30 scenarios in Christian youth work or ministry that are impossible to avoid

I am sadly, in the process of moving from one role and job within christian youthwork, to a period of ‘between jobs’ , though there are a few things on the table as it were, but not confirmed as yet. And its not an easy time, but it did cause me to reflect on the fact that being at the end of a job, or being asked to move on is one aspect of christian youth work that is in the ‘difficult to avoid’ category. In fact, many messages of support to me recently have been just that, that this kind of situation happens to us all. But i wonder, what might be other aspects of christian youth ministry that are as difficult to avoid?

  1. Its impossible to avoid ever being asked what a youth worker is, or does, and then replying back with what a youthworker isnt.
  2. Its impossible to avoid the gravitational pull within christian youthwork to the practices and all its pulling power (lights, branding, culture, stuff) of evangelical youth ministry. This might be in the form of influencing local leaders or directly to young people via advertising in ‘other ‘ stuff. This is important, as what is happening is that young persons spirituality is up for grabs.
  3. In the same way its impossible to avoid being told how someone elses youth ministry was successful because they did X and Y better and have a ministry of millions and a multi million pound book deal, and a youtube channel. When a persons ministry has left behind young people a long while ago.
  4. In youth work it is impossible to avoid the panic of a few no showing volunteers 10 minutes before a session. It will happen.
  5. Its impossible to avoid being short of funding.
  6. Its impossible to avoid trying to convince a church of your worth – via the numbers game. Equally its impossible to go through youth ministry in the UK and not be told of that ‘300’ statistic of young people leaving the church back in the 1980s.
  7. Its impossible to avoid being in the middle of the conversations when young people are absent, or talked about, and being the representative for the young people, their voice being absent.
  8. Its impossible to avoid poor management by clergy. Sorry, but itll happen. Expect it and work with them.
  9. Its impossible to avoid power struggles in the church or organisation. Power is everywhere.
  10. Its impossible to avoid the rise smile when those in youth work tell new volunteers how amazing and exciting it all is, when you know its not like that all the time.
  11. Its impossible to avoid the pressure to have the worlds most eclectic DVD or Ipod selection.
  12. Its impossible to avoid being told by experts who dont know your context how to do ministry with their resources in your context.
  13. Its impossible to avoid the ongoing navigation of personal and professional time, and how to be faithful in ministry and keep work-life balance. no it is pretty difficult.
  14. Its impossible to avoid the need to say no to people, to delegate and give others back their jobs and roles, but in reality the easiest thing to do is to say yes.
  15. Its impossible to avoid nowadays the need to be online, and be part of the conversations in youth ministry practice that emanate from blogs, articles and magazines. Though sometimes it is better to read an actual book.
  16. Its impossible to avoid being compared to the previous youthworker in a post.
  17. Its impossible to avoid feel impatient when the busy season is over, long for the quiet periods, but thrive when its busy and crave it.
  18. Its impossible to avoid the church you work for asking you to do the thing the church down the road is doing without thinking that its what the young people actually want to do.
  19. Its impossible to avoid getting into an argument with someone about keys and cupboards, or about milk, tea and use of the church fridge or office, tidyness of desk, or communication with the admin or church comms department about the notice sheet.
  20. Its impossible to avoid thinking that you might have failed when young people stop coming to your group- you havent, probably,  But it is worth asking the question and why and reflecting on the group, not just blaming the individual.
  21. Its impossible to avoid trying to be the entertainer for a while, but you soon get out of it, once you realise you cant keep it up. Though you can manage to keep it up if you only ever encounter different audiences of young people, but that isnt youth work, thats an itinerant preacher to young people.
  22. Its impossible to keep up working at over 60 hours a week for more that 2 or 3, so avoid it.
  23. its impossible to avoid being in a time when people share stories of ministry where someone isnt embellishing the success/numbers/influence of their ministry.
  24. Its impossible to avoid ethical decisions about good practice versus the kind of ministry that people can see ( ie that young people come to an event)
  25. Its impossible to avoid being asked ‘when are you going to get a proper job’
  26. its impossible to avoid being one of these stereotypes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5zumMQSwHo
  27. Its impossible not to resist the temptation to use a funny clip when you’re communicating something, just ram the point home. But then your words feel a little boring in comparison, after which the (young) people just want more funny clips.
  28. It is impossible to avoid an ethical issue about the way young people communicate via social media and your church or agency who dont understand it.
  29. It is impossible to avoid a situation especially in a church setting where paperwork and contracts seem haphazard, yet they have been ready for you, but paperwork is lacking.
  30. It is impossible to avoid thinking ‘but its not about getting young people into church‘ – but not always saying out loud.

So here are 30 i can think of, many of which have happened to me, or youth workers that i know and have spoken to over the last 10 years, yet I imagine there might be other ‘impossible to avoid’ scenarios in youth work and ministry. Please do write further ones here in the comments and share. What else in youth ministry is difficult or impossible to avoid?


Making the transition (2) – from scripted to improvised youthwork

In a real sense the following incident became something of an epiphany moment for me as a faith-based youthworker. Sometime around 2005 I was involved in being the church based youth work student for a church in Scotland, whilst also studying for my Youth work 7 applied theology course at ICC (now SCCM) Glasgow.

Up to this point most of my experience in the previous 5 years had been in church orientated work, and so was orientated around existing activities, such as groups in buildings. As the worker my role was to lead the group sessions where up to 10 young people would gather. And though I mellowed, I was pretty neurotic about it. In a way because i had the time to dedicate to it during the week, I would plan the session to the minute or so or my material, which included games, and activities and discussion. I would, with a few helpers, be effectively the conductor, the leader of this performance, that was in all honestly looking back a highly scripted affair, the only gap being ‘break time’ for tuck shop.

Regardless of the reasons for this type of work, what was difficult was shaking myself, and itself from quite a rigid programmed structure. How I changed, and it changed stemmed from this moment;

The epiphany moment occurred as a result of the church’s geographic situation. It had a couple of flat roofed buildings and was set into the side of a steep ish hill, this meant that from the back of the building it was relatively easy for young people to climb over the railings of a path and onto the church roof. Also it had a concrete paved front area which was a perfect rectangle to be played football in by young people from the flats opposite.  They werent involved in the current youth provision, as you might imagine, they didnt ‘fit’ – another story.

As you might imagine, having young people climb on the roof, even just to stray wayward footballs. Or the issue of the odd broken pane of glass became an issue. But for me as a youthworker, I continually asked the question – these are young people – and what must i, or we as a church, do to accommodate them, when they are already here using the building, albeit from the outside?

One Friday evening i took a risk, a calculated one, but a good one.

I thought i would pretend to go to the church, to open up and do something in the building, and if young people were playing football id offer them a drink or something, at least that would be something to start the conversation. So, i parked the car, and noticed there were 5-6 of them kicking a ball around, and as i was opening up the church door, I turned back, to them and introduced myself as the local youthworker, gave my name, and offered them drinks. It was slightly planned, but very much a risk. Very much improvised.

Over a cup of Irn Bru ( yes, failed on health grounds, but the culture dictated it..), the boys and I had conversation, they told me about where they lived, what they liked to do, stuff about their families, school – nothing too amazing, but it was obvious that they felt more comfortable in the space of the concrete paving than i did ( and I was the church youthworker) – and during the unscripted conversation i got to know them, about them, more than some of the young people for whom i was meant to be ‘doing youthwork with’ – during the conversation we still kicked the ball around, football is a great distraction from conversation too (its needed if things start to get intense). All the while i was thinking – what do i ask, how shall i ask it, where is this going – what ultimately can I, or this church offer…

Then the young people asked about me, about what i did, and they asked about coming actually inside the church – they had never been actually inside the building, only played outside, or shouted at from inside to clear off, so, yes, breaking all the rules, and being completely unsafe, they had a quick tour of the building. Only quick mind you, as by now i was still pretty frought with worry about if they damage something – even though i felt i could trust them, i was still taking a risk. They left, calmly, and we continued to play football outside for a short while.

I would love to tell you that this was the beginnings of a long term ministry for this church amongst this group of young people. Actually what happened was that the church embarked upon a ministry of painting stronger vandal paint, barbed wire and also planting trees in the courtyard. At upcoming meetings when i proposed further work with these young people it was talked down. Needless to say i left soon after. It was an indictment then, and continues to be on the primary focus that churches have on how and who they work with. My focus was to be on young people whom the church already had, apparently, not those that break its windows.

What i reflected on at the time, for college, and what i continue to do, is the transition from group work that is one type of education, to group work of another, and the transition of the role of the youth worker, which was scripted around setting and directing a programme – to making the move to start a conversation, but not know what would happen. If i believed the hype about these young people- or at least what those inside the church said about them- then i shouldnt be here- they were seen as that kind of threat. Buildings were to be protected, and groups solidify themselves if outsiders are perceived as threats.  Yet that was not my experience of them, they, in 30 minutes were more honest about themselves, relaxed, funny and appreciative of the attention.

Yet that was not my experience of them, they, in 30 minutes were more honest about themselves, relaxed, funny and appreciative of the attention than sometimes groups inside buildings are – who can have high expectations.

Moving into their space – rather than inviting them to the existing groups – involved a personal transition- from programmed, to planned but improvised, taking a risk in what i knew, in what happen in the empty space of the time, in what might be said, or reactions.  I had to adjust what and how i might say something – if anything i had to treat them with more respect as people- than the young people in groups who could actually be highly manipulated and talked down to – if i so wished. Ie – i could get 14 year olds to play ‘silly’ icebreaker games, as per fun & humiliation – for 11 year olds outside i asked polite questions and had a conversation to get to know them. There was something of a reality in the space outside, and if there was reality outside, there was something of a falseness inside. Not that it was false, but roles were performed in the space that felt false. Theatrically the masks of the culture were all around.

Leaving the space empty, to trust in the conversation is a big leap. Maing that transition from programming the space to being in the space and creating the space with young people is a risk – but and for some youthworkers the transition is difficult to do. But for me, this incident with the football, the irn bru on a friday evening was an epiphany moment in making that transition. An epiphany moment that started me to trust the conversation with young people in the empty space. Transitioning from scripted to improvised.

The fact that i would go on to see 2 of these boys regularly over the next 6 years whilst on a detached youthwork project in the same vicinity was a bonus. And proved the value in treating them appropriately in this moment.

Yesterday i heard of a minister who was suprised at the conversations she had when she spent an hour of her day walking through the shopping centre, being around people and in the space. Maybe a numbered church – needs an outnumbered (improvised TV show) response to the world.

Making the transition from programmed to improvised – a dangerous one – because i havent gone back.

The Waste of talented young people should bother us more than wasted food.

Genuinely, the work that local heroes in Durham like Nikki Dravers has done, in setting up a business (Re-f-use) to recycle food that was going to be wasted is amazing. Challenging the mindset of Durham restaurants and supermarkets through grassroots publicity and awareness raising is truly excellent. Its a gradual mood that is becoming more and more prominent, this nation is wasting food by the truck load, even tonight the Guardian ran this piece suggesting that the equivalent of 113m meals is wasted by Tesco per year alone. A man shopping

Its an issue that, given most of us have dabbled with food porn on Bake off, left 1/2 a pizza in a restaurant, or have chucked away out of date yoghurts, we can all relate to, and should do something about.

But what about the wasted talent in this country?

Only last week I was in a town in the north of England and a school teachers said to me that they have lots of young people who have leadership skills, but no where to express them. And thats just the young people who are in the school. That is tragic.

Every week on the streets of Durham, or from the reflections of staff members, we as youth workers are faced with the crude reality that in one community alone swathes of unrealised talent, gifts and skills of young people will be left dormant. For, in many cases their lives cope in survival mode. Surviving home, surviving school, surviving bullying, surviving responsibility, surviving gossip. Not thriving, but having to be strong to survive, not growing and learning and creativity, music, arts or sports – but coping.

The wasted talent, gifts and abilities in this country should make the headlines, not just the wasted food, but that young people have not been able to flourish in their communities to something like what they could be more capable of given opportunities afforded to others. These are the young people who will get left further behind. Left behind unfulfilled. Creativity wasted.

Today, sadly Bob Holman died, at the end of ‘Kids at the door’ in which he reflected on the progress of many of the young poeple whom were encountered during his time at the southdown project in Bath, he said this of a young person , Daniel, who sadly ended up in Prison; ‘ Daniels life has been characterised by unhappy personal relationships, by drug abuse and violence. Daniel is as valuable as anyone else. God has a special concern for those who lacked privileges and luxuries. The project was right to give of itself to Daniel, not because it would chalk up success, but that he was a valuable young person who needed adults who could offer him the guidance and the affection which is found in a resourceful friendship’ (kids at the door, revisited, 2000)

Today (Aug 1st, 2016) a report is announced that it costs the UK economy £78 billion, for issues and consequences of poverty. Yet wasting food became an issue a few weeks ago, its never about the wasted talent of young people due to poverty, but the cost of it to the economy.

The gauntlet has been laid down to the multi nationals on food waste, the movement to reduce this is gathering momentum quick. The wasted talent, gifts and abilities of young people is too hidden, too hard to find, too difficult to harness. Bananas in tescos are far easier.

Not to mention plastics in the ocean. And I am all for reducing waste, reducing pollution please please do not mishear me. But animal charities get 4-5x more donations than people based charities. If David attenbrough did a documentary about young people instead of oceans..?

As youth workers, despite the temptations to do otherwise, nurturing and encouraging the gifts, talents and skills that young people have driven on by helping young people flourish and have life in fullness has got to be and continues to be a main priority. Someone to encourage a young person, to identify their possibility, someone to dare to dream with a young person. Someone to interject hope into their lives.

“There is no change without dream, as there is no dream without hope” Freire


Sharing Youthwork Stories

Has a youthworker changed your life?  Whats your story and did a youthworker have an impact upon you, for a moment, for a long period of time or ongoing even now?

One of the projects that is ongoing right now by Bernard Davies and the IDYW campaign is to gather stories of change, of moments when lives have been changed because of youthwork, and gather stories, mostly in conjunction with current practitioners. Well, what about if you were a young person and benefitted from a youthworker?

Well, unfortunately, if you’re reading this as an adult, and once visited a youth club, chances are that youth club has now closed. Chances are that those youthworkers have been guided towards working with young people on specific programmes. The days of open youth clubs are almost over, unless that is if you encountered youthwork in the church or the voluntary sector. Some of these places for youthwork still remain, however, I wondered whether, if a youthworker had an impact on your life, helped to intervene, helped you to make decisions, gave you something positive, I wondered whether you would be prepared to share your story, share it so that in print, there are several moments recollected where the profession of youthwork has impacted positively on people growing up in the UK over the last 100 years.

So, if you’re now playing wembley stadium, because a youthworker believed in you to play or sing, or gave you space to practice, or if you’re following your dreams, or developed new gifts, or thought about something differently, met your life partner at a youth club, or changed your political view, or changed the world, whatever it was, believed in you, fought for you, heard your voice, would you be prepared to share your story of how this happened? and what the impact a youthworker had upon your life in that?  You can remain confidential if you want, or alternatively share your details so that you can encourage the youthworker that helped.

It would be fantastic to hear from people who attended youth clubs, met youthworkers on the streets, in drop-ins, or community centres, churches or somewhere else.

Over the course of the rest of the year from today, 1st March, would you be prepared to share your story here?  Theyll all be collated in the ‘Youthwork stories’ topic, and shared on this blog.

Contact me via email jamesballantyne1978@yahoo.co.uk, or via the feedback form on this website. I promise to only share the story as you have written it, after all its your story.

Lets share the positive stories of youthwork in the UK and what it has done to change lives. If one day someone reads them they might retract all the policies that have decimated youthwork, and realise the good it did.

Who’s going first?

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