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If Taylor Swift met a boy from Teeside..

Just for a little fun, Twitter was going a bit reactive earlier after the Lyrics of Taylor Swifts London Boy went viral and the transport impossibilities, or realities were described. Here is my little attempt to describe what might happen if the lovely Taylor came to Teeside instead of London.

Its a bit niche for any non Teeside/Hartlepool/Middlesbrough people…

The original lyrics and rational are here

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A few of my friends have recently asked me whether I would do a follow up to this piece that i wrote a few years ago: Trying to survive after falling off the evangelical cliff. I think looking back on this piece, and time, part of me was in a place of trying to survive even in the current situation of that time, yet placed significance in some of that as a fall away from aspects of evangelical church, life and culture, theology and boundaries. I was surviving myself.

The piece i think a number of my friends want me to write is on the reconstruction, and to share some of the resources, some of the aspects of my own reconstruction that may in turn help others, just may, because reconstruction will need and take a number of ways, specific to each one of us. A piece on reconstruction. Because, deconstructing does seem popular at the moment, or at least, maybe that’s because I am clocking it, noting it, my own echo chamber is full of it, because it seems its where i am, and have been. But I realised, whilst soaking in the bath last night, that reconstruction is continual. We don’t ever make it, but embrace the path of searching, with its stones, litter and obstacles. Yes there have been for me certain tools and people along the way. So, friends, this isn’t that piece on reconstruction. Yet.

But this, a poem on continual reconstruction. Some of my own, some of others who’ve been desert friends.

 

10 things you’re unlikely to see in Christian youthwork.

This almost feels a bit like the endgame on mock the week, when ‘unlikely things you’ll see…or hear’ is the opening strapping for which then the comedians are then tasked with completing. Today I was chatting to a few youthworkers about a youth work project that had a very similar name to another, and had used a bible verse number as their name. You know the one. It’s the life to the full one. (10:10). It got me thinking, if 3:16, 10:10 are commonly used, and there are some other common things in Christian youthwork.

What might be things unlikely to see or hear in Christian youthwork?

1. A project that has the name ’23:20′ after the profound words of Ezekiel.

2. A large worship gathering admit that financial reasons, and the need for advance funding, or internal poor partnership working was the reason for its demise. Far easier to say that ‘ the Lord is calling us to something new’

3. An all female worship band.

4. A Christian youthworker stay long enough in a church based role to be eligible for a sabbatical. And then to get one.

5. A youth pastor not use an analogy from Star wars/Lord of the rings or a U2 lyric in a youth service.

6. Young people involved in creating their own youth provision. Especially any collective worship space that’s apparently for them.

7. A job application for a youth worker that asks for a quiet, reflective, critical theological youth worker.

8. A youth work not have expectations that the Sunday school will be as full is was in 1890, after they’ve been in post 4 weeks.

9. A youth worker without 9 different coffee shop loyalty cards in their purse or wallet.

10. A commissioning service for the arrival of a new youth worker in post.

Here are 10 of my ‘unlikely to see’ in Christian youthwork, what might yours be?

Knife Angel

Written at the foot of this today, the knife angel is currently being displayed next to MIMA in Middlesbrough.

Knife angel.

Hands pained,

Open.
Eyes vacant,
Tearful.
Shoulder broad,
Holding.
Wings rusted,
Shielding.
Heart hidden,
Hurting.
Head bowed,
Grieving.
Fingers encouraging,
Hoping.
Wrists poised,
Arrested.
Knife angel,
Standing.
Knife angel,
Hoping.
Knife angel,
Lifing.
Knife angel,
Feeling.
Knife angel,

Redeeming.

Is youth ministry just about survival?

I put a ‘thing’ out on twitter a week or so ago, amongst the youth and community work fraternal, ‘ share your top tips on how to survive in youth ministry’ and waited for the responses. I got a few, and i will share them below. But in the course of asking for the feedback, and writing this, I started to think about the reality that usually there is only talk of surviving in youth ministry – surviving with your calling intact, surviving with your mental health intact, surviving with your family intact, surviving so that you might be able to be in a church for longer than 3 years.

Maybe the talk is of survival because the boulevard of youth ministry is littered with broken dreams, lives and people that have been hurt. But could ministry – in particular youth ministry be a space to thrive or flourish in at all, when talk is of survival and the myriad of issues that cause it to feel like that.

And yes i am as guilty, repeatedly in these pages sharing pieces about ‘why youthworkers leave churches‘ and my own journey that felt like surviving youth ministry, its as if surviving is the only game in town.

I was almost going to write a pessimistic piece on why its impossible to thrive in youth ministry – given the fairly usual suspects of short term contract, generally grossly under paid, employed in false pretences, high expectations, not to mention stuff like mission/ministry contradictions between parents, youth workers and young people, and most of them are featured at length in the piece above. But, ill not do that. No. Because there are examples of thriving. There are youth workers who are thriving in churches. Though i imagine there will be a number of key factors as to why this might be. And their testimony might suggest that being in a role long term, having influence in decision making about young people, maybe not being too unrealistic, having personal values that are closer to the organisational values (rather than a purist youth worker), maybe thriving happens when there is a genuine regard for young people in a church as participants and contributors, so a youthworker, can be a youthworker (not just an entertainer) . Maybe thriving happens where there are volunteers, or where there’s good management – or maybe where a youthworker has the fucking determination to do a bloody good job in a space for the sake of young people- despite all these things not being in place.

Rant over.

So, if thriving is going to happen in youth ministry – what might need to happen for it to?

These are some of the thoughts of the youth work and ministry fraternal:

As with any job, have an understanding and exciting/motivating line manager. Most church leaders have no training or significant experience in managing staff, yet most churches are packed with people with those skills. That knowledge needs to be utilised

Having an amazing youth worker friend to pray, share the load with you, who understands, who is willing to be on the other end of the phone when things are tough, or when you just don’t know what to do.   (avoiding being on your own – yet how many churches appoint 2 youthworkers? – notice that ‘not feeling alone features in a few others comments below)

Separate work and personal phone. Learn how to say No. Ensure line management is effective. Embrace ecumenism – sharing is better! Spread the load, develop your team. 

Do not answer emails when you should be off/working with young people. Make sure everyone knows you are away. Also a good idea to have a nighttime curfew on contact.

Find/develop close friend/s for support. i.e. can give them a call and speak openly and freely without worrying about what they will think of you when you hang up.

Seek out mentor/coach/director

Read fiction regularly
Use all annual leave each year
Learn how to organise yourself – work and life. i.e. calendars, to do list, project management, note taking processes, life administration etc.
Slightly different slant – but realise that you are sort of a team, likely to not be there forever, and supporting someone else’s dream &vision. Advocate for yp but also be a team player and build the wider vision.
(Thank you to all who contributed to these)
Of course, thriving doesn’t happen without often the need to survive the first few years, and whilst it has a few points, Doug Fields context of the mega church doesn’t always equate and his ‘first two years in youth ministry’ though sometimes, any advice on how to make it past what can be a fraught first two years is welcome. Often without realising it, we need to manage those above us, and manage people into managing us in a way we find most effective. But there is more to it than just management (and there’s a series on management on this site)
So- What will it take to thrive in youth ministry – or are many of those involved in it clinging on by their fingernails and just waiting for the next crisis to hit. And if that’s the case, forget thriving.

 

Praying the drama

A few thoughts on the above

One of the books that I have loved reading recently has been ‘The Sacred Enneagram’ by Christopher L Heurtz, and whilst I would have been sceptical a few years ago about many of the Myers-briggs/Enneagram type psychological things, reading it, after a few others on the Enneagram, at a time in my life in which I have been open to receive learning, reflection and awareness of myself, has been particularly meaningful.

What i like, especially, has been the link in the book that is made with developing Spiritual practices that align with personality ‘type’ and why these are important. One such one that I am beginning to use, and like is the centering prayer, which is described in the book, near the end.

In it you are encouraged to sit, to rest and bring to attention a picture, an image of God, a sacred symbol, and bring God into the room, the place and use the image as a way of realising God in present, and active in the moment.

It is usually at moments like this when my mind often goes blank.  Sick of usual metaphors like boats, waves, rivers, doors… so i shut off.. minds heads to practical, mind heads elsewhere, heart goes off in a huff, denied.

But what if i started to use the metaphor of play, of drama, of perfomance to centre my prayer. What if i use what i already know and focus my attention on God as loving director, and player of the play? What if i bring all that into my prayers, and not leave it on the academic bookshelf, what if Gods play is active and contemplative, if the drama was here all along?

So, resting in the play, centering my attention on the drama, i have began to write, and pray and reflect and attend contemplatively into the action, over the course of a few days I have been able to write what you see above.

There are parts to be played, verses to be written and dramas to be called to – for the play is ongoing.

What makes a good conversation with young people?

In the past I have given many hints and tips on how to have a good conversation with young people, I have also reflected sociologically and theologically about conversations, and suggested ways of valuing them (Ie ensure they feature in review sheets) but I wonder;

‘What makes a good conversation?’

Think about for a moment, whether you were in a pub, a coffee shop, in your home, out walking the dog even, walking in the countryside or at a beach.. what was it that made the conversation you had with someone.. a good one?

A sense of sharing?

Time flying, yet every moment being precious?

Personal disclosure?

Humour?

Good body language and eye contact?

Shared understanding?

Trust?

No fixed ending?

Equal power dynamics? Or at least awareness of these but respecting each other through it with boundaries..?

What might you add?

And whether we’re 14 or 41, 30 or 60, we sort of know intuitively when we’ve had a good conversation with someone, we felt it, we learned something, we gave something away, maybe there was a spark of life, of hope and of support or care. But we just know.

So, thinking about the dynamics of the youth group setting, the club, the school group or street..

How can spaces, become places of good conversation?

The responsibility is on us, the practitioner, the volunteer to make it so.

Though we might meet a friend in a coffee shop – the conversation with a young person might be less deliberate.. only that they might be looking for the moment

Though we might pass a conversation off as insignificant (we have loads in every session..) young people might have treasured them, or felt an emptiness without one.

The culture and setting is important for conversations. I remember that the best place for conversations was on the door of the open music night, where the young people were smoking. Inside was too loud and dark.. yet, outside was good for conversation because it was an extension of the informal space inside. How might conversation be had in the space of your setting.. I’ve seen homework clubs recently where the leaders have some great conversations with the young people, whilst they’re doing their homework. But also seen very stilted conversations with young people about a theme not of their choosing. When I say I’ve seen, it’s because I led them. When urgency to educate overrides participatory culture that is for young people.

Trust. Agreed, not only being trusted people, but as Jeffs and Smith also say, trusting in conversations themselves. Investing emotionally, in the connections, relying on the conversations for learning, for themes if any to emerge, to let tangents happen, to trust in ourselves as practitioners and volunteers to hold on in conversations, to listen and ask, not try and direct or shape..

Then again, whilst we might want to fixate on the good conversations, we might do well to treasure all the conversations and interactions we have whether it’s banter or chat, or something deeper, all are important. When doing detached work I used to have different categories of the interaction, from ‘acknowledgement'(a quick hi and bye) , a social conversation (about the local context, evenings activities) , a detailed conversation (about a subject in depth) or even a personal one (where disclosure occurred or a personal opinion shared) .. these helped us to value the nature of conversations and recognise that all had value and occurred at different points of a detached evening.. the same group might have a social chat early on or an acknowledgement and later it’s more of a detailed one, once they have found a space to settle in.

I guess if we value conversations, we might do well to recognise their variety, the changes, and their nature. But what makes them good?

And whilst we might have an idea.. sometimes the most naturally good conversations are the ones that just well, happen. We just have to create the right kind of space where young people feel at home and safe.

An Accidental Epiphany: Mirror, Body and Self

You know the feeling when you have an epiphany moment all out of the blue? well that was me this morning.

Im aware the following image might put many of you off your tea, or breakfast or supper. So, you are warned.

But after weirdly having a bath last night, i was standing in the bathroom this morning, almost naked in front of the mirror. (yeah apologies)

And yes, i noticed that i was tanned quite nicely (its only 3 weeks since im back from tunisia) and, even with an all inclusive holiday, and some disciplined weight loss last year (3 stone) so, in a way, i have some realisation, that the very overweight pale me wasn’t what i was looking at in the mirror.

Despite the weight loss and tan i hadn’t stood and looked at myself deliberately.

I stood, looked, and thought, for the first time and said to myself: ‘I actually look ok’, and then i realised how good it felt to actually look and say to myself that i look ok.

It felt good to appreciate myself physically.

It felt good, and i sighed.

I sighed because i realised that i hadn’t done this before, and yet i did it this morning without realising it.

it was as it i hadn’t given myself permission to appreciate my own body, my own appearance, the way i looked.

As if i felt comfortable in my own skin, and appreciated it for the first time. Though in Tunisia i felt alive, with water, and being submerged in it almost all week, just fabulous. I still didn’t give myself the acknowledgement of appreciating my own skin, my own body, my own skin and bones that God has given me.

I wonder why i hadn’t done this before? had it even occured to me..

confidence? shame ? fear of ego? fear of being proud? fear of the flesh? Or just not wanting to give myself the attention that i could have done, rushing here, rushing there. all excuses ultimately. But shame, fear and unhealthy body image cripples us all doesn’t it. Diets, weight, discontentment, the lies of youthfulness and hiding reality and ageing. If only we, if only I, if only we could help ourselves by redeeming our bodies. By knowing from an early age that we have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide, nothing to be embarrassed about, despite the lies. Messages of unworthiness surround, nakedness as a shameful thing, bodies that are secondary to minds, hearts and accomplishments. I might run the risk of not realising quite how unique i am in the mirror, or loving the reflection i find there, and try to make the rest of life about satisfying a body im not respecting.

Yet, we dont, the being better, younger, fitter, smaller, thinner, pull takes over. The lies make us ignore who we are, and force us not to stop in the mirror and tell ourselves that we are already beautiful. We can feel good about ourselves… as we are.. and… so can I. 41 years into life itself, I acknowledged feeling, and acknowledged being content with who i am physically, and muttered it out loud. And it felt good. It was good. Maybe its a freeing thing.

I wonder if for me, the extensive internal work, therapy, self awareness and this process has also had an effect on how i feel about myself physically. If digging deep into the who i am, the interal may, may also have a knock on effect on how i feel about myself in my own physical skin. It might be crude to say that I have fallen in love with myself, but, actually to love ourselves is important, to healthily respect ourselves means we have contentment, a virtue that a material and commercial world would do its best to help us to not have. To be able to breathe and connect with ourselves might need us to feel good internally and have internally positive feelings about our external. Maybe it’s less about self awareness and more about resisting the lies that tell us differently about ourselves. I only hope this might be an encouragement to feel good about ourselves.

But if in giving myself the space – or more to the point – having life circumstances where my only choice, was to focus on the internal me, and be confident and aware of how i think, who i am, how i am, and my energy, passions, dreams, and becoming in tune with my emotions in a way that is fabulous, then maybe all of that leads me to stand in the mirror and go. James, you look good. And to feel good about what i saw. To feel good about myself. To like what i saw in the mirror. To almost feel at peace, to almost feel embodied.

It was an accidental epiphany. But a significant one.

I hope it doesnt put you off your tea. But i hope that you can get to a point where you can look at your own body and for your own sake do the same. It might make your life so much more fulfilling.

As John Duns Scotus said, calling it the harmony of goodness;

‘true love for the self always overflows into love for the other; it is one and the same flow. And your freedom to extend love to others always gives you a sense of dignity and power of your own self. It is such a paradox’ (taken from Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance, p103)

Being aware of the introvert young people in the youth group

Over the last few months, I have made a starting discovery about myself. I am 41, and I have started to acknowledge, embrace and identify as being more of an introvert. Most of you who know me well might have known this a while, it’s like that classic scene in the film pride when one of the characters has been thought of as being gay for about 20 years.
I guess when I look back on my life, I realise the moments where my being more introverted has been more helpful, positive and an advantage, like all things, it has maybe been a disadvantage. I look back at the various aspects of my growing up, my youth ministry and work with young people and reflect through a lens of Introvertion.. what do I find?
I find that I loved spending time with people and talking at depth (so maybe empath not just introvert) , including my youth leaders, pastors.
I often preferred the car journey to the activity, space to talk, more than the activity.
Small groups of less that 5 I remember fondly, large groups trying to learn in a classroom I felt quiet and pressured. These are just a few examples for me, and actually when I look positively back on my youth ministry upbringing, it was the quiet, not the noise where I found a place, energy and home.
So if it’s true that more than 1/3 of all people are more likely to be on the introverted side of an extrovert/introvert scale.. how might this be reflected in the way children and young people are part of education, society, and maybe specifically for here, the faith groups and churches?
One example, and although discredited, I began training in youth ministry in the mid 1990’s and so, stuff on communication and learning styles was deemed important, and how people learn.. I can’t remember that any real attempt was made to look at or focus deliberately on young people’s learning for the more introverted. Much of trying to be attractive to young people focusing on gathering larger groups, making more noise, and this could be hard work for the more introverted. It’s not that they wouldn’t do it, but it’s not where, necessarily they find energy.
Thinking about different approaches to youth ministry, schools work, detached, centres, groups, who amongst even those who lead, develop and shape youth ministry, do we have an awareness that some young people will find some aspects difficult and tiring, not because they are bored, fed up or annoyed, or that it’s rubbish (Though these aspects could be true)
But that it’s not feeding them and giving their natural introversion space to thrive and be validated. Especially if noise, large numbers and energised worship is the deemed norm.
Even thinking about group work, an introvert might needs time to think about a theme or topic, how does that work if the youth worker doesn’t know themselves the theme before the Friday before the Sunday?
There may well be countless other examples, in Sunday groups and evening clubs, where the expectations that young people like the noise and competitive thinking, drowns out the quiet, the thinkers and possibly even those who do know the right responses.
By having or defaulting to the extrovert in youth ministry, if we do, well.. Susan Cain, in ‘Quiet’ would argue that for 120 years society has shifted in this way too, and youth ministry has often followed culture to be relevant, then we might be in danger of implicitly excluding the young people who are already growing up and not fitting in, not because their not intelligent, thoughtful and perceptive, but that it takes even more energy to contribute into spaces defaulted to an extrovert ideal.
Tell me, who are the usual head boy or head girl? The popular and outgoing or the clever quiet one? Which young person in the youth club gets more heaped praise or expectation of leader, than others? Just a thought..
When we show films with young people, do any involve quiet methodical thinking and working alone? I mean.. has anyone shown ‘The theory of everything’ to their youth group, or highlighted the power of individual thinking and someone’s mind, in the discussion?.. something to validate a type of young person who may feel invisible and also may not be having their needs met or validated. Most young people won’t want to be given the bible passage or theme, the week before, to give it some thought.. but I’ll bet that the 1/3 who are discovering and needing to have their introvert side nurtured and energised might do. They’re likely to love you for it.
I look back at my growing up, and I have in a way the duke of Edinburgh award to thank for giving me this kind of space.
For, in doing the bronze section I had to do a skill, and as a lazy person, I chose something I knew alot about and would do easily, so I chose Bible study. And I was given 100’s of bible passages, questions and journals to write, over 18 months. And a leader to talk through them with. The work was all scheduled, and I had to work through them one to one with a designated leader. Honestly it was wonderful. For me, aged 12/3 to have my own space to develop thinking and have space to talk one to one about it.
Maybe that where my reflective practitioner stuff began. The funny thing was that I haven’t ever really thought about how much I enjoyed what I did for those 18 months, well it feels ‘geeky’ or ‘ christian’.. and its only now how much I realise that it fuelled my introverted side. Daily bible notes were one thing, but they didn’t get validated by discussion or further thinking unless I made the effort, weekly journal to write and bible study to do… well…
So.. you might do this already, the more introverted youth minister might have the lens opened and see it, but how might young people growing up lost in an increasingly extrovert world, find home in churches, groups and youthwork that gives them life, purpose and meaning? Its not just what a person believes, it’s how they are able to enact it and participate in it…

So, if 1/3 of the few children and young people, or dare I say it adults, in your church are introverts… where might they find life and a place?

How might their natural gift and character be recognised, validated and enhanced for its gift, and not swallowed up in the noise?

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