We need to talk about Clergy/Youth worker line management (Part 4) – what to do when it goes wrong

It is easier to talk about the reasons why a line management relationship goes wrong – its more difficult to suggest ways to rectify it!

In parts 1-3 of this management series (links below) I identified a number of these factors. Most of them come down to expectations, and these are widely talked about . However, there are other reasons why the relationship may start to break down, it could be personality, it could be a change in management style – from laissez faire (damaging in itself) to more directive (ok, but the change can be challenging). There can be other complications. Without going over old ground, the breakdown in this relationship is one of the key reasons a youthworker leaves a post. (outside of funding)

So, If its established that there can be issues within your relationship with your line manager (and if you’re a clergy reading this, with your youth worker who you are managing) what can be done to rectify, and reconcile when things start to go wrong… I realise it depends what the situation is.. but these are some of the things that can be put in place to help create a structure that can help before the event of any issues: 

  1. For both Church and Youthworker to establish that a known 3rd person will be given the responsibility of stepping in if needed, but prior to that point they can be the essential professional supervision for the youth worker for them to receive external critical reflective supervision on their practice throughout. If a youthworker tends not to request, ask or suggest this, then they’re turning down opportunities for further learning and reflection, yes as a church you may/will need to pay this, but it will pay off in the long run. This person may not need then be imported in for a crisis, but has been hopefully part of the ongoing conversation and may have been able to suggest, critique, questions and guide the worker through any issues in the ongoing. external supervision is critical!   (If I can be of help to supervise a worker, click the link above and it might be arranged )
  2. Spend time negotiating aspects of the structure of your line management relationship, including venue, frequency, agenda, management style ( directive/coaching/support) , and expectations. All in the first few weeks. In addition decide how feedback will be given, and what the process will be in receiving both positive and challenging criticism (there will be some) and how this will be handled.  Clergy, it is your responsibility to prioritise line managing your youthworker, the more they keep nagging you to meet them, the less committed it feels to them that you are about them, their ministry in your church. Forgive the directness. It needs to be said.
  3.  Have a discussion about time, and what time off, time in lieu, annual leave, working days will all look like, and what ‘time off’ activities are ok. Nothing worse that great youthwork on a sunday evening being overshadowed because the congregation have expectations that the youthworker shouldnt be visiting local pubs, or that their day off it is ok to help at the church fete. This is important.
  4. Can the two of you spend any social time together, that isnt church, or to do with work/ministry- it might be helpful… just a thought?

So, get some of this sorted – what to do when things start to go wrong? 

At the risk of sounding like an amateur relationship counsellor, and I am really not. I am also aware that I have not done these things, when i should have, or done them when i shouldnt. It is worth recognising, if the situation is appropriate to do so, that conflict can be a good thing if it is handled properly. Sometimes conflict can be the ‘storm’ before a new negotiated relationship which can flourish, and I know this is especially thought of in Tuckmans Group stages, sometimes it could be applicable to a one to one relationship, it is widely appropriated in mentoring relationships, so a line management one might not be too different, albeit some of the dynamics might be very different. Just worth trying to find resources and theories from elsewhere or group/mentor processes & changes.

  1. Arrange to talk directly with the person. Where this is possible. Yes each party might have a trusted 3rd person, so the practice supervisor, partner, area minister type person. But subsequent to this, each of you has to take responsibility for the care, nuture and attention to the relationship. What i would suggest is after talking through with someone, then write down on paper your personal reflections of the situation, including what you have felt, and how you would like it to be different. Pray through your reflections, give them a day or so to untangle a bit, and then arrange to meet up and talk about the relationship with the person. This is not going to be easy.  The few days space might help. writing things down will also. Through this kind of conversation, which might be on both sides, then renegotiate the relationship, expectations, guidelines, style of management, and revisit the ‘trigger’ points every few weeks.
  2. Avoid bottling things up, so that the list is very long. Keep short accounts, meet often.
  3. Dont gossip. So dont moan to the rest of the church. Gossip is speaking about the issue to anyone who you have duty of care over, or who is in a lower hierarchical structure to you in the church. With the exception of your spouse/partner.  Dont even gossip like this: Image result for gossip
  4. Avoid demonising the other person, its no excuse for bad practice, or pastoral, personality inadequacies, but its very likely that your line manager hasnt been trained to know what to do. However, if they as a clergy are unable to give you what might be pastoral, educative or spiritual direction (almost the absolute minimum or ‘default’ for a Minister, surely..?) , because of personal rudeness – then this is a more significant issue.  They might not know ‘how to manage you’ . Regardless, demonising them really doesnt help. They are a fallen child of God like you, and you could be two people collaborating on the ongoing task of Gods redemption.
  5. Call in the third party, someone who has been around all throughout, or someone new and independent. That third party might also be able to ask questions, and help solve some of the issues. Though personality clashes, serious breakdowns might be harder to fix.
  6. Dont Compare. There is no such thing as a perfect line manager/clergy relationship. Someone else down the road might be in a bigger church with great resources, but that doesnt mean that their management relationship is anything to write home about.
  7. Try and get a bit of perspective, this is on both sides. There are some issues that require a huge reaction- these are when on either side our personal/vocational dreams and goals havent been met or we’ve been let down. But even then, there is perspective, and will the reaction we give to something cause more damage than what the original issue caused?  Sometimes yes. Sometimes we are right to fly off the handle. We feel injustice, pain or annoyance by being unfairly treated, maligned or how young people are. Image result for fumingThis happens often, very often and its painful. There are ways to pay it forward, to show wisdom, and realise that other people have been socialised in churches to act and speak in such a way, and have got away with it.. no excuses, but often other people wont realise it. none of us are perfect. no not even the youthworker.
  8. You might need to make an official complaint to their boss. So the moderator, Bishop or someone equivalent. Bad luck if you’re in a church where all the power resides with the minister and theres no higher structure that has any influence. It is ok to complain. This is better than gossip, moaning or demonising. Complaining gives it to someone else to act, and shows that you are serious about wanting things to work out with the person. It is a cry for help, and one that shows some maturity. But most of us have no idea who to complain to….

There are no easy suggestions here, because the line management relationship can be frought at times. Both people have expectations, dreams, personalities, might like to manage/be managed in a certain way, have skills, gifts, vision that might all be different to each other, or not find resonance in the space of the church. It is tempting to just forget the line management relationship, given that our relationships with parents, young people and school teachers might be deemed more important. But none of those relationships will be the cause of you leaving a post (unless there is inappropriate behaviour) the relationship with your line manager is likely to cause you to lose more sleep over. For some reason and maybe because of its structural and spiritual importance in the life of the church, it causes more difficulty.

None of any of this is intended to sound as If i have done all this correctly, in similar situations, i really havent. I have been able to help others by being a supervisor to them and discovered that there are so many issues that can be the cause of issues in this relationship. If there isnt a solution, then one of the parties might have to leave. It happens. If the situation causes oppression, damage, pain and degrees of emotional, spiritual, psychological abuse & manipulation, then do seek counselling, do make a complaint and protect yourself, you are more important than your ministry. If this is you reading this, in such a painful situation, then seek help, you are not alone, find a youthworker on social media to talk to, if you dont know anyone, or even send me an email. But seek help, professional help and counselling also. Now for the majority, hopefully it isnt such a difficult situation, but for one or two of you it might be.

Please do share any other ways that the issues in line management relationships can be resolved, and what you have found to be helpful.


The Previous three articles in this series are here:

Part 1- Lets start this discussion

Part 2- What to negotiate

Part 3 – Managing expectations

Please do get in touch via the menus above, if I can be of help as a professional supervisor for you.


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.

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