When might we be honest about failure?

Writing about failure in the practice of youthwork feels like a daunting task, its the conversation no one wants to talk about. Never from a platform, a stage, a training event, or even in articles or books. It might be that youth work & ministry is a bed of roses, and thats the only way to sell it – but that surely hides a reality of its challenges, and also at its worst points – failure. Maybe we engage in the process of ongoing reflection and improvement almost as a way of seamlessly moving from one experience of practice to another, positioning ourselves as the central point that is able to make failure or non-failure happen. The other difficulty about failure is that it stands in stark contrast to success, and the conversation about what success in youth work & ministry is like. For instance, do we regard a practice of youthwork to be successful numerically if 15 young people enjoyed it, or that 1 person was excluded from it, or that 15 young people attended out of 10,000 that might live in the town. And thats only about assessing success and failure in regard to viewing young people as numbers, as attendance- a potential failure in itself.

Also, for the sake of self protection, the responsibility of failure is often laid elsewhere – outside of the youthworker (unless they internalise it and reflect on it) and the approach (youth ministry) but attributed to ‘the church’, ‘the management’, ‘clergy’ , ‘the schools’, young people (for not meeting our expectations), or families. Could it be that responsibility for failure lay not in the persons, or structures, but in the approach instead?

But if we are honest about failure in our ministries- which are the failings that hurt the most? when did we completely miss the mark?

For me, its the failings that occur in my family, because of  youthwork / ministry. 

Its the having to move jobs, houses and communities for me, but also jobs, houses, schools, friends, communities for my wife and children. Either because of changes in jobs. Nothing in the work of ministry quite matches this for the effect of what might be professional failings. Yet, even in ‘stable’ youthwork roles, these are subject usually to changing funding pressures, expectations and politics, all of which have an effect on stability, longevity and the possibility to have a stable family life.

Setting this aside, though not belittling it for one moment, what are the professional failings that hurt the most – that we need to talk about?

A failing for me is when I fail to notice what’s going on with a young person. When there’s too much going on in the situation, in the group, the club or the street, where the club is short staffed, or there an activity in the programme, and then that’s the actual moment when a young person in a conversation drops a subtle bomb about something. For me its a failure if id not been able to give that young person time, in that setting to talk further – because i was so busy, being busy and trying to focus on the practice of the work, not the young person who its all actually for. 

Thats one of the big failings in youthwork for me.

A benefit, in some ways, of working with young people who are more distant from the church type activities, ie street based work, or open access clubs, is that its less likely that the work would put people off being interested in the christian faith.

Its not as if what i do in these moments is to do the ‘youth ministry’ thing which bends over backwards to try and keep ‘christian’ young people (and more than often is faced with a reality of leaking them left right and centre) . So its a luxury that the work im involved in is starting at the other end of the spectrum, which in many ways just tries to give young people respect, time, and explore with them a positive side of the faith, without the politics, barriers or challenges within church, that ‘church’ young people face.

Maybe its a personal failing that as far as i know, not that many young people have ‘become christians’ in the process of the time that i have spent with them, in Perth or in Durham – so is that a failing? or is it better to think that neither were young people turned off of the christian faith because of me either?  But if i have done that – due to incorrect attitude, actions, words then i would consider that a failure – because i hadnt even given that young person a chance that they could explore faith from a point in an early encounter with a christian youthworker.

Failure is a tough one, whether its failings on our part, which we might beat ourselves up over, failings of the organisations or churches we work for, which might cause bitterness or cynicism, or failings in the approach we are asked to take – which might cause, again, reflection, but also a challenge to rethink again approaches, methods and assumptions about the work.

Is it possible that the failings of some of youth work & ministry are downplayed , and why might this be the case?

Might it be because the youthworker is encouraged to be the person who internalises the fault of it?

Is it because theres too much invested in the current status quo of youth ministry – especially in ‘evangelical circles’ to think that it has failed many youth ministers, and especially young people. The key propenents of it survived, those that didnt aren’t around to tell those tales.

I was in a conversation with someone who was working in a church recently, who was receiving a really difficult time of it and about to leave their role, and had been involved in 2 other churches and faced other personal and professional issues in them. On one hand the person was seriously wondering about their own ministry, and felt that they were at fault in them. However, the common denominator, was also that the person had been badly managed and employed and communicated to in 3 different churches. Maybe its that churches dont know that they treat people badly, and maybe if we’re part of the church in youth ministry, we and the young people might be personally subject to the churches failure also.

Sometimes the failure we feel, maybe isnt ours to keep. But without voicing them collectively these stories arent told.

Maybe we fail young people because of something on the day – like being too busy in the club, and that can be sorted. But what if our ministry doesnt listen to young people at all – have we failed young people completely?

I wonder- do we ever think we fail in youthwork because we don’t trust young people enough? or give them space to think? or give them responsibility? These dont sound like the main voices of failure – for most its that young people dont turn up to groups and clubs that theyre meant to – just because we put all that effort into them, not that we failed to do more than entertain.

When we think of failures in youth work – mine would be that ive not done enough to listen, encourage and challenge young people- in the spontaneous moments- usually opting for the safe option, especially in the busy moments.

What might be the other aspect of youth work and ministry that we might consider that we’ve failed in – and how might these failings be embraced – how might approaches of youth work/ministry / church be awakened to the reasons that failings occur. Are there 1000’s of young people in the UK who have a story that suggests that their involvement in youth work/ministry was at fault, not them as a young person, but us, our representation of the church/gospel in our youth ministry, are these unheard stories out weighed by the one church leader who had a great experience in youth ministy?  And what might those of us still involved in it learn as a result? Can ‘ministry’; include a reality about failure, and still be ‘ministry’?

Let open up the conversation…. Lets talk about failure?


Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust (www.fyt.org.uk) and Communities Together Durham (www.communitiestogetherdurham.org) and am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

2 thoughts on “When might we be honest about failure?”

  1. As ever, thanks, James. I had to smile at ‘Maybe its a personal failing that as far as i know, not that many young people have ‘become christians’ in the process of the time that i have spent with them, in Perth or in Durham’. Across my years, in particular, when I was a signed up revolutionary Marxist I failed signally to convert a single young person to the cause. In retrospect I feel positive about the ‘failure’, because it feels I stayed true to the process of youth work and never sought to indoctrinate.

    Liked by 1 person

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