Talking about the very popular, and they are in many shapes and sizes, the Church/youth ministry Gap year.

Let me put this out there. I was one of a long line of young people from my church in Market Harborough who participated in the Oasis Trust Frontline Team, Gap Year scheme, which ran for most of the 1990’s and into the 2000’s. It’s 20 years this week that I left home and was sent to a Hartlepool church with 3 others.  In the main, it was an enjoyable experience, in fact it was more than enjoyable, and one that set me up and ignited and desire to be involved in missional youthwork that has barely been dampened since. During my time in Perth, i was involved in a project which was able to take on Placement students over a period of 3 years during their time of studies at ICC, and in my current role and situation I am involved in training or supporting people on Gap year type schemes too. I am also in the process of trying to start up a gap year scheme with a number of partner organisations in the North East (See Launching Equip NE EQUIP)

So, there’s my experience stuff out of the way, you’ll be glad to hear, what want to share are my thoughts on what situations make for a good gap year experience for a student especially in church type situations, some of the issues about Gap years, and also where the positives are. I realise that my last post was a tongue in cheek list of reasons why Gap year people are often put upon to work with young people when adults make excuses for not doing so, but as this is a reality, its probably worth giving the whole Gap year programme situation some further thought.

  1. Gap Years can cost a lot of Money for the individual Student – even if they get some of it back in ‘pocket money’ – mine for example pretty much wiped out my savings at the age of 18. And if they are expensive – what does this say about the access of future ministry for those for whom finances might be a barrier. Some Gap years do offer the options of PT work during the course, but the equality and access issues remain, especially in a team situation. let alone a burnout situation during the year, and is a year of burnout a good starting point for a ‘taster’ time in Ministry..?
  2. If a church is lucky to have a team of gap years, then as they are able to create lots of new opportunities, groups and clubs, because there are more than 1 of them – then how might a church sustain this new work? or more importantly not just the work, but the hopefully positive relationships that have been started between the workers and young people. Not letting gap year teams ‘just get on with it’ in the course of a year would be beneficial for a church in the long term.
  3. Gap year people are trained during the year – and not always on the most immediately useful aspects of youthwork, or mission, or ministry. Ill let the Oasis 1996 guys off this one, as Youthwork/ministry was still relatively in its infancy even then, though the book list and reading was impressive, it did include Ashton and Moon, David Watson and Jim Packer – the latter two being evangelical theologians, all of only some use for community work amongst (oppressed) young people in Hartlepool. But the point being, the gap year person may only have a small bank of reference (personal experience & theory) to draw from in their development of groups, activities and mission locally. And, thinking about point 2 – in very few occasions might gap year people be able to increase local capacity of volunteers by training and supervising them, when their own practice is in a formational stage. It can happen, but unlikely- this is still the churches/agencies role.
  4. Will taking on a Gap Year person/team – diminish the role of your current volunteers, or disempower them? Does the ministry of your church need to ‘grow’ with new people. or deepen with the equipping of existing people, including the young people as junior leaders for sunday school, or leaders at all. Would i as a young person be given more or less opportunities to serve in a church if there was a group of ‘strangers’ imported to do some of the roles? Is it better to be a sending church of young people on gap years elsewhere, or a receiving one.. and how can you enable this to happen…?
  5. What long term strategy do you have as a church? And how is a gap year person/team part of that strategy? Is a critical question – for then at least they and you will know what they are needed to do as part of their role.
  6. Will having Gap Year people for youth ministry in a church reinforce the notion that working with young people is a young persons game? what does this say about how a church values young people – that they’re not worth personally investing in, but paying for potential outsiders to deal with..? And people who pay for the privaledge at that. Are there different options available for a church if they dont have resources to maintain current youth provision, that a gap year person? Will your young people benefit from ministry from people in the congregation of experience, from faithful disciples, or… emerging adults who are in training?
  7. Having existing work with volunteers will enable the gap year person to settle in, but for them to be challenged they might need space to develop and have volunteers ready to help them, so its worth having a pool of people ready.
  8. Give the Gap year people the chance to be thought of in their own right, actually this is the same for youthworkers, and ministers. No one likes being compared to the previous team, minister, youthworker, what they did/didnt do. These Gap year people have this one year that might help form them into a future vocational calling, help them to make it work for them too.
  9. There will be a culture shift and shock- especially if the student is new to the area and just left home. Maybe not so if theyre older, or have been to Uni – but your context will be different to what they know. And it will take time for them to understand, settle and be able to be effective in that context – some say, and id agree, one year isnt long enough for this to happen. But no one wants to do a gap year for 7 years.
  10. If you’re in a situation where you host a gap year student or team, and they have signed up to a charity/organisation to do this, and they send the team to you – is there a ‘serving a poor’ area power imbalance, and might you be in danger of being a CV filler for a young adult on their step to a university education who need to show ‘compassion’. But seriously – are you wanting to be viewed as a charity case? or your young people as needy, underprivledged (compared to the ‘rich’ gap year person, from X place where they can afford to pay for the gap year) – is this a power imbalance that you feel is appropriate for you, your church or the young people?  Nothing worse than being on the receiving end of charity for a long period of time, or the place where people are ‘sent to’..?
  11. Saying all this, The Gap Year, is often highly beneficial for the person participating in it, and that is a good thing. Many develop new skills, life experiences and even stay in ‘the ministry’ in a number of forms. If they can do a gap year that has decent qualifications, like level 3, diploma or degree then all the better. If they have good supervision, management and support than better still. However, i do wonder whether the gap year person stands to benefit more than the church at times, in the long run.
  12. Oh, and lets not forget the young people again. This is a relationship, relational orientated type of work. Yes, gradually if more and more gap year people are involved in a church the young people might become desensitised to the emotional connections that could be made, ie ‘theyll get over it’ or ‘we’ll get another one’ but that means that young people are having to cope with another potentially emotionally difficult situation, caused in churches, at the same time as all the other emotionally challenging situations in their lives already. Young people and new, ‘even for a year’ gap year people will make some kind of emotional connection. It happens, so be ready for it, and think about the effect of this on the young people you have in the church. There is nearly always a leaving moment for gap year people – even if they do 2-3 years, they usually leave. If your youth ministry in a church is based upon a relationship strategy, then will a gap year student help with this? especially if they will only be able to connect with young people for a year?  Different if its a programme or ministry strategy where they don’t connect in small groups with young people, and just preach or do assemblies or lessons.
  13. On a positive, I have found that being a youthworker in an organisation and having a gap year student alongside can be really helpful to start new work, or maintain activities, the questions over whether this is in the long term helpful for upskilling existing volunteers and young adults in a church is still valid though. But in an ecumenical type organisation this is a very helpful resource.

Yes taking on gap year people or teams, can be a great way of increasing ministries in churches, existing groups, giving volunteers an extra hand, and meeting new people, sharing your ministry and work with them, and educating them, discipling them as part of their time with you would be of critical importance, and they use the time to build on experiences and knowledge of your setting, and so it is then less about what they can do for you, and what you can do for them in practice, knowledge and life experience. Will a gap year person light sparks, yet – might they be disruptive – yes – will they realise it… probably not!, Will they be keen to learn, hopefully, will they transform your church and save a lost generation…only if you as a church are already in that business already and not leaving it up to them to do on your behalf.

So, my year on Oasis Teams was a hugely challenging, formational and informative one, some things ill never forget, some things ill want to but cant. Im still involved in youth work and mission, as are a few others in my year, and others before and after. Undertaking a gap year, in the current economic climate is a risk, or an opportunity for someone who wants to have experience in ministry before academic qualification. Its a risk for a church too, and young people, and also an opportunity. But undertaking it without thinking it through for the student, the church congregation and more importantly the young people is crucial.

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