Longtime Youth Specialties Leaders Laid Off

Youth Specialties president Mark Oestreicher was let go from his position this week after seven years of leading the prominent youth workers organization.

He was informed on Monday by the leadership team of Zondervan that he was being "released" from the company for reasons not specified.

"Youth Specialties has been going through a transition since Zondervan purchased it several years ago, and at this time we feel we need to make a change," Zondervan President and CEO Moe Girkins said in a statement.

When Zondervan, a major Christian media and publishing company, acquired Youth Specialties in 2006, Oestreicher and other YS staff maintained that their mission and "outside the box" attitude would not change. The YS website explains, "Marko, Tic, and Karla vowed that YS would continue to do what it has always done – love youth workers and provide them with the resources and training they need to bring teenagers closer to Jesus."

But since then Tic Long, who oversaw all events and served at YS for over 30 years, and now Oestreicher have been let go.

Long, who was considered "the glue" that kept YS together for so long, said his farewell in July.

"Tic I thought was a steady hand at the wheel," Wayne Rice, co-founder of YS, told The Christian Post. "I don't know all the reasons why, I'm not even sure Tic knew the reasons why [he was laid off]. I just didn't think it was in the best interest of Youth Specialties to let go of the only guy who had been there from the early days."

Rice started YS with Mike Yaconelli – who died in a tragic car accident in 2003 – in the 1960s. Their goal was to create a professional networking of youth workers. They felt at the time that youth ministry was not taken seriously and was perceived by many as the toy department in the church.

"We felt like youth workers needed to be treated with respect," explained Rice, who left the organization in 1994 over differences with Yaconelli on the vision and direction of YS.

Today, Rice believes Youth Specialties has accomplished the task of elevating youth ministry and giving it legitimacy. He's proud of the organization.

But after watching the organization from the sidelines over the past several years, Rice felt the organization was disintegrating.

"It's disheartening," he commented. "I had hoped YS would continue to provide help for youth workers and be a key force in youth ministry for a long time. It may still be."

"I think what has happened is symptomatic of whether or not [YS] will be vital or not. I hope it will be," he added.

He explained that YS has always functioned as a family. There was a sense of "real brotherhood and camaraderie" that always kept YS vital, he noted.

That sense of family was apparently felt by youth pastors familiar with YS. When news spread that Oestreicher was released from his leadership post, youth workers began blogging about their shock and disappointment.

"It must suck to be Moe Girkins, CEO of Zondervan, because she obviously does not get how youth pastors work and operate," wrote Jeremy Zach, a youth pastor from Laguna Beach, Calif., who admitted he didn't know Oestreicher personally. "We are a Band of Brothers who fight until the end. One cannot simply 'mess' with the youth pastor population and expect youth pastors to play along."

Jason Vines, spokesman for Zondervan, came across such blog entries and told The Christian Post that many of the discussions are "very uninformed."

"There's a lot of chatter out there," he said.

Vines declined to provide details about Oestreicher's firing, noting that it is a "personal matter between Zondervan and the employee."

"I think it's fair to both Zondervan and to Marko not to go into that area of questioning and answering," he said.

But he explained that they wanted to move the organization forward and stressed that they remain completely committed to the vision and the mission of Youth Specialties.

The publishing company is currently in talks with several organizations about possible partnerships that would propel the ministry forward. Final negotiations are taking place with one organization, which Vines would not identify at this time. An announcement detailing the partnership is expected to be made as soon as next week.

And until that deal is finished, decisions on new leadership for Youth Specialties will be delayed, Vines noted.

Zondervan's Girkins has meanwhile urged for patience as the process proceeds. "Our plan is for Youth Specialties to be relevant, impactful and extraordinary for many years to come," she said.