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?

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Detached youthwork- An A-Z Guide

I have written a number of pieces on detached youthwork, most of which are on the archives on my http://www.jamesballantyneyouthworker.wordpress.com site , many top tips, top tens, and pieces on specific issues. But I have never tried to write an A-Z, and do so with the aim of collating a definitive guide to detached youthwork. Image result for a to z

So, at the beginning of 2019, I have tried, with mixed success on some letters to write one. wondered what an A-Z of detached youthwork would look like. So, here, with a sentence or so for each, is my A-Z of detached youthwork – see what you think:

A. Available. This is one key essence of detached youthwork, that workers and volunteers make themselves available in the spaces where young people are. Its obviously but its key. 

B. Bravery, and courage, is required for detached youthwork. Bravery is required, not because of young people necessarily, most most young people are chatty, lively and amiable. Few aren’t. There’s bravery in being in the public spaces in the evening, often drunk adults or dog walkers can be more abusive than young people. There’s bravery in trying something new. We didnt call the book on detached work ‘Here be Dragons‘ for nothing… 

C. Context is key. Every context shapes detached youthwork, a housing estate with a park causes detached youthwork to feel much different to a city centre, as does a rural space or village environment. All have an impact on the background of young people and their social interactions, it makes every context different and important when it comes to detached.

Another ‘C’ is Cold Contact, this seems to be the key marked difference between detached and other youth provision, and the aspect most likely to provoke fear and trepidation. Its an important aspect of detached – that first meeting with young people, and where you ‘warts n all’ try and engage in conversation with them.

D. Dialogue. I would have said conversation, but i think C should be context. Dialogue is conversation that leads to action. Most times on the streets conversation is the aim, beyond banter, where there might be some disclosure, some amiable chat where a transfer happens.

E. Education. Much youthwork, but i think detached more than most is about constantly learning. Also there is education involved constantly in helping young people understand our role, and the dynamics of this, in the informality of the space of the streets, there is transferal of knowledge. it is an educative experience. (its also why R= research)

F. Freezing cold nights. Its a fact of detached life. Yes there are pleasant spring afternoons, but some of the best chats are at evening, and in autumn, and these can be cold.

G. Groups of young people. Its the meat and drink of detached. Detached is about finding, identifying, listening to, learning from, groups of young people. How they operate, what they do, what they like, the leaders, the core and the purpose. The task of detached is to find a way of gaining rapport and acceptance with that group, to have conversation and develop group work.

H. Hopeful attitude, is what is needed at the beginning of each session, and every conversation, to try and be positive and help young people towards an individual or collective dream, to ask the ‘what if’ question.

I. In their spaces. Detached youthwork happens in the context of young people. it changes the power, responsibility and duty of care issues considerably. It changes the nature of the relationship created. Improvisation is another I that is part of detached work, it involves thinking on your feet.

J. Jousting. Sometimes the conversation is more of a jousting match of random banter. You might just be present whilst young people are in their zone doing their thing communicating with each other in the contextual codes of banter, grunts, comments and expressions. Detached youthwork gives you this insight. It also gives an opportunity to be questioned and be challenged, it can be a joust. But that might be the kind of adult/adult conversation that is possible where the power dynamics are so different.

K. Killing time. Or Keeping up morale on quiet evenings. Quiet nights could be opportunities for doing informal supervision and training with staff, to learn about the context, to take a breather.

K is also the Kit bag. After all: what do you take on the streets with you?  – This could include, games, toys and activities, torches, first aid kits, hand warmers, hats gloves, bottles of water, confidentiality policy, referral sheet, organisation business cards (ie ‘the project’) , spare change,  and probably a few other things besides. All neatly packed away in a small kit bag. That now weighs a ton.

L.Long term. Detached youthwork is a long term game. It requires patience, it is counter cultural to the quick fix mentality operating in much of support services. Detached is a long term venture that when done well requires time, time to learn, identify and work with groups.

M. Money is tight even if the budget is low. Because it can be difficult to get funding in the first place, because although usually very needed and worthy, fitting detached into outcomes and funding requirements is still tricky.

N.New. Even though its been around for 100 years or more. For many people who have orientated their youthwork or ministry around buildings and institutions, detached youthwork always seems new. Strange. 

O. Opportunities. Most youthwork is this to be honest. But detached youthwork gives you opportunities to

  • see young people in their chosen space, doing their chosen activities, with their chosen people
  • to converse with young people where they may be more at ease
  • to be in a place where young people have more opportunities to deny adult engagement & conversation
  • to work with and develop conversation with young people not in other provision (not that there is much other provision)
  • Opportunity to have conversation with young people without worrying about buildings, materials and equipment.

P. Policies. You must have them, even if they need to be specific to detached youthwork. And another P, planning. Detached youthwork still needs it, its different planning, but it involves getting volunteers trained, observing in the local area, identifying which area, contacting and discovering other agencies, creating ID badges, safeguarding, team building, contacting the police (possibly). There is planning involved, it just looks different

Q. Quiet. It can be. But not always.

R. Research & Reflection . Detached youthwork hones the skills in a really good way. Its as if you start to develop young people awareness goggles, trying to observe, listen, and discover them, how they react in the community context, what the community is doing, what might be learned through the context, research is continual as groups change, activities change and communities change. Then of course, from research comes reflection, thinking and asking the critical questions of those observations. R for ‘risk’ also works, young people might be doing ‘risky’ behaviour, young people might provoke us with risky questions, we might push young people to new actions which might be risk taking on their part. Risk is unavoidable – but lets do what we can to minimise actual harm… 

S. Supervision. Either you need it, or you need to give it to your team, volunteers and staff. Some good guidelines and ideas for it are included elsewhere on my other site. 

T. Team work. Even a team of two is a team,attending to the relationships between the team is crucial as you will almost always need to work together and trust each other in decision making large and small. All activities that enhance team are worth it, from before and after session reflection, conversation and debrief , team meetings, end of year dinners out. All build team. And young people see that a team is doing stuff for them. It may reduce dependency. And help young people develop relationships with many supportive adults, not just one.

another T is Training. Some get out there try stuff, and then develop it, some people prefer the before the starting training to allay fears and give staff and volunteers a sense of whats to be expected and how to deal with things, both are valid.

U. Undervalued well yes,  detached may be cheapest, and be often able to reach some of the more difficult young people, but its hard to define, measure and manage, so because of this it gets undervalued and chopped easy.

Its also Unpredictable – and that’s a beautiful part of it. But no youth club night is the same anyway.. is it?

V. Visibility. A detached youthwork team needs to visible (and distinctive) and is different to the general public and other public space adults like police, street pastors or sales people for under age nightclubs..

W. Walking to where theyre at. Not just walking a drive might be needed. Yet alot of walking is often required and repeatedly so. We make the road by walking…

X. Hmm. Poetic licence required.. exit strategies? Detached youthwork is as much about being self aware (like much youth work) as it is being spatially aware, knowing where you are, the dynamics of the route, the cul de sacs, and alley ways are critical for knowing how to leave a situation if it starts to get out of hand and you need to extricate yourselves. Its a strategy and action, not just a reaction, leaving says something about how you might be being treated by a young person, you can leave, and so can they.

Y. Ymca/YWCA If i might be personal for a moment, Perth YMCA was where I cut my mustard as a youthworker doing detached work, and YMCA’s have in the past been good at doing detached work and sticking with it. It was a YWCA where Joan Tash and George Goetschius developed detached youthwork and researched it at the time and wrote ‘Working with the Unattached’ for me the Bible of detached youthwork. A review is here .Other organisations may have done detached work to. But Y standing for the Ymca seems to fit quite well. 

Z. Zealous. Were a zealous bunch at times, us detached youthworkers, making ourselves out to be unique, ‘the only true youthwork left’ and defending the practice of it to the hilt. But then again, if youthwork itself it maligned then detached.. Someone might have to stand up for it..

There you go – an A-Z of detached youthwork… enjoy.. oh and I know that..

Even with a list of 30 or so aspects, this is probably not conclusive, i havent talked about outreach vs detached, or referrals and signposting, about partnership work or schools, about alcohol, sports or specific interest detached work, or faith based detached work. So there are more to add, definitely. Neither have i mentioned the few writers and theorists, like Graham Tiffany, Richard Passmore or the Federation of detached youthwork, or organisations like FYT which do alot of detached work too.

But then again, theres always more to add…

 

In safety first cultures; risk taking is more required in youthworkers than ever before.

It comes as almost no surprise that there has been a backlash to the cultural messages of safety, harm and avoidance of risk that have been prevalent in culture, and also I might add the church over the last few decades.

Talk now in youth ministry is of taking risks with young people. 

Or maybe more pertinently, talk is of ensuring that risks are important in the relationships with young people.

It was the focus of last years Youthscape conference in which 1000 youth workers attended. Its been the focus of FYTs resources also. But – is it ever the subject of clergy conferences?

This risk provoking goes against one of the key principle cultural and organisational implicit drivers of organisations, notably church based youth ministry, which has, as said by Pete ward in 1997 – been more about safety and conformity within the church, than the kind of radical discipleship offered by Jesus. (Ward, 1997, Youth work and the mission of God, p16)

It is a theme I have spoken of before in this post ‘Young people will go elsewhere if youth groups are too safe’ and Why a risky church might be the right one for young people?

Taking risks was a key aspect of Jesus’ ministry – don’t you think?

Taking a risk with us as humanity was a risk taken by God overall – don’t you think?

Pushing the disciples to risk taking – and even exposure to difficult situations- was a key element of how Jesus pushed the disciples- agreed..?

At the end of this piece I will refer you to a resource which has been collated by Frontier Youth Trust to help you develop risk taking in your youth ministry, do take a risk and have a look at it – the link is here: (and no I don’t get any commission)  101 Risky Ideas for your youthwork

But before you do that, Id like to offer a short reflection on risk taking within youth work and ministry, basing this on two principal ideas. The first is a chapter in ‘Youth work Ethics (YE)’ by Howard Sercombe, the second is the 9 stage process of youth work as developed by FYT a number of years ago. I hope you find both useful.

In ‘Youth work Ethics’ Howard Sercombe identifies 19 areas of youth work practice that he gives insight and reflection to, on the basis of suggesting that youth work itself is an ethical endeavour based upon itself as a profession, and a definition of youthwork as a ‘professional relationship in which a young person is engaged as a primary client in their social context’ ( YE, p 27, 2010). What this does, is form the basis of youthwork as a negotiated, limited, yet professional relationship – that transcends the plethora of activities, venues and delivery agencies- but frames it as a relationship. Something i think that is music to the outcome bleeded ears of the youth worker.

Before going further with Sercombe, here is the 9 stage group work process that once and still is core to the FYT Streetspace community, note especially the element of Risk, that its needed and where it is located.

You can download the whole document here: http://www.fyt.org.uk/downloads/

The logic being that, over a period of time developing the relationship that you as a youth worker (especially as a detached worker) will be able to take a risk with the relationship that you have with a group (as you may by then have developed small group work, gained their trust etc) and been able to make suggestions to enable them to do something they maybe wouldn’t have done other wise. A push too soon may indicate that the relationship has been perceived differently from youth worker and young person/group. But note, that from the process of developing spirituality – a ‘test’ is whether ‘risk’ can be taken with other maybe easier concepts – like travelling to watch a football match, trying to raise funds for an activity, undergoing a personal change like quitting smoking (as an example) – gauging how risks in these areas might be seen as some kind of indication of how risk taken to think spiritually might be perceived. For more explanation of these – you might want to buy the Here be Dragons resource, in which all 9 stages are explored further. This is here: https://wp.me/P2Az40-4t

But lets just say from this example that Risk is needed in the youthwork relationship, and possibly even that Risk is needed for faith.

Back to Sercombe. Helpfully in a chapter on ‘taking care and managing risk’ , Sercombe identifies that in the main there has been a confusion about ‘harm’ and ‘risk’, but also that a number of risks are needed in youthwork, more so, there are a number of hidden risks that we would do well to help young people avoid.

A few summary thoughts from the chapter:

· Because we want to develop, transform even, the lives of young people through the relationship we seek to have with them , and they to some extent put themselves in our hands– this is an engagement that is inherently risky because we could get it wrong, create defensiveness, create exclusion or be a disappointment

· We expose young people to other relationships with other adults, professionals or services – there is a risk here, as these too may end up being destructive.

We are as youthworkers responsible for the intervention in other peoples lives and have a duty of care, and Sercombe goes on to describe the influence of a number of legal decisions and oaths that have an impact on how youthworkers are responsible, and ultimately states that:

‘The first responsibility of the professional is to make sure that nothing worse happens to the person than has already happened’ – though this is obviously difficult to promise – especially in medicine.

This is key ‘we need to do the best we can to help a young person in their journey. That may involve harm. It may involve greater harm. We don’t know that our assessment of that, even in consultation with the young person will be accurate’  We might want to avoid it, but harm is almost always a possibility in any intervention we might take, whether its helping them across the road to the ‘safety’ of the bus shelter on detached, the football or table tennis match, the cookery group, or game of pool. All can be harmful, and minimising harm is key, but it cant be avoided completely.

Whilst a few high risk activities have reinforced a tendency to avoid risks due to fear and litigation (such as PGL disaster over 20 years ago), and insurance companies dictating which activities youthworkers can and cannot do, there has become a tendancy, as i stated above, for risk avoidance. The real issue is being sued and avoiding harm to the organisation. 

often it is our job to increase risk’ (YE, p110)

Whilst the risks that get banded around for young people are the usual list of subjects; drugs crime, unemployment, homelessness etc and these get the usual attention. There is a range of risks for young people that don’t: passivity, resignation, fatalism, cynicism, low expectations, isolation, and you might add a few others here. Like lack of political engagement or community participation. Our role, according to Sercombe, is to help the young person assess the risk as best they can and help them decide through the possibilities. In the short term there might well be harm for the young person, a better life might, controversially, not be a safer one. (YE p110)

The role that Sercombe suggests we take in this risk manoevering profession is that of a guarantor. We manage the risk, think about it, we assess it, and consider it. But what we also do is hope, believe and project. We want to believe that young people can do, will do, and might just rise to the risk, because we see them as capable, confident and want to give them the opportunity to be the adults that they want themselves to be. By treating them as adult – they become adult. Right? Isn’t this a risk in itself? – but not an entirely non altruistic, positive one?

For despite the best interests at heart, best support and best conditions – there is still a chance at ‘failure’. This is the guarantor, and our role. We hope and help to provide the best conditions, resources and buildings in the hope that this will help young people develop agency, confidence, to be adults to make decisions. This is why this puts us at risk.

Thats why we take risks in youth work – because we still believe in the possible, we still have faith in the potential, we still dream. We take risks, and need to receive good management on their risks. ‘Risk is a key resource in youthwork’ (YE, p111).  It frames the logic of our intervention. Without it there would be no change, no transformation, no improvement, no new reality being explored. Whilst young people ‘at risk’ can be seen as an issue. Many of these occasions are when young people themselves do not have the capacity or resources to prevent being exploited, exposed or manipulated, by populist politicians, tabloids, sexual predators or extreme faith groups.

It is our role to defend young people, and take risks in preventing what might be a default pathway into these risks. Yet, risk is not the same as harm, it is not our role to decrease the risks, as arguably young people need risks so that they can exercise sound judgement, and we need to push young people to new experiences for their learning. We take responsibility for the process, we might consider ourselves lucky at times for the risks we have exposed young people to and the lack of assessment thought through. When young people enter into a relationship with us, it is a risk in itself, they entrust us, the information we give, and for them to push back on it. We might do well to recognise where we might have failed young people and their development because of our own reluctance or avoidance of taking risks, we need to be skilled enough to know and make the possibilities open, and resourceful in encouraging young people to take the risks. We might need to take risks to challenge barriers in organisations which hold young people back, we need to be as brave and courageous. We need, as this suggests, not to be content in only bringing young people to our beautiful place – but pushing them through the barriers we create to the somewhere new.

We have to take risks. Faith is about taking risks. Life is about taking risks.

Whilst the section above is less about faith, and more about risks in general. It is not difficult to make connections about barriers in churches and providing the support for young people to develop an adult faith.

As a reminder: Those 101 risky ideas for faith based work are here

At random – these are numbers 41-50 on the list and are aimed at helping to develop spirituality in young people, if you like these, why not download them all..for free. i mean what kind of risk is that, even…

41. Rewrite a parable and base it in your local context. Tell the story to young people without revealing its biblical origins. What are their interpretations?

42. Get up early to watch the sunrise and pray for the day ahead.

43. Ask young people to write a new parable.

44. Go to a cathedral or ancient church. Do some research about the the faith communities that have been there over its history.

45. For an experience of awe and wonder, sleep out under the stars.

46. Identify some of the metaphors used to describe God (ie Lion, Teacher, Tower, Rock). Ask young people to come up with some new metaphors based on the local context.

47. Cancel youth group or church in order that young people might find God outside the spaces you can control.

48. Arrange a visit to the building and community of a different faith. Use the time as an opportunity to dialogue about what values are important to you all.

49. If you meet with young people to explore and discover God start calling it church rather than Bible study or youth group. How do young people react? When is church, church?

References
Sercombe – Youthwork Ethics, 2010
Ward, Pete, Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997

Ideas for future youthwork for the ‘Indoor generation’

I was delivering some training for a group of volunteers just before Christmas, on the subject of developing pioneer youthwork. After talking through a number of theories, processes, ideas and stuff like values. The question was;

Well, that’s all very well – but what if the young people are ‘stuck’ inside their house?

And so, all the best theories, the best processes, the best methods might be ultimately faced with a barren brick wall, if the majority of young people are stuck inside. When I say stuck, i mean that as far as an outsider is concerned, they may be playing video games, on screens, doing homework, being escorted to organised activities (like after school clubs with Parents). But they are definitely not allowed out to wander, to go to the park, to ride a bike even. Some might be seen walking the family pet. Some might not want to go out. When bedrooms are the sanctuary from the horrors of school, family life or other stress, then why go out at all.

On one hand, some of this might be the feeling we have when ‘numbers of young people’ and not ‘quality of youth work’ is what we want to try and do. It could be as if ‘only a few young people’ isnt good enough, beneficial enough, or valid enough. See my post ‘But we only have 6 young people’ where thinking about the ‘only’ of numbers should be banned. However, this is only one side of the coin, probably. Its the side of the coin in which value for money might only take breadth and reach into equation, not depth and meaningfulness.

What is quite a challenge is that the young people some groups and organisations want to work with are the ones who are inside, who are generally diligent, who are doing their homework. But the ones who are disruptive and challenging, who are out and about, are the difficult ones that the groups dont seem to have the same enthusiasm for… strangely. Its as if the 30 kids in the park, arent the right ones…

Nevertheless, what if there isnt any young people around at all?

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Some of this may be true as well. Talk of a sensible generation isn’t new. A generation adverse to risk taking, and trying to ‘get on’ might just mean that they don’t want to ‘ruin’ things, be disruptive, or be on the streets, to find identity, belong and community – when this is online instead. Or where fears of the outside world are overblown. But its not that new that the majority of young people aren’t ‘outside’ or at Youth clubs.

In 1939, 50% of young people were uncontacted, (not in contact)with any youth serving agency. (Circular; Board of Education). This included, faith/non faith groups, sports, club work and uniformed groups.

So, in 1939, only 15 years after young peoples clubs had hit a boom, things were on a decline. And in 1962, the ‘large numbers of young people’ not attached to any youth organsiation were a principle reason for a small scale, but 5 year funded + research project starting in London with a YWCA (More of which can be read in Goetschius/Tash 1967 Working with the unattached, a summary of which is on http://www.infed.org) . So the moral panic, or more accurately, desperate need to react to young people not attached isnt new. But maybe then, a good number were unattached and outside. I would say that since 2010, if a project doing detached youthwork in one particular area for 2-3 years sees 15% of the youth population in a suburban area it is doing well. Its probably only 10% of young people in an area who might be seen and contacted outide, and if the youth club (if such a thing exists) has 10-15 core young people then this is often the most it can manage and develop into a deep and meaningful experience long term for them.

In many areas, there are still the sports clubs, uniformed groups, faith groups (who may be the only ‘open youth club’/detached work left’) – church group like a ‘Messy church’ – dance, drama and music groups.

And so – whilst it may be that there are no where like 50% young people attending these things, it might be unlikely that they are doing nothing at all. Even the secondary school/Primary schools in many areas are delivering later evening activities, sports, etc.

That being said – the hard to reach might still be hard. And not every young person is the same. Screen time is one thing, home work another, but what if young people (aged 14) are caring for younger siblings until their hard working parents get back from shift work or a days work at 6. As a young person they are having responsibility – so what might a youth agency do to help them out? – what about a young carers and children session? (one example)

It could be dispiriting that the open youth group cant compete with all the technology of the childs bedroom, and there has been a tendency to try and fill the youth club with the same kinds of things. Or try and be relevent through making a you tube clip.

What is interesting is that young people like to feel at home in the spaces of the youth club – that doesnt mean that it has to replicate home. It could be ‘home +’ – where is feels like home, but they are trusted more, or given more responsibility, that they are cared for and listened to – not assumptions made. Where they are challenged even and enjoy social relationships. Having an Xbox in the youth club might be nothing at all really what young people want. Maybe its is something completely different, its time, its attention, its could be escape from the headache and stress of it all.

If young people cant come out of their houses – then why not go to them? – Could we do some door knocking and do a survey in the local area – find out actual information – rather than make assumptions? If they are hard to reach – then at least we make ourselves available… – this is happening elsewhere. Meet them where they’re at – how easy is this when they’re in their home?

We might think that starting the conversation with young people in a different space might be the thing – but doing schools work might not be practical if no one in the youth club or church is available all day, and the vicar turning up to do an assembly is no real incentive to come to the church youth club. Not really. Only for the already attending church kids.. probably… (its why i dont think vicars should do assemblies… 😉 ) – but trying to find a starting point for interaction seems to be one of the main questions – and something then that your group, church, organisation could spend seriously thinking about, especially if there is no natural footfall. But theres nothing new there…

Questions like these might help:

  • Where do young people hang out in their leisure time?
  • What are the routes from schools, from the school buses?
  • Do any young people spend time in the town centres at weekends? (i have tried detached work on a saturday afternoon before)
  • Where might young people find us? – How might they opt in?

There may be a realisation that we are heading into a space where we might want to think about ‘digital youthwork’ – and this will bring up a whole load of new scenarios, issues and practices to consider, in terms of values, engagement, confidentiality, individual/group work, participation. I am not sure what the latest guidance on this is, but i know that the NYA did produce some guidance a few years back ( in the age of Bebo.. ), which must have been updated since. However, if you think moving to digital youth work is the future for developing youthwork for the future indoor generation, then there is much to think about. I would suggest that there are enough young people who do not engage on social media 24/7 and there is evidence that young people are switching off. We might want to think about interest groups – how might we help young people be part of a movement – rather than a club… could the church be the space that helps young people change their local world, or a national issue ( like plastic, litter, energy, pollution, poverty, justice- the things young people care about…) .

If we offer something that is meaningful, that starts with young people in mind, offers a hand of participation, ownership and involvement, then it is more likely that this will create good youth work practice.

On the other hand, it is highly commendable that we want to reach as many young people as we can, the sad inevitability is that this may not be possible, but that doesnt mean that a small group of young people who we do spend time with is not worthy or unimportant. Maybe we are given a few first, and then opportunities to grow come more organically. Whilst we might not be in need for numbers for funding bids we can rest easy. Though if we have young people and are losing them thats a different matter – then we might have a different challenge on our hands- thats for a different piece.

Future youth work for the indoor generation? nothing new, but it might mean we have to raise our game…

If you have any suggestions – do put them below:

Start the new year remembering to focus on the ‘you’ part of your youthwork

Starting 2019 ; Start with thinking about you

This piece starts with a look at boundaries and how in faith based youthwork these can be blurred, causing a number of challenges, and at times not knowing how to react to a desire for professionalism and yet maintain relationships. This leads me to reflect on self care and how the same ‘blurriness’ of ‘vocation’ and ‘profession’ causes similar challenges to the person of the youthworker.

Firstly boundaries

Once derided for its amateurness compared to its ‘secular cousin’ state based youth work, Faith based youthwork has undergone a considerable transformation over the last 30 years. With the rise of qualifications, and professionalism, there has been a concerted increase in ensuring that faith based youth work has rigorous adherence with policies, procedures and guidelines, including child protection, health and safety and also boundaries. In the main, it has to be concluded that if this increased awareness and policy implementation has made our practices safer and healthier for young people then this is undoubtedly a good thing. However, we might reflect that faith based contexts are different to ‘non faith based contexts’ in a number of ways, and as such it could be accused that faith based contexts have almost gone too far in regard to policies and practices and lost some of their distinctiveness.

Yet at the same time, issues about personal boundaries regarding vocation, self care and sustaining our ministry and personal lives still remain. We might ask;

Q: What are the personal boundaries that you might need to manage if your house is the venue for the ‘young peoples’ homegroup ?

Compare your responses to this, when it is fairly unlikely that any young people will even know where the secular youth worker even lives or would even disclose this to young people.

The reason for suggesting this, is that if we’re not careful the aspects of faith based work, such as meeting in homes, might become lost, because of a desire of adherence to policies that are meant for places of employment.

Though at the same time, this is not that we are not aware of the risks and boundary issues of hosting a home based youth discussion evening, but these might be better managed to create a homely vibe and open discussion, something that the cold church hall may not be able to offer. So, whilst there is definitely a desire to ensure safety and that our practices cant be regarded as amateur, we would also do well to reflect on spaces where there is a distinctive approach open to a faith group, that shouldn’t be eradicated by a drift toward professionalism, but that it does need to be managed appropriately. If you are thinking of running a young peoples home-group, what would you need to consider? Both for you as the host, volunteers and also the young people who attend; in regard to boundaries?

Faith based contexts do operate from a different ethical framework, with a sacred text having a higher regard than what might be seen as beaurocratic policies, and yet on another hand policies and frameworks for practice have now been adopted by churches in the last 30 years then have often been reactionary, like government policies in the national arena, to incidents of child abuse such as the Victoria Climbie case. This is in no way to suggest that churches can relax about safety regarding children and protecting them, and this is crucial, and having policies to protect children is vital.

But this does not mean to say that some of the key practices of a faith context, such as a home group cannot happen. We might need to careful in fully adopting policies and frameworks meant for larger organisations, for schools or for secular youth work provision, and spend time developing our own, and those that reflect both the youthwork and faith values of our own organisation.

As a consequence setting and being aware of personal boundaries is a challenge. For, the nature of the youth and community work that you do is not restricted to the one building, even the church, and as a youth worker we do work within an emerging and often invisible set of values and guidelines which distinguish us from the teacher, doctor or social worker.

From a theological perspective we have used words like ‘incarnational’ and ‘relational’ to describe the style and nature of the youthwork that we do, we can often then be tempted to negate thinking about boundaries for our own sake, our long term sustainability and increase aspects of burnout and stress.

We might want to follow in the footsteps of pioneers before us, but we need to recognise that we are probably very new in the field and just learning our trade. Even the pioneers, yes even Jesus, did not spend every waking hour in the company of the crowds, or even his disciples, being relational and incarnational does not mean acting self sacrificially to the detriment of ourselves and negating personal boundaries.

But, and this is crucial, one key aspect of youth work is the ongoing professional relationship[1] this means that there may need to be continual negotiation of boundaries so that there is a professional relationship maintained, and that young people neither build up co-dependence, or are kept at such a distance that the relationship is meaningless.

Some of these questions were first recorded by George Goetchius and Joan Tash in 1964, in the write up (published in 1967) of their emerging youthwork in inner city London on the streets. As the team of volunteers started to encounter young people, the supervision and training that they developed focused on four different aspects of the work, the first being team work, the second defining the problem, the third aspect of the training they developed for youthwork focused on the aspects of the youth work relationship, as they asked the following questions:

  • What is a relationship?
  • How does it come about and why?
  • What can go wrong?
  • Why do the young people need relationships with us? [2]

We might also add the question: ‘Why do we want to have relationships with young people?’ and be honest about this. It is imperative that we think about our role, our intentions as youthworkers, and also the nature, style and objectives of the relationships that are built between us and young people, as reflecting on this will help us to understand what it is we are trying to and also who we are trying to be, with young people. If we understand what kind of relationship we, and our volunteers are trying to create with young people, its function, purpose and how this might be coherent with its nature, then we might find it easier to identify where issues might arise regarding personal boundaries.

Moving on to Self care – looking after the you of the youthworker in 2019;

In her chapter ‘Sustaining ourselves and our enthusiasm’ Carole Pugh[3] recognises the stress and challenge of being involved in youthwork, and the emotionally draining nature of relationships, of the complexity of decision making and management, and she gives a number of suggestions which may help us to sustain ourselves.

Firstly, Be aware of the pressure points. Youthwork can occur with few resources, limited long term security, ill equipped buildings and unpredictable volunteers and young people. As Pugh says a sense of hopelessness can lead to fatalism, it can be difficult to remain hopeful (Pugh, 2010, p145), and this can lead to cynicism or retreat to the ‘golden age’. As youthworkers we need to sustain a youthfulness that is hopeful and transforming, being fatalistic, is not in the best interests of young people. Sustaining ourselves means sustaining our outlook.

Secondly, Pugh suggests that we are more likely to sustain ourselves if we know ourselves, who we are, our intentions, capabilities and self awareness in regard to shaping and building relationships (as stated above). It is important to know why we might lose heart when we do, to identify the causes. Pugh suggests that we need to hear the ‘inner youth worker’ taking time and space to find, listen and to understand ourselves. A key area that Pugh identifies as a mechanism, to help in this process is to have good supervision which can help with coping, sharing the problem and creating strategies for overcoming. It could be something more practical that causes us to struggle, it is fairly likely that you will work in a cold office, but if you end up working for 3 or 4 days a week in a cold office in a building on your own, then this may be as or more challenging that the situation of the holiday club where the church is busy for the entire 5 days.

Another aspect to manage, is how we prioritise the tasks that we have, from the tasks that could be daunting, challenging and difficult, which might be funding bids, trustee meetings, strategy document making or reports, and whilst this might not sound like managing boundaries, sustaining ourselves is a key factor in sustaining ourselves, and if we are able to sustain ourselves which is something we can take some responsibility for, we might be in a better position as youthworkers to create the kind of relationships we want to if we begin to create examples of how and who we are in our practice. As Christians we might pride ourselves with trying to want to have some kind of moral integrity and aim towards this, and this needs to be shown in how we manage ourselves, tasks and being aware of our own strengths and weaknesses.

The complexity of Self care & Boundaries in faith based youth work

A helpful section on Boundaries within faith based youthwork is written by Simon Davies, within a chapter ‘The Management of Faith based youth work’ in Jon Ords edited text ‘Critical Issues in Youth work management’ (2012). In his chapter, Davies suggests that the notion of ‘Calling’ and ‘Vocation’ as one of the key factors that link a persons identity, values and aspirations with the occupation that they choose, and this has a resonance with how in a faith setting Christian faith based youth workers relate to their personal values and work life, but at the same time this can present complexities which require managing, especially where there is a separation or overlap of the following:

  1. The geographic community where the work is situated within
  2. The geographic community where the worker lives within
  3. The field of the personal (ie being in relationship with others, with young people)
  4. The field of the professional (the functions of the workplace)
  5. The field of the personally held ultimate beliefs (what the worker believes)
  6. The faith community (the public expression of commonly held ultimate beliefs)

Davies suggests, as was intimated above, that the professionalization of some aspects of faith based youth work has encouraged the separation of personal life and professional work, however this is not always the case, and for a youth work based almost entirely in a church/faith community based setting it will likely to be a frequent occurrence where many of these (and other aspects of boundaries) will overlap. It is nearly always preferable or expected that a worker live within the geographical area of the church building, not far from schools or even where young people live themselves, it may also be expected that a worker make use of their home or office as a point of contact with young people. When these situations occur, not only might boundaries be blurred, they may even cease to exist[4]

There can easily become a real difficulty in having such a dynamic congruence between ones fundamental beliefs and working life. As one worker put it:

‘if our vocation is central to your sense of identity, then difficulties within your vocation are going to have an impact on your sense of self, and vice versa’ (Richards, 2005: 141, from Davies, 2012).

Davies also suggests, building from research, that the over mixing of ‘work self’ and the ‘personal self’ can have significant impacts upon mental health and well being, especially if achievement, role and function become the centre ground in a persons life, rather than being in relationship. The often result of this is stress and burnout. This can also be revealed through being in a leadership position where affection is received from followers and those whom a youth worker has authority over, and this becomes the source of their sustenance.

As a faith based youth worker – what are you responsible for?

Managing professional and personal identity is an ongoing process, and supervision and line management is a necessary component in increasing youth workers awareness of the boundaries of their responsibilities and their well being. It is to be encouraged that you ensure as a new youth worker that you put in place good line management for yourself, and suggest that discussions about boundaries, time management, workload and relationships occur in line management, (and if not in some external professional supervision) especially as the immersion of young peoples lives and involvement in the Christian community that is often expected of a faith based worker.

By virtue of a comparison, the same research, by Lake (1960)[5] in reverse can actually help us especially in faith based Christian youth work.

Whitehead writes that instead of being sustained by achievement and status, we might see and hopefully reflect on Jesus who was sustained instead by his relationship with his Father, and his sense of confidence, status and achievement flowed out of this. An unhealthy ministry might prioritise a sense of achievement, status and popularity, and seek these through giving unconditionally, trying to please and comparing a ministry with others. Having an acceptance that our sense of acceptance comes not from ministry but from our relationship with God, and that we are created by God and have an eternal purpose that whilst requires action, is not subject to earning love or approval. Growing in our security of God and our relationship with him, and attending to the relationships we have with family and friends needs to be the source of how we are sustained. This is also a vital message with which to share with young people, as it is a healthy foundation of ministry[6]. Get this right, and it will become far easier to identify in ourselves and in others where there are un-healthy boundaries, as often these will be revealed as a consequence of trying to do ministry as a way of gaining acceptance , approval or connection and could be detrimental to themselves or others.

Oh and before you think im only lecturing, re reading this stuff over the last few weeks has been hugely helpful and therapeutic to me.

A few concluding notes: 

We might reflect that the stuff that looks like acceptance, status and popularity, are in a way negated with a closer adherence to what we might describe as ‘youthwork values’ – for if we truly are about empowering others, then our invisibility should be noted, not our desire to be visible, dominant and surround ourselves with gatherings, and find our ego massaged by numbers of people. As well, if we value individuals (again a youth work value) then this as a precedent looks closer to a sacrificial and humble attitude to put others first, a not unlike Biblical imperative. The danger then the issues in our self care and boundaries might be less to do with faith, or values, but the ecclesial practices and expectations of numbers gatherings and popularity, evident in some parts of youth ministry.

Its is as pertinent, that the very things that are indicators of poor self care, are emphasised by competitive and outcomes orientated funded and programmes. If projects and ministries are measured and managed by numbers, attendance then these overtake any sense of values, theology and ministry to individuals, often, and might even then exacerbate poor self care and being able to do this. Making ministry less humane, might make is worse for the ministers doing it too. If Management processes and outcomes are less about the human behind the number, then self care for the minister might become even more of an issue. And when i say minister i mean youth minister as well.

Its a long one to start the year, but I am convinced that in Ministry and practice with young people, with any people, we need to look after ourselves, recognise the aspects of our work that cause stress and put us into places where our self care may be about to be tested.

And finally I think this is beautiful from Howard Sercombe:

“At the heart of a good youth worker is a beautiful spirit, a quality of connection that is positive, hopeful, good. It is often that this is transformative, projecting a possibility that young people can see for a way that is different. But the situations that youth workers have to deal with are often not beautiful; we often confront horrifying neglect or abuse, disturbing levels of violence, naked hard core damage to people that we care for and respect, the wanton waste of human life. A youth workers quality of spirit needs to be nurtured, maintained and protected, the most important resource for the young people you work with… is you; intelligent, wise, compassionate, engaged, skilful, insightful, well informed, well connected, articulate, creative, productive, confident you. Creating and maintaining this beast in the midst of high pressure and often poor resource provision needs work and constant attention” (Sercombe H, 2010, p168-169)

Start 2019, not just with the youth programme sorted until Easter, but also the programme that looks after you, beautiful, intelligent, creative youthworker.

This article was derived from a piece I recently wrote for CYM on this subject, It was published a week ago via my patreon site: https://www.patreon.com/JamesBallantyne and so if you would like to receive my posts early, you can do so via that platform.

References

[1] Sercombe, Howard, The Ethics of Youthwork, 2010, p27

[2] Goetschius G, Tash J, Working with the Unnattached, 1967, pp242-244, Routledge and Kegan Paul Publishing, Liverpool

[3] Pugh, Carole, Sustaining ourselves and our Enthusiasm in Jeffs T, Smith M (eds) Youth work Practice , Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

[4] Davies Simon, The Management of Faith Based youthwork, pp148-161 in Ord, Jon (eds) Critical Issues in Youth work Management, Routledge, Oxford, 2012

[5] This is referred to both Davies, Simon, and Whitehead/Nash (below)

[6] Jo Whitehead, Sally Nash, Ten Essential Concepts for Christian Youth work, Grove Booklet, Y40, 2015

Why might churches (only) advertise for a passionate, excited youthworker?

All together now, you know the tune:

‘The wonderful thing about youthworkers

is youthworkers are wonderful things

their tops are made out of rubber, their bottoms are made out of springs

Theyre bouncy, trouncy, flouncy pouncy,  fun fun fun fun fun

but the most wonderful thing about youthworkers is i’m the only one….

Youthworkers are cuddly fellas

Youthworkers are awfully sweet

Ev’ryone el-us is jealous

That’s why I repeat… and repeat

The wonderful thing about youthworkers

Is youthworkers are working all hours

They’re burdened with being all jumpy

They’re running on overactive powers

They’re jumpy, bumpy, clumpy, thumpy

Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!

But the most wonderful thing about youthworker is

I’m the only one

 

A cursory look at the most recent job advertisements for youth workers and ministers, not only reveals that a pioneering/creative spirit is required, and so is qualifications, but that the most common attribute for the ‘new’ youth person is that they are the following……

EXCITED! (and closely followed by..)

PASSIONATE!

and the job is usually exciting too!

Everything is exciting, Everything as LEGO says is Awesome… I have seen roles for administrators being described as exciting, in the same way i have seen roles for running Sunday schools as exciting opportunities, and also developing new pioneering youthwork as exciting too. Everything is exciting. The person needs to be excited. The person needs to be passionate. In short it feels as though any new recruit to a youth ministry role needs to be some kind of ‘christian tigger’.

Bouncy, fun, lively, on the go, busy busy busy, no time, no stopping, hours upon hours, happy, smiley, exhausting powers upon powers and ideas and on the go, passionate, excited, creative…

Lets ask a question: Who might be wanting ‘Christian tigger’? the church or the young people?

Image result for tigger

If it is the church in general, why might a church want someone to be ‘passionate’ and describe that their role is ‘exciting’ or that a person needs to be ‘exciting’?

Is this just good sales techniques? and attempt to make the role attractive to the prospective applicant?

Possibly. Or maybe theres something more than this.

What if instead it wasn’t just good sales, but that deep down there’s a fear that the local church needs a pick up, an energy boost, a lift and it is the role of the ‘new/excited/passionate’ youthworker to somehow lift the local church out of a bit of the doldrums.  Don’t get me wrong, its almost human nature to want a new person to add energy or something new to an old way of being (though ironically, how much change is a youthworker allowed to actually fulfil..) . But there’s a deep down fear as well, that Andy Root suggested in ‘Faith Formation’ ;  because of society’s equation of youthfulness with authenticity – and anything that seems old fashioned/old is not authentic – then what a local church might be buying into with the ‘passionate youth worker’ is for that person to be the person that helps them to starting thinking and being youthful again.

There’s a fear maybe that a church is getting old, and the enthusiastic youth worker might be the person that helps the church feel young again. Is that the real reason an enthusiastic person is required… that’s some responsibility… not just bring youth into the church, but bring youthfulness too. What do you think – ever seen this happen?

Whilst ‘passionate’ is flavour of the decade for the youth worker role – whatever happened to compassionate? 

Again, a quick cursory look around the youth ministry job adverts, and compassion is lacking. Even in some of the job descriptions, passion is ahead of compassion – its compassion that may just be what young people need/want – and empathy – well above just someone who might be ‘passionate’ to be there and full proverbially of themselves. Compassion situates the ‘ministry’ of young people with young people – young people as primary. Compassion is about the other. Because as we fundamentally, young people don’t care that much about the youth worker anyway, or the church, or the ministry, or the activities, they are more interested in themselves – so the more compassion a youth worker has the better. The more the youth worker is less of themselves, less of their own powers, passion, ministry – and the more listening they do and being interested in young people the better.

This is nothing new, Young Life in the 1960s, developed contact ministry – in which youth workers would spend more time in the world of young people than the opposite, be in their space. Be less passionate, be more dependable, be more compassionate, or more enthusiastically present.

If young people designed job adverts for the youth minister- would they opt for passion or compassion, what do you think?  Because they’re looking for passion and excitement, are churches are looking for is someone for themselves – not just someone who is for and with young people?  And yes of course it might be a bit of both. But is it passionate excited youth ministers who churches have in mind in their job adverts…

Why might churches want a passionate, excited youthworker ?  Because maybe, there’s too many Eeyore’s in the church already, and a tigger is needed.. What happens when the Tigger cant be Tigger anymore?

What if a youth worker helped churches to be more compassionate about young people in their local community, to fight for injustice and help to remove barriers – would compassion lead for something good happening that the church locally could be part of. Not just the passionate youth worker tries man/womanfully to engender youthfulness or passion in the church and ministry of it. I wonder…

NB – And sorry, the tigger song will be going through your head for the rest of the day now…

References

Root, Andrew, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 2016

Ward, Pete, Youth work and the Mission of God, 1997

 

The church is currently in crisis – so why should it support its children and youth workers?

Since the 1990’s, when many professionally or should i at least say, employed by churches youth and childrens workers entered the scene, their pay and conditions have always been less than that of the clergy. A quick skim through previous editions of youth work magazine and adverts for youthworker roles proved this (i did this exercise in a post here…)

There may be several reasons for this. Including that pay may be distributed in churches in accordance with deemed hierarchy, with youth and childrens workers lower in the pecking order than clergy, but slightly higher than admin staff or the cleaner (though a cursory glance at some current adverts and this may now not even be the case, with youth workers only being paid the ‘living wage’). Also if clergy have line management responsibilities, should it not stand to reason that youthworkers get paid less, sometimes. And pay is only half the issue.

As Ali Campbell pointed out in this piece in the church times ‘Youth and Childrens workers need a better deal . There is in a way nothing new here. But in the 1990’s when the church, and youth ministry was potentially on a higher crest of a wave than it is now, very little strategic, systematic, visionary thinking was acted on to concrete core structures in churches to give youth and childrens workers a better deal then. And they continued to leave in their droves, and be burned out by the experience. Many only lasting 2 years max.

So, now. The church is in crisis. Lurching from one set of falling attendance statistics to another, trying to fix itself through growth mindsets and snazzy initiative that are being bought into, lets have Gods kingdom actually come, rather than be sold it as  programme. Gods kingdom might actually come if youthworkers were treated better, fancy that. Because that would mean that people were being employed with a little more dignity and in deficit of a little less stress, both financially.Image result for crisis

I go to a small church. It cant afford any professional leader, ie to pay a clergy, let alone to pay me as a youthworker, so this is no plea from me without any first hand knowledge. If the discussion Ali is having is for the church of England (and I am not sure it is), then the situation in other denominations is considerably more dire, when congregations, rather than affiliations bear the brunt of entire costs and legality. But the church is in crisis isnt it?

The crisis the church faces itself is not necessarily or merely of finances. It is of poor leadership and lack of risk taking imagination. It has always been the case that the roof is needing to be fixed in a building that less and less people are going to use. Fix the roof, paint the walls, fix the heating, change the screen, use new hymns, erect a noticeboard, clean the windows, be the perfect church building that no one has any connection with in the local area. this isnt new.

Without any relationship with a local community, there is no point fixing a building. And who are most likely to be the people who spend most of their time, in the local community – yes probably a youth or childrens worker, in a school, a community centre, on the streets. But thats not to say that the building isnt important either, when it can be used for the local community, and a worship space to connect us all into the ongoing story of Gods redemption, and where the building may also play its own part.

The church is not in crisis. Isnt it spending a considerable amount of money on the latest model of doing church? The getting the church right model, which hopes to resource other not so great models around it, before they get reduced to closure? Seems alot for a coffee machine and a contemporary band. If only it was that simple. So, the church is not as much in crisis, as it is, using its resources in a way that seems back to front. Sort the church, sort out mission. Why not invest in mission and see what emerges – because thats a risk. And until that point anyone doing mission is underground, ignored and talking about what theyre doing only to themselves. Find me active clergy at youth work conferences who stay and listen, or bishops who go to mission conferences, who stay and listen. Show me the church that re ordered around its foodbank, its childrens work or its youthworker? Joined up thinking could have been better, the whole body of the church seems not always to pull together, or be included in the pulling together. The church may be in crisis, and financial reports from the leeds diocese this week even give some credence to this, yet in the order of the cutbacks which in many cases is first to go?

So, Youth and Childrens workers, we need to keep up the ‘fight’ – just like our secular colleagues are hammering the labour party for a re-ignition of the statutory youth services, we need to justify ourselves even more, and build on what has already been established.Youth workers have worked – now the church needs to back it, regardless.

church12.png

Of course it is far easier to moan than it is offer any real solutions. But I hope that the real solutions are being considered by those who have power to make those things happen.

If its about line management, training for clergy or supervision, im happy to help, if its about some kind of task force, working group or conversation for change for youth and childrens workers, again count me in. Even if every church who employs a youth and childrens worker did one or two extra things to add value to the role (and my previous post gave some ideas) , but we also not to kid ourselves that there’s a magic money fig-tree with the pots of gold for youthworker salaries – though in individual scenarios there could be housing, or pensions or priorities given to fund the youth and childrens worker, over ‘general funds’ – or dare i say it reserves being spent.

There is unlikely to be a one size fits all way out of the current crisis the church is narrating about itself, prioritising youth and childrens work, may be more about social good and community good than church growth – but that is no bad thing in itself, after all isnt generosity part of Gods kingdom being come? Investing in Childrens and youth work a while ago gave the possibility that a number of current bishops could find faith and continue with being leaders in the church 40 years later – so why not invest in that same supply chain. The church needs to be meaningful in its local communities, investing in those who are present in it and listening seems to me like the best way, and that also includes the clergy.

Why should the church, in a current flux of crisis, support its childrens and youthworkers better?

Are you really telling me this is a question we are still asking…

If a growth mindset is needed – then surely investing better in the youthfulness of children and young people is going to help? – even if i shudder at the thought of this being what children and young people help to make churches feel.