Tuesday, March 27, 2007

reflections on asian-american (youth) ministry: part one

The controversy surrounding "Skits that Teach" over the last several weeks has caused me to spend a lot of time in reflection – asking myself big picture questions about race, reconciliation and the church, as well as more personal issues about calling, direction and engaging others in meaningful dialogue. It just occurs to me now that this time of soul-searching, reflecting and repentance (providentially) coincides with the season of Lent.

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to sit down and meet with Marko from Youth Specialties. I have been meaning to share for a little while now, but I’ve been struggling to pull together all of my thoughts. However, given that I might never get it all completely together, I want to begin sharing some of my thoughts and reflections.

I was very encouraged by the time I spent with Marko. He is a sincere, down-to-earth and caring individual. I’m not sure how many presidents of other companies (Christian or not) would sit down for a couple of hours with some random emailer, but that's exactly what Marko did. It was powerful to see an influential person take these issues to heart -- Marko had just finished reading Asian American Youth Ministry (edited by DJ Chuang) as part of his desire to engage these issues on a deeper level. He posted some of his observations here on his blog.

I am thankful that Marko has added his voice in this conversation. His perspective is unique in this context -- he is both an insider (as someone who is fully invested in the lives of students, youth ministry and youth workers) and an outsider (as a non-Asian-American person) to the situation.

This is a significant dialogue, for the future of Asian-American youth and youth ministry as well as for the broader Church. Marko’s three observations about Asian-American youth ministry are important, and I will interact with each of his insights on this blog for a little while in a series of individual posts.

First, Marko points out that youth workers are often treated as second or third-class citizens in Asian-American churches. While this is not true in every Asian-American church (and is a struggle outside of our community as well), many of us have encountered this ugly fact of life in our ministries. It is not uncommon for Asian-American youth to have gone through three or four (or more) youth pastors during their middle and high school years. One of the first questions I heard from many of my students once I arrived at this church was, "How long are you going to be here?" A youth teacher at our church fired a warning shot over my bow on the first Sunday I was here, saying, "I hope you're not treating youth ministry as a stepping stone."

While there are positive aspects to the Confucian ideal of respecting our elders, there is also a dark side to it as well -- as evidenced by the poor treatment of many youth workers. Sadly, youth ministry is often treated as either an after-thought or as "ministry lite" by many of our churches because it deals directly with younger people. This translates into an environment where there is no future for youth workers. As Marko rightly points out, "the pay sucks." None of us entered youth ministry (or ministry in general) believing that we would become wealthy, but there is something wrong with the system.

Because many churches see youth ministry as a temporary thing that only seminarians or young, single people do, they feel justified in paying very low wages to their youth workers. While it may be possible for single people to scrape by (though it is still wrong for churches pay their young, single workers so poorly), it is almost impossible to support a family on these wages. Thus, many are forced either to move on from youth ministry or leave church work altogether as they begin to raise families.

I have often received advice from first-generation people that pastors should not talk too much about money, lest they appear greedy. Some have even gone so far as to say that we shouldn't even ask about our pay -- just find out when you get your first paycheck. In my last church, they actually lied about how much I would be paid -- stating one amount over the phone but actually paying a significantly lower amount. I do not believe we must follow the corporate model of formal negotiations and including every minute detail in a written contract, but churches must begin taking better care of their youth workers.

In a worst-case scenario, I have one friend who had been serving at one of the biggest Asian-American churches in the country as a youth pastor for several years. Not only did he never receive a raise, but his pay was actually decreased at one point. Although he is married and has a child, he did not receive health insurance from the church. Worse, when he raised these concerns to the church, their response was, "You should be glad you can work here. There are plenty of people who are dying to take your job."

Sometimes, these significant issues of wages and compensation are brushed aside under the rhetoric of “humility.” Youth workers need to “pay their dues” and learn just how hard ministry is supposed to be.

This attitude of relegating youth ministry to the minor leagues goes far beyond issues of pay. When churches believe that the only “real” ministries are to adults, then youth ministry becomes little more than a tool. Churches hope to cultivate a successful youth ministry primarily as a means of attracting adults (the real members) to “big church.” I have heard numerous first-generation pastors equate youth ministry with “just playing” or babysitting. This fundamental lack of vision for youth ministry makes it almost impossible for even the most dedicated youth workers to remain in it for the long haul.

In the end, I suppose it is not only youth workers that are treated as second-class citizens. I can think of many faithful associate pastors I have known and admired who have labored under even worse circumstances in their first-generation ministry setting. While the role of the senior pastor in a first-generation setting has its own set of extraordinary difficulties, the difference in compensation and respect between the senior pastor and the rest of the staff is staggering.

So, how do we begin to address these issues? How do we create the perception that being in youth ministry can be a legitimate end, that it is not inherently a temporary layover until “real” ministry begins? How can we help our churches champion and support youth ministry as vital and foundational to their being?



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I have always blogged using all-lowercase words. Beyond the aesthetic of it, I viewed my blog as a sort of stream-of-consciousness setting - not much editing, just my thoughts as they spilled out onto the screen. I have decided to clean it up a bit, partly for readability (it can be difficult to distinguish one sentence from another without capitalization) and partly as an attempt to organize my thoughts in a more deliberate manner (I have found myself taking much more time to write posts over the last couple of months anyways).

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3 Comments:

Blogger marko said...

thanks for the kind words, daniel. and, for the interesting thoughts. yeah, i really agree with so much of what you're saying (at least the parts i'm able to speak to!). it's a cyclical problem. the 2nd/3rd class (in a valuation of ministry calling) keeps many out of youth ministry, and keeps salaries low. the low salaries and the lack of valuation keeps sharp youth workers from staying in it. with all (most) of the sharp youth workers leaving for other ministry roles or other jobs, no one stays long enough to be a fly in the systemic ointment. it's a self-perpetuating system.

i think the only way it will change is if:
1. a handful of asian american youth workers put their foot down and communicate that this is their calling.
2. and, they are able to do this in a rare church that validates their calling (this validation shows in words, support, resources, salary, and other ways).

7:15 PM  
Blogger daniel so said...

This is where the rubber meets the road for me, personally. I have chosen to remain in youth ministry over the last ten years (well, to be more accurate, I believe that I have responded to God's calling to stay in it) but it has been difficult.

I agree that there must be brave people who remain true to their calling to stick it out with youth (in the context of a church that values & supports youth ministry); I guess I'm just trying to figure out my place in all of that...

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan Lee said...

pay (or lack of it) for AA youth workers is a shame. pay (or lack of it) for pastors in general...especially in Asian churches is a disgrace. i'm glad someone has begun to speak out against such things. speak on brother...

9:36 AM  

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