This is going to be my last post for a while, for, as you may know I am hoping to host a number of guest posts during November. Please do send your articles to me, and follow/like this page so that you can read them as they arrive. Just 500-1000 words on anything, theme to do with youth work, mission, young people & youth ministry. All details here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-18a
I have written about feeling alone in youth work & ministry before, and I want to return to it again as a theme before handing over this platform to others for a few weeks.
I wouldnt be the first person to recognise the ‘loneness’ of being involved in an employed capacity in a church setting, whether its the clergy, volunteer youthworker, paid mission worker or in an other capacity. There can be many times, when it can feel like you’re out of step, or thinking differently, or saying things that receive only ‘blank faces’ or ‘thats not the way we do things around here’ type glances. And thats just in a church, let alone an association or diocese or organisation, where the status quo, even in terms of thinking differently about mission, or discipleship or church can be a place of trying to make it on your own.
As a youthworker in a church, there can be seminal moments. For me it was when i realised that as i connected with young people outside the building, that the expectations of those within, and mine became different. I was expected to shoehorn young people outside into existing events, and for this not to upset the applecart. At this point i was searching for a new way. At this point the limitations of the expectations and institutions became only too aware. In other places that might be that believing that the young people ‘off the estate’ might make good leaders in the church. Or that young people can create in a positive way aspects of their own future. Or that it is ‘worth’ spending time with young people who might be LGBT. It is sometimes these small but significant steps that might put us as youthworkers, maybe progressive youthworkers who have a deep concern for young people outside of just faith, to start to be standing against the institutional flow. It might be there where truth and justice might meet, but it might also be a space of feeling alone.
Feeling like alone because the institution might doubt, feeling alone because the doubts become character attacks, feeling alone because others fear respectability (‘we cant have ‘gays in here’) or feeling alone because of reputation (what if someone goes to the papers) – feeling alone, because we feel tasked with compassion to go, to connect and spend time with young people, in ways or approaches that seem odd, or young people who arent ‘easy’ to cope with within an institution. In a way, being alone, can be in terms of thinking, it can also be in terms of doing, of acting in a way that challenges, and hopes that others might follow. But often the party line, the established practice, or ‘what we used to do’ becomes paramount the normative, and stepping out, taking risks, being ‘progressive’ is an alone step. And its not often called progressive, or radical, divisive or upsetting the status quo.
I have talked about being alone in what seems a church situation, but the path to feeling alone can happen elsewhere. Ive been in situations where the need for funding dictates a way of having to do ‘youth work’ – which then takes the practice away from ‘what the church expected- and so it can be ‘change’ or ‘lose job’ – and there can be little support when this decision needs to be made. So, going alone in a busy world of funding can be tricky, because then, usually theres very little experience in a church setting to also be involved in finding funding. You’re alone because you think young people are more important than institutions (and growth of them) and need a voice within them and in broader society. You’re alone because you think young people have been ‘sinned against’ more than sinners, and yet its the latter that they are told, or you’re alone for something else.
It means that it becomes really important to ‘find your tribe’ – and no tribe is perfect by the way. Sometimes there can be nothing better than a coffee with another youthworker who might just know what you’re going through. It might be a youthworker who offers critical thinking, challenging questions or ideas – someone different. On other occasions its not just one person who might be able to help, a friend might help in the short term, but being connected with a larger affiliation might then bring you into contact with a range of personal resources, support and guidance. I remember when I first met a youthwork hero of mine, and they suggested that i could connect with them on a regular basis, and that they could learn from what I was doing. they learn from me! Wow. So, no tribe is perfect, but find one that pushes and supports you in the path that you are being called to travel with young people, find one that expects less conformity and tries to push and asks the critical questions, find one who is willing to be on ‘your journey’ and not just trying to fit into theirs.
Theres nothing worse than feeling alone in day to day youth work life, and also feeling alone in the place where you’re supposed to get support, guidance and help from and within. It might not take long to know if you fit, or it might take a while. As tribes can change, or be too static when you change and start to think differently.
Of course, at no point are you ever ‘on your own’ – for me it is about having people around who at least give me opportunity to receive questions, think about thinking, theoretical and theological on youth work, and pushing the possibilities of compassion beyond to challenge structures. But thats how i am wired. However, there is something biblical about ‘not being alone’ as being part of our make up and created identity. It is also well documented that Jesus send the disciples in pairs (a model of ministry that is rarely followed – gospel centred ministry can still be very hierarchical) , the early church met in groups, and only on a few occasions was lone ministry seen as good. Sometimes you cant make it on your own, because actually you arent alone, sometimes you cant make it even with support, because it can be that tough being different, being pioneering, or because the actual support cant take away really difficult or unbearable situations, like bullying, manipulation and/or power struggles. Sometimes you cant make it on your own, but sometimes you might have to go alone before you are joined by others who see a different way, forge the pathway, make the road by walking and all that. Find a tribe and take a few along with you, find a tribe nd have people cheering you on from the outside, along the road, find a tribe who you can share your joys and frustrations. Find a tribe that causes your alone work feel more like a community effort. Find a tribe that you can contribute to.
Sometimes you cant make it on your own, Sometimes you can. Sometimes you might need to. Taking risks and being prophetic might be a lonely place, but find the tribe that doesnt just validate you, but keeps you sharp, challenged and supported. In the grand scheme of things, you might just need it.
Of course at this point I might refer you to Frontier Youth Trust, who for over 50 years have been facilitating a Home for pioneer youthworkers, who needed to find a tribe that enabled them to have a space and voice within a paradigm of church serving youth ministry and ‘big’ ministries, if this appeals, as you face challenges of numbers, or attendance, and like me years ago was scratching for a different way, then please do check fyt here: http://www.fyt.org.uk. Theyre not perfect, no one is, but they might offer you a tribe and community that could help you not feel alone as a youthworker believing in young people, in faith and community, and where change is possible, another way is possible, a home for pioneer youthworkers, might be a place for you not to feel alone.