The Deception of Position in Youth Ministry (And Why It Speaks to Something Far Deeper)

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Originally published July 2006.

I don’t want to say I’ve just come to this realization, I’m just becoming more aware of how deep down this is.  There is a sickness in the Christian church with position.  I know it’s nothing new but let me explain.

For nine years, I received a paycheck from the Church for full-time service in youth ministry.  Now that I am currently not getting said paycheck but feel like I’m doing just as much, there is something stirring in me about what position and status has done to my soul.

For many there are feelings of validation that come with paycheck and position.  The question I keep asking is, “Can you do what you do without getting a paycheck for it?”  This has brought up so many things inside of me that are deep.

 

Let me give you an example.  Lately, I have been hearing a lot of questions about my gifts and talents.  What am I really suppose to be doing?  I feel like I’m made to do so much more than what I am currently doing.  I’m saying to myelf, “I don’t get a paycheck anymore, therefore my calling is not affirmed and validated.”

For those of you who do get paychecks from the Church, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  A paycheck in a sense becomes a sign of support for us or that God is validating our calling.  Until we start complaining that our paycheck isn’t big enough, that it’s really not as supportive as we originally thought.  Then we start comparing our paychecks to others’ paychecks.

That’s position talk.

What about the “experts?”  I am grateful for people who have tremendous experience, but their “position talk” can cause others to feel inferior if they are not as experienced or don’t have as many kids or you fill in the blank. This happens often at conventions.  What is the first question you are asked when you first meet at a youth workers convention or seminar?  Or maybe you did the asking.  It is “how many students do you have?”

That’s position talk.

From the volunteer viewpoint, I hear complaints about those who do get paychecks compared to them–when they feel they are doing more work.  I have a little more compassion for those who do get a paycheck considering I was one of them for a long time.  Today I am a volunteer. Yet deep down, when I really have to admit it, part of me feels that being tied to that paycheck is a sense of validation.  I think many volunteers feel the same way.

That’s position talk.

Too many of us have this spiritual measuring stick that has our worth attached to it.  We are trying to see if we’re worthy of our calling or are better than someone else. This helps us feel like we’re on the right track or to get evidence to take to our pastors and boards to tell them how successful we are.  My friends, this is sick.

What I’m dealing with now in my personal life is who am I?  Who am I not according to position but who am I as a person? Where is my voice outside of my position? How does that connect with what God is doing inside of me?

The scary thing is that I’ve now realized why so many youth workers (and pastors for that matter) are striving for better position.  We look at those who write books or speak as having “arrived” (we may not use that term but that’s what we are implying).  We want to arrive like they have arrived.  I have been one of those people.  I believe God has wired me to teach and preach, but does that mean I need 750 students in front of me and getting a nice paycheck to say that my calling is now validated?  I currently lead a house church, mentor two elementary students, and am a d-group leader for 5th and 6th graders.  It seems so insignificant compared to what I was doing.  Why?  Is not what I’m doing now also validated?

That’s position talk.

What about the bios of the articles and books I read.  Why do I listen to this person?  Maybe because he/she has a PhD in this or that, or an MA in this, or is a 20+ year veteran of whatever.  What if I just read the article and asked if God has something to say to me.  What if the article was written by a 10-year old?  Would I not read it because he/she hasn’t even graduated high school?  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to those with advanced degrees and amazing experience, but sometimes I think we don’t give credit to those without the degrees and accolades but can still speak the words of God into our lives.

In all of the roles I currently do, I am not getting a paycheck for them.  Yet I still do them.  Why?  Because this is who I am.  Am I teaching and preaching?  Yes.  It’s just a different kind.  Am I still a leader?  Yes.  I’m just not getting a paycheck for it.  But do I need the paycheck to feel called?  That’s what I’m working through.  I’m finding out that things don’t come wrapped nicely with a bow anymore.  I have to make a living and I’m not getting a paycheck from the church.  So I’ve been training to be a customer service representative at home.  Is this something I want to do?  No.  But getting money is necessary because I’ve got bills to pay.  I’m still doing all of those other ministry opportunities but I have to get a job so we can pay the bills.  This has raised a lot of questions.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t get a paycheck for what you do.  I’m talking specifically to youth workers and to those who do receive a paycheck from the church.  What I’m asking is that if you are pursuing bigger and better paychecks, or positions, or accolades, or whatever, why?

That is position talk.  And it’s dangerous to your soul.

We all see position talk.  When I was at the Isn’t She Beautiful Conference at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan, (my current church and home to Rob Bell), I saw people taking pictures of everything in the building: the walls, the stage, the chairs, the paint, even Rob’s sermon notes laid out on butcher paper.  I overheard conversations of, as Rob Bell and Don Golden (the lead pastor) like to say, “talking about how big their steeple is.”  I’m afraid we have swallowed hook, line, and sinker the global culture of power.

Even now I hear talk about me because I attend Mars Hill so I’m like the “insider.”  “You should really listen to this guy because he goes there.”  It is a very dangerous road to be tied to your position and to feel good about yourself.

I speak only as a formerly paid pastor, but I know this problem runs deeper than that.  This is in any job. I don’t know if any of this is speaking to you, but if you are finding yourself desiring bigger paychecks, validation in position, and the like, ask yourself the hard “why” questions.

For me (this is critical to become aware of) when I got down really deep, it was because I thought God didn’t think I was good enough.  It was because I thought God viewed me as a failure.  It was because maybe I really believe God didn’t love me.  It was because I thought God was punishing me for all of the past mistakes that I had made. Some seek better position because we don’t believe deep down that we’re good enough. Sometimes we work so hard.  We try everything. And there are too many times when those in churches don’t acknowledge our work, don’t see our effort, and don’t ask us if they can help.  Yet we still desire the bigger position, recognition, and success (allegedly). Why?  Why are you doing this? I think when you continue to go to the dark parts of who you are, it’s because you believe that right now God doesn’t think you’re good enough.

God is speaking all of the time, through anybody, paycheck or not.  Are you listening?  God thinks your worth it, no matter what you think of yourself, your position, and your “success.”  Right now.

What I’m finding on my quest is that I’m doing the things God has wired me to do.  It just looks different than before.  And He has had to purge me of position talk to prepare me for what He’s laid out ahead for me. It is something that is attached to the deepest part of who I am, and it hurts to even talk about it.

Plus I am finding healing in the midst of it.  I am seeing how God still uses me in spite of this.  How he has place me in this particular context for such a time as this.  It’s in this context I am slowly discovering who the real Mike Lamson is.

Thanks for listening. I pray that you may become free of this paradigm of worth that is hurting so many. May you embrace the fact that God loves you period, that you are worth it, and that you are good enough as you are right now.  May you live that in front of your students, because this is a message they need to hear also.

Mike Lamson is a 10-year youth ministry veteran and is approaching 10 years of marriage to his wife Julia this summer. He also has one daughter, 5-year old Grace, and 2 cats, Mattie and Stan.  Mike is a stay-at-home dad and work-from-home customer service rep in training.  He currently resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan and is an active volunteer at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan.  Mike also can’t stand writing bios (read above article again!).