I arrived at my new church as the new AM, straight after finishing Moore College. I had several meetings with the previous AM in which he described the history and state of the youth ministry and the evening church. He had changed the Friday night youth group from an attractional model to a discipleship model. So, under the old program the two-hour program on Friday night involved one and a half hours of games, a ten-minute youth talk and twenty minutes of food. The new program involved one hour of games, a forty-five-minute Bible study and fifteen minutes of food. Under the old program there were around 80 kids coming along. When the program was changed the first week dropped to three kids. By the time I arrived the youth group had built backup to around 50 kids.
These changes were never fully accepted by the SM and there was a Bible Study group that remained strongly opposed to the changes. In the Bible Study group were two of the wardens, the children’s minister, and the student minister. In addition to the Friday night youth group there were three other youth groups being run on different nights with each having a smaller target age range. Two of these were being run by the children’s minister and the student minister from this Bible Study group and were attractional in their nature.
The SM made it clear that I was to look after youth and young adults however he said that I had no authority or responsibility for two of the three other youth groups that were being run. What became clear in that conversation is that he had very different ideas about their future, so I resolved to leave them alone.
As I attended subsequent staff meetings it became clear that there was a division across the staff team, and it centred upon ministry philosophy – attractional focused vs discipleship focused. The student minister and the children’s minister wanted to develop ministry that was more attractional in nature by focusing upon games and entertainment. The previous assistant minister and I wanted to develop ministry that was more focused upon discipleship with clear Bible teaching at the centre. This difference showed itself in the way each of the two groups wanted to run the youth ministry. Initially the SM tried to remain neutral, but I felt that over time he was more and more supportive of the attractional focused ministry.
Two of the wardens from the afore-mentioned Bible study group wrote a complaint about me to the SM. Their areas of concern included: that I had taught kids about hell; I had read a controversial Bible passage at the morning church (Luke 14:25-27); and that I had promoted the Friday night youth group in the morning church. I had a meeting with the SM where he read out the complaint to me. I was completely surprised and unprepared. I didn’t have much time to respond. I chose not to debate the points and offered to resign because it became clear we were operating under a very different ministry philosophy and I felt that I wasn’t being supported. He chose not to accept my resignation and asked me to stay.
By this stage it had become very clear that there was a distinct group in the morning congregation that was opposed to the previous AM and now also to me. I believe that they didn’t like what the previous AM had done with the youth and young adults ministry and they saw my arrival as an opportunity for change. I resisted changing the ministry back to the way it was because I had originally agreed to come to the church on the basis that I knew the youth ministry was run with a discipleship focused model. So, they ramped up their advocacy and opposition to what I was trying to do.
The SM decided that we would meet to read the Bible together as a way of trying to work through these issues. Unfortunately, we only read two chapters together before our time together descended into discussion solely around the youth ministry.
I wanted to introduce a week-long youth camp as part of the youth program. The youth leaders and the youth kids were very supportive of the idea. However, the SM was rather skeptical, and he received negative feedback from the group in the morning congregation. I decided to persevere in running the camp.
I turned up for one of my regular meetings with the SM. I was surprised to find that he had asked one of the wardens along who had made a complaint about me. He then proceeded to outline three criticisms he had about me and my ministry: 1. An unwillingness to change, 2. A disengagement from church activities, and 3. A lack of discussion with the leaders of the other youth groups. I tried to answer each of his concerns, but I was in a state of shock and felt overwhelmed by the situation. I was given an alternative youth ministry structure and asked to implement it, which I knew would take the ministry back to the attractional model.
The SM continued to receive complaints from the group in the morning congregation. These complaints included the accusations that: we were running no games, we were running two-hour Bible studies, and that we forced the kids to sit still and say nothing during Bible studies. These complaints were completely false. I invited the SM to attend the Friday night youth group so that he could see what happened for himself, but he never took up my invitation. I suggested that we have a parish wide meeting to discuss the youth ministry where everyone could voice their thoughts and concerns, but he refused. He wrote me an email saying that we were running university level Bible studies that were dry and unsuited to kids. The Bible studies were written by the youth leaders who had been trained at the Katoomba youth leaders convention. Unfortunately, all these complaints were made by people who had never been to the Friday night youth group, even though I had made numerous invitations for those people to come along.
I put together a list of letters and comments that I had received from numerous people within the parish about the Friday night youth group. These letters and comments were very supportive of the ministry that was happening. They came from every part of the parish and included most of the youth leaders and some of the families from the morning congregation. These letters and comments were largely ignored by the SM in our discussions. In my second last meeting with the SM he said that because people were continuing to complain he thought I should leave.
At our final meeting he thanked me for my ministry but said that I needed to go, because he thought I displayed a lack of gentleness and humility. Unfortunately, I said some harsh things in response. He asked me to resign twice, but I refused. So, he gave me a letter of dismissal. He then asked me to sign a joint statement which said that I was leaving because of a personality clash, and not because of theology and ministry difference. I felt like I couldn’t sign the document in good conscience, so I refused.
Shortly after my meeting with the SM, I explained to the youth leaders that I would be leaving. I told the SM that it would be too difficult for me, my wife and my family to continue at the church. He agreed. I tried to arrange the final details with the wardens. However, they refused to pay me for another three months as outlined in the Assistant Minister’s ordinance. They also wanted me to take responsibility for the rental property that we were living in. This put my family and I under incredible stress. We were already losing our church friends and family, the community that we had adjusted to, the house that we were living in, and even our reputation. We spoke to other ministers outside the church, but not many really understood what had happened to us. Some made us feel like it was primarily our fault. We felt shattered and were not sure what would come next. Fortunately, in God’s grace, I was able to find a job in the business world.
The bishop wanted to help us in the final transition, but he was away at the time and so unable to deal with the situation directly. When he returned, he spoke with the wardens and directed them to pay our final three months’ package and to take responsibility for the rental property. This was a great relief for us. Yet we still felt quite isolated, and apart form this intervention we received no other support from the diocese. We felt like we were the bad guys.
After I had left, I sent an email to the SM apologising for speaking harshly to him in our last meeting. He responded and I was disappointed that he didn’t express any concern or offer any apology for what had happened to us. My wife and I have been deeply scarred by what happened. We still trust in the power and love of God, and we learnt a lot from the experience, but we would never choose to go through something like that again.