about it. You may talk to a few people later on, but by and large, when you're gone you're gone, and history will look upon you depending on people's perceptions. Oh, there's that word again: perceptions.
Before we get all concerned with personal image, I'm less concerned about what people think about you, and more about how the church feels about itself and its journey, in spite of your departure. This brings me back to the beginning of the article, in fact. We can easily evoke victimization through our resignations. I've done it before, and it made me feel better about leaving. This way, instead of “it's not a good fit,” I could tell myself, “I'm too good for this place, and they know it.” Unfortunately, in convincing them of this, we can inadvertently drive their members from the community; either in the belief that, “the youth worker was right and this place sucks,” or “I'm embarrassed to disagree with the youth worker, so I'm going to leave.” If the church is truly the instrument of God to proclaim Christ's death and resurrection and spread the Gospel to the world, then we need to be responsible for treating the church and its members with grace. Sometimes that means replacing ravages with compliments. Sometimes it means simply speaking quietly or keeping our mouths shut.
I've personally learned to appreciate the Richard Nixon-style resignation (one sentence) and otherwise celebrate the idea that all churches are alive in Christ, not in their staff. Remember to leave a blessing, “I wish you the best of what God has in store for you!” or “in leaving here, I feel no guilt, because I know God left this ministry in great hands!” And make sure you mean it. When leaving on bad terms, I recommend doing much the same: thank them for the opportunity, stand tall, and love them as much as possible. Do your venting and anger in a different venue: a community of friends is a much better place to vent than in your former church. If they need to hear the truth about themselves, tell it to the right person (the person who has the authority and commission to evaluate what you have to say), say it with honesty and sincerity, and then shake the dirt from your feet. Get counseling. Changing ministries is a life-stressor. You have a lot of influence on others, in how you react to such stress.
Kids are most likely to give in to this influence we have in leaving: “I loved Andy, so I must hate anyone who tries to replace him,” or “Since they treated Andy that way, I'm never going back.” I've regretted walking into a congregation where the former youth worker “left hard” and having to clean up in a loyalty-inspired hostile environment.
One of my favorite things to say in resignation is: “I just want you to know that whoever comes in and takes over this role has my complete support. Nobody told me to say that, it's just the simple truth. If you want to prove that I built an awesome youth ministry, stay active and love your next youth worker as much as you've loved me.”
I believe I've built some fabulous foundations with this, and what's even more affirming is the new youth worker can actually call me and be friends. After you leave, though, stay out of their hair. There'll be enough comparing happening after you leave. Sometimes a visit is nice, but you may find out that the leadership in place at your former congregation feels a little bit intimidated when you walk in the door. I recommend waiting a long, long time. You might continue relationships with families with whom you were extremely close, but I typically set a boundary that “I'd rather not talk about church stuff…but how are you!”
“So Do I Just Walk on Eggshells Now?”
I know that this article puts our lives under a microscope. Don't worry too much. A lot of the control we can exhibit involves being honest and mature enough to apologize when the need arises. This isn't a call to be perfect—it's a call to quit acting like it. If I put my foot in my mouth, it's a lot easier to say “Oops, sorry” than to say “This church sucks.” The former is highly respected. The latter? Well…we hear it all too often. The choices are ours to make. At the risk of re-using a cliché, “They'll know we are Christians by our love.”
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.