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.

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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)

Can introvert young people survive in youth ministry?

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 Intrivertion.. 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 focussing 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 Intrivertion 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?

I’m a secret introvert.. but that’s a good thing.

I hope I’m not a disappointment meeting me face to face

That’s something I’ve said a few times in the last few years. To the people who have read my blogs or follow me on Twitter, who then do meet me. Me, hiding behind a million words of creativity and not knowing if i live up to an expectation.It was only recently that I realised something that helped me think through all these awkward moments;November 2016 might be a significant moment for me. I couldnt say for definite how significant in the rest of the whole of my life, as i hope theres alot of other moments that happen in the rest of it.

I was delivering a talk at the Newcastle Diocese office, i blogged on it here: ‘Young people as performers of the gospel’ in which i shared with a group of youthworkers and delegates from the diocese a day of conversations on developing the space of drop ins and helping young people become performers of the gospel.It was stuff that I had just finished writing up for my MA thesis that summer.

And the first, and so far, only, time that i have communicated this in public.On one hand i was significantly under prepared. On the other I though i knew enough to be able to get my way through an afternoon session after a fairly interactive morning. So, although i got some good feedback. I still felt a little raw.

A friend who was in the room met up with me for a coffee a few weeks later. In debriefing the session they asked me whether I had considered how much of an introvert I was. Saying that they had only seen me in other situations, but when they saw me in that public space, that they identified me as being more introverted.I kind of pushed back. Me. An introvert.?That was for quiet people.

I was a youthworker, I loved conversations, i loved making myself known, i loved people.But i wasnt , and still am not, one of the crazy types. Have always been perceptive, reflective and prefer the significant conversation.. to the many conversations. In the kitchen, rather than the party.

But I pushed back, also because well, it didnt really register for me what that might mean, or help, and if it did I only thought negatively, so i didnt give it any more thought.

Ministry, youthwork was for the lively, or at least that was one space that being an introvert wasnt the place to be that in.

Also…I thought i was ok.

I thought i knew who I was, even had the audacity to publish blogs on self care for others, even try and talk about stuff like boundaries, self care and management with others.

Yet realistically, I was hiding alot.

Realistically I hadn’t really ever thought about the deep stuff.

Just thought I knew. Even now I’m only just beginning.

At the beginning of this year I met up with that friend again.

She asked me whether I had done anything about being introvert. I fessed up. Keeping up with all youthwork theory and being articulate in the knowledge stuff i really had. (Don’t accuse me of not buying a youth work book post college)But take a step and look at myself? Nope.Of course. Because she knew I was an introvert, the best thing to give an introvert is a book on being one.Its popular, it’s maybe not complete.

Quiet.. by Susan CainYet at a point in my life of significant struggle.

I devoured it.

Cover to cover with at times tears in my eyes.

Cover to cover beginning to open my eyes to look at myself.Cover to cover being ready to accept the reality of who I am.

 

But also… Cover to cover and recognise my own strengths, my own gifts, and my own power. To realise my place in the world and who I am to be able to construct and change it.

Before digging wide and providing practical reflection on what being introvert might mean in the world of youth and community work, management and leadership.

That can wait.

In a way I wanted just to share with you from me, about me and how this self discovery has been helpful. In more ways that just work.

The book helped me dispel the myths, and erradicate my own fears of what being introvert was all about, it helped me to view the changing world around and how the path of extroversion is heralded and prioritised.

It helped me realise how I think, and also how others do.

To a point.I have more to learn and dig. I have more to gain by doing so. But ignoring the me and the me when dealing with the difficult stuff was negligent on my part. Self care is one thing… becoming self aware another.

Maybe we can only truly care for ourselves when we know ourselves.Maybe I had to be ready to hear my friend. To be ready to undertake personal reflection, and for that I am thankful for the circumstances that brought me to that point.. however painful.

Oh, and maybe I’m just grateful for the friends in my life who aren’t afraid to speak and share their truth to me, knowing how much it could benefit me.

I bought the book. I confess I haven’t read it again since. But I will do.Or I’ll give it away to someone else who might need it, and benefit from it like I have. The start of a process, started from whatever age or point..

No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are. (Paulo friere)

And… being an introvert isn’t that bad, in fact, it’s better than that. Much better.If you want to hear more, and just read a book on this. here’s a ted talk

Dear community – your new youth club was a pacer train….

I get ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ I really do

but in the 1980’s at the height of transport infrastructure cuts, Leyland Buses were turned into class 140-144 pacer trains in the North and Wales.

The 1980s also saw cuts in community work and infastructure.

Now, after another decade of cuts to community and youthwork structures and buildings, and 30 years since the pacers were introduced and clocked up millions of miles (all no more than 40mph, unless going down hill) – they are being eventually coming to an end of their shelf life, not because of efficiency, but because of the disabilty and equality act. Ie step free access is almost impossible neither is there space for a disabled toilet on them.

But what now you cry – how might the ubiquitous symbol of northern transport underfunding be resurrected again?

Yes you guessed it…

The Pacer becomes the village hall.

I repeat, the pacer to become a village hall.

No its not an april fool – or a really awkward attempt by me to do a youthwork/trains crossover piece. It is here: DFT suggests turning pacers into community halls

The Pacer becomes the community space.

It was ‘all the feels on wheels’ now its for meals on wheels, it used to show people the world (very slowly) it will now be a venue for slimming world. I guess that without wheels, therell be space for a disabled toilet on them…

Its not as if there has been plenty of quality of conversations on them in the past, usually

‘could this train be any more shit’

or

‘nice to see theyve updated this one with windows that actually close’

or

‘isnt it nice to join you in this sweat box’

So – lets be honest, using them as a community centre, when theyre already a community on wheels already, a community joined by mutual hatred, despair and worry, might not be too large a leap.

Honestly, as youth and community workers, how can we complain as such obvious generosity by the DFT – and funding investment to bring community back to our communities, one pacer at a time.

And if you have another use for a pacer train, you can enter a competition to redesign one here; https://www.gov.uk/government/news/competition-will-breathe-new-life-into-an-old-pacer-train

Can detached youthwork be ‘asset based’ and develop young peoples gifts?

We’ll not speak to those young people – they’ve not got alcohol on them

They appear to be ok, we’ll leave them alone

I doubt if its them who are causing the anti social behaviour calls

These are all phrases I have used on detached youthwork. Its that thing where you go out, of an evening, to try and talk with young people on the streets, develop contact and relationship, and all of sudden in the heat of the moment, a whole load of baggage arises to the surface that kind of stops me from doing what i might be meant to be doing.

In a busy environment like a city centre where i did detached youth work a few years ago, it may have been possible to make those filter judgements because it was always busy. On a smaller community estate where there might only be a few groups of young people having this in built filter might mean it could be a quiet evening.  At least quiet because all the young people we see are being normal decent young people, playing in parks, kicking a ball around, and not really need us. More importantly, that we in those moments dont see that they are worth working with.

Because they dont display needs

Because they dont show us in their actions that they fulfil funding criteria

Because they seem sorted

Because we might not be able to tick boxes in working with them

Because its not what we’re about.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of delivering detached youthwork training to a group of sessional staff just north of Inverness. The feedback from them was really positive and it was a great 2 days. One of things that shaped the planning of these sessions for me was how focussed on ‘needs’ the teams, and communities were in relation to developing detached youthwork. There were kids playing near railways (single track lines with one train per 2 hours- not intercity lines, ((and even the intercity line has 2 trains per hour, hardly busy.. however) , young people starting to gather near to some town centres, vandalism and stone throwing. Whilst none of these issues are in any way pleasant, positive and they cause significant harm, and fear and isues about safety, of course. Often detached youthwork starts off from a perspective of need. Though to be fair also, much reactionary youthwork in buildings has done the same .

Conversations about moving from needs to gifts have occured in community development practice, and in youth work generally.  Peter Harts article in Youth and Policy 117  does identify that asset and needs based approaches do run concurrently in youthwork at times, he argues that

However, I would argue that as a general framework in which to understand the differences in
approach to out-of-hours work with young people between secular and Christian organisations is
through their occupational paradigm, model of youth work and assumptions about young people,
approach to risk, and dominant philosophy of ethics. (Hart, 2015, Youth and Policy 115)

Saying that needs and gifts are both part of the equation.

One of the recent new books I have been given for free from the North East Resources centre  is the following one : ‘Dont Shoot I’m a detached youthworker’ by Inez and Mike Burgess. Im reading the first few pages and see the following:

  • The service we provide is ‘needs‘ led (page 8)
  • identify groups of young people in patch and record any relevant dialogue linked toissues and needs…….(page 10)
  • listen carefully to young peoples thoughts allows a good detached youthworker to develop a while range of dialogue, as well as gaining information about the basic picture of young persons needs (page 12)

Now,  this is one of the few recent detached youthwork books that i hadnt read, and its why i lapped up a free copy. However, I am acutely aware of how influential this book is. I am also aware that issues and needs get youth workers to the streets  (i feel its like fascists bring citizens with milkshakes to the high streets) . And Peter Hart may be on to something, and my experiences, not just in Inverness but with FYT are that detached youthwork that is not primarily funding or community police set up can have a more positive footing.  It meant that to talk about young people and their gifts, their assets and use detached youthwork to focus on their was refreshing and powerful to the group of workers in Inverness.

Yet, I wouldnt be sticking my neck out too far to say that developing detached youthwork on the basis of the gifts of young people might be rare. To start with viewing young people with more dignity and humanity. To start by enabling young people to be part of the decision making process about any youthwork provision, to have conversations with them about their passions, their dreams, their abilities and how they might contribute to enable these to occur. And that could be all young people.

Somehow sadly, detached youthwork may be stuck in a needs orientated paradigm, created by those who need it a soft way of addressing community fears ( by the police) and this, as Peter says above, will shape the approach, or at least be the guiding lenses within which to develop practice into. Have predetermined issues, discover needs and then bam!, problem solved. But it isnt is it.

It is almost as if detached youthwork really isnt caught between the two stools of assets and needs, more that it is caught between a rock of funding and reaction – or none at all. Because of this, the many young people who are just being around, who are still victims in a society which has cut services to them by a staggering amount, are even likely to be given opportunities to thrive, to participate and to be decision makers in their own provision.

I wonder if it is more difficult to do ‘asset based’ detached youthwork out on the streets, because the setting is already so politicised and deemed ‘anti-social’, ‘frightening’ – that its difficult to see past all of this when trying to talk with young people. This may be different to when young people are in buildings that are youth orientated, its only a guess or a thought. Can young people show their gifts on the streets – of course they can – it is just up to us to look and maybe intentially look and find them.

Maybe any detached youthwork in the UK is better than none, and it wouldnt take a university study to reveal how decimated detached youth work has been in the last 10 years. But, if detached youthwork is to come back – and there are signs it might do – can those of us who develop it do their level best to shape it in a way that is about not identifying groups and problems, but discovering the gifts, abilities and good things about young people, and enabling them to explore their dreams, potential and how they want to make a difference. In this case, we have to sort out our langauge, our questions, and how we start from scratch. What if detached youthwork could enable young people to develop their gifts?  What might asset based detached youthwork look like?  (and im sure its happening, please if you do this, share details below)

In Praise of Youth works influential (often invisible) Women

A few weeks ago, there was a bit of a discussion, may be caused by me, on the number of women in youth ministry who have been able to or been involved in publishing theological or theoretical books, and whether Youth Ministry is too American and too male. Whether publishing is the way to influence, or whether there are many many reasons is a piece for another day. Not to mention ‘what youth ministry’ actually is. But it is a Friday. The end of a long week.

And this week, on a similar theme, I have been reading the following book, another free one as it was being cleared out from the Religious resources centre in the north east, they’re fabulous as they keep me a pile of any youth work books that theyre about to throw out (might start my own library)..

The best thing about books is learning something new, or in equal measure in the case of this one, learning about someone new.

And , to be quite honest with you, in this book I found a new hero. I fell in love.

I fell in love with a lady called Josephine Macalister Brew.

A woman, who I confess, I had never heard of, until i read chapter 13 of the above book. A woman who was one of many who was highly influential in the development of youthwork in the 1940’s-1960’s. A woman who was an educationalist, who was thoughtful, who it was said had a lightness of touch in her writing and yes was critical, and who held onto faith.

If we are not in youth work because of our love of our fellow men we have no business there at all. This burning love of humanity always meets with response, though not always in the ways we most care for, but nowadays as much youth work is ruined by too much restraint as by too much exuberance. Fear to exert undue influence, fear to assert authority when necessary, conscientious scruples about this and that – are all contributory factors. But young people want to know where they are and they need the friendship of those who have confidence and faith. (Brew 1957: 112-3)

I need to read more of her work to do her justice, and I’m grateful that you can read more about her in this piece: Josephine Brew and Informal education so that you can be as inspired and bathe in her profound, compassionate, yet passionate insights into youthwork. I was interested to read that the much heralded ‘Informal education’ by Jeffs and Smith (1999) was a cover.. and that Josephine Brew had already written a book with that title.. read the link and find it for yourself…

But this got me thinking, I hadn’t heard of Josephine Macalister Brew. Who else haven’t I heard of? and…. if I hadn’t heard of her, are there other significantly influential women who have shaped youthwork practice in the UK that others may not have done?

So, starting with Brew, above, here is my list of 5 other significant women who have influenced me in the history of UK youthwork, from their action that inspires, their writing and their influence, some you may not have heard of, others you might.

1 & 2. Maude Stanley and Ellen Ranyard : For anyone who has thought through the history of detached youthwork, these two women feature heavily. It was they who began, in one form or another to provide non building related health services to people in London in the 1860’s on wards. Today we might call them community nurses or matrons, they used the term district nursing, or Bible nursing, and whilst we might find issue with some of the ethics of their practices, what cannot be questioned is their dedication and heart for the poorest, most infirm in society, and the dedication to get out of the cosy building and meet people in their homes.

ellen ranyard, 'bible women' and informal education

For more on Maude Stanley and her setting up of girls clubs in soho, see this link : Maude Stanley On Ellen Ranyard, see here: Bible Nursing

3. Hannah More. If you think about the history of Sunday Schools in the UK, you might mostly think Robert Raikes, and this is pretty accurate given his role in developing them. However, you would do well to include the name of Hannah More in the development of them too. For reasons explained in this article , Hannah More used her knowledge and power, and influence within the church (albeit controversial at times, how things have changed…) and fought to encourage the expansion of Sunday schools in the UK.

Hannah More - Wikimedia Commons. Images by unknown engravers, and thus are PD due to age, per the relevant British legislation.

Her desire for them, was based upon the compassion she experienced in situations like this:

… we found more than 2,000 people in the parish, almost all very poor—no gentry, a dozen wealthy farmers, bard, brutal and ignorant.. . . We went to every house in the place, and found every house a scene of the greatest vice and ignorance. We saw but one Bible in all the parish, and that was used to prop a flower-pot. No clergyman had resided in it for forty years. One rode over from Wells to preach once each Sunday. No sick were visited, and children were often buried without any funeral service. (from H. Thompson, (1838) Life of Hannah More quoted by Young and Ashton 1956: 237-8)

In describing the nature of More, and the Sunday school she set up in cheddar, Mark Smith writes: ‘ The significance of Hannah and Martha More’s activities with regard to Sunday schooling lay in the pedagogy they developed; the range of activities they became involved in; and the extent to which publicity concerning their activities encouraged others to develop initiatives. Hannah and Martha More attempted to make school sessions entertaining and varied. We can see this from the outline of her methods published in Hints on how to run a Sunday School (and reported in Roberts 1834). Programmes had to be planned and suited to the level of the students; there needed to be variety; and classes had to be as entertaining as possible (she advised using singing when energy and attention was waning). She also argued that it was possible to get the best out of children if their affections ‘were engaged by kindness’. Furthermore, she made the case that terror did not pay (Young and Ashton 1956: 239). However, she still believed it was a ‘fundamental error to consider children as innocent beings’ rather than as beings of ‘a corrupt nature and evil dispositions’ (More 1799: 44, quoted by Thompson 1968: 441)’

Hannah More, known by Wilberforce and part of the group demanding change in the Anglican church towards social justice, and putting it into practice in Cheddar gorge.

4. Joan Tash

For me Joan Tash is one half of the dynamic 1960s duo, Goetschius and Tash, who wrote up their experiences of developing a detached youthwork/ outreach project in a london borough by the YWCA. Working with Unnattached Youth (1967) is that book, for me its virtually the Bible of detached youthwork, though I may now revise giving Tash all my hero status, (now that I have found Brew). But Joan Tash, (and George Goetschius) writing in that book alone, has i my opinion been barely superceded, in terms of detail, insight and thought in regard to the issues, challenges and scenarios of detached youthwork faced by them over the course of 5 years. They pioneered thinking about groups, values, community, supervision (ill get to that later), faith, training, and power, relationships in youthwork. When i say pioneered, it is as much that so much of what they said may not have been new, but written down in this book, with such evidence of practice included in such a painstaking, detailed way is hugely important. Many of their ideas have been used since (such as Heather Smiths work on Relationships), or values in community work developed elsewhere. Tash, like Brew, became significantly influential in the early development of the youth service. Working with the unattached is still i believe under valued in the history of youth work, and also in the field of christian faith based work.

As an educator, Tash lectured and was senior tutor at the YMCA college, and her extensive work on the supervision of youthworkers has influenced so many since. I can only imagine that 5 years of detached youthwork gave her the insight into the importance of it… im sure those who heard her lectures might agree…

Do have a read of Joan Tash, again, Mark Smith has written of her in this fascinating piece

5. The following Women, are to my knowledge all still alive. And so, their names have not yet been written up into youthwork legend status. Some of them, I know personally, some i dont so well. I have found their writing influential in my thinking about young people and youthwork, and so I hope that you might do too, there are no links for these women, just a hope that you might give their work some time and invest in it.

Johanna Wyn (& Rob White) ‘ Rethinking Youth’, 1999. If you are in any way serious about young people and thinking about them especially in culture. (Youth ministry colleagues especially, its all about youth culture, isnt it..) then to get a different view on much that is taken for granted about young people and culture, give this book a read. I implore you.

Kerry YoungThe Art of Youthwork’ 1999 & 2006. A book so influential in youthwork it has now had 2 editions. Nuff said. A must read. Its a must read every year. Covers everything from values, virtues, philosophy and ethics. Just read it.

Annette Coburn (and David Wallace) ‘Youth work in Communities and schools’ (2011) As Allan Clyne and I agree, this is one of the few books recently that has started to frame youth work in a constructive way (and not just moan about its status or give the rose tinted specs of the past) . Her definitions are helpful and theres a fair inclusion of detached youthwork in this piece as well as schools and community work generally, so, whilst Scottish based (and this makes it less relevant for some) it is definitely worth reflecting on.

Heather Smith – On relationships in Youthwork. During my honours writing a few years ago on mentoring relationships i encountered Heather smiths pieces on Infed, and then her chapter on youthwork relationships in ‘Engaging in Conversation’ in Jeffs & Smith (2011). She understandably credits Goetschius and Tash for original insight, but i use her writing on relationships and conversation alot in helping others think through these things when i deliver detached youthwork training. So, for me, influential. This article on seeking out authenticity in youthwork relationships is one to reflect on over a coffee today… go on…

There may be a number of women I have missed, there will be, and creditable mention to Tania de st Croix, Naomi Thompson and Sally Nash who have influenced me in a number of ways, in my youthwork vocation, and friends such as Helen Gatenby and Gemma Dunning who have inspired me alot in the last 5 years. This isnt a roll call necessarily and its not to embarass or annoy anyone, and thats the problem with starting a piece like this, there will be names I might miss out. Maybe thats always going to happen, I just know who the people are who have influenced my practice, their writing and their support, encouragement and it is these i give credit to. And i hope that some of these women are as inspiring and influential to you, i hope like Brew for me, one or two surprise you.

3 questions that are critical to ask of all our youth work and ministry practice.

Shall we start with a reality check?

There is no magic answer, solution, gravy train, resource, method, model for youth work and ministry. There really isn’t. Anyone telling you this is merely on the hard sell, of their particular brand, style, event or model. Anyone telling you this is is hoping that they have it, that they experienced it and they’re clinging on to keep their particular dream alive. Or organisation. And i have been as guilty or complicit in this too. Though Id hope not because id peddle my own faith upbringing as the only path for others to have..

But I know you’re probably reading this because you want an answer, a style, a method or a model to solve the current problems, concerns you may have about your youth work practice. Whether it is about children leaving messy church, or young people on the streets, or the YF being boring and running out of ideas.

And running out of ideas is one of the main issues isn’t it? A key factor in youth worker burnout. They run out of ideas.

Yet, youth ministry isnt an entertainment industry… is it..?

If you are reading this hoping for the magic answer, then you may well end up being disappointed, but well done for getting this far. The questions are coming.

Because on one hand I am slightly tired of the models and methods, the research, and the moaning, about why people leave their faith, or why a model didn’t work because it worked elsewhere (or in 1983), yet without looking at what is going on at a deeper level with young people, then models, methods are still unlikely to work. But they kept being tried… Working doesn’t mean attendance, or young people paying for something. Because.. its not the values of the entertainment industry that we’re looking for.. is it?

So, what are the 3 questions that we should ask of all our youth work and ministry practices? And ask repeatedly and all the time. They are:

Does what we do/are about to do increase young peoples belonging?

Does what we do/about to do increase young peoples autonomy?

Does what we do/are about to do increase young peoples sense of competence?

 

What you say – no  mention of Jesus?  no mention of values? no mention of ………(fill in the blank)

Yes. Agreed. No mention of those things. Because, look closely and you will find those things in these three questions.

Belonging. 

Relationships have been front, centre and under pretty much all of youth work and ministry practice. You really dont need me to pull out all the references for this. But relationships are one thing. A sense of belonging and connection is another. If we hope that ‘our relationship’ with a young person as a single youth worker or volunteer is crucial, we may be misguided, because its a sense of belonging that young people crave, (secret: we all do).  So… do young people feel they belong in the church family, do they feel they belong in their school, do they feel they belong in their public park, do they feel they belong in their town. Our relationship with a young person might be critical, especially if it helps to help them have a greater sense of belonging.

How might the whole church help a young person (s) belong? How might the town help young people belong who also want to express their anger at austerity through anti social behaviour?

So – how might what we do/ what is bout to be done – help young peoples sense of belonging?

 

Autonomy

This may seem to stand in contradiction to belonging and connection. But it isnt. Autonomy may mean that young people can make their own decisions, and as an individual, however, autonomy can also become something that our youth work and ministry should create, in order that young people can have a say in decision making processes, in decisions that affect them, affect the youth ministry/work itself and also the wider faith community and organisation. Autonomy is a key motivator for us all, we all like to be kings of our own castle. Yet at the same time, reflect on the situations where young people in the group, or organisation had any autonomy over the activity, process, style and nature of the group.

We might use the term participation, and that in a way is a graded scale of how young people do have increased decision making/autonomy.  Because after all, increasing young peoples participation is not that far from helping them to meet some of their self determined goals. Their goals about the club, group, community.. their dreams, visions, their collective passions for these things

I have written extensively on participation, some of these are my most read pieces.. its clearly a need, to think through and reflect.

Though i have suggested this one is second in this list of three. I think its the most important. Especially in churches and youth ministry.

 

Thirdly, Competence

What can your youth work and ministry do – to help young people feel that they acheieved something, they made something happen, they did well?

And it doesnt need to be personal – but it could be

It doesnt need to be social – but it could be

They did well doing the reading in a service is one thing, they did well speaking up at the leaders meeting another. They did well writing to their MP on climate change, they did well showing generosity and grace to others in the group. They did well…..

Nothing like doing well isnt it.

You know what that feels like?  probably not.

Will you only tell young people they did well at something when you get positive feedback for all your efforts, your hard work, your job? Id hope not.  You might have to give and continually give praise, even if you dont receive it.

But its not just the praise. It is the situations in which there is a possibility of being able to. When working on the streets its easy to affirm young peoples football skills, or how they ct with each other. It is their environment. So, how might the space of the youth group, club or project also be a space that encourages competence, encourages risk taking activity that stretches our known behaviours and praises the actions that are taken.

Youthwork that has craft activities are brilliant at this, if we can encouraging the simple making of things that are fairly easy so that everyone can do something well. the same with cooking, or fixing bikes, or sports or video games… its not quite the same with movies.

Its no coincidence that uniformed youthwork organisations with badges and awards continue to be very popular.

How might young people feel, if they are part of a group or project in which they leave each session feeling like they have achieved something, have developed a skill, have something to take home, have created something? Yes.. exactly…

 

 

If you need to think further about these three things through a faith lens, then do so. If you want to think about them in the context of the divine relationship between humanity and God, in terms of divine and human action, in terms of free will, prayer, and being made in the image of God, then do so. I would encourage it. It would be good to have that discussion. if you want to have a look at these things through discipleship or mission, through church then do so. You should also be able to see where these things mirror core youthwork values, like participation, empowerment and valuing the individual. Some of those reflections have already been done by Jocelyn Bryan in her excellent book, referenced below.

So, faith and theology is not my starting point for these. It is psychology.

If this all feels a bit more on the psychological side of things then it is. But thats ok isnt it. Because psychology could help us in youth work and ministry in a way couldn’t it. After all, we’ve tried sociology to death with all the generationalism surveys, and that hasn’t got anyone anywhere. Aside from selling resources.

But, you want to make a real difference in your group, your church, you organisation with young people. Don’t worry about second guessing their interests because they’re millenial. Try instead looking at the deep things that motivate them. Try looking at how belonging, autonomy and competence are part of their lives, try seeing where they find these things already. Try doing what you can to find them in the group, project and activity that you run. Of course this is hard work, of course this might require shifts. Who said this was in any way easy…

The reason these questions are crucial – because they’re the same one we ask of ourselves. Young people, are no different to us.

 

Further Reading: 

Human Being, Jocelyn Bryan, 2016.

 

Has this blog killed youth work?

Beyond the title, this is a serious conversation. Not just a provocative start to peak your interest, but a genuine question. Has this blog, and the now many others, become responsible for killing youthwork?

It would be easy to argue against. I could talk about the many 1000’s of views this blog has had. I could tell you about the feedback I have had whereby volunteers, clergy and workers, managers, supervisors and leaders have provided me, telling me how much benefit this blog has been to them. And I am truly honoured. So, this blog has helped practitioners. It has helped guide and advise. It has provoked a question and provided a reflection.

But has it become a problem ?

Because, if this blog, and the many others, have become the ‘go-to’ for the despairing youth worker, ie a Google search for ‘the role of youths in church ‘

Then what happens to youthwork as a profession as a result?

After all, teaching, medicine and social work haven’t dropped off the pace and become ‘online only’ – though their courses and demand for them to exist.

It was fabulous to receive feedback about this blog 4 weeks ago at a number of conferences. But the truth of what that also means is that whilst I may have influence, the profession is showing signs of rapid decline. There’s only shouting voices left, and this one isn’t going to be taken seriously academically or institutionally.

Blogging cannot shape the discourse of youthwork. It really can’t. But that it is doing so, shows what youth work has left, doesn’t it?

If the books are inaccessible and over priced? (Various recently all over £50)

If books that are accessible are under used?

Not just because of blogging, but why spend £50 on a book, unless you really are a student of the profession, a lifelong student.

It’s far easier to read a review here, or elsewhere and then not bother. So there’s another sale down the drain and license to say ‘Naomi Thompson’s book on Sunday schools talks about x and y and z’ without £80 being invested in the source material, the publisher and giving the profession , the discourse, the impetus it needs.

A profession fuelled on blogs and second hand reviews. Where the academic becomes superfluous. Has gone underground and become a protest movement. Not a serious discourse or profession.

Not that you need to read a book to be a good youth worker. Of course. But that’s not the point . The point is that whilst youthwork might continue in it’s various forms in practice, and blogs supporting them are now numerous, are creative and become almost essential. Their proliferation has by default also indicated the systematic death of the profession. Maybe they haven’t caused it. Maybe kindly it’s being propped up by them.

But a credible profession, which is what youth ministry and youth work, both claim to be, can’t rely on the sugar puff of a blog that’s popular for a week. No one is going to take seriously the future of youth work (in whatever form) if it’s main writers are those who have a moan now and then, and whose work isn’t peer reviewed, published and credible outside of the practice field.

We have to take seriously responsibility for our demise. There’s no advert on tv with a university library youthwork department asking for £3 a month to keep it going. But it is more likely to, if you buy at least 5 youth work books a year. Read them, not (Just) this.

Has this blog killed youthwork? Sadly maybe what it is a symptom of how superfluous youthwork has become. The tide might be turning. But from what kind of discourse of a base. Easier to read a few blogs and go to a conference, than really invest thoroughly in it, and you’d still be a good youth worker that many churches might still employ. Or just get a level 3. And there’s nothing wrong with either.

That’s just where youthwork is.

Killed of by chronic under value and funding. Yet we might ourselves need to look in the mirror and ask where we have been part if it’s downfall. Moan about the high street but still buy on Amazon.

Has this blog killed youthwork? Or just keeping the embers alive…..

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