It Happens: Conflict Resolution at Its Best and Worst
By Dan Lambert
“The elders expect you to be in your office at church 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to noon Saturday. You have Monday off and half a day Saturday. Any time you spend with the youth is on your own time. We pay you to be here, not playing with kids.”
Those shocking words came from my senior pastor just a few weeks into my first job as a youth pastor at a local church in the Indiana countryside. During my previous four years at Youth for Christ, I went to plays, concerts, ball games, practices, kids’ houses—my ministry was 80% being with kids. This church knew that. They supported my YFC ministry. Most of their youth group members were active in my club. That’s why they came to me and asked me to become their youth pastor.
What happened? How did I get here? What should I do? All those questions and many more echoed through my mind.
I started my ministry at the church just as I said I would: by getting to know the young people and their parents. I visited homes, went to schools, learned family connections, listened to stories, and hung out doing whatever the kids wanted to do. Apparently, that’s what started the problem.
One of the kids, a junior named Tony, wanted to go play a round of golf. I had a set of clubs and liked to hack around, so we went one August afternoon. We had a great time. I learned a lot about him and his passions; then we went to get a shake afterwards. All in all, it was a great few hours of ministry.
As it happened, one of the elders was driving by and saw us on the third hole green. He called the pastor after he got home that night.
“What was Dan doing out golfing with one of the youth in the middle of the day?”
The senior pastor tried to defend me. “He’s getting to know the youth, just like he said. He is the youth pastor.”
“What if there was an emergency? What if someone needed him for something else?” the elder continued. (Those seem like odd questions now, in a day where we all have cell phones at the ready.)
The elder persisted and called the other elders. It seemed they agreed with him, so they directed the pastor to communicate their dictum to me the next morning.
It all started with a set of bad assumptions. First and foremost, I was the church’s first youth pastor, and they didn’t have a job description. They agreed that we would work together on that during my first year, as the job developed. I thought it sounded like a great idea at the time. I assumed that I would do youth ministry at this church just as I had done it with YFC. The elders assumed I would be in my office all the time.
By the way, they also told me that if I went to youth camp as a counselor, I had to use a week of vacation. I only had one week of vacation.
So, I had a series of decisions to make. I had to decide what I would do with my new restrictions. I could give up, get mad, and quit. After all, how can a youth pastor do youth ministry tethered to his office all day long? Especially since this was before the Internet or cell phones that could have aided communication under the circumstances.
My wife and I decided not to give up quite yet. Enough parents were in my corner to make it worth the risk to stick around. My next decision concerned how to do youth ministry during my “off hours.” Again, my wife and I discussed options. We didn’t have children yet, so that helped. She was very interested in my ministry and wanted to be with me as often as possible—another plus. We didn’t have any other obligations that would keep me from evenings and weekends with the youth. We would just have to sacrifice my hours and days off to make it work for a while.
My hope was that maybe over time I could win the elders over to my way of doing youth ministry.
I started by planning “Brown Bag Lunches” so kids could come to my office during the day and hang out. I organized an activity designed to get me into the homes of the youth; I called it “Chores With Dan.” In a rural farming community, that led to some pretty interesting encounters with chickens, pigs, horses, goats, etc.
After school started, I dedicated my days to reading and planning excellent lessons. I spoke with every visitor who darkened the doors of the church building. I spent extra time with the pastor, just talking. In the evenings and on the weekends, I was at the schools for any event that was on the calendar, usually with my wife at my side.
As a result, we saw the youth ministry grow both spiritually and numerically. We had a good team of volunteers and some excellent leadership among the teenagers. I fulfilled other duties as well, when the senior pastor was gone. Hospital visits became one of my favorite things to do. They got me out of my office, and I got to meet some new people.
Since this strategy seemed to be working, I kept this up for a couple years. One day, out of nowhere, the pastor called me into his office again.
“Dan, remember when the elders told you that you were paid to be in your office and not out goofing off with the youth? Well, they met last night and that came up again. They are impressed with the work you’ve done and the growth in the group. They realize they were wrong and want me to let you know that you are no longer bound to office hours.”
I was stunned and thrilled all at the same time. I expressed my appreciation and gratitude. But he wasn’t done.
“They also want you to go to youth camp and take them on retreats and to concerts without sacrificing days off or vacation time.”
It was better than Christmas for me. I had been hoping to hear words like that, but I honestly never thought I would. I spent five more great years there before accepting a call to another ministry. I have told this story many times in classes and workshops, so I have had a lot of time to reflect on the dynamics involved. While I am very humbled by what God did in and through me over those years, my decision to obey the elders without fighting went against every grain of my personality at the time. I was typically argumentative and anti-authoritarian. I can only credit the Holy Spirit for stifling my natural urges at the time.
I knew that I was serving under the authority of the elders and needed to submit to their will or resign. That biblical imperative is what guided me, even though my flesh wanted to fight. I also kicked myself a thousand times for taking a job without a job description. I was taught better than that by my professors and mentors, and my gut told me it was a bad idea. My ego, however, convinced me that I was different and that I could make it work.
When I shared this with others, after the initial indignation wore off (“How can a church expect a youth pastor to do youth ministry without ‘spending time with youth’ being part of his job?!”), the lessons became easy to discern:
1. Always have a clear job description before accepting a new job. Always.
2. When in doubt, it’s best to submit to the will of the elders, even when it seems counterintuitive. (The obvious exception to this is when they are violating biblical teaching. In my case they weren’t; they were simply disagreeing with my ministry philosophy.)
3. Adversity can breed creativity when we let it. Rather than throwing up our hands and giving up, we can get someone to help us think through our options, like my wife did with me in this case. Often the alternative plan will turn out to be better than the original.
Many of those elders are still dear friends of mine, and after almost 25 years we still laugh about this story. I wish I could say that I have handled every disagreement with my supervisors in other ministries as gracefully as I did this one, or that all those disagreements turned out well. The truth that I only handled this situation well because I submitted both to the elders and to the Holy Spirit’s counsel. Go figure.
Dan Lambert is Professor of Youth Ministry and Dean of the Degree Completion Program at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, where he has served since 2000. He has been involved in youth ministry since 1982 and is the author of Teaching That Makes A Difference.