Church Leadership youth ministry

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.

Church Leadership

Getting Started in Investing, Part 4


Free money! How often do you hear that phrase? Not very often. But generating free money in a bank account is essentially what investing is.

I’m surprised how many people are scared of the whole topic. Among people under 30 in ministry there are three groups.

1. I’m too young to worry about savings and retirement. These folks are typically focused on their mountain of college debt. And in their minds they shouldn’t save anything until they pay that off.

2. I don’t know anything about investing so I just don’t do it at all. Essentially, this is who this series is for. This group of people plead ignorance or try to pretend it is all too complicated for them.

3. I’m in it to win it. These folks understand the basics of investing and know that starting young means more free money down the road.

It’s all about the interest. Do you remember back to 5th grade where we learned about compounding interest? The teacher would say, “if you put $500 on a credit card with an APR of 22% interest, how much would you owe at the end of 12 months? Essentially, investing is the same process in reverse. The earlier you can put money away the sooner interest will start compounding for you.

This is critical for those in ministry. We have to start earlier than our peers since we will make less over a lifetime than those in other industries! Fortunately for us, there are some great tax benefits that help us save for tomorrow today.

401k, 403b, 529, Traditional IRA, Roth IRA, Education IRA… where do I start?

The basics: Essentially, all of those accounts are going to allow you to defer when you pay taxes on your savings. Theoretically, you could save for retirement with a savings account. Three problems with that. First, the interest rate generally stinks. I’ve never seen a savings account at a bank offer more than 4% interest. Second, you can get to that money way too easily. This is long-term savings so you don’t want to be able to access it with your ATM card. Third, each year you will pay taxes on the interest you earn. A retirement plan of any variety is going to allow you to earn a higher rate of return, the money isn’t readily accessible to you, (unless there is an emergency) and will allow you to defer paying income tax on interest until you withdrawal.

401l/403b: These are essentially the same thing. These are retirement plans for “regular employees” of either for-profit (401k) or non-profit (403b) companies. The great news is that 99% of the time you can invest in 401k/403b through payroll deduction, the money will go into the account pre-tax, and your employer will likely match a certain percentage of your investment. For instance, if they match 100% up to 5% of your income and you make $1000 per week… they would take $100 out of your check and give you an additional $100… depositing $200 per pay period into your account. ($4800 per year) With a 100% match you make 100% interest on day one! There is no better investment on the planet. To not accept this offer of free money is foolish. Since it is payroll deduction you won’t even miss the money. Typically, if you enroll in the program and do nothing else they will automatically select a very conservative mutual fund for you, guaranteeing a small return with minimal risk. Remember, by putting in a little you get free money automatically on the first day. Even if your employer only matches 50% up to 4% of your income… that’s still better interest than you will get anywhere else. The bad news is that you won’t be able to touch that money until you are 59.5 years old. Technically, you can withdrawal early but that will come with some nasty penalties. It is important to understand that money invested in your 401k/403b has almost nothing to do with your employer. Sometimes they will allow you to buy stock in the company through your retirement plan (never do that) but otherwise you are putting money into a bank. This means that the savings belong to you. If you change jobs the money is still yours. (We’ll just not talk about vesting right now to keep it simple) We’ll also talk about investment choices another time. For now, keep it simple.

IRA: (Individual Retirement Accounts) For some reason this one is scarier to people. It shouldn’t be as it is way more fun! This is the most obvious retirement savings option for those church workers who are “self-employed.” These savings are not pre-tax, but when you file your return you typically reap the same benefits so it all works out. Most people end up with an IRA because they change jobs and want to withdrawal money from their previous employers 401k/403b program. (Called a rollover) Kristen and I did this in 2002 to consolidate about five 401k programs, it was simple and pain free. Unlike a 401k, an IRA is going to depend on you depositing money into the account. If you are absolutely unwilling to make any choices, find a broker and have them set it up for you. Any U.S. citizen can have an IRA (or IRAs). Essentially, it is just a savings account that allows you to purchase investments.  Technically, you can invest in all sorts of things with IRA money. But the most common things people invest in with an IRA are stocks and mutual funds. While your employer doesn’t typically match your investment most churches I have worked at will include retirement savings in your contract with them. So, each quarter or month they will give you a check for the agreed amount of money and it is up to you to invest that money. I use E-Trade for my IRA and they allow me to transfer money from my savings account to my IRA. But even writing a check to your broker or mutual fund is a snap.

Which IRA do I want? Unless you have some serious cash, you want a Roth IRA. There is an investment cap for how much money you can put in every year, I’ll be honest, as a youth worker you don’t have to worry about that.

529/Education IRA plans: A 529 is basically a 401k for your kids college education. You make an investment and they manage the funds. When the time comes for your kid to go to college, the college withdrawals the money from the account. If you invest in your state’s 529 plan there may be state tax benefits for you. Typically, the money can be used at any college that is accredited. So if you plan on sending your kids to an non-accredited training school or Christian college… this may not be the best option for you. An Education IRA is basically an IRA for money dedicated to your kids college. (You manage the investments.) So if grandma dies and leaves your kids $10,000… this is your best bet to allow it to earn interest without paying taxes.

Kristen and I don’t believe it is our responsibility to fund our kids college. But we do have a 529 plan for them with the intention of helping out a little. (Books?) We make a simple investment each month… the same dollar amount since Megan was born… and it adds up really fast! We have a few thousand bucks in that account already and it was completely pain free. Also, we’ve always taken the small checks for their birthday’s ($10, $20) and added that to their monthly investment. We still give them the money (of course!) but we want them to know later on that grandma and grandpa invested in their education and every little bit counts.

The key to all of this is starting now. It’s all about compounding interest to make your small investments today work for you later. (Remember 5th grade!) If you are 22 and just out of college…. this is the right time to get started! If you are 32 and haven’t gotten started… get on your horse and get it done.

Still got questions about this stuff? Ask a question in the comments and I’ll hunt down the answer.