10 Commandments for Youth workers

And lo, as the great throng of youthworketh did gather on the plain, the sound of hail and thunder roared and a dense cloud overcame them as they camped, they were all covered. Then there was the smoke and the whole mountain shook, and the youthworketh did appoint two leaders,   managers facilitators , sorry i mean spent 2 more days developing junior leader to go upeth the mountain to represent the youthworketh to hear from the great gods about what their key instructions should be. Image result for 10 commandments

The gods of youthwork commanded the appointed ones (unnamed due to child protection and lack of consent, for they were now 2000 miles from their parents) to go up the mountain and wait for the commandments to be passed down.

After a short while, the junior leaders descendeth from the mountain and passed to the youthworketh community gathered there and gave them these commandments

We, Brew*, Jeffs and Smith, the great community of thy historic informal education have rescued thee from formality, the place of your slavery and command thee:

1. Thou shalt have no gods but youth work, though shalt not comprehend or understand what thee is

2. Thou shalt not make for thyself any form of statue or create systems of power for yourself, you are forever be commanded to empower young people and promote these

3. Thou must not misuse the name of youth work, some may call thee youth work, faith based youth work, detached youth work, centre based youth work, these will come and go, but the name youth work should remain

4. Remember to keep the notion of a day off, sometime. Just sometime, have a bloody day off. And use it well, treasure it, and dont feel guilty for having it, you may be rewarded for more should you enjoy this first one. 

5. Honour the values of your forefathers, of the great gods, of Aristotle, to promote Human flourishing, of the sacred texts to treat others better than yourselves, or from thy holy text in which we have made these things plain to you (Informal education (third edition revised and updateth 2005)) ; Respect for persons, promotion of well being, Truth, Democracy and Fairness and Equality.

6. Thou must forever more consider all experiences ‘learning opportunities’ or ‘learning experiences to reflect on’ – they are not in any ways to be termed as failures. 

7. Thou should where possible resisteth the temptation to cower away in enclaves and write reports on the darkness that swirls you, for thy great power of truth, of goodness can overcome. 

 

8. Thou shalt commit to build communities and networks for thyself, for it here where thy strength is held i commandeth thee to build up a collection of thee coffee shop loyalty cards for this very purpose. 

9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbours mini bus (its about to disintegrate full of young people half way down the M5), thy resources and thy money, insteadeth write politeth letters to borrow and share thy resources, for thy hath provided sufficient for all the youthworketh around, for youthworketh is in the heart and mind and conversation, not in thy neighbours gold plated canoes, or thy neighbours 3 million pound buildings. Do not covet. Neither do not destroyeth thy neighbours resources when thy have undertake to borrow. 

10 Thou must not give falseth testimony to thy great stakeholders, the funders. No really. I will commandeth thee great fundeth to eventually understand the value of thy youthworketh practice, and thee has the great task to evaluate and review effectively, but thou shall not lie, no really.

And the great junior leaders sat down on the makeshift chairs that the youthworketh had laid before them. The youthworketh were stunned. They trembled at the great responsibility that they had now been given. The junior leaders did then say that a final command had been given, for all the youthworketh; ‘do not be afraid, for if you are to be obedient to these commandments, thou will realise that in conversations you will see beauty, and you will find deep satisfaction that is unmeasurable, and an pride that transcends all in the midst of purposeful relationships, this is a call that will fulfil no other, not teacher, not police, not social worker, for thee youthworker are thy great special people, thy will find beauty and significance in the small moments, be encouaraged’

And the greateth youthworkers assembly left the plain, as not only was the bar about to close, but thy holy Costa of the plain was offering free coffee, and they had papers to write.

(With apologies to anyone who thinks i murdered the original text in Exodus 20… )

*Josephine Brew wrote a book called ‘Informal education’ long before Jeffs and Smith – I referenced it here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1Gd

How will we find the good in youth ministry, if we don’t even look for it?

Oh well at least no one died tonight. 

This can often be the mantra at the end of a crazy out work session. But its not setting the bar very high in regard to evaluating or reviewing a session. Duffy Robbins in a piece on Youthwork Magazine 12 years ago wrote a piece on evaluating youth ministry, describing how for some volunteers, a good youth programme or activity or weekend event occurs when ‘young people cry’ at the end of it, and this was something that in the piece was manipulated by leaders though ‘inserting appropriate music’. Crying or not dying? are these the only factors that we’re looking for in youthwork practice? I would hope kind of not. The other measure, i hear very often, by clergy more than anyone else is well ‘if young people came back, then you’re doing something right’ this however also has its limitations for what constitutes appropriate or good practice, leaving little other than the unpredictability of attendance as the key marker.

If having successful youthwork is what we crave, then what we measure is critical.

There has been a trend to develop good reflection in youthwork and ministry practices (a trend, more a core component in youthwork, but hey), and yet, reflecting after a youthwork session can still feel like a painful delay, and pointless exercise in the midst of putting the chairs away and I wonder whether this is for a number of reasons, firstly that we’re asking the wrong questions, well at least we’re asking questions that have little context to them. For example, we might want to ask, and legitimately so, ‘in todays session, what went well?’  this is a great question. The problem with this question, is that without knowing what ‘went well’ looks like, and volunteers have an understanding of the identifyers of ‘went well’ then this ends up being the ‘nobody died, someone cried, or we had young people attend’ response.  ‘What went well, is a great question, if those involved know what is being looked for.  The opposite question, is then usually asked, what didnt go well. And this section can take ages to fill. Reflective youth workers can nearly always fill that box, as we’re never more than a footstep away from the precipice of doom that always finds ways to do things better, or on a bad night finds faults in everything or everyone. But this needn’t and shouldn’t be the way. We need to ask ourselves better questions. More to the point, youthworkers themselves should decide upon the questions, and not have questions imposed from above, which doesnt work.  (Sue Cooper, 2012)

Asking these 5 questions at the end of every session will transform your youth provision. Related image

It is a bold claim.

But I am willing to make it. If you’re as serious about young people in the ministry as the ministry itself, then these are the questions to reflect on at the end of every session with young people. If we ask these, and have responses to them, then we will know that a ‘session went well’ or didnt – because these happened or space was created for them to happen. The other claim I make is that it doesnt matter what your youth provsion is – these questions will transform it. It could be a youth worship event, an after school club, mentoring or youth fellowship group. More to the point, i am willing to also suggest that if we cannot put a positive answer to these questions on a regular basis in the youth provision, it is likely to not be enjoyed or attended by young people after an initial buzz or excitement of it existing. So, what are the questions? 

1. What were the quality conversations between leaders and young people?

A youth provision in which there was no conversations between young people and supportive adults is just an activity centre, a creche, a place to be entertained. Developing conversation turns a place of activity into a place where life happens, where shared understanding happens, and is the basis of purposeful relationship building. Our role is not to watch young people do an activity from the comfort of the kitchen, but to be involved in it, not youthworkers are not observers of young people, they are involvers with, and this is about conversation. So its a good idea to ask a question about conversations.

None of the conversations need to feel deep or meaningful – but thats only ‘to us’ they might be deep and meaningful to the young person

They dont have to feel significant- but they might be

It might be just a short chat about football with a young person who hadnt spoken to anyone for a few weeks, but its still of value.

Yes, for recording purposes we dont want to write down names of young people and who said what, but we can record initials, and general content like school issue, or family, or health, or sports, or housing or hobbies, and then any tangents that this took us into. If we’re good at creating a space for conversation, then this might take time. But thats a good thing right?

We could do stuff with all the subject matter and upload into charts or graphs, but more importantly is that these conversations are happening, and continue to do so. They represent that young people trust that the space is safe for them, because the people in it are safe to trust with the daily stuff of life – or the personal stuff of challenge. So, the first question, is about conversations – are they happening, who is having them (to develop training) and what are they about? and are they of quality – not just abusive banter (though they might be the start) .

2. In what ways did young people increase participation?

I am indebted to a student who I was delivering training to yesterday for this question. This was theirs. And so thank you. It is too good not to share.

During the activity, session or club – in what ways did young people increase participation? Is an absolute gold gem of a question. I have written on Participation before, so am not going to repeat myself here (see the ‘participation’ tag in the menu)

Participation can be seen in a number of different spheres. Young people may increase their participation in the current club – through helping with something, suggesting an idea, responding to an instruction – that sort of thing, but they may increase in participation as they take part in something of their own choice that they wouldnt normally (and being a volunteer in the god slot activity doesnt count), they might participate in deciding future activities, or decision making in the style of the group. I remember once when a group of young people who didnt like a youth event, went round as a group to the leaders house, shared their ideas, and the event changed direction completely as the ideas were responded to, and from then a open youth music cafe was started that gave young people space to play their own music, that ran for 7 years. (It was about to close otherwise) . The participation from young people at this venue went from merely observers in it, to high participation almost overnight. At their call.  Image result for participation ladder

This ladder might help in thinking about what increased participation might look like. It doesnt help us think about where the areas are in the activity we run where participation can happen. It may be easy to create spaces for participation in the areas such as food, or games – but can we increase the space for participation in areas we as adults prefer to be more in control of? There are a few examples here, in a journal piece ive recently written for CMS.

But what about where young people want to make a positive step to have greater participation in the organisation, school, charity or their local community? Through positive action and decision making, can this be facilitated through this youth provision – when we hear this is what young people want to do? Facilitating young peoples participation in the wider society, might be our role as purposeful adults – especially when we are trusted (via conversation! ;-))

But hang on, what if you’re thinking ‘our group isnt about participation, its about giving young people a fun space and telling them a story about faith’ – well if it isnt about young people developing participation in the faith community, and in the story itself, and this is modelled by participation in the group or session – then the story will remain only a story, and not one that young people can or would want to involve themselves in. No participation, will also mean eventually, no young people. Or at least none of the same ones after 6 months. And none very interested to be there at that. (its then we resort to bribery, ‘if you dont keep coming, you wont go on summer camp’.. shudder) . If young people are bored, then its not better entertainment they require, usually it is more meaningful participation.

Participation is key to everything, and so creating spaces for increased participation (even if it is counter cultural to the rest of the church, or organisation) is essential and as is a question at the end of every session to encourage it to be continually important.

3. What did we learn?

Young people are key to youth work – agreed? Good, thought you’d say yes to this one. And youthwork and ministry is about education – agreed? lovely. Therefore, one of the questions we need to ask at the end of every session has to have something to do with education, or learning to do with it.

In asking the question we put ourselves in the role as continual and ongoing learners, a place of humility and discovery, a place of wonder.

We might learn something about ourselves – our strengths or limitations (and think about how to enhance both) we might learn the same about young people

We might discover a gift, an ability and unseen talent in a young person (or volunteer)

We might learn about an attitude, a belief or a desire in a young person

Who’s voice have we heard from? 

We might learn to change our own views about something – because we’ve been open to learning from a young persons perspective

or something else…Image result for learning

We might be tempted to ask what did young people learn (because we tried to teach them something) but thats a path fraught with difficulty, because, what they heard and what they learned might be completely different, what they learned and what we wanted them to learn again very different. Young people may have learned who to get attention from in the session, yet we hoped they learned how to behave better. So the question is for us – what did we learn? 

The fourth question is this:

4. How did we take a risk with young people, or encourage them to take a risk? 

Unchallenging youth practices are boring. Or at least they will be fairly quickly. But you really dont need me to tell you this. If we’re not careful though, youth ministry takes the relevancy route and makes faith as easy to believe in as technology is trying to make everything as easy as possible. Making youth provision challenging is counter cultural. But challenge is what young people need.

If you ask any number of young adults in their 20’s why did they attend youth provision in their teens, aside from social friendships and fun, they will nearly all say learning, new experiences and being challenged to try new things. Challenge is part of the risk taking. Challenges are good for the self esteem of young people ( Baumeister, in Jocelyn Bryan, 2017 Being Human). It is good for young people to be challenged, therefore – we need to take some risks.

We might need to ditch the programme for the evening and host space for conversation, listen and learn. We might need to do an experiment in regard to discipleship, or had over an activity to young people for their participation in running it, bottom line, we take a risk, and do so because we want young people to be challenged and to raise their game – and we give over to trusting them. A risk might be to try and talk to a young person who doesnt normally say anything, or to create space for the quiet ones to participate, or something else… Risk taking and encouraging it turns us into the kind of youthworkers and volunteers who are still dreaming for something better, we havent given up. Trusting in young people to rise to the risks and challenge we offer causes what we do to stand in the face of prevailing opinions about young people.

Asking about risk taking – is question four of five. We should be thinking of taking risks each time we meet with young people. Even if that feels like we took a risk to try and talk with a young person at the pool table, well done, even if it was just a game of silent pool, you did at least put yourself in the place.

5. What do we need to do before the next session? 

This might sound intensely practical, and it is. But this session with a group of young people may have caused a whole host of things that need to be done to be done, so, write them down, and decide who and when they need to be done.

Is there a referral to an agency needed to be done?

do we need some training on an issue young people are raising?

is someone going to contact that young person the day after their job interview – see how it went? 

what about a talk with the leaders of the church about that idea the young people had – or creating a space for the leaders to meet with the young people directly? 

is someone going to fill in that funding bid? 

how might we change something about what we have always done, and need to prep for it this week? 

not just ‘practical’ but this could also be an opportunity to develop ongoing learning and reflection, training might be needed, but it could be that before the next session everyone of the leaders reads an online article or blog, or chapter from a book (if it can be photocopied) , or watches a film, listens to an album. It is about the ongoing desire to keeping learning and doing this collectively. So – what to do before the next session might not be to ‘plan’ the next session, or follow up pledges or promises made to young people (which are definitely needing to happen) but an opportunity for reflection.

It will transform your practice, sounds like it is hard work, but if we’re serious about helping young people take risks and developing learning, then its to be part of our own culture. (Even if, again, its not part of the wider church or organisation culture) As volunteers and workers developing provision for young people, its our game that we can take responsibility for.

So, there you have it. 5 essential questions to put on the after youth session review form. That will transform it. 

Why?  Because if these questions are asked, they become important, and what becomes important becomes part of the culture, and creating a culture of conversation, learning and participation is core to youth practice. If youthworkers are setting the tone for what makes a session ‘successful’ then young people will benefit. Success or failure is not part of good youthwork, its about conversation, participation, education, reflection and risks. A session that went well, will be because of these things. Not because someone cried or didnt die.

So – why will these questions transform your youthwork practice?

If we ask them at the end of every session, and make time to do this, not running home quickly after volunteering, then these become core to what the group is all about, and volunteers and leaders will be focussing on doing these things during the session, knowing that its whats going to be asked in reflection later. There is no magic quick formula to better youth provision, but I would hazard a guess that using these 5 questions, and in each session trying to work towards these things will make a significant difference, transform it? it may well do. Take it out of your comfort zone – almost certainly, hang on and enjoy the ride.

 

References

Jocelyn Bryan, Being Human, 2017

Jon Ord, Critical Issues in Youth work Management, 2012 (Chapter by Sue Cooper on Measurement)

Whats the point of youth work?

A pretty easy to answer question- isnt it? However, I was asked to do a 5 minute presentation on this question, and could have probably expanded it to a 150 credit module length of study. I imagine, knowing what the point of youthwork is is worth knowing so we know how to justify it and plead for its continuation. Here is what i think the point of youthwork is:

Youthwork is about young people, first and foremost, it makes it different from school, from social services and other institutions as young people are and should be placed first and foremost as the point for and at which the activity exists.

As a definition i would say that youthwork is a professional relationship with a young person who is the primary contributor in their social context.

Youthwork as a philosophy is geared towards and biased towards young people, being with them, not just for them, and has young peoples education, welfare and community as its core. Youthwork is about developing positive purposeful relationships between young people and adults, and learn, and create opportunities through these relationships.

Youthwork exists within the local community as it is affected by it, as young people learn to use, accept or reject the resources in their community, as youthworkers our role is to help young people navigate through these choices and also remove barriers that prevent them from participation.

The point of youthwork is to believe in young people and to work with them to use their gifts and accomplish dreams they may have for themselves and their local community.

  1. Youthwork is about values – empowerment, inclusion, participation, valuing young people
  2. Builds on what is already – turning open activity sessions in young person led and developed spaces of participation and empowerment
  3. Youthwork opens the opportunities for young people and their participation, from attenders and deciders to creators (and challenging the barriers that prevent this)
  4. Youthwork trusts young people and raises their game to take risks
  5. Youthwork is a place of fun, social relationships and creativity.
  6. Youthwork creates a safe space, a home for young people, where they can belong.
  7. Youthwork values young people individuals and groups in their community
  8. Youthwork challenges the narratives about young people and is inherently political
  9. Youthwork recognises that young people have needs, but focus on their gifts and positives in order to overcome them
  10. Youthwork creates a space for innovation and improvisation
  11. Youthwork is a space to help young people reflect on their place in the world and contribute within it
  12. Youthwork is also what people who do youthwork say that it is, it is an ongoing conversation. It continues and is future orientated.

The point of youthwork is that it strategises from the point of contact, it involves young people and believes in them to be better than what they may have been told about themselves. Youthwork changes young people, it changes all of us in the encounters we have.

You will notice a variety of influences here, from Howard Sercombe, Kerry Young, Jeffs and Smith, Goetchius and Tash, all deep thinkers and practitioners who have shaped the conversation so far and its our job to keep the conversation going. And help the conversation about young people be integral to other agencies and institutions.

What do you think – whats the point of youthwork?

How to make your ministry more like Jesus? then sit down

Who are the people who sit down in the public spaces of our villages, towns and cities?

Think about it for a little while, do you notice who it is and why they sit? and is there a difference between those who sit because they have to, and those who sit because they choose to?

The first thing we might do after sitting down in our lounge, then sitting in our car, then walking from the car park space is to find another space to sit down and drink a coffee, or its the reward for an hours shopping, the need to sit down. But how many people might we have walked past who are sitting down not in the overpriced coffee house, and just on a random bench, or piece of concrete.

I was intrigued over the weekend by this sentence, its in John 4; 4-6

He (Jesus) had to go through Samaria on the way. Eventually he came to the Samaritan village of Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave his son to Joseph. Jacobs well was there, and Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat wearily beside the well about noon-time’ ‘ (John 4: 4-6)

Aside from the observation that Jesus ‘got tired’ and therefore this reveals a reality about his Human fragility, form and nature. What is more fascinating is that he was tired of the journey, and possibly tired of being with the other disciples on that journey (talking with other christians can be so tiring..) so he left them (they re joined him in a later verse)

Jesus finds strength and renewal by sitting down, being away from his own followers, and being served by others. Jesus didnt arrive in a town with a full on ministry team and try an lead from the front, no he sat amongst those who needed a drink at mid day. The way he showed his disciples, was actually not with them at all, he went alone and sat down.

He Sat down.

How many times do we sit down, amongst others in our ministries? What kind of ‘sitting down’ do we do when we arrive in a ‘new’ situation/town/village? Are we even allowed to?

We might not aspire to ‘be Jesus’ but surely theres something in this for us in terms of practices and attitude.

But ministry is barely like this, at times, at least it doesnt always feel like the default position.

When I first arrived in Hartlepool 22 years ago, it was part of a gap year team with The Oasis Trust, and we, like many other groups and teams of young people were keen, enthusiastic, positive, and full of the desire to ‘do ministry’, to ‘save the city’ and put ourselves in positions to be busy, lead and to save local dying churches who had no youth ministry. And, in the most part, the local church complied with this. We were ‘The Oasis Team’ and given space, time and responsibility – and roles, jobs, activities, groups and stuff to do. We were profiled in the newsletter, photos on the wall, food in the donation box, out for lunch every Sunday, we were ‘it’, and ‘it’ looked like ministry.

But Jesus tired from the Journey, sat down.

When we arrived in Hartlepool, we were up front. Right left and centre. Though we expected it.

Not as long ago, I was tasked, and failed, with being a youth and community worker in a small town in Devon. What i wanted to do was put what i knew into practice, I wanted to sit down, I wanted to be a person who didnt arrive announced and expectant, especially in a small ish town. However, at various times in the course of the year, and before I had even arrived, the local press, church parish newsletters had all circulated that I was arriving, and I was going to ‘work with disadvantaged young people’ and I was going to ‘help kids engage with church’. There was no space to sit down, when I arrived in this new town.

Before I had even arrived, the culture and expectations determined the strategy and approach. And I dont bear any blame, because the culture within ministry is to generally act in this was towards new appointments, new roles, new leaders and be excited to want to tell others and share it. Its part of church culture. Time doesnt often allow ‘sitting down’, culture doesnt either. And its tempting to love the limelight. To be the hero. The pull is all around.

Its one thing being a presence in a community, its another being present.

One of the deeply theological practices of detached youthwork, is the ongoing action of observation and being present in the spaces of the community, and learning through the process of being a presence in it. And sitting down can be part of this. In their book, ‘Working with unnattached youth’ George Goetchius and Joan Tash detail how their YWCA mobile youth work project spent 3 years walking around and being part of the community, gathering evidence, sharing observations, learning from and listening to what was going on… 3 years! wow – some youthworkers have burnt out in that time… most detached youthworkers get 3 minutes prep time on google maps…

Its part of sitting down. Its an attitude of sitting down. Its not a standing up attitude, its a sitting down attitude. A process of learning, of reflecting, of listening, of watching, it is slow.

Paulo Friere says this: ‘Always we have to look. Today suddenly a flower is the reason for your surprise. Tomorrow, it may be the same flower, just with a different colour, because of the age of the flower’ 

So, when Jesus arrived at a Village he sat down. He did not lead the marginalised and confused from the front, he sat down. He waited.

When he told his disciples to go to villages, he told them to ‘find a person of peace’ and wait to be served. Ie, have the attitude of sitting down. Go and find, not go and do. Not even go and lead and make a song and dance, but go and find. I remember part of the oasis training was to try and do ‘balloon modelling’ in the streets, so it would attract a crowd, cause a scene, and this would give an opportunity to invite people to an event. (it was the 1990’s dont judge me) Maybe that would be ok in some cities, but Hartlepool? hmmm. Jesus didnt stir up the crowds when he went to a new town, not just for the sake of it.

Some 19 years later Ive moved back to Hartlepool, been back 4 years now. And sat down this time. Lived here, shopped here, walked the dog here, living here. In a way, arrived here tired and weary after some challenging previous experiences (only to find a whole host of new challenging experiences). Not arriving with fanfare, or expectation. More recently, having now not being in work and travelling, I have wanted to be more present, and so walking around the town, sitting in the town centre, being present in the space. When I sat down in the open area a few weeks ago, one of the people who was begging for money, asked ‘why did i look so happy?’ and a conversation followed, and I learned something. And I felt strengthened through the encounter, renewed for the task. And that sounds selfish, but it isnt meant to be. Sat and waited a bit, do I know whats going to happen next, no…

Maybe the pattern of Jesus ministry, to a new place emerged from the experience he had out of necessity at Jacobs well, and where there was time, and not persecution,it was a way of being that the disciples in the early church tried to do; Acts 3, 1-4, though it is more noticeable that Paul spend time with believers and preached the message – rather than sitting and being, Peter very similar (Acts 9; 32-37) they met with believers. It could be dangerous to think that the way of doing ministry is do the same ‘with believers’ as to do in the new context and town.

I wonder if pioneer youthwork, which can often call to question the busy, the activity and the up front stuff – is less pioneering, and more just about trying to do the kind of approach that Jesus adopted when he went to a new community. He sat down. This may be so far from the culture of ministry, that it is regarded as pioneering, so far from an outcomes orientated funded ministry, that it is alien. But for a new person in a new place – sitting down is what was required.

One of my favourite all time songs is this one, in 1991, from James:

I sing myself to sleep
A song from the darkest hour
Secrets I can’t keep
In sight of the day
Swing from high to deep
Extremes of sweet and sour
Hope that God exists
I hope, I pray
Drawn by the undertow
My life is out of control
I believe this wave will bear my weight
So let it flow
Oh sit down
Oh sit down
Oh sit down
Sit down next to me
Sit down, down, down, down, down
In sympathy
Now I’m relieved to hear
That you’ve been to some far out places
It’s hard to carry on
When you feel all alone
Now I’ve swung back down again
And it’s worse than it was before
If I hadn’t seen such riches
I could live with being poor
Oh sit down
Oh sit down
Oh sit down
Sit down next to me
Sit down, down, down, down, down
In sympathy
Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
Those
We are more likely to find Jesus sitting by the roadside and by the well, than standing in front of the crowds. We are more likely to find Jesus in the conversation, and conversation happens when we sit and listen, or are present and take time to listen. Who are the people who sit down in our local towns and cities? The young people, the marginalised, the lost, the waiting, those with little power, or money, (or ok those whove just got their Greggs meal deal)- where does Jesus go and we follow – to sit down with them.  How might we ‘sit’ more in our pioneering, our youthwork, our lives – and learn, and wait and be present? Jesus didnt just make himself lower than the angels (Philippians), he made himself lowest of the low by sitting down when and where others chose to avoid. How might we make time to be amongst and not just fleeting through.
References
Friere, Horton – We make the Road by walking (1990).

Is Mentoring still the ‘silver bullet’ to solve all society’s problems with young people?

There was a time when Mentoring was the deemed to be the silver bullet, the approach and method that would solve the problems that young people were causing society, from the Big Sisters/Brothers schemes in America since the 1900’s to many school and community projects, funded by the US government in the states, to the voluntary and statutory projects here in the UK. Though in a way it has always gone a little bit under the radar. Though they had expanded significantly up until 5 years ago ( McCleod, p101) And its status under the radar might be one of the reasons why its maybe not as talked about as other ways of working with young people, such as open clubs, detached or programmes. At least that might be my own blind spot, and having been involved in mentoring, managed an mentoring project and written an honours thesis on it a few years ago, it would still trigger my attention a little.

One of the issues mentoring has always faced within youthwork is that it has been seen as the gradual process of changing group work and the facilitation of groups and community education, to the narrowing of intentions to individuals, to the point where the group work disappears altogether for the individual mentoring projects, these fears were first realised in Jeffs and Smith’s piece individualisation and youth work and so, many a critique has been written about what mentoring is within a youthwork philosophy, how it could encompass youthwork approaches and values, but that generally ultimately it begins to veer towards an individual therapy approach, aka counselling, guidance or life coaching which is fine, but its not then as easy to quantify as youthwork per se. Its maybe why as a youthworker its dipped below the radar. Though some of the larger mentoring networks have closed down in the last 6 years, victims themselves of the wider financial constrains within youth provision.

That being said, having a mentor can have a profoundly positive and also negative effect on a young person, with much of the research (by Fairbridge group, now Princes Trust) suggesting that the more positive effects occurs after a year of the mentoring relationship, and where the mentoring relationship ended under 6 months or was terminated this had a negative effect, on the whole.

But the mysterious thing about mentoring is how it works at all?

And this is the fun bit. There seems to be no real logic as to how mentoring actually works, it is a mystery. But then it should be, putting two people usually strangers together.

The relationship can occur within the confines of a school, and be about trying to help a young person with attendance issues. Yet the relationship between the two people might have nothing to do with the purpose of the relationship, they are two people who click, sometimes two people with shared interests dont click, sometimes they do.

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One of the pieces of the magic jigsaw, is the how of the interaction.

Commonly known as the process of matching. In one situation i was in i was told that i would be mentoring a young person, they were told that they would have a mentor and then we would meet, week 1 was the initial meeting, and with only 7 meetings afterwards, there was going to be issues, it would feel like trying to rescue the person, and they knew it. In another project, the mentoring, one to one conversations after initially meeting the young people on the streets in detached work, the relationship had already occured, and the young person was opting into the choice referral with a person who they bonded with a little. In another project, the one i used to manage at Durham Youth for Christ, the coordinator would arrange for the mentors and young people to meet each other in a three way meeting with himself and then the two would decide after 2-3 meetings whether they would continue. Often this worked, as it gave both parties to opt in, or out to the relationship (but not being involved in being mentored)

The matching is important then for the magic to occur.

The magic of mentoring is also more likely to occur when the objectives of the relationship are known, and where the young person has the opportunity to shape them, even in a situation where the pressure is on to get ‘results’ the greater pressure on the relationship, the less likely for the relationship to work to its fullest. And its the relationship that the mentor has to attend to and prioritise (Tina Salter, YMCA GW college, Innovations in Youth work, 2014), and the skills required for the mentor are listening, and trying to build rapport and trust, especially if the relationship is going to develop beyond a social status, to increase personal giving away, sharing and any more serious disclosures.

The magic also occurs when the young person has confidence in the relationship.

It is one thing i notice on the streets, theres only so much young people say until they trust the relationship, the purpose and the workers in person. It takes us to give away who we are and our purpose for then young people to know whats going on and make a decision to invest in the relationship. The same for mentoring. This is where time is a factor, for, if young people know its only for a very short term, then its unlikely that they, understandably will invest in it, it will stay functional and practical (despite the best intentions of the mentor to show empathy, the short term nature overrides this, often). If the mentor is promising a better future for the young person, it has to be accompanied by a promise of time for the relationship – ie over a year. So at least the young person knows and is confident that they have space to grow into it and build the relationship.

In the same way a group might undergo ‘storming’- so there is usually boundary testing in the mentoring relationship. Or behaviour that the young person is invoking a reaction, whether sympathy for a situation or shock, or to get an aggressive or disappointed reaction. Or the young person is trying to asses ‘whose side’ the mentor is on, theirs or the school/probation – or neither – and this can make or break. This was always the benefit of being independant from a school in mentoring ( ie who pays for it) but thats not always possible.

An interesting aside to some of this is that in the UK we often assign mentors to young people who are most in need, in the USA many more young people from across the whole spectrum have the opportunity to engage with a mentor. In this way it destigmatises. But also means that the mentor might offer more than coping strategies or support for a problem, it might be support to succeed, or develop critical thinking ( Rhodes, 2002, 46-50). But it means that mentoring has a different focus. And mentoring type relationships do occur in work, apprenticeships and graduate schemes, so its not just about young people in schools.

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But how does it work?

Rutter observed that vulnerable children with one good relationship were less likely to develop behaviour problems than others, deeming that good relationships outside the family have as much positive effect as those within. In another study Werner and Smith concluded that resilient young people sought support more often from non-parent adults. One relationship was often enough. Rhodes discusses that social skill enhancement, dialogue and listening and being a role model are the contributory factors to ensuring that mentoring works, or that the mentors influence the young persons development, but none occur without an emotional bond. And it is that emotional bond that needs honing and developing within the nature of the relationship. A purely functional goal orientated relationship is unliekly to develop these development factors. The active, mysterious ingredient, in a good mentoring relationship is a close trusting connection. No bond, no relationship and then limited positive impacts ( Rhodes, 2002, p37).

Looking at Goffmans presentation of the self in everyday life (1960) there is the sense that each interaction is also a performance of the self presented in a way to others, to gain and receive what each individual wants. Yes it could be selfish as a model, but in a way the presenting of the self and the rules of the game being played all occur within mentoring, from the falseness, to the status, and also the deliberate hiding of truth for an advantage, all aspects that affect a persons performance through their interaction. What is revealed on the front stage ( body language, clothing, speech, make up, hair, content of conversation) that affect the performance as well as the back stage ( the objectives, formality, room, time, finances, style). When broken down like this, the mentoring relationship can be viewed as an ongoing performance of persons, developing rapport as they present to each other, giving away truth, reality and falseness in the process of nurturing or forming a relationship that develops meaning and actions. The conversation is a little piece of theatre, and in mentoring the two persons performing might be ‘forced’ together, or find their way to perform together.

The problem with the silver bullet and rescue approach is that the relationship is highly managed, professionalised and the young person targeted, the magical rapport is going to take a long time. Informality, where it is at all possible, and where the young person has at least some autonomy as to who they are being mentored by, will have some positive bearing on this, as will the promise of time, and the skills of the mentor. There is inevitably, as Gina McCleod writes, a crossover in youth work between different approaches and when we become guides, wise, and supportive, and this can be in informal mentoring in whatever context.

Not unlike much youthwork, being able to ‘bottle’ it when ‘it works’ is great, but its really difficult to replicate it at any time. The most formal mentoring might pair the most suited persons, the least official mentoring and short term volunteer could develop a deep bond quickly. In Mentoring there may at least be some ways of shaping the relationship in its structure, to create more of a possibility for the magic to happen, but again thats also the same for the youth club setting too. There are stages in the relationship, and its a relationship to be finely attended to by its participants with small amounts of external influence where possible, but time pressures and objectives and targets affect the relationship too and its possibilities.

Still, What surprises me is that there arent more schools wanting mentoring projects around the country, or that churches and voluntary groups arent setting even more up, especially given how significant they can be at helping young people with the day to day advice of life, and being a supportive person in the mix, that may help in preventing a Camhs referral or be someone to help with pushing, questioning and encouraging. And whilst young people need this more than ever, may be thats also the kind of person we all need from time to time.

Is youth mentoring the silver bullet? maybe its gone out of fashion as a new thing, but as youth workers do less group work and more individual work, then more and more of what is done is closer to a form of mentoring. Maybe it isnt the silver bullet, there isnt any silver left.

Credit for this piece, goes to a friend of mine, John Ristway, who still runs the mentoring project in Durham, whos dedication to develop as informal and participative youth mentoring programme in schools was a source of great inspiration. This project is still being run by Durham Christian Partnership, please do search them out and make a donation or volunteer.

If you would like to receive training on setting up mentoring in your church or organisation, then please do contact me and click the link in the menu above. Thank you.

References

Goffman, Irving, 1960, The presentation of the self in everyday life.

McLeod, Gina, Advising and Mentoring, in Youthwork Practice, Jeffs and Smith, 2012

Rhodes, Jean 2002, Stand by me, The risks and rewards of mentoring todays youth, Havard

Salter, Tina, 2014, The place and use of mentoring with young people, GW YMCA, Innovations in Youthwork practice.

And theres a piece here : http://www.infed.org/learningmentors/mentoring.htm  on mentoring on the Infed.org page which is a little in need of updating.. but worth a read anyway.

IDYW: A 16 point pledge to Re-imagining a new youth service in the UK

I am sharing this statement of purpose from In defence of Youthwork on this site, Tony Taylor has on many occasions shared my reflections on youthwork and faith, it is simply right that for young people in the UK that a coherant informal universal youth service is established, and done so on the basis of the 16 statements agreed at the recent IDYW conference. Please do engage with the statements and join in with the campaign all details below, a healthy and sustained youth service might, just might be one answer to some of the issues facing young people in the UK. Even if you read this blog as someone from a faith perspective, a joint desire to instil good youth practices in the UK should be a positive ambition whatever your perspective on youthwork or ministry. Anyway – here is the statement below:

Find below the 16 Starting Points, which reflect our IDYW interpretation of the rich debates held both under the ‘Is the tide turning?’ banner and at our March national conference. We hope that you will find them useful as a reference point, as an aide-memoire, in the diversity of meetings you’ll find yourself in during […]

via REVIVING YOUTH WORK AND REIMAGINING A YOUTH SERVICE : IDYW STARTING POINTS — IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK

Vulnerability as the starting point of community transformation

“But that might mean we have to be vulnerable”

I was at a gathering of people this week, mostly clergy, and the subject within it was about conversations, and creating opportunities to have conversations with people. The kind of thing that detached youthwork is pretty much uniquely and solely about. Ideas flung across the room, such as chatting to people who were waiting at the bus stops, or travelling on the same bus. It was recognised that people at first would think this was odd, but after a while there would be a process of acceptance, rapport, trust and then the capacity for conversations to occur. Again, its the kind of process that is visible in detached youthwork. It was suggested in the meeting that Clergy ‘just dont have the time to do this’  which is fair enough, though is only an excuse and realisation of other priorities. What was more revealing was the comment given, and said with more feeling:

‘But that might mean we have to be vulnerable’

On the positive, the statement recognised that vulnerability felt difficult. And that as a member of the clergy their role came with it many associations of power. But in a split second of a statement, the light dawned – for real conversations, to be trusted by people, and to really connect authentically in unusual spaces, meeting people in theirs, requires vulnerability.

Detached youthwork, and even to a slighly lesser extent open access youth club work that I have been involved in in the last 10 years has given me a regular experience of vulnerability, or at least giving me the possibility of vulnerability, as at times I choose not to let go, not to commit fully, protect myself. Though for others looking at it, it is risk taking, unpredictable and requires vulnerability. Yet in a different way, I have felt even more vulnerable in the last few months, one to many family related health scares and worries, which include a fair dose of fear and worry – and vulnerability – combined with the dawning reality of redundancy from my current job at DYFC, these have, if im honest, caused me to feel a different sort of vulnerability, to just a vocational vulnerability, a vulnerability of not being in control, a vulnerability of emotions, even though I am used to trying to give others power, and meeting them where theyre at, having almost no power in situations gives this a new meaning. I wonder whether at the heart of genuine mission is that same sense of lost it all vulnerability, or leaving as much of it behind to not just go, but be present in the space. What might it mean to be vulnerable?

  1. It takes vulnerability to realise that we might be wrong. Everything we know about a community, about a group of people is one form of knowledge, but it is only one perspctive. It started to blow my mind when after only a few weeks of detached youthwork, that young people were choosing to drink alcohol, it wasnt because they were bored. It was choice. ‘Bored’ was what i was told was the reason. Escaping other realities was another truth. Paulo Freire said that after he had started talking to people in a community in south America, describes it like this: “that was my second learning experience, but i still didnt know what i knew. Just like they (the community)  didnt know what they knew, I didnt know what i knew. The question for me was exclusively to understand what were their levels of knowledge and how did they know. It was a beautiful experience. I learned how to discuss with the people, i learned how to respect their knowledge, their beliefs, their fears, their hopes, their expectations. It took time, and many meetings” (We make the road by walking, Freire, Horton, 1990, p56,p67) It takes vulnerability to be truthful about the prejudgements, the preknowledge and to listen to the knowledge of someone else, to have these challenged.
  2. It takes vulnerability to give. Over the last few months I have witnessed the slow processes of collaboration taking place, small tentative steps between people of different organisations trying to work at something of bigger goodness. Each collaborative moment of conversation is vulnerable, requiring either trust or faith, and vulnerability to leave something behind. Heading out on the streets to talk to young people, leaves alot behind, but in the moments of conversation and connection there is vulnerable giving of time. A Spiritual leader who lacks basic compassion has almost no human power to change other people, because people intuitively know he or she does not represent the Divine or Big Truth” writes Richard Rohr, change that requires law “does not go deep, nor does it last” (Rohr, R,  Eager to Love; the alternative way of St Francis, 2014, p28)  It is not that people don’t associate a representation with divine truth, they just smell a rat. If it looks forced, manipulative and quick- its not likely to be deep, heartfelt and lasting. Image result for vulnerable
  3. It needs vulnerability to take risks. Because this takes us out of our comfort zones. Even on the streets, which could be always risky places, actually its possible to ‘go through the motions’ and be almost blaze about being there, the street becomes a new comfort zone. Kevin Vanhoozer uses the metaphor of theatre to describe the church (as do others) and in Faith Speaking Understanding (2014) suggests that in the great theatre of the world, the church in its mission is to break through, nay, collapse the invisible fourth wall that exists in the theatre between stage and audience, and often between church and its own view of the world outside. What this calls for is less of a prepared script for performing the Godly script – but an interactive one. (Vanhoozer, 2014, p34-35) 
  4. Vulnerability to trust in interactive conversations. Trusting in conversations as a source of education is one of the bedrocks of informal education – or youthwork ( See ‘Here be dragons 2013, or ‘Informal education, by Jeffs & Smith, 1998) , yet it might seem just a ‘waste of time’ to chat with people at a bus stop ( when there are 101 other things to be doing instead, like arguing with Ian Paul on Twitter, for example). The reason it takes vulnerability is that it breaks all the moulds, it is not a programme, a service or a pre ordained script.Image result for vulnerable It is interactive trusting, of listening and letting the conversation flow, with tangents, stories, warts and all, by letting it flow, its in the hands of the other, yet this will take time. Because people tend to expect that the vicar, or youthworker might be ‘doing conversation for a reason’ ( theres probably an event on to be invited to.. sigh) Being vulnerable in conversation is to trust it, nuture the relationship that develops from it, have faith in it and the genuine sense of humanity that might exist in it. But its vulnerable, because ‘vicar has conversations about peoples gifts’ doesnt write its own poster, neither is it social media friendly. PTL. Image result for vulnerable
  5. It takes vulnerability to invest in the ignored. It is always easy, it is part of Human nature to be liked, to seek people out who might like us, who might fit in with people we also like. Who dont upset the apple cart. So in this way, being vulnerable to connect, and actually invest in ( not just give food to) is a vulnerable step, and one that others have to be educated about in the church, worship might have to become a collective journey to a place of welcome for all – but it takes vulnerability to connect, converse and provide space to the usually ignored by church in society. Even on the streets, I know i have ‘favourites’ the young people who might be chatty, easier to talk to than others, even those I know from youth groups – far far easier than those who might give nothing except crudeness, so its not easy to be vulnerable, yet no one said vulnerability was easy. If theres relationships to build from scratch then nothing structurally sound gets built on the first assessment of the site.
  6. It takes vulnerability to provide opportunities for those perceived with needs, to enhance their gifts, use their strengths and develop what they have that’s good. Image result for vulnerableFrom community gardens, to Sharing food, to bike recycling, to forums and groups, many are examples of using and sharing gifts, strengths and being in receipt of the goodness and beauty of others, the almost least expected. But theres a vulnerability to let it happen, when usually those who have great power find it difficult to relinquish all the responsibility.
  7. It takes vulnerability to resist conformity. An interactive Theatre production might have a theme, and the sense of the director or authors intention, but how it gets there, using what props, and finding its feet along the way, as offers and gifts are accepted into the story and others are rejected – its is less of conformity and more genuinely about faith, faith as process, faith in process. The message is in the performance. Some conformity is good, conformity to the overall story of Gods redemption, Gods giving grace, yes, conformity of how this is enacted in the interactive theatre might be challenged in all vulnerability.
  8. It takes vulnerability to invest emotionally, truthfully and authentically. Yet people orientated presence is akin to Jesus heading to the well at noon. We go to where there are people who might be lost looking for conversation, and leave it at that, no strings or expectation. Just to be in the space.

As i was thinking about this theme today, I encountered this awesome article by Wendy McCaig, someone doing asset based community development from a faith perspective in Richmond, Virginia. I nearly wrote a piece entitled the same quite a few years ago, when i was sensing that people not programmes were the order of the day in youth ministry back in the 1990’s, but Wendys article below, spurred me to think further about vulnerability, and how this is core to the start of deep missional practices, also deep & real understanding of others, and a recognition of our own power. Here it is, as a reward for reading all of my article, heres a real treat:

http://wendymccaig.com/2016/07/26/presence-not-programs/?utm_content=buffer7e6d0&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

‘But that might mean we have to be vulnerable’ – well, yes. Its not something the disciples or apostles had to do, it was their core practice, they barely stood still enough to regard comfortability as the norm. “For he made himself vulnerable… even to…..what was it again…?’ 

 

A follow up to this post is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-TO; and entitled ‘ does status anxiety prevent the church from being vulnerable’. This was in part after the various questions, comments and feedback this first post generated.