Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

Being a professional (!) youthworker, or how shall i say it, the increase in professionalism in youth work training across britain has undoubtedly been a good thing, for the development of practice, for reflection and ongoing learning. Training in christian youthwork too has seen the increase in projects, development of theological thinking about working with young people, as well as whole lot more.

Currently i live and work in the same place. As a Christian, this could be said to be ‘incarnational’  – a word for modelling the closeness of being and ministry in the same place aka Jesus. However, given that i have children in the local schools, where i also work, and that 5-600 young people pass by my front door on their way to and from school, and to the local skate park, have i taken this too far?


I guess one of the things that people have said to me is that i have to be aware of my boundaries, in that when would it be appropriate to meet young people at the end of my drive, and thus make it aware to them where i live, or how should i be when i walk past young people in the local park when i am on my way to the shops? – do i go in disguise, just so they dont recognise me? (I used to be able to go to tescos at 3am, but hey… i am now in rural england)

Its also what i should do when i am not working and encounter young people incidentally, as per above, its one thing walking the dog semi deliberately during the evening, but when  i am doing the food shopping in sainsburys? appropriately its best to wait for the young person to acknowledge me the worker, or not to, aka a counselling relationship, yet i am still putting myself in an awkward position.

Living and working in the same area is different for other professionals, as i was speaking to a chaplain/teacher today, he was able to articulate that it was the institution of the school that defined the relationship with the pupils, and so as such there was no use/validity of seeking to further these relationships out of school, and this may be the same type of arrangement for centre based youthworkers, social workers etc, however, as detached youthwork is all about informal, often unintentional encounters, (though obviously some are deliberately actioned in ‘sessions’), how does that work, when maybe idealistically and dualistically, work and leisure should be distinct, and all the moments when i could be visible to young people i am being observed, in terms of integrity.

What for example, should i do when my children invite their friends round for tea?   after all, at the age of 10-12, they are no less ‘young people’ than the young people i now work with, in fact they may be the same ones? – for one thing its hardly ‘time off’ is it? when these moments will have an effect on the so called ‘professional’ relationships outside of the home, on the streets or in schools.

Ultimately there will always be grey areas, especially in a role so informal, so relational, and so in the community. the dichotomy of work/leisure possibly doesnt exist in a vocational professional, unless i go away from the context – head out on the bike, or go away for the weekend. Travelling through the grey areas , the so called boundaries, or borders, may be an ongoing exercise in reflection, or working out a new reality of being incarnational in a community, yet seen as ‘detached’ from the church, and with  the young people.

So, as a professional youthworker, theres a chance that we will all have to think about boundaries, of profession, or personal, and what we find to be acceptable either professionally or personally, i wonder also how we communicate these boundaries to and with young people, or maybe they are intuitive – maybe they know when we are ‘off’ or when we are ‘working’ – is it as simple as wearing an ID?  or alternatively pushing a trolley in Tesco?  (not that that stopped young people talking to me in Perth, NB lucky i didnt have too much alcohol in my trolley!)

Not only are physical boundaries to be thought about, but also social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, and who should be visible to us, and what we should make visible to young people whom we work with, and how and when it is appropriate to be contacted. For some, and i take my hat off to them, they have young people contact them at all times, for others its office time only, and even then on ‘work’ phones.. does personality or profession or family dictate this, and what is reasonable of an employee?

Each of us in the variety of contexts, and cultures that we exist, work, live and play as youth workers will have to negotiate and compromise through the boundaries of these often seperate, but indistinct paradigms of community boundaries.

Jesus gave time to the crowds, the disciples, and the religious leaders, he also took time aside to think – but he still did this in the vicinity of the others, walking distance, but far enough away to be away.  To be incarnational, and i use this term loosely, i guess to be with and amongst  young people in the community means that compartmentalized lives are a way of life not to be wished for, and what we need is to realise a new way of being.