I’ve been getting phone calls from people wanting to know how I feel about the recent changes at Youth Specialties. Earlier this year, Tic Long was let go, and last week, Mark Oestreicher (Marko) was also released of his duties. I’m not sure why all of this happened, although I do know that YS was under a lot of pressure over the last year or so to get things back “in the black.” Unfortunately, the general state of the economy more than likely created something of a perfect storm to keep that from happening.
How do I feel? Actually I’m not sure how I feel about it. I don’t have any involvement at all in YS anymore, nor do I have much of a relationship with its parent company Zondervan. It’s all in the past to me. I still get a few royalty checks (tiny) for books I have written but that’s about it. I don’t get invited to YS conventions and my most recent books have been published by other publishers.
I’m saddened by what I’ve been hearing, and I’m also concerned that things are getting out of control on the internet. People who blog (I guess I’m one of them now) often say hurtful things which are quite often uninformed as well as unkind. From what I’ve been reading, Zondervan is being painted as an evil empire that mistreats its employees, is only interested in making money and just doesn’t “get” youth ministry. While it’s true that Zondervan is a large corporation with shareholders who expect all their divisions to perform profitably, this should not have been a problem for YS. Youth Specialties has never been a non-profit company. It was a profit-making company when Mike and I owned it and making money was just as important to us as it is to Zondervan’s shareholders. Neither Mike nor I had deep pockets to keep YS operating at a loss. It had to make money. Fortunately for us, it always did. We almost lost Youth Specialties in 1989 because of the San Francisco earthquake (and we had to let a lot of good people go that year) but we managed to pull through and survive thanks to some friends and banks who went out on a limb to loan us a lot of money. When you are a business, turning a profit is what it’s all about. That’s how you keep things going. Therein also lies your inherent accountability, keeping you competitive and on the cutting edge of things.
More on Zondervan: When Mike Yaconelli and I started YS in 1968, we self-published all of our books because no Christian publishers would touch them. The market was way too small and the stuff in our Ideas books was controversial at the time, not to mention in very bad taste. We bootlegged them. But an very nice man named Bob DeVries, who was an editor at Zondervan, came to our second National Youth Workers Convention to hear Francis Schaeffer speak. While he was there, he approached us about possibly publishing our Ideas books in a format that would reach more people. We couldn’t believe it. The first Zondervan/YS collaboration was called “Way Out Ideas for Youth Groups” which came out in 1972. That was the beginning of long relationship with the company that resulted in quite a few books and it really helped put YS on the map. Zondervan was distributing our books all over the world. In addition, they encouraged me to write my first “real” book in 1978 called Junior High Ministry which has been revised and republished several times.
All that to say: Zondervan has always been a big supporter of Youth Specialties and its vision. To my knowledge, that hasn’t changed. I don’t think they purchased YS from Karla Yaconelli to watch it disintegrate.
I got a call from a reporter from the Christian Post (an online newspaper) last week and her subsequent article about YS included a few quotes from me (most of them I were accurate). She asked if I thought YS would survive now that the two most recognizable and visible names (Marko and Tic) were gone. I assured her that yes, I think YS can probably keep right on going. There was a time, after all, when Wayne Rice and Mike Yaconelli were the two most recognizable and visible names. After I left and Mike died, names changed but the vision and mission of YS continued. It can still continue.
I feel bad for Marko because it’s never easy to be terminated from your job. It’s humiliating, feels a lot like rejection and can stir up all kinds of negative emotions like anger and anxiety about the future. Maybe Marko is feeling more relief than rejection, I don’t know. I do know that he’s a very talented and capable guy and will likely land on his feet, just as Tic will also. We all of us do in the end.
Like I said, it saddens me to hear all the trash talk about Youth Specialties’ demise. I gave 25 years of my life to it and watched it grow far beyond anything that Mike and I ever imagined when we printed those first idea books way back when. God has powerfully used YS to bring about some remarkable changes in youth ministry and the church and I don’t think he’s finished with it. No obits just yet. My prayer is that YS will emerge even better and stronger under new leadership. But only time will tell.