Sometimes i wonder if the way in which young people are treated we think that they are some kind of alien species. Often it is because various institutions and maybe even youthworkers to justify their own existence and specialism, have created a narrative about young people that gives them special status, using terms like transition, or identity, or others to describe the age group. However, i wonder whether in the treating of young people as an alien species – we forget that their capacity or the effect of the actions or youth work & ministry on their emotions. Forgetting that they have them.
Why do i say this?
Well in the world of the street based youthwork, most people will talk about how it can be unpredicatable, and the connections superficial, irregular even. That the young people who are ‘most in need’ of detached youthwork might be said to be at risk, disadvantaged (and im only using these words as examples) , that they might act in certain ways, believe certain things – but what about the young person we meet on the street who might be a person with emotions? (and im not ‘just’ talking about anger.)
But even these young people, a year or two later ask after previous workers, ones who ‘meant’ something to them. Ones they connected with, ones that left them after a year, or two. Even if there was only a few conversations a few shared memories, a few moments over a year – these meant something, two people connected in the public space. There was an emotional connection.
What of the youth group?
Might we stop to think about the emotional connections that young people make in their groups, clubs and churches with peers, workers and leaders? Yet, when we think about young people as having emotional connections – how does this affect the styles of youth ministry that they experience? So, not unlike above – does the church give young people temporoary connections with year on year workers? Or does the education structure of a church mean that young people are asked to move up to different classes and not maintain a long term connection with the same person for a long term ( in effect copying school) – so that one or two people develop deep connections – rather than young people making connections group by group.
Of course then there are situations where the youthworker is only around for 2-3 years. Again – does the church think about the emotional connections that could be built up – then affected when the 3 years is up..?
In Jocelyn Bryans book Human Being (2016) she describes how that emotions are an important source of information and communication, and in addition the emotion displayed is linked to the cognitive appraisal of the situation. So for example, two different young people will react differently to the same mark in an essay paper because for one person it is evaluated against a need to have got a higher mark, the other by a personal desire to have passed. Their evaluation of a situation, in line with goals ( ie to achieve) or thoughts affects the emotions that are displayed. Then as obviously as our evaluations of situations change the way we react to the situations emotionally does too.
The problem occurs when the result of the actions we have taken in youth work and ministry has created hardened fearful and untrusting young people. There is much talk about resilience in regard to young people – the key factor in resilience isnt being able to cope – it is having connections and support structures that are meaningful in order that decisions can be supported or endorsed. Someone doesnt have resilience because they have it, it is a community factor.
So what kind of community does the world of youth ministry/youth work present to young people if it acts in a way that prevents depth, stability and inconsistency? If young people become hardened – because they once emotionally gave and trusted, and were let down – then has the person who was meant to be for them let them down even further – after all the teacher/social worker even Parent might be subject to their own agenda – but the ‘youth’ worker…
When our practices and Ministries promote the gaining of experience by the participants, gap years, college placements, short term projects, rather than thinking ‘this is about young people and they have emotions… how will this affect them, how will this help them.. how am i taking care of them..?’
There is lots of research done on youth Mentoring projects – whereby most of the data suggests that in a one to one mentoring relationship there needs to be a minimum of one year for real benefits to start to take place! A year – thats often 3 times longer than most student term placements! But there are even more benefits when this time is extended. At Durham Youth for Christ, I am so proud that we have been able to mentor young people for anything up to four or five years, with consistent staff in part, and even students who have volunteered for 3-4 years, and the effect on the young people – who now want to become mentors themselves is quite amazing. The young people have been treated in way that their whole persons, not just ‘attending school’ or ‘behaviour’ transformation, but that they are people with emotions who need to be tended to, respected, understood and to a point taken care of. Most young people leave being mentored with us in their own choice, again when they are ready, not when a programme ends, it is when they feel confident, independant. Sometimes, we as youthworkers find it harder to let go, and thats not an emotional crutch thing, but that we also feel emotional, and have invested in young people, giving of ourselves in the process, often giving and giving again. For neither should we be robots either.
It would be odd for people to not care when someone leaves the scene of their lives. In a Biblical context – the Easter story contains many occasions where the Disciples were full of grief, or wept at the death of Jesus, or theres the desperation of Peter – where will I go Lord? – when the pending leaving of Jesus was announced. There are entrances and exits in the ongoing drama of redemption (Vanhoozer 2005; 39). Yet when some of the methods of youth work and ministry exacerbate the leaving, then what might that say about how young people are thought of – just for someones experience? just a step on a professional ladder? a person whose emotions dont matter – theyll get over it… but thats just the point – should the institutions and organisations expect that of young people?
Maybe the best leaders arent the ones that are paid. The best are those that stayed. Who stick with young people. And that is where i know i have failed. Knowing that being paid in youth ministry is so temporary it becomes hard as a worker to give, for their sake or my own. Fear or self protection. But if i feel it, what of the young people themselves when they experience may workers, projects, volunteers – why would they invest again – except to show anger against the systems and structures.
I hope its not a patronising thing to suggest that working with young people has got to recognise that it is an emotional experience, it connects people, it involves them, and in active choice young people will choose experiences, like we all do, that would seek to create the best emotional experience for them. If a young person knows that they might get hurt again – why would they bother? – unless of course they are forced to participate.