Killer Expectations

The other day in Houston, i got to choose a car in the rental lot, and this Jeep Wrangler caught my attention. I used to own a Wrangler, back in the day.

Driving in the rain down the freeway, last Saturday night, a bunch of memories flooded back to me about getting fired from a youth ministry job at a church many, many years ago.

And it all started with a Jeep. Sort of.

The beginning of the end started when Jeannie and I bought a Jeep. A week later, I got called into a meeting with three of the elders: the 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 junior high pastor, and that I was setting a bad image for the teenagers (what?). They said it was clearly a flashy and expensive vehicle (uh, i told them what i’d paid — 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 Jeannie to work. With our college 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? I was young and naive and really wanted the job; and I’d agreed. We were paying off our college debt at break-neck speed (which provided no savings, since college loans weren’t reduced by an expedited pay off). But we’d never understood the deal to be that every penny of Jeannie’s income would go to debt.

Shorter story: My explanation didn’t matter, and they fired 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 weeks severance pay.” Really.

Of all the seminars I did over the years at NYWC, one of the favorites for me was the one year the smart and insightful Mark Riddle and I team-taught a seminar called “The Expectations that Killed the Youth Worker.” I remember Mark saying that, in his experience, the vast majority of youth workers who lose their jobs do so because of misunderstandings around unspoken expectations. Ever since Mark said that, I have continually found that to be true.

It’s one of the reasons 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 departure.

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