– Sam Van Eman
©2008, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
I’ve held several minimum-wage or near minimum-wage jobs, starting with McDonalds at age 16 and then moving on to roofing laborer, dining hall dish-washer and, finally, telemarketer. Like most young people, I saw none of these as having career potential because of college and other opportunities for advancement. Have you ever heard a teenager say, “My dream is to make ice cream cones at the Frosty Twist until I retire”? Teenagers want to make a splash in the world and work is a great way to do it. Just not necessarily minimum-wage work.
Calling – that elevated word full of purpose and honor – usually gets attached to careers, not to part-time, after-school, save-money-to-buy-new-sneakers kind of work. But it should. Calling is calling no matter where we work. God expects us to make a difference in the most temporary and menial places. And so I ask, How would you help a teenager make change at the Frosty Twist?
Making change is more than being on time, keeping an honest cash drawer and dressing appropriately. These basic employee expectations aren’t exclusively Christian behaviors. Making change is also more than a simple reminder to love co-workers. Jesus expects this to be done with abandon, yes, but do teens know how in the nuances of daily work situations? Making change is more than sharing the Roman Road with lost souls. Jobs are on God’s redemption list, too, which means teens need an all-encompassing Gospel to carry with them into complex places.
Specifically for the work environment, teenagers need four behaviors to help them make change:
- They need to practice permanency even in short-term employment. Homeowners take better care of property and neighborhood than renters do. Likewise, employees with a permanence mentality will put stock in their work.
- They need to study the workplace well enough to know where it’s broken. Mechanics know cars well enough to diagnose them by sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Non-mechanics don’t.
- They need to care enough to fix what’s broken. (See #1 and #2)
- They need to pool resources to help along the way.
All of these require a conviction that God cares about minimum-wage jobs and wants to reconcile them, like everything else, under his Lordship. When teenagers see the value of their role as co-laborers with Christ, they’ll step up. In the following examples, I hope to encourage you with fresh ideas and help you brainstorm with teens about making change while making change. Watch for the four behaviors to show up as I tell you about a small act I did to make change in a typical minimum wage job and as I offer a few other scenarios to get your thoughts rolling.
McDonalds, someone told me, was a great place to start. It taught customer care, responsibility and professionalism. It prepared you for better jobs in the future. That was me. There to get somewhere else. I could have treated McDonalds like a renter – It ain’t mine so I don’t care – but I knew (before I knew the word “calling”) that God expected more.
I was dependable and flexible, which meant managers assigned me to various stations in the store. If a Drive-Thru server called in sick, I went there. If a bus full of 50 children pulled into the parking lot, I went to the grill to make burgers. Many employees, on the other hand, stayed put. They worked the same job every shift. This resulted in them becoming familiar enough with their station to develop unique concerns. Front Counter cashiers, for example, often complained about being short-handed and wished the managers booked more help during peak hours. Grill cooks wished for more comfortable clothing and didn’t like to be told to clean up so often, especially when customers couldn’t see that area. And so on.
Ironically, few of these complaints ever made it to the managers.
My first promotion required me to train new hires on how to cook French fries, take orders, etc. Willing, teachable, excited new hires with no complaints. Because I served at various stations and stuck around for a couple of years, and because I wasn’t seen as the cause of general employee issues, I witnessed these brand new employees go from willing and forgiving to unhappy and cynical. I tried to encourage them to talk with managers, but time and time again they said, “What’s the point? They aren’t going to change for me,” or “They won’t listen to me. I hate this job.” I also asked the managers if folks ever came to them with issues, but the managers said no. They knew, however, that a number of crew members were discontented.
Something was broken at McDonalds. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I cared enough to try a repair. You may remember “Ann Landers,” a long-standing syndicated newspaper feature where readers asked questions or made complaints, and Ann replied. I started a “Sam Landers” notebook in the break room. I can’t say it was my most demographically relevant marketing effort, but Sam and Ann rhyme a little, and I liked the idea of providing an anonymous space for employees to voice concerns. I set guidelines for comments in order to keep them civil and asked the managers to reply when able. I don’t know if this little communication stunt changed McDonalds, but the managers were delighted. It helped them to know what was up and gave them ideas for improving the work environment.
Ask your teen what’s broken at work. Inspire them to be change-makers by brainstorming responses that line up with their gifts and the particular needs of their employers and co-workers. Creativity and a faithful response to God’s call will certainly produce interesting possibilities.
I never worked at Blockbuster, but if I did I’d start a movie club. Think of it as a ramped-up version of those aisle-end staff pick shelves. I enjoy thought-provoking, well-made, discussible movies like Gattaca, 12 Angry Men, Changing Lanes, The Green Mile and Pleasantville. All of them have elements related to the biblical ideas of redemption and truth. I’d ask my boss for a shelf called “Sam’s Pick” to make it personal and get people wondering what kind of movies a certain employee watches. I’d even offer to buy candy or give away prizes to recommenders whose movie suggestion got “Sam’s Pick.”
On the shelf I’d include a sheet of paper called “Mind Wrap” or something like that. An on-line forum might work, too, but tangible is good when you’re sitting on the couch watching a movie. “Mind Wrap” would have a list of questions, maybe a quote, and a note about checking out certain sections of the DVD’s director commentary – anything to help viewers wrap their minds around the content. Occasionally I’d feature a purely fun pick. Play and entertainment, in moderation, are good in God’s world, no? I’d also ask respected friends to help me with the picks and the “Mind Wrap” material.
Within a few months of featuring weekly films and highlighting viewers’ responses, do you think there would be at least a small following? I could see the potential of building an e-mail list or Facebook group, and posting updates on Twitter. This simple experiment would certainly require extra hours of investment, but it highlights good films, encourages cultural engagement, makes the store more interactive and fosters employee/customer relationships which lead, well, to the good stuff of relationships.
Making change isn’t always coated in church language. Rather, it’s a response to Jesus in ways we are able. Blockbuster and the film industry need the response of salt and light just like everywhere else. When people ask why I run “Sam’s Pick,” I’d tell them. In the beginning, however, I’d just do it because it’s the right thing for me to do. Can you help a teen write a proposal for “____’s Pick”?
Long van rides provide quality time to learn about your students. I remember one particular travel conversation with a college sophomore that caught me off-guard. First, he was a business major. Second, he really wanted to make a difference in the world. Third, he had just quit his job at Toys-R-Us. It wasn’t until I asked why he quit that details one and two re-entered the picture. I interrupted him mid-sentence and said, “Wait, you mean you’re a business major who wants to change the world and you just quit a job that needs you to make a difference?” I was dumbfounded. He seemed surprised by my question as if the disparity had never occurred to him. Simply put, he and several other employees weren’t getting along with a boss, so they walked out.
Had he talked with the boss about their concerns? No. Had he talked with his dissenting co-workers about drafting a letter, calling a meeting, thinking about creative changes they could work on together, going to corporate, asking a business professor for advice? No. His beliefs about work failed to produce corresponding actions.
Interestingly, he got excited in the van about possible solutions as we started brainstorming. He even came up with a few of his own. I got the sense that a bit of timely guidance and a dose of encouragement might have saved the situation. Unfortunately, he had taken no responsibility for the difference in the business world he claimed to care about.
What’s your first response when a kid says he wants to quit? Take that opportunity to ask why. Push back on lame answers. Show your excitement for your teen to live out his faith constructively.
Consider this last example of how God moves despite our failures at making change. After McDonald’s, I went to work for a roofer. I carried shingles, picked up nails, delivered supplies to work sites, ground insulation into my skin and lungs, and boiled in the sun on black roofs. Again, not something I wished to do for the rest of my life.
I spent a lot of time commuting to job sites with the guys and working closely with them. They all knew I was a Christian, either because I didn’t smoke and cuss and they had asked why not, or because we worked closely together and I didn’t hide my beliefs. It was a very evangelistic season for me in the traditional sense.
Denny was a surfer turned roofer who thought Jesus was a good guy. He had no time for religion and used pot as his spiritual experience. He smoked often on the job. I had many opportunities to share my faith with Denny and I believed I was making headway. Then one hot afternoon I made a comment about his marijuana habit (I had works-based expectations even for those who made no profession of faith), which caused him to stop hammering the shingle.
Before I tell you what he said to me, you must understand that I was also known for devouring large quantities of Little Debbie snack cakes. I washed three or four of them down daily with a pint of milk. Because it was cheaper to buy the 12-pack box than the individually wrapped cakes, I sometimes finished off a whole box in a day. I was thin and thought little of my diet, but Denny looked right at me and said, “So you think it’s wrong for me to mistreat the body God gave me? When you stop killing yourself with Little Debbies, you can lecture me about smoking pot. Until then, keep your mouth shut.”
Not much change-making in that situation. Too hypocritical, too judgmental, too limited in what I thought it meant to make change. As much as I wanted to help Denny and the company, I was part of the problem in a job where many, many employees had addictions plaguing their lives.
I’ll never be perfect in any job. Fortunately, God does what needs to be done. Denny’s sharp response awakened me to faults in my “preaching” and made me realize that the crew paid attention to integrity and the lack of it. Humbled, I asked sincerely for Denny’s forgiveness and enjoyed more meaningful exchanges thereafter.
I wonder how you made change while making change; how many minor and major responses of salt and light you provided in your minimum-wage jobs. I’d love to hear the stories as well as the ingenious ideas we could use to inspire teens this summer. Hollister clerks need help in their ministry to girls with body image issues. Verizon kiosk employees need help fighting against up-selling products that feed into male egos. And so on.
Maybe this summer you could highlight teen work success stories once a month in youth group. Or teach a Sunday School series on making change while making change. Or invite five working teens to meet with you to discuss the four behaviors above in practical terms. Whatever it is, now’s the perfect time to develop a “greatest commandments work ethic” for life (Mark 12:30-31).
Sam Van Eman was a public school teacher before joining the Coalition for Christian Outreach in 1998. As a staff specialist with the CCO, he speaks publicly about pop culture advertising and has written a book called On Earth as It is in Advertising? Moving From Commercial Hype to Gospel Hope.
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