It was finally here! It was the day I had been looking forward to since I started looking to be on a church staff as a paid youth worker. It was my first day on the job; and to make the day even better, we were going to have a staff meeting that day! If you have ever participated in a church staff meeting, you know how disappointed and disillusioned I was in just 90 minutes.
After just a month on the job I started to come to the realization that being a paid youth worker for a church is much more complicated than I first thought. What I envisioned as a job for which I was going to be paid to love students and help them love Jesus was actually a job with expectations, politics, meetings, evaluations and tasks to be assigned by pastor.
With 15 years of vocational youth ministry under my belt, I have come to realize the great bureaucracy of the church is not the awful boogieman that is thwarting the advancement of the kingdom. I have watched many of my colleagues get swallowed up by this bureaucracy and become disillusioned. I have seen others attempt just to survive in spite of the bureaucracy. Now, I am convinced a youth worker doesn’t have to settle for surviving the inner workings of a church and simply attempt to have an impact on students despite all the red tape. Rather, if you understand it, the bureaucracy of the church actually can be fertile ground in which you’ll thrive.
1) The Church Is a Corporation; You Are an Employee
I know this sounds unspiritual, but it’s true. There was a budget that was proposed and a committee that was formed just so you could be on staff. From our perspective, we are called by God Himself to minister, pastor and care for students. This is an amazing truth and gives us a larger purpose than a simple paycheck. This calling is the thing that also gives us hope to push through when we get discouraged and doubt our effectiveness. In order to thrive, we have to temper this view of calling with our earthly position as employee.
From the church’s perspective, you were hired. There is an organizational chart in which you fit. Because you are a youth worker, I can guarantee your name is not at the top of that chart. In a bureaucracy, you are a piece of the pie, a placeholder in the chart. This means we have people above us to whom we are responsible, people to whom we report and are accountable. When we settle in and realize we are not God’s gift to the entire organization, but a simple member of the body of Christ, we can begin to thrive.
Just as easily as you were hired, you can be fired. This may or may not impact your calling, but it is a truth just the same. We must live by the same standards as our friends with secular jobs. We are to work hard and submit to the people above us and support the people below us. We come to respect the processes and systems that have made the church run long before we got here and will be in place long after we leave. You are an employee, so get to work!
2) Do Your Job Well, Not Your Pastors’
When you were hired, you were given a job description. This is your rubric, your standard. How you are being measured will depend mostly on this document. There have been many people who worked long and hard to come up with a document that clarifies the needs and desires of the church. When you deviate from this path, you will end up in trouble.
If you have passions and visions for ministry that are not included in this document, there is a process for making changes. Process is a good thing; it is how the American version of the body of Christ figures things out. The trick to thriving is to do the job you were hired to do well. For most youth workers, this is an easy task to accomplish.
What makes it difficult to thrive is when you start to expand your job description. A little bit of trouble happens when you expand it to other versions of student ministry that the church isn’t anticipating. This is usually forgivable, but it becomes most dangerous when you expand your description to include your supervisor’s job description.
Most of the angst I feel regarding my job revolves around decisions that aren’t mine to make. What happens in big church, how the pastor preaches, what happens with the budget, other hires, etc. is not our responsibility. We have a heart and passion for the entire church, and we have some power because we are on staff; but we must not mistake our passion and power as position. That is the easiest way to end a tour of student ministry prematurely.
3) Politics are Real
Because we work for the church, we assume we all just do the things we are supposed to with the purest of intentions for the honor and glory of God. While I think this is true in the spirit, we also live in the real world that is tainted by flesh. This brokenness means the church, as with every other organization, has its own set of politics. Pretending they don’t exist is a recipe for disaster. Understanding them and living within them allows us to thrive.
Here is a simple crash course. Politics is about power: Power to influence decisions, power to hire and fire, power to make your job amazing or horrible. The trick is knowing who has the power. Here are the people with the power: your pastor and/or supervisor, parents, and certain people in the church. It will serve you well to realize these people hold real power and should be treated as such. Recognizing power and politics looks different for everyone, so work hard to understand what makes these people tick and become a blessing to them.
There is one more truth you have to understand when it comes to politics and power. Being the youth worker, you have none. Even if you think you have some, it is best to live as if you don’t. At any moment, people with real power and influence can crush you. At the same time, by being a servant to all you gain support and influence, but it always will be a bottom-up influence.
4) Love Your Secretary
Every church, big or small, has a secretary who is the doorkeeper to the church. They are the point of entry for every piece of information. They know everything about everything. They are often treated as lowly servants, but they wield more power then anyone realizes. With subtle intonations and gestures she clearly communicates what she thinks of you and the job you are doing to everyone who passes by her office. When your secretary doesn’t like you, you might as well pack up shop and look for another job.
The inverse is also true. When your secretary loves you, you are golden and should invest in some local real estate. The secretary can highlight your mistakes or smooth them over, hang you out to dry with your budget, or give you a head’s up when you are about to go over. It is actually more important for your secretary to know what you are up to than your pastor. The secretary is the key to success in this bureaucracy.
How do you do it? It is really simple; treat her with dignity and respect. Make some time to check in and say hello when you arrive at the office. Don’t expect her to do your administrative tasks. If you need her to do something for you, ask nicely. When she does a great job, say thank you. When she goes beyond the call, hook her up with a mocha. In fact, buy one of those every month or so. Get your receipts in on time. Let her know where you are going and when you will be back. If you aren’t coming in, call her and let her know. Oh, and never forget Secretary’s Day!
5) Humility and Hard Work Wins the Day
God calls us into student ministry; but when we let this view blind us to the real relationships and expectations found within a church bureaucracy, we find ourselves in big, big trouble. To thrive, we must be humble and work hard.
Being humble means that we must own our mistakes. Be quick to apologize; fall on your sword often. We are the bottom of the political power structure, so we should live into it. Humility takes all the oxygen out of the room in any conflict or misunderstanding. Christ deserved honor and recognition, yet He chose humility. Our attitudes also should become more and more like Christ’s.
Hard work means just that. Youth workers have a notorious reputation to be lazy slackers. We love pizza and video games, all on the church’s dime. When we work hard, put in real hours of work and communicate those hours with our secretary and supervisor, we gain freedom and respect from those around us. The more freedom and respect we earn, the more we thrive; the more we thrive, the more we truly live into the calling God has place on our lives: to love students and help them love Jesus.