Im not sure the Kings of Leon would have had such a hit with that one.
I think Youth Ministers have a Strategic Thinking Inability, and here is why;
I meet a lot of youthworkers in a variety of places, what are great at what they are good at, and good especially at the things that they thought that youthwork (and youth ministry) was all about. The busy, active, fun, relationship building of developing a great rapport with young people. Every week is a new week of planning, making, meeting, listening, understanding and connecting with young people. Sessions need planning, Subjects and topics need deciding, volunteers need meeting, a few reports need writing. But all in all, for many who choose the narrow path of being a youthworker, there might be much that is done well, much that is in the default DNA of a youthworker .
To accompany the default activist youthworker is the industry of those who support and maintain the resource of this person, seminars on self care, ready to use materials on discipleship and much much more. Usually Sex. Often Sex. If talking about sex with young people, and the broader conversation of sexuality, gender and relationships, was an industry, then im sure someone might be making a packet out if it. Sex in youth ministry chat is the big seller. And for every youthworker especially in the church, being prepared to talk about sex, and being prepared to try and know more about sex is what is kind of expected. (because often no one in the church really wants to do it- i am convinced thats the reason why youthworkers are employed more than ever). It can feel like Sex is the make or break in a youth ministry setting, given the amount of time that seems to be dedicated to talking about it. (or at least in he church at least). Theres even evidence to back this up, or at least there has been some evidence done to show that resources on Sex are what the church needs more than ever. (as a quick plug, my review of Gemma Dunnings book on LGBT and teenagers is here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1ga ).
Talking about sex, talking about anything, with young people for the youthworker might just be their bread and butter, their default. As long as theyve got some information, a bit of an idea of the group and knows them and can shape a programme around them, then actually a youthworker is often in their comfort zone. Often, not always, and not every youthworker is the same. But largely. Its what many of us came into the ‘business’ to do.
Its not talking about sex that is going to cause the biggest issue for a youthworker.
Its talking about strategy.
And planning. or methods of planning
And thinking above the level of the busy-ness
Its putting the head above the parapet every now and again.
Its not really knowing what it is we’re doing and being unable to really write it down as a plan.
Its not really knowing whats going on to be able to think how it is ‘working’ – but it is
Its not giving time to ask the difficult questions – how can I/we do things better/more theologically?
Talk about Sex in youth work and ministry is easy, everyone wants to talk about it. No one wants to talk about strategy. Yet its not what comes as a default for many many potentially good youthworkers – who arent afforded the chance to become good youthworkers because they’re so stuck in the ongoing swim of the current. (metaphorically, though literally for the river based youthwork practice) . No one wants to talk about strategy. In the same way no one talks about management, closing ministries and what happens during the process of feeling like a failure. (though i have tried, my piece is here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1e7
Thinking strategically doesnt usually come naturally to many a youthworker. Thinking strategically doesnt come naturally to many in christian ministry at all. Because usually it is so boring. It sounds like admin. Its sound like something someone else should do (whilst the youthworker does the fun stuff). It sounds so dull. I guaruntee if there was a series of seminars on ‘Sex and Young people’ it would be packed out. A series on ‘developing strategy in youthwork’ and theres a feint whistle of emptiness as two people turn up. Strategy isnt Sexy, but neither does it feel important.
But it is. Well it isnt sexy, but it is important.
And it is even more important is its something that hits you like a bolt out of the blue, when someone asks:
do you have a strategic plan for the youth ministry in the church?
‘The diocese would like you to have strategy on how we meet the archbishops strategic priorities’
‘we just need you to have a plan for what you’re doing – can you present it to the next PCC?’
‘can you come up with a plan for how to stop young people leaving the church, in the whole of the UK?’
‘right, you said we need money for the youth group – do you have a strategy for this?’
It is often at this point that the youthworker is now outside their comfort zone. Talking about sex with a group of teenagers was easy compared to writing some kind of strategy, plan or proposal – where do you start? , And there is literally tons of resources on developing programmes, and approaches and personality and faith withing youth ministry – but where is there a resource on strategic planning? its not often talked about in ‘youthwork’ magazine for example.
At that point thinking about strategy is in the ‘needed, important and urgent’ category. Unfortunately its also in the Panic category as someone else wants to see it, and soon. Its becomes more dreaded and more important than last nights ‘sex talk’ with the youth group – this has ’employment expectations’ written all over it. This asks us to plan, to think creatively, to show organisation, to think about risks, about evidence, about aims and objectives, it becomes not good enough to say that people showed up to the youth group now, it means that we think more than this. And, given that ‘developing a strategic plan’ isnt part of any school curriculum, this could be the first time that its been a personal requirement.
The other panic, is that not only does it need to be thought through. It needs to be written down, again what does a strategy look like? I remember once the feeling of abject despondency when i had tried to write up a strategy for youth ministry for a church vision day, and also a church leaders meeting the following month. What i ended up doing was sharing with the whole church a series of ideas, theories and dreams. It may have been colour coded and used great phrases – but it wasnt what was expected. However – it could have been – because for some organisations they operate on dreams and vision – others want plans, processes and detail. In the development of strategy it is worth knowing what might be expected. Though, trust me, no one will be able to actually help you, often presenting a strategy or plan is a sink or swim moment, and guidance is usually limited.
It can feel very embarrassing when you get strategy wrong. Especially if you have tried really hard to think creatively and passionately about your ministry and that of the church, and also have dreams and ideas about what is to happen next. (something often members of the church dont even do that well) . On other occasions its not the lack of detail in the strategy, its that the strategy is going in the ‘wrong’ direction, to the churchs or organisations priorities. At this point it might be worth contemplating your own life or vocation choices with someone who you can do this with, especially if you do have dreams and ideas that now seem different to your employer (that were’nt before) .
However, these might be the result of the strategy. The issue in youth ministry is that there is often a Strategy Thinking Inability. The number of great, enthusiastic youth leaders is very encouraging. From the outset though, part of developing a ministry in any place with any group of young people, make a deliberate step to think about long term and short term strategies, about planning, resources, management and how these things are part of your thinking. It is in the lack of strategic thinking that many ministries fail and are cut short. Either personal or organisation ministries. Strategic thinking is part of good governance and management – and as youthworkers and ministers we are called to be good managers of people, and work with them too. Its the politics of situations, often, that cause youthworkers to leave, many of these situations can be avoided though better governance, planning and appropriate strategising. And i say appropriate because there is more than one way of strategising. But in the panic to provide a plan, theres no moment to think about alternatives.
Am I going to tell you here how to make a good strategic plan? Of course not. That requires effort on your part to think through it yourself. Though there are many other articles on this in the ‘Youthwork Management’ section of this website. Though Ill happily talk with you about managing planning and strategising in youth ministry further, and contact me for details, prices and what you might require. Talking of strategy is dull as dishwater, but it might just give you more of a long term ministry in a place, and that makes it important. More important than talking about Sex – well at least a Strategy Thinking Inability can be cured with some hard graft and thinking.