Strangely, I seem to have a unique vantage point on the recent news that YouthWorks!, a youth mission organization headquartered in Minneapolis, has acquired Youth Specialties, the premier youth ministry event and publishing company. Before I explain my history with the organizations, let me be clear that I have no inside knowledge of the acquisition, nor have I even heard any gossip about how it’s going down. I do know that YS has struggled through the economic downturn, and I know enough about the world of publishing to know that, since Zondervan was acquired by HarperCollins (which is owned by NewsCorp), the bottom line is the bottom line — in other words, when YS became part of the NewsCorp, it wasn’t ultimately about ministry anymore. It was about return-on-investment.
That’s my first, and most important, thought: For YouthWorks, Youth Specialties events will (continue to) be all about ministry to youth workers. Of course, I’m not saying that Marko, Tic, Michelle, and the rest of the YS team weren’t about ministry. They were. But their bosses didn’t necessarily share that commitment.
First, my history with YouthWorks. Paul Bertelson, the president and founder of YW, was the junior high director at my church when I was in junior high. In fact, it was in his rusty old van, full of underground sprinkler equipment, that I first articulated my call to ministry. We were in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, the Saturday before Youth Sunday. I was in 7th grade, and he had asked me to say the offertory prayer in worship the next day. From there, I was very close to Paul — I helped him plan winter ski trips, counseled church camp for him, and generally made his office my second home.
John Potts came on the staff of my home church when I was in college, and he hired me to be his college intern. Potts and I were incredibly close through my college and seminary years, during which he served that church and then moved on to work at Youth Leadership in Minneapolis.
In 1994, I was about six months out of seminary and had recently been rejected by all four PhD programs to which I’d applied. Paul was working at Christ Presbyterian Church and had decided to leverage his connections in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and Pine Ridge, South Dakota for other churches in the Twin Cities. Under the name, Seeds Resources, Paul hired me to run four trips to Pine Ridge that summer. It was one of those crazy things that you would never agree to if you knew what it entailed, but we pulled it off. I drove a school bus back and for from Minneapolis to Pine Ridge each weeks (9 hours each way), and led trips, which meant setting up the work projects, playing the guitar, giving the talks, leading the meetings, and cooking the meals.
At the end of that summer, having taken about 400 kids and leaders on trips, Paul asked me to be the executive director of YW, a position I held for three years. At first, I was the sole employee, as Paul kept working at the church. We changed the name to YouthWorks when we discovered that “Seeds Resources” was the name of the bookstore at Willow Creek Community Church! And we decided that we could make a run at a viable ministry (YouthWorks is a non-profit corporation) if we provided mission trips that were 1) Christ-centered, 2) life-changing, and 3) affordable. That was it. Pretty simple. At the time, Group Workcamps were about $295 — ours were $145.
That fall, armed with a few hundred brochures and a second-hand display, I drove another rusty van to Chicago, where I had a booth at the Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention. For four days, I stood in the aisle saying, “Affordable mission trips,” and dropping the brochures in youth workers’ bags. Back at the office, I cold-called youth pastors around the Midwest, selling trips. I spoke at youth groups every week, I bought used vehicles, I collected donated paint, I made site visits, and I hired some summer staff. I spent the summers on the Pine Ridge Reservation — some of the best days of my life.I left YW in 1997 for the youth ministry job at Colonial — where Paul and John had both worked. I’ve written about my time at YW and on Pine Ridge in a couple places, most notably, Postmodern Youth Ministry. Which brings me to Youth Specialties. At a youth ministry meeting convened by Doug Pagitt in 1998, I met Mark Oestreicher and Tic Long, respectively the publisher and president of YS. Being overly ambitious, I plied them with all of my thoughts about youth ministry, hoping that some kind of opportunity would result. One did, months later, when Marko asked me to write a book on postmodernism and youth ministry. That book came out in 2001 and it still has a spot on some youth pastors’ shelves, and I wrote another book for YS and one more for the YS/Emergent imprint. Meanwhile, Tic asked me to speak at the NYWC for ten straight years (1999-2008), although my epic bomb on the main stage last fall brought that to a fiery end.
So, as you can see, I’ve got a great affinity for both organizations, and I know people well in each (Tic and Marko were both let go by Zondervan prior to the acquisition). And, I’ll reiterate, I have no inside knowledge of the deal, nor do I have any extant professional relationship with either.
It seems to me that the financial pressure on Marko and the rest of the YS staff over these past few years was unreasonable. The company founded by Mike Yaconelli and Wayne Rice, and sold by Karla Yaconelli to Zondervan, was never a particularly profitable company, as far as I know. I think that Yac wanted to make enough money each year to pay everyone and throw a kick-ass Christmas party. Those halcyon days ended when Zondervan was acquired by HarperCollins. Then, YS’s worth was determined primarily by whether is was a profitable sub-division of the corporation, which it wasn’t.
Meanwhile, YW has grown enormously since I left in 1997. Specifically, they currently take over 40,000 kids and leaders on trips each summer (that a 100-fold increase from the first summer), and they have launched other ministry ventures and a foundation. Yet Paul, John, and the rest at YW still have, as far as I can tell, pretty much the same posture towards ministry as ever. And they as, as I said, a non-profit, so YS events at least won’t have that pressure.
Coming out of Southern California as it did, YS is definitely more glitzy than YW. There’s always been an aura of celebrity at YS, and there have been certain personalities that have been the gravitational center of the conventions (which you can tell because everyone knows them by their first names: Chap, Duffy, Louie, Marko, Tic, Marv, etc.). YW is not like that, not at all. Most of the youth pastors in America who learned of this acquisition this weekend had never heard of Paul Bertelson, even though he’s the president of one of the largest youth organizations in the world. Watching the personalities of these organizations (California glitz and Minnesota demure) merge will be interesting, and I imagine, a bit awkward.
I know that feelings will be hurt — have been hurt — and I’m afraid that’s probably inevitable. I imagine that the learning curve for the YW staff will be very steep. But I also know them to be wonderful and humble people. I believe they will be good stewards of the YS brand/family. I also think they’ll make some changes, and I hope that people will give them some latitude to make those.
I’ll miss working with Marko in the way we have. Over the past decade of ministry partnership, he has grown to be one of my closest friends, and he has been fiercely loyal to me during some difficult days. But I’m sure he’ll land on his feet, and I imagine that we’ll find a way to cook up some trouble together in the near future.
Finally, just this morning, I received an email from someone asking me to speak at a youth ministry event this summer. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten an invitation like that, and it brought me some joy. Reflecting this past week, first on the death of a fellow youth worker, and now on these two organizations, I’ve realized how much of me still loves youth ministry.