Managing in Youth Work: Reflecting Spiritually, Closure and Endings

As I write this it is Saturday afternoon (though not finished until Monday), and I have 1 week left being the Manager of a youth work organisation. The organisation itself is also about to close down during the summer. So if there was anything i would be able to reflect on right now it writing from the midst of the process of managing a personal ending in a role, whilst at the same time also managing the closure of an organisation. Obviously it would be dead easy to write this piece in a few years when things were rosy and I had moved on to bigger, greater or more fruitful youth work opportunities ( though the climate for these is pretty scarce) . But that could be ‘after the event’ hindsight, tainted by new positivity.

So this isnt that, this is writing about closure and endings in the midst of the final few weeks of an organisation and the final week in it for me.

If it was just the youthworker leaving a post, then this is quite common, say goodbye to the young people, parents, church leaders and clergy, or  young people, volunteers, sessional staff, manager and office colleagues (depending on your context) . That is difficult enough, as they stay in the same situation as we as the youth worker move on, for whatever reason. And, not making light of any situation, but it feels different to also be closing down the organisation of which im also managing, (along with the trustees). So i have had the dubious honour this week, because I’m the only person left in the office, to raise the final payment of the salaries and include my own redundancy payment. Its weird, and to others it might be odd. But in a way being a manager in a small organisation has meant just doing everything a little bit, not everything brilliantly, but trying to stay afloat by keeping the show on the road. So paying myself has been the norm (the treasurer has checked the payment- dont worry).

The other thing within small organisations of a few trustees, small managerial group and then projects and face to face workers, is that unless there is large amounts of active involvement from volunteers in the governance, to do admin, or fundraising, or publicity, then paying for this role within an organisation can be a large drain on resources. However, more than that, causing it to be the manager who is responsible for finding funding, through writing grants, communicating to donors and events (if there is resources to do such things), it also means that taking on the responsibility for these, along with the other responsibilities as a manager, comes at a price, the price of what happens when these things dont work out.  In a way assuming the responsibility for finding funding for my own role is one thing, finding funding and being responsible for others is another.

The other things to manage is also the ending.

Or at least, the process of decision making towards the closing time. For on one hand it would be hopeful till the very last day, and hope and pray, beg and plead that funding or resources arrive, so that the work of an organisation can go on, week by week. Is that blind faith? But this is also quite an ongoing stress or pressure, and not really fair on young people in groups and projects. ‘oh by the way we wont be here on monday’ . Of course even with all the spreadsheets, projections and knowledge of funding, making difficult decisions about redundancy, closure and notice is about making judgements based on time, and what is likely. Worry about funding and money can easily set in. My previous post on Hope, talked about status anxiety. This could be common in the youth work organisation, especially those for whom have too many barriers to guarantee funding from one source, or are set up with limited local knowledge or pledges of support. Making a too early decision helps people to plan ahead, to communicate with schools and partners and for employees to get new jobs. Clarity of decision making is crucial. The opposite problem might occur, a decision too far off could encourage resentment, or lack of faith. Or be seen as a ‘business’ decision, not a ‘spiritual one’. In a way, decisions about organisations and management are also about trying to respect the needs and dignity of employees, so that ending isnt a shock, neither is the effect this may have on peoples rents, families or stress. So, its intensely practical, but it is also spiritual.

There wont ever be the right time to begin the process of closing an organisation, making sure it is done with the right information to hand though is important. Assessing how the governance feel about taking risks, or making changes to innovate are key, as is the local support for the work. These are all factors in making decisions to close something.

Either way when this kind of change happens, there can be alot of managing and reacting to the Bees. The must Bees and the Mustn’t bees, the must-be”s like:

You must be excited going to a new job, or

You must be disappointed the way its ending

You must be feeling pretty rotten

That must be tough

or theres the must’nt bees

You mustnt be losing your faith over this

You mustnt be letting this affect your ministry

And what happens, is that people sort of try and read how you might be feeling about changing jobs, the ending of a project, and the upcoming change, without actually giving you chance to say exactly how. Its as if they have an idea already and you have to kind of ‘defend’ or contradict their pre supposed view. And this isnt meant to be harsh, as its natural to do this. But when in the firing line of being in the middle of it all, it can make conversation awkward. Of course, conversational support is better than none. And people can give you a wide berth, especially if they had dreams or plans for something that you were meant to be enabling to happen. Or that wide berth reflects actual lack of support, or them being awkward about not knowing what to say. It could be a difficult conversation remember. And difficult conversations about reality of ministry are hard to find in churches. arent they?  It might be that its easier to keep a distance and think ‘what a shame its happened’ but actually not have ever supported the project or venture. And deep down, we in those projects and ventures know who supports us.

So, this week, its about sorting through the piles of paperwork, its about clearing an office space, its about the final staff meal. Its about clearing the emails, closing down passworded accounts and ending the mobile phone contract. Managing the ending of an organisation, its a tough one as its only a practical task, of difficult monotony.

Someone said to me that it could be a spiritual task. And so where might i go to reflect on this spiritually and within the context of the Biblical drama?

And like a bank holiday monday, there is a therapeutic element to getting rid of the rubbish and boy does admin pile up. There are so many bits of paper with to do lists on…

There are Biblical endings. There is tension is every dramatic scene change. The ending of each age is frought with fear, promise and uncertainty. The 400 years of quiet before Christs arrival, the confusion of the disciples post resurrection, and pre crucifixion. And there are specific endings relating the old age of key people like Moses, Abraham and Joseph.

It is interesting that in Ministry Jesus commands the disciples to shake the dust off their feet whenever theyre not in a place of welcome, and to move on. Now thats not a presumption on a projects part that everyone has to like it, but reading the context and culture and being in receipt of hospitality, especially when a ministry needs it is important. For the disciples sent out, there wasnt an issue about staying, it was to find a place of welcome elsewhere. Don’t over commit in an area, move on and out. Make endings swift. Not sure how that translates in a world of rents and mortgages, of family life, schools.

Of course, all of this doesnt take into account the final ending. As Julian of Norwich said, “Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly keep me in the faith… and that at the same time I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in what our Lord shewed in this time—that ‘all manner [of] thing shall be well.‘or paraphrased; ‘All will be well in the end, and if it is not well its not the end’. The church of SS Andrew and Mary - St Julian of Norwich - - 1547398.jpg

And as i said in a previous post on ‘Hope’ – the final act of the whole drama is a hopeful one, it is not the end.

I read this this morning from the common prayer:

 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We would like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet, it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability — ​and that it may take a very long time. Above all, trust in the slow work of God, our loving vine-dresser.”

Yes, there is an imperative to end well, and sometimes that is through gritted teeth. Sometimes its to hold back the tears. Sometimes its relief, on other occasions its a mutual reality from both sides that it is time to move on. And so, Managing an ending in Youth work and ministry is hugely specific, obviously. It occurs in the midst of the lives of young people, their parents, a local community, the church leaders and congregation, and involves obviously emotions, relationships and dealing with these. Managing and attending to relationships is tricky and delicate.

A post from the heat of the fire, not that we’re buring down the office, but the heat of the moment of closing and of managing an ending is this piece, one of a number I have written on management and youth work. For the others see the ‘management’ tab in the topics.


Dealing with the difficult; Closure, Failure and Redundancy

Im writing this with lots of emotions, feelings and thoughts running around my head. Part of me feels sadness and loss, for part of me theres a sense of having tried and put alot of effort into something and it just not happen, that theres an abrupt change of pace, part of me tries to put on a brave face, part of me is even slightly relieved, that an probable impossibility has come to an end.

Less that 3 hours ago the decision was approved by my trustees to start the process of closing down the charity that i work for. Even though this was the decision this evening, the writing has been on the wall a while, so its not a shock today, more an inevitable stage along whats been an ongoing process since the beginning of the year.

Its not new, I’m guess that most youth workers have been made redundant. Many youthworkers have lost jobs, moved on from them. Many have faced horrific cuts, changed roles and shifts due to funding streams and council priorities.

However, what the last few months, and few hours has brought the fore, is that the three words; Closure, Failure and Redundancy seem difficult to have conversations about. It would be odd to put ‘today I failed in my youth work practice’ as a facebook post – or ‘our church is making the vicar redundant’ on the diocese website – for example. Yet the reality is that these things happen. But they’re the things that go underground. And because they’re not talked about so much- how can we prepare others for them as almost an inevitability?  The alternative is not to bother and hope that a person manages to do so – usually alone.

Even writing this feels weird, raw, vulnerable. But isnt that what life is now and then, a bit raw, weird and vulnerable – especially but not exclusively in youth work, in faith settings, its gets emotional now and then, and difficult. Maybe we live in a culture where we aim low and get low and are happy, try and do something challenging and fail… well best stay away. But that’s not real, real is to try and keep trying, to give and try and make something happen, to invest and fight and strive – and then hope and dream and have faith. Its about a trying and taking risks because good things might happen – not just because it’ll be well paid or that it’ll work, but because its good.

So, as of this evening, redundancy is heading my way, and its ok. Im not belittling it or trivialising it, but it is happening, it isn’t great, but its not the end, its not a statement on me for not trying and taking a risk, and for most youthworkers thats the same, we fight, give, invest in young people – but usually things out of control take over – but its not that we failed, failure isn’t a gift we need to embrace, accept or take, and I am not either. Failure is for those who don’t try. Feeling like i’ve failed isn’t what i’m feeling right now, more that it could be how others might perceive something ending.

Closure is another word, but no one promises that things will last forever. Not even the building of the church will ultimately, Durham cathedral will pass away. But closure and endings are hard, for a while, and then people get used to it not being there. Like Woolworths or BHS (shops in the UK)  or something else that’s been turned into a poundshop or a coffee bar. Why do we not like things to close- because change is difficult – and as creatures of habit we like the status quo. We feel attached to the group, club or ministry, or organisation, sometimes too attached, sometimes obsessively so, Closure is tough.

Youth work and Ministry is not for the fainthearted. The Christian life is not for the joy riders. Its a tough place where risks are needed to be taken, where emotions can be on the line and discipleship is an ongoing call and response. No one said that call and response was to avoid the tough muddy paths, the quick sand or the storms. Closure, Failure and Redundancy, they’re difficult words. But they’re a reality in most of ministry – or at least the fear of them can be.

There is no at the moment redemptive happy ending at the end of this article. No reference to Jeremiah 29:11 to wrap it all up and give it the hopeful dream of a better future, or certainty of something else – because i know of too many others for whom that hasn’t been the reality. So right now, am in the midst of the myriad of thoughts, and trying to work through these three difficult words, and talk about them and get them out in the open for discussion. So, youth workers, we need to talk about Closure and Endings, Failure and how not to embrace it, and Redundancy – and realise we have value beyond what people pay us to do. I think.