‘We thought we’d be ok’; The most dangerous words in Youth work & Ministry

I am sure many organisations, businesses and charities suffer from these five dangerous words, and so it pains me to suggest that they are less dangerous within the field of youth ministry and youthwork, only to say that in the past 10-15 years of being involved in various forms of youth work, i have realised that these five words are some of the most dangerous. Whats surprising is that from all sectors of youth work, from the large scale organisation, the ‘council youth club’, the small project or the church group – these five words when uttered portray something about the nature of youth work in those settings and how it is expected to function.

The five most dangerous words in youth work and ministry are..

We thought we’d be okay

‘We thought we’d be ok’ should be a phrase that strikes fear into any organisation, and it might be said that in the pending decline of youth work and ministry in the UK, there is a chance that it is beyond saving beyond its ‘we thought we’d be ok’ moments. But some of the really serious issues that have arisen do so because of the uttering of ‘we thought we’d be ok’.

Just think for a moment on how, even in your context and situation these words get banded about. Things like:

  • We Thought ‘youthwork’ would be ok – its always had council funding and we have a new building
  • We thought we’d be ok to not bother doing child protection procedures – after all we all know each other/we’re all christians
  • We thought we’d (our organisation) be ok – because we employed a youthworker to solve all our problems
  • We thought we’d be ok – because we got funding for three years
  • We thought we’d be ok – because we put policies in place
  • We thought we’d be ok – because we all prayed about it – that was all the planning we needed to do
  • We thought we’d be ok- we’ve employed a really good youthworker who doesnt need much managing
  • We thought we’d be ok – our youth group has run like this for ever 
  • We thought we’d be ok – because we’ve got a great new resource
  • We thought we’d be ok – not to train our staff or involve them in decision making
  • We thought we’d be ok- we’ve always done it this way
  • We thought we’d be ok ___________________________…. fill in your own here… 

We thought we’d be ok‘ indicates that a lack of past action that could have occurred, that didnt, has affected an organisation in a negative way by its lack of happening. On another hand, after decades of cuts, restrictions and the effects of government policy shifts on the provision of youthwork I dont think may statutory youthworkers had the confidence or luxury to think they were ever ok or secure, but there may be instances even then where there may have been opportunities where a complacency might have set in.

We thought we’d be ok‘ is probably more rife in the voluntary or faith ‘sector’. Its when an organisation relaxes for too long with a large amount of funding one year, and doesn’t think ahead soon enough. Or is naive in regard to acknowledging its own culture and failings & challenges, and hopes someone else can sort it out, or substitutes planning, critical thinking and management for ‘prayer or blind faith’ .

We thought we’d be ok‘, is less about strategy and stagnation – but more about assumptions and self limited agency. It makes assumptions based on the present and doesn’t think ahead to what might be, or might be opportunities and possibilities, let alone threats and weaknesses. It assumes things will always stay the same. It also suggests that actions in the past could actually have made a difference. Of course, uttering ‘We thought we’d be ok‘ is more likely to occur in the after the event, after the catastrophe, after the crisis – and yes might be part of critical reflection and honesty to ascertain what did or didnt happen when a crisis occured, but by then it might be too late. The young people have left and found somewhere else, the youthworker has undergone a personal crisis, the organisation has closed down – may all stem from a time when ‘we thought we’d be ok’ might be said.

Yet ‘we thought we’d be ok’ – might is about personal or organisation efficiency, when doing something the easiest or laziest way and ‘hoping to get away with scraping by’ . It makes me wonder whether, culturally we might be too far down the efficiency culture to a point where it takes too much effort to ‘do the extra thing’ or to revere quality over quick and ease. Of course, big corporations employ people on £1000’s to foresee risks, foresee the competition and plot preventative measures, managing in a way that means that ‘we thought we’d be ok‘ becomes only the stuff of legends and corporate fables, but trace the downfall of an organisation and ‘we thought we’d be ok‘ will be in there somewhere. ‘We thought we’d be ok, people will always buy jeans’ or ‘ we thought we’d be ok‘, people will always shop in bigger supermarkets’ and then theres a change for the worse.

So, it might be that the managing of strategical risk is something that youthwork and ministry might not be great at, especially as ‘We thought we’d be ok‘ can be common. (Or it just occurs in places where i visit or have worked). Not every meeting, not every management group, not every organisation includes managing organisational risks within its planning, because often the day to day and immediate takes priority. Steven Covey suggests that more time should be spent doing the important/non-urgent things in a ‘to -do’ list, how often is this the case not just in individuals within organisations who are employed, but also the governance itself – to do the important tasks, that arent urgent that includes risk detection and management.

Now, at the risk of shifting the blame to organisations within the assumption/efficiency culture of youth work and ministry. A case can also be made that individuals, even employed youthworkers (yes i know- perish the thought) can be as guilty of ‘we thought we’d be ok syndrome’ – especially in regard to professional or personal boundaries, especially in regard to prioritising tasks, or creating space for reflection and learning, or constructing suitable management around them. As as youthworker in a management role previously – the temptation and reality is that not everything can be done every day, it is endless, and at the same time the temptation can be to make assumptions that the worst might not happen and not do anything about it.

Catch yourself in a situation where there a temptation to think ‘ we’ll just be ok for a while in that area, im sure everything will be fine..’ and genuinely it might be. Maybe organisations need critical friends to ensure that the questions are asked again and again. Something ‘fine’ now without action might not be fine later.

We thought we’d be ok’  Five dangerous words for any organisation, five words that we need to avoid saying, because we’ve acted to do something about the issue, in youth work, in ministry and mission, we dared to look into the future, dreamed possibilities, and given ourselves the chance to avoid preventable pitfalls along the way. Not very much is so left field that it couldn’t be thought of. Though meteor attack on detached youthwork nights might be one.

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