Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

Being a professional (!) youthworker, or how shall i say it, the increase in professionalism in youth work training across britain has undoubtedly been a good thing, for the development of practice, for reflection and ongoing learning. Training in christian youthwork too has seen the increase in projects, development of theological thinking about working with young people, as well as whole lot more.

Currently i live and work in the same place. As a Christian, this could be said to be ‘incarnational’  – a word for modelling the closeness of being and ministry in the same place aka Jesus. However, given that i have children in the local schools, where i also work, and that 5-600 young people pass by my front door on their way to and from school, and to the local skate park, have i taken this too far?


I guess one of the things that people have said to me is that i have to be aware of my boundaries, in that when would it be appropriate to meet young people at the end of my drive, and thus make it aware to them where i live, or how should i be when i walk past young people in the local park when i am on my way to the shops? – do i go in disguise, just so they dont recognise me? (I used to be able to go to tescos at 3am, but hey… i am now in rural england)

Its also what i should do when i am not working and encounter young people incidentally, as per above, its one thing walking the dog semi deliberately during the evening, but when  i am doing the food shopping in sainsburys? appropriately its best to wait for the young person to acknowledge me the worker, or not to, aka a counselling relationship, yet i am still putting myself in an awkward position.

Living and working in the same area is different for other professionals, as i was speaking to a chaplain/teacher today, he was able to articulate that it was the institution of the school that defined the relationship with the pupils, and so as such there was no use/validity of seeking to further these relationships out of school, and this may be the same type of arrangement for centre based youthworkers, social workers etc, however, as detached youthwork is all about informal, often unintentional encounters, (though obviously some are deliberately actioned in ‘sessions’), how does that work, when maybe idealistically and dualistically, work and leisure should be distinct, and all the moments when i could be visible to young people i am being observed, in terms of integrity.

What for example, should i do when my children invite their friends round for tea?   after all, at the age of 10-12, they are no less ‘young people’ than the young people i now work with, in fact they may be the same ones? – for one thing its hardly ‘time off’ is it? when these moments will have an effect on the so called ‘professional’ relationships outside of the home, on the streets or in schools.

Ultimately there will always be grey areas, especially in a role so informal, so relational, and so in the community. the dichotomy of work/leisure possibly doesnt exist in a vocational professional, unless i go away from the context – head out on the bike, or go away for the weekend. Travelling through the grey areas , the so called boundaries, or borders, may be an ongoing exercise in reflection, or working out a new reality of being incarnational in a community, yet seen as ‘detached’ from the church, and with  the young people.

So, as a professional youthworker, theres a chance that we will all have to think about boundaries, of profession, or personal, and what we find to be acceptable either professionally or personally, i wonder also how we communicate these boundaries to and with young people, or maybe they are intuitive – maybe they know when we are ‘off’ or when we are ‘working’ – is it as simple as wearing an ID?  or alternatively pushing a trolley in Tesco?  (not that that stopped young people talking to me in Perth, NB lucky i didnt have too much alcohol in my trolley!)

Not only are physical boundaries to be thought about, but also social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, and who should be visible to us, and what we should make visible to young people whom we work with, and how and when it is appropriate to be contacted. For some, and i take my hat off to them, they have young people contact them at all times, for others its office time only, and even then on ‘work’ phones.. does personality or profession or family dictate this, and what is reasonable of an employee?

Each of us in the variety of contexts, and cultures that we exist, work, live and play as youth workers will have to negotiate and compromise through the boundaries of these often seperate, but indistinct paradigms of community boundaries.

Jesus gave time to the crowds, the disciples, and the religious leaders, he also took time aside to think – but he still did this in the vicinity of the others, walking distance, but far enough away to be away.  To be incarnational, and i use this term loosely, i guess to be with and amongst  young people in the community means that compartmentalized lives are a way of life not to be wished for, and what we need is to realise a new way of being.

2 thoughts on “Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

  1. James, I don’t pretend to understand all your theology, and I certainly don’t know the meaning of lots of your long words, but I’d like to add a few observations/thoughts that came to me as I was reading this blog.
    You stated in your last blog “There is no sacred, secular divide with God.” I agree with that 100%. The LICC in their Imagine project encouraged Christians to be ‘whole life’ disciples. This meant that they were involved in their ‘ministry’ as wholeheartedly in their workplace, school, college, home or community as they were in ‘the church’. Jesus was committed to His ministry 24/7 because He loved His Father and came to do His will. Yes, He needed time for Himself, and took time for Himself, but He wasn’t any different whether He was at a family wedding, having supper with friends or sharing the scriptures in the synagogue.
    If you were an ‘attached’ youth worker, I wonder, would you put on your youth worker’s hat when you went into your workplace, then be a completely different person, living with different standards when you went home? I don’t think so. So then if you bumped into one of the young people in the supermarket or when you were out walking the dog, then surely you’d be pleased to see him/her and be chuffed if they wanted to speak to you in that environment. In that context they see you as a regular guy doing the same every day things as anyone else, and your relationship would step up a notch because, presumably, relationship is what you are aiming for.
    As you are ‘detached’ in the community in which you live, that surely has to be an advantage. You don’t wear a different uniform when you go out ‘to work’ with the express aim of encountering young people in their environment and hopefully developing meaningful relationships with them. So inevitably you will be bumping into them (not literally!) and there will be no real distinction in their minds between the James they come across on the streets in the evening and the James they see washing the car in the drive or going to church with the family. This has to be to your advantage overall, because by seeing more aspects of your life it can hopefully lead to valuable conversations and a desire for a relationship with your God.
    You will, I am sure, soon be able to find and develop ways to spend your leisure time alone and with friends and family separate from what you see as ‘work’, but I think you always need to keep at the forefront of your mind what every aspect of your life is about, and that is bringing glory to God.


    1. And in some ways thats kind of what i am getting at, yet, this goes in the face of the ‘professionalism’ of statutory sector etc , and also the dualism of work/life, when work and life are inextricably linked. Thank you Mary for the encouragement.


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