In his early years as a youthworker, Mark Oestreicher learned a lesson that has stayed with him, and coloured every hiring conversation he has ever had.

Recently, on a trip to Houston, Texas, I got to choose a car in the car hire lot from a wide assortment of options, and a Jeep Wrangler caught my attention. I used to own a Wrangler, back in the day.

Driving in the rain down the motorway, a bunch of memories flooded back to me about getting sacked from a youth ministry job at a church many, many years ago.

And it all started with the Jeep. Sort of.




The beginning of the end started when my wife and I bought a Jeep. A week later, I got called into a meeting with three of the elders: the church board chair, the vice-chair, and the treasurer. They were seriously ticked. And it quickly become clear that they were ticked I had bought a Jeep.

At first, it really seemed to be about the Jeep itself. They said it was an irresponsible car for a youth worker, and that I was setting a bad image for the teenagers (what?). They said it was clearly a flashy and expensive vehicle (I told them what I’d paid—it was not expensive). They said the insurance was clearly going to be very expensive, and it was therefore irresponsible (the vice-chair happened to be my insurance agent; I deferred to him, and he sheepishly told the other two that the insurance was very reasonable).

But then the real story came out: “You are using your wife’s income to increase your standard of living, and that’s in direct violation of the agreement you made with us. You are deceitful, and a liar.” (Really, those were their words.)

Short story: they didn’t want my wife to work. With our uni debt, that wasn’t an option. They had agreed (when they hired me) to “allow” her to work, as long as her income was used for debt reduction. What can I say? This seems so deeply absurd to me now, all these years later; but I was young and naive and really wanted the job—and I’d agreed. We were paying off our uni debt at break-neck speed (which provided no savings in the debt cost, since, in the States, loans for university aren’t reduced by an expedited pay off). But we’d never understood the deal to be that every penny of my wife’s income would go to debt.

Shorter story: my explanation didn’t matter, and they sacked me. They said, “We care about you, and we want to make sure you’re going to be ok; so we’re going to give you two week’s redundancy pay.” Really.

Of all the seminars I taught over the years at youth worker events, one of the favorites for me was the one I team-taught with a friend, called The Expectations That Killed the Youth Worker. I

remember my friend saying that, in his experience, the vast majority of youth (or children’s ministry) workers who lose their jobs do so because of misunderstandings around unspoken expectations. Ever since he said that, I have continually found it to be true. (Note: I would add that while I’m specifically addressing paid children’s and youth workers, most of what I’m saying here sadly extends to key volunteers in children’s and youth work also.)

These days, I regularly tell church workers that when conflict arises with a church that leads to a children’s or youth worker choosing to leave or being forced out, it’s ALWAYS about misaligned values, unspoken expectations, or both. It’s not enough that the job description looks great, or that you love kids and that church has ‘em. This is why I always coach youth workers to talk about values when they go through a hiring process, and to push hard on both spoken and unspoken expectations. Better for everyone to decide that it’s not a good match because expectations don’t line up, than to have to deal with the damage of a bad or painful departure.

If you’re having tension with your pastor or supervisor or church board, think about what unspoken expectations or misaligned values might be in play. Ask questions about them. It might not be too late to prevent a train wreck. Or a Jeep wreck.

Mark is in the UK speaking at the Satellites Festival at Shepton Mallet this August: 4th-8th