Labor Day Remembrance for Youth Workers

Labor Day became a holiday in response to the massacre of 13 employees to end the Pullman Strike at the hands of the Illinois National Guard. Why were they on strike? The owner of their company cut their wages on their 12 hour work day while holding rents on employee housing. When the owner refused to meet with the employees about the cuts 125,000 railroad workers brought the nation to a halt with a strike… until Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to violently end the strike.

For me, I cannot think of the plight of the 19th century worker without reflecting on the working conditions of many of my friends in youth ministry. If we’re honest… being in youth ministry is very much like pre-organized labor days. Mike Rowe has never shown up at a youth group meeting. But just know that being a youth worker is a Dirty Job.

Today, I am reminded that thousands of youth workers struggle to serve Jesus while employed by churches who often, either intentionally or unintentionally, mismanage them.

The latest economic downturn has lead to a whole new round of horrible stories. No one is exempt. People who once thought they were in great jobs at great churches have learned that tough times can lead to miserable work conditions. And with so much re-thinking of youth ministry vs. family ministry vs. parachurch-styled youth ministry… an unprecedented amount of youth workers are currently either looking for new ministries or trying to figure out how to be tent-maker in youth ministry or looking to get out of the pressure-cooker altogether.

On this Labor Day, I want to draw your attention to some specific examples of their struggles:

  • Apparently, being pregnant or a new parent is the perfect time to fire a youth worker. I’ve heard tons of stories like Ryan Smith’s. What a horrible thing!
  • This is a tough time to look for a job in youth ministry. As I run the YS job bank, I know that churches often get hundreds of applicants for each opening. Many excellent/gifted/experienced youth workers are forced out of youth ministry each month because they simply can’t find a job.
  • It goes without saying that the youth worker is often the least respected pastoral staff member. Their role is seen as child’s play despite every statistic available which shows the importance of faith development during the teenage years.
  • It may be 2010, but nepotism is alive and well in the church. I have recently heard from youth workers who were fired because the senior pastors kid just needed a job.
  • Lots of people received pay cuts this year. They take the form of reduction in pay, losing medical/dental/vision benefits, foregoing conference/continued education allowances, etc. Of course, this is often in violation of an existing employment contract that wasn’t mutually re-negotiated. And churches balk when you ask for time off to do part-time work to make up the difference.
  • Most churches regularly break various federal employment laws, claiming to be exempt of all federal employment laws under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The church is not exempt from minimum wage laws except in a few circumstances. (Such as, ordained by your denomination.) No employer can make you work more than 40 hours without compensating you. You are not allowed to have uncompensated “ministry hours” on top of your work hours. I routinely hear of churches who advertise as a 50-60 hour per week job. Um, that’s against the law!
  • Many youth workers are punished or even fired because of the actions of their children or spouse in the church. You can’t be fired because your children don’t like the kids program or your spouse goes to another church. Working at a church does not mean you have no civil rights. (Interesting test of this by World Vision, good thing it only applies to the employee.)
  • Youth workers in small-to-medium sized churches work almost entirely in isolation. They have very limited fellowship with other people their age in the church. And their work hours make it quite difficult to have friendships with people in their community. Isolation leads to depression and all sorts of other bad things.
  • Speaking of small churches. These are especially difficult roles because youth ministry is just one of the myriad of things they are asked to do.
  • Part-time youth workers have it even rougher. Most churches that pay part-time really expect/demand full-time work.
  • Many spouses of youth workers are expected to be volunteers in the ministry. This is jokingly referred to as the “two-for-one” deal by churches. It’s a sick double-standard as the same is rarely expected of all ministry employees and is, again, in violation of the minimum wage/Civil Rights laws. I can’t think of another profession which makes the same demand.
  • The day-to-day job of a youth worker is quite difficult. It’s a multi-disciplinary role which requires skills in everything from teaching the Bible to counseling to marketing to event planning. Yeah, totally realistic.
  • Double-standards are the norm for youth workers. Just one example is work hours. They are asked to hold regular office hours. Plus, they are asked to be out evenings to work with students where they are.
  • When employment ends, many in youth ministry are treated poorly and without respect. There are countless stories out there from youth workers who weren’t even allowed to say goodbye to students they’ve ministered to for years.
  • Youth workers often take abuse from all sides. They work long hours which draws criticism from their spouse. Meanwhile, their boss is unhappy because their groups aren’t growing. All the while, parents express frustration because their child isn’t getting the 1-1 attention she’d hoped for.
  • This list could go on and on… but its a holiday and I don’t want to bore anyone before their barbeque.

Certainly, many youth workers have wonderful employers who respect them and treat them well. I don’t want this post to over-shadow that fact.

But perhaps those in great positions can take time to encourage those who are struggling today?

Maybe, in the coming months you would find ways to lift up and encourage brethren in ministry who are in bad circumstances?

Offer them a relationship of confidence?

Offer your home as a place of refuge and relaxation?

Share in your abundance?

Share resources and friendship?

Maybe be that calm and familiar voice who reminds them that this isn’t the way the bride of Christ is supposed to treat its workers?

More than anything… will you take some time today to call or email a youth worker in your life and affirm them? Tell them that their ministry matters. Tell them that you know their job is difficult. And tell them that they are making a difference in your community.


12 responses to “Labor Day Remembrance for Youth Workers”

  1. Steve Nelson Avatar

    Great article! I pray that more Lead Pastors and members of church leadership read this.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      Thanks Steve. If you’re connected to other senior pastors, help our tribe out by sharing this post with them.

  2. Tim Schmoyer Avatar

    I’m sure you’re familiar with this, Adam, but I thought it worth pointing out that employment laws change from state to state. In some states employers can fire someone with little to no reason (employer-friendly states) and in other places they need to justify a termination with good reason (employee-friendly states). It doesn’t usually make a difference to those running a church, but knowing the laws in your state can be beneficial if your youth ministry job starts to feel threatened.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      Agreed. Hopefully, folks are aware of that and willing to do some self-education. I tried to reference federal laws here as they tend to apply in all states. (9th grade government class was useful, wasn’t it? 🙂 )

  3. Matthew McNutt Avatar

    I’m not sure that it’s legally required to mutually renegotiate the salary/insurance numbers. My church is full of people who have had 5%, 10%, etc., pay cuts this year from their companies and didn’t have a say in the matter. We were told before our salaries were cut that it was legal because it was an even percentage cut across the board to all employees.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      @matt- It really depends on how your deal is set up. Many people have a specific contract that both the employee/church have signed. So let’s say I sign a contract with a church that outlines a certain level of benefit and a certain level of compensation. If the church comes to me at a later date and tells me they can’t live up to their end of the contract, they can only amend the contract by mutual agreement. If you have a contract and they just tell you that they are cutting your pay/benefits… they’ve actually not lived up to the terms of the deal. See what I mean?

      It really depends on how each church has set up their employment. A lot of denoms have the “ordained staff” technically set up as independent contractors. (This is the way the IRS likes it for clergy) But non-ordained staff are set up like regular employees of a 501c3.

      I’m not saying your church did anything wrong. I’m just saying that if you have an employment contract and they wish to re-negotiate, it should be just that… an opportunity to re-look at the deal.

      Does that help explain what I was trying to say?

      1. Matthew McNutt Avatar

        I actually did get something in writing that we both signed when I came on staff – I’ve actually wondered a few times how they could change something we both signed off on. What killed me was that in reworking our insurance so that the staff pay part of it and then adding to that salary cuts, my check dropped about 20% (OUCH) … but the board never touched mission support because “we have to honor our commitment to our missionaries.” The cynical part of me wonders from time to time why that commitment is more important than the commitment made to staff.

  4. Kara Avatar

    Thank you so much for posting this, Adam. I appreciate the support you give to youth workers on a day to day basis. You get what we’re going through, and you’re one of the few voices in the world of youth ministry that stands up for us when we do feel isolated, misunderstood, and broken. Just know that you’re appreciated just as much as you appreciate us youth workers 🙂

  5. Tim Young Avatar
    Tim Young

    Excellent post. You perfectly described my last 6 months in ym.

  6. jared Avatar

    I love the way you love us!


    i mean that in a totally manly, midwestern, real tough guy sort of way

  7. Heidi Church Avatar
    Heidi Church

    I can connect with this very well…especially the part-time ym aspects. I’m in full-time youth & family ministry at the moment, but have done it part-time. And yes, they do expect full-time ministry.

    God has blessed me with the position He has me in right now, but as this fall has approached, this is a tough time of the year. So, thank you for laying it all out there. And I will try to share this with others I know (as one of my ym friends shared this on fb so I clicked the link).


  8. Peter Avatar

    Thanks for posting this. I have passed this on to my church’s youth leader and Pastor. We are in Canada but I see the same things happening here.

Leave a Reply