7 Steps to a better youthwork strategy

You dont really need to do much research to discover the various business decisions and strategies that have deemed to have failed, as they have lost money, caused the closure of a business or shown to have lacked the foresight required in determining the future. One example of the company Kodak, who spend £millions in the 1970 developing a prototype for the digital camera (delivering a mighty 0.1 megapixels), only for the company to shelve the plans for mass production deciding instead to focus on developing the print arm of its camera sales, an area that was a huge profit making arm of its business in the short term. However, as other companies joined the market and speciailised in digital cameras, and their sales rose Kodak gradually faded from existence.

Another example might be the fast food giant Macdonalds, who decided upon selling Salads and healthier foods about 10 years ago, but this has largely been an unqualified failure, only 2% of its overall sales have been from salads and healthy ranges, though it gained publicity from trying to be healthy at the time. It is also very quick i notice today at giving publicity to the governments plea for healthy eating as of last week, their publicity now has reference to calorie intake recommendations at meal times ( 400, 600, 600 – respectively). The culture around macdonalds for its key customers was not salad orientated, and also quickly news spread that its salads and dressings were unhealthier than the burgers. Hmm – great healthy eating strategy that one…

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Developing Strategies in churches and in youth ministry has become, dare i say it, almost the norm. Examples like the above can be used as a way of encouraging the need for strategies. One of the operant viewpoints theologically in the adoption of strategies is the verse ‘Without vision the people perish’. What is also often said that developing a strategy is a way of bringing together disjointed activities under one umbrella or approach, or to make targets. Having a strategy might be used to develop vision and an aim, and then scope out the steps along the way to get there. However, Strategic management can be used as a tool for conformity, control and containment- and might be a way of management that suits churches, which often have a default culture of conformity within them anyway. And as we know, Culture eats Strategy for breakfast anyway -doesnt it?

Whilst the church, at times as opted in to Macdonaldisation and its key tenets of control, efficiency, calcubility and repetition, and not always in a good way. What might be learned from the example of Macdonalds and its salads for strategy development?

There are a a couple of different learnings we can take from the McDonald’s salad adventure, one of its worst business strategies. The first is simply the fact that as a general rule – companies should decide on what their core competencies are, and stick to them.

Whenever you embark on a new strategy – you need to clearly articulate why you’re doing it, and what problem you’re trying to solve. This shared vision needs to be so well embedded in the strategy that the people involved can recite it easily and quickly, and that it permeates everything around the execution of that strategy.

The McDonald’s strategy with salads started off as trying to mitigate reputational risk. Then it changed to trying to drive extra revenue. That’s fine – strategies are meant to evolve. But the problem is that in moving towards making extra revenue – they forgot entirely about the original reason that they launched salads in the first place! And thus, they’ve come full circle and are once again defending themselves about how unhealthy their menus are – only the products they’re defending are the very ones they introduced to try to solve this problem in the first place!

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Problem is, is that we’re not dealing with customers, with products and with turnover being the key operational features of the organisation of the church. (even if the treasurer of the diocese says so) And even in a charitable organisation as one delivering youth work and provision – its charitable focus should be its aim, and not profit – although this can be more difficult to focus on in the deep water currents of neo-liberalism, cost cutting, and competition between organisations and churches for survival and the attraction of the few christians around. What is as easy is to talk about the bad strategies, and whats wrong with them – too vague, too broad, too nebulus as they refer to values or goals, and these are said to to be strategy deficiencies in the business world – yet at the same time, churches and youthwork talk up goals, mission, values , vision and principles within strategies – as values, principles and overall vision are core to (it is hoped) the ethical practices within youth work.

So, after dissing the bad ones, thats the easy bit – what might a good strategy need to do?

  1. Realise what the problem is that the strategy is trying to solve. Sometimes a strategy has no purpose in its inception other than to assert power and control to the strategy creator. Its is management fluff and flim flam as they might say. But a strategy that has a purpose to increase our fundraising possibilities or something that solves a problem (rather than creates them) is going to be more beneficial. However, if there are problems within the organisation – then these need to be faced. In the sometimes ‘passive aggressive’ culture of churches a strategy wont avoid the problem.
  2. Determining the Culture – but not afraid to try and affect it; And back onto culture. If the organisation or church has got established patterns of working, established environments and actions – then it has culture. There is culture internal and also culture external to organisations – all of which have a effect on it. So understanding what the cultural norms are that will affect culture is important, but also so is working out the effect of change upon it. You might have a great strategy for discipleship that doesnt take the young people to a summer festival – but this might have an impact on parents (who got a week off from their kids, the church (which liked the reputation of sending kids to it) and also the young people themselves (who got stuck in the same repeated rut), culture had already been set.
  3. Knowing the resources. This is where strategies can as easily make or break. Many a good youthwork strategy becomes affected by a lack of resources. Many a poor strategy is created because there are under used gifts and resources not known to those creating them. We might create a good strategy that is about the people we are trying to ‘reach’ – but what about developing strategies that involve them and give them space to use their own resources? (and not for our gain – but theirs in negotiation)

4. Not forget the principles! If our strategies dont also reflect the principles, ethics or theology of our belief systems, then we should question what they are about, and what direction they are taking the organisation in. And dont give me ‘we prayed about it, so its what God wants us to do’ when its about saving up £millions for a building construction or branding exercise when people in the parish go without food. The ethics and principles are almost pointers to helping faith based organisations have some kind of rudder or plumbline, if a strategy doesnt reflect the same compassionate values – but embraces and encourages it somehow – then its likely to be given disruption along the way.Instead of having values, and putting these aside for the sake of strategy aims that seem to be at odds with them and the culture of them that are already core to the organisation. Strategising through principles may engender more motivation and coherency. But a strategy of only values and a mission statement is too vague.

For example – a church that wants to ‘grow’ through being efficient and developing new services – may sit at odds with congregants within it who ascribe less to the services, but want to do more of what the Gospel says – helping the poor, and mission in the community. An alternative series of questions to frame a strategy is to discover what the core values and principles are of the organisation – what Cameron may describe as its ‘operant theology’ – what is revealed through its practices, but also the points in which there are tensions. But a church growth strategy – might sit at odds with the overarching values and implicit actions required in the gospel – which seem to shift the established view on its head and promote vulnerability, sacrifice, minimalism and reduction/avoidance of self gain. It may go against the grain, theologically or principally to desire successful or profitable organisation , but at the same time the beaurocracy of organisation is now an established part of British philanthropic culture.

5. Put the how into the why; One way that might encourage positive strategy, is to put the ‘How’ to the ‘Why’. For, many people know why they are part of churches or youthwork organisations, the personal motives and values, in voluntary organisations these can usually align with the organisational values and motives (especially when the person is a volunteer within it or a supporter of it) Therefore, putting the how to the why – becomes less about organisational survival (growth, loss and profit) and more about organisational purpose – why its in existence, what it is good at, how it does more, or creates more opportunities that continue to fulfil its reason for existing. So – we might ask:

How might we encourage more participation in young people?

What opportunities can be created so that people are more fulfilled?

How can we love people more?

How might we put ‘loving mercy’ into action?

How might we be more inclusive?

How might we be more aware of our own blind spots – and hear the voice of others?

How might we allow for risk taking that looks like people trying to use their gifts to love others?

I remember being part of an organisation who said that they wanted to help its volunteers to thrive and use their gifts – but in reality that boiled down to shaping them in a way so that they would be consistent and regular in being a volunteer leader in an ongoing weekly youth club – not a bad thing in itself, but its strategy for voluntary participation, empowerment and gifts wasn’t matched in its culture, necessarily. In a way a culture of conformity desires regularity and avoids risk. At the moment the culture of organisations is set in to risk adverse mode. No one wants to be the next scandal, or organisation collapse. Yet this can negates the risk taking that caused the organisation to exist in the first place.

6. Think better- not perfect; The title of this post is steps to a better strategy and this is deliberate, because Im not sure whether there is such a thing as a perfect strategy within the kind of work that involves developing relationships with young people. Rev Hamiltons mantra of developing strategy from the point of contact remains true. A good youthwork strategy is one negotiated at the point of action – but that doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t require plans to recruit volunteers or some help financially. However, it is still a strategy that is participative in itself- and one that is about creating opportunities for further action, an thoughts about further action with the people involved. It’s a better thing that strategizing to work with young people, doing so without young people.

7. Creating strategy is revealing; There are better strategies that others and There are really interesting ways of developing ideas for strategies, however, as organisations, cultures, values and principles can be as much at play within them, sometimes a culture will eat strategy – and that might be a good thing as it says something about the ignorance of the culture of the strategy, other times culture itself needs a shift. There is another way, is what Jesus kept saying. You heard it was said is what Jesus kept saying. Macdonalds may be saying to us one thing – but Jesus might be saying another.

In the imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis says: Whoever loves much, does much, whoever does a thing well, does much, and he does well, he (she) who serves the community before his own interests (p43). Much more doing may be required, and there is doing in the planning, but doing in the doing needs to happen too…

It might be practical for a church to have a strategy – but as ive said before- lets not lose sight of being prophetic too. Love is a verb, an action, a way of life- is this lost through strategizing it? probably. But what might be needed is more encouragement and the opportunities to be more risk taking in loving others and the charitable aims of the organisation which may be about the flourishing of people in communities. Spending less time on strategy may be better, or maybe action first, like theology first, is through its performance and action- strategy itself might be trying too hard to provide control in the divine chaos at times, and bring too much management into a movement of people guided by the spirit, and at other times in need of space and participative risk taking opportunity.

References

Cameron et al Talking about God in Practice 2010

Goetschius & Tash, Working with the unnattached 1964 (appendix)

Ive put many resources on management and community settings on this page here: https://wp.me/P2Az40-QV which might be of use to think about developing strategy – especially in the current climate of strategy development within a competative managerial culture.

As an aside, FYT are hosting a series of seminars on developing strategy in youth work practice – if you want to find out more see below:

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Does the church (and youth ministry) need to rid itself of capatalist c**p?

I was at my neices 18th birthday party last year, not a large affair, though a house and garden full of family and her friends in South London. As as is the norm with these things, the ‘young people’ were in the garden drinking or hiding the drink they were drinking, and the adults were mostly indoors (it was a fairly cold november evening), except for the odd excursion outside by the adult to ‘check on the garden’. All seemed to be ok. Balance of normality, with music in the garden chosen from one young persons Ipod, and adults inside either ignoring it, or being mortified at the odd swear word that escaped through on an album edit of a song. However, for a few minutes it seemed as though someone else was choosing the music, there was high school musical (these 18 year olds grew up on it (yes feel old)), and things like Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Little mix.

All of a sudden, equilibrium was destroyed, as one of the 18 year old girls, dressed in very inidividually designed attire, wanders into the lounge full of adults, and sat down on one of the chairs, looking disgruntled and annoyed, said (and I quote)  ; ‘Im coming in here, I cant stand all that capatalist crap music being played’. Her remark, sifted the socialist leaning wheat and capitalist adhering chaff within the adults, as to their response to this from cheers and support to being taken aback. Now it could be said that this 18 year old was a dreamer, a Jeremy Corbynite, an idealist, influenced by a wide range of things – (but when a young person makes a statement about their shopping habits they are less likely to be criticised of being materialist, or influenced by ‘the right’). However, this point aside. What this young person had identified was a lack of integrity within music of artists for whom on the face of it, seem only in it for the money, or created and produced with making money in mind. It would be easy to say that even the music on earlier in the evening might raise legitimate money, but im not going to muddy the waters here. There was something about integrity within the music industry that this young person was looking for.

Moving the conversation on. John Drane a few years ago wrote the Macdonaldisation of the Church (others have followed suit with other similar pieces) . Within it he describes how

aspects of the church’s Image result for mcdonaldization of the churchorganisation, ministry and mission have fallen fowl to Macdonaldisation; the process of creating systems that are calculable, efficient, repeatable and can be controlled. They then can be repeated in a similar fashion across the church community. One example might be Alpha (which restricted use of its branding and ‘service’ to tightly regulated videos and activities as one example, although there are others), other organisations have fallen victim to this when issues of brand protectionalism and universalism stand in the way of contextual unique ministry.  It is worth reflecting on quite how passive the organisations of the church were or are to external business and marketing forces that spoke a language and validated a form of practice that endorsed macdonaldisation, that churches adopted rather than being prophetic against. Sold as a way of having control, efficiency, calcubility and repeatedness – products are released into the church, mission and ministry, some sold as ‘franchises’ and ‘under license’.

Whilst talk of Macdonaldisation might be out of favour, even talk of ‘post-macdonaldisation’ is cheap. Some of it is merely a facade. Starbucks may offer ‘choice’ but  it is still bounded, giving the impression of choice – and choice in other brands might merely be as similarly just a front. Post-Macdonaldisation is about personal choice, though personal choice bounded.

Another form of Management that is creeping into the church is talk of ‘leadership’. From ‘transformation leadership’ (the setting of strategies, target and aiming for compliance), to ‘entrepreneurial leadership and missional leadership – there is a movement of thought that in a period of time when the deckchairs on the titanic of the church are in the process of needing to be reordered and painted, that this role requires the right type of leaders, and leadership training is all the rage. And continues to be all the rage when in the main the church is ordered around structured organisations that by almost definition of their role are in requirement of a hierarchy that by default includes some ‘leadering’ of them. Sometimes one can fall into the other, where leadership training is in part to ‘make the church more effective’ sadly effective could be misinterpreted as efficient. Jesus didnt do ‘efficient’ ministry. If anything it was the opposite.

‘Transformational leadership is consistent with the neo-liberal assault on professional integrity’ (Sarah Lea, ‘ Are youthworkers free to lead’ in Ord J, Issues in Youthwork Management, 2014)

So, whilst the church is in a battle to be relevant (and relevancy is the badge of honour in youth ministry) , there can be a tension between ‘relevancy’ when it comes to some issues ( lets just say moral issues regarding sex/abortion/relationships) and a different type of adopted relevancy when it comes to the organisation of the church, ministry and mission groups which it could be argue try and have moral distinctiveness, but managerial uncritical adaption to essentially the ideologies of capitalism and managerialism. It might have at times adopted the practice of the companies of the 21st century even if their ethics and human rights (or tax paying) have been vacuous.  Rarely does the church want to be run like ‘The Body Shop’. In short, much of christianity in the UK has sold its soul to capatalism, and it has limited integrity left from which to platform an alternative. As my nieces friend urged, ‘We need to get rid of the capatalist crap!’ – though it might be difficult, submerged in the culture to find it, or alternatives.

But its difficult. Things that need paying for, like buildings, and ministries and resources and organisations. Especially those that have large salaries, rents and mortgages. It is easier to make money with a programme that maintains the status quo, than challenge the system that creates it. Though that doesnt mean that our tune need to stay the same. Erving Goffman suggests that the integrity of persons appearances and interactions relies heavily on how close it is to goods. Its as if even sociologists know that proximity to things/money/resource affects integrity. Maybe thats what Jesus was on about when he told the disciples to go with nothing, its so that things didnt get in the way.

If our churches and ministries are to follow a different way, then currently it will be pioneering, it will be set to an off beat drum, and will be seen to be odd, strange or provocative- and invalidated. It will be pioneering to scale down rather than up. Pioneering to gravitate down, to live more simply, to create different structures within the church that have clearer intentions of equality, goodness and ignore the disparity between rich and poor. Currently the church doesnt have much of a voice of the oppressed, largely because it lives to serve them and be for them, not as Friere argues, build a pedagogy of them, or as St Francis would remind us a spirituality from the streets, not the temples. There are questions to ask, about how the church regain a sense of community that shares much, rather than individuals that collect and share little. Boff picks up the story, ‘that between 1970-80 the lay person began to organise themselves into christian base communities, where there is an experience of ecclesiogenesis, this movement exercised ministries, committed to faith and promotion of and liberation of the oppressed’ It was a movement that affected the establishment church which honed in on service, of Gospel to the margins and commitment to the poor- but also a more participatory and fraternal society’ (Boff, creation of a popular and Poor Church, in St Francis, a model for human liberation, 1980).  St Francis recognised that even in the 1200’s that a simpler life was required, and by all accounts, the 1200’s would have been a simpler life than now, in many places – certainly in the west. But again, to follow Jesus, meant for St Francis, to go, and to rely on the hospitality of others, to rely on the community of the poor, and to identify with by being poor. What he also recognised, was that things did not make him free, they were a burden. To be free was to remove them and give them away, for them to lose their control. And freedom from things seems to be the way of Jesus. Although easy to criticise, the freedom that pastors with millions of pounds in mega churches dont have must be awful. But there are other ‘things’ too, like fame, influence and authority. With all these things the temptation is to gain more. St Francis would suggest otherwise.

‘An individual cannot own anything that only belongs to God.Not even the certainty of ones salvation is ours, but rather solely God’s’ (St Francis)

Francis and Boff go on to say that for the Christian faith to appropriate within the capatalist system is illegitimate; stating:

‘Ownership looks for security, prejudices the community and neighbours, is inspired by passion and pleasure, wounds the soul, searches for one own well being, degrades work, overvalues the corporal, sees in intelligence and will a private property, is the road of sin and the devil, enemy of all good, taking sides against God and denying his kingdom’ (Boff, p71)

This is strong stuff, and its hard to know where to start with this, given how my own nearly 40 years of existence with the UK and broadly evangelical church culture has shaped me. If we regard our role in the Theodrama (a role given to us) as witnesses to the story, not the heroes within it, then to witness is to go and project a new reality. It is difficult to project a new reality if everyone is practically the same. Our distinctiveness need not be our morality, but our simplicity, or generosity, or care for the other. A care that St Francis suggests is true Humanity.

Oh, and if young people see that a capitalist crap has infliltrated the music scene, how much more might young people view the establishment and ordering of the church in such a way, that is less movement of social transformation, than ordered gatherings to maintain the status quo. Young people, theyre a perceptive bunch. They often want a cause they can believe in that has integrity.

How might the church rid itself of its capatalist crap? Especially if this is what young people might just want…

Might youth ministry, that once pioneering path that changed the church since the 1960’s- adopt a different tune completely for the future, forging a new pathway, not of organisation, but of true movement for the gospel doing so within community, integrity and simplicity. Might young people find in St Francis the hero to save humanity and model life around him, or view Christianity through St Francis.

If Capatalism and Neo-liberalism is under threat, as ‘populist’ politics (short hand for far right fascism) becomes influential, might the churchs response to be and act more prophetically, and create an alternative?

References

Boff, Saint Francis, A model for human liberation, 1980

Freire, P, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970

Rohr, St Francis, A Way of Life, 2014

Wells, Samuel, Improvisation, Christian Ethics, 2005

 

Are Young people in church ‘born’ or ‘made’ leaders?

A few weeks ago I was lecturing a session on leadership and Management on the ‘EQUIP NE’ Course – (see here for details of how to apply http://www.equipnortheast.com/) , in which i gave the students an overview of management styles and also different thoughts on leadership. Image result for leadership

We did the almost usual activity of describing what an ‘effective leader’ looks like in terms of characteristics, which in turn leads to thinking about leadership as a trait. So things like communication, confidence, courage, drive, determination were some of the traits identified. At that point its relatively easy to think of the ‘great’ military leaders, the strong ‘men’ of the past, warriors, and phrases like ‘leaders being born and not made’ . You get the idea. In this way it is either fixed, there from the outset. Or its not. Image result for leadership

At the other end of the spectrum, we then discussed how leaders become developed in the situations they find themselves in, as the context determines. Almost the opposite to the above, where a person shows leadership qualities and skills in the midst of a situation, as needed by a team, an organisation or situation in order for it to thrive. The person rises to the challenge, or possibly doesnt, but needs the team and environment to be able to do so. They lead in a culture to thrive.

So the question is:

When thinking of young people as leaders in churches, does the context enable this possibility- if their leadership traits arent immediately obvious? 

or as pertinently, on what view of leadership are young people judged? Of course it would be easy to identify the traits of young people as leaders and give them further opportunities to do so, but what of other young people whose potentiality to show leadership is laying dormant and needs opportunities to thrive within the space ( requiring more effort and patience on the part of the church, youth ministry or congregation)

The challenge is that the ready made leader is easy to work with and develop in a culture of needing quick wins and easy volunteers in churches. But it might only be for lack of confidence to put them selves forward that a really good leader is laying dormant. I would hope that the ruthlessness of the business world, or Alan Sugars ‘you’re fired’ is not in use in regard to young people and their potentiality as leaders, ie that young people dont hear that ‘they havent got it as a leader’, and are continually relegated and sidelined compared to the golden child of the group. There can be a distinct likelihood that in churches that have limited leadership roles for women, that teenage girls’ leadership opportunities are overlooked, and they become more distant from the community. It happens. The boys rise to the top, as often competitive streaks are rewarded as leadership material. And others are left redundant because opportunities arent afforded, or possible, or they as young people are seen only as learners not deciders or creators and leaders. If rising to the ‘top’ and prominence is favoured – what then young people left behind in this game? Gender might preclude, but equally race, ‘dis’ ability or even theological view or questions/doubt, might all present churches from offering opportunities for forms of leadership. It is at this point where values like equality of opportunity in youth work might be for churches and youth ministry to contemplate.

From a Biblical point of view, Whilst there must have been something about the disciples that Jesus identified from his years of watching them in and around the area, they were given further opportunities to develop as people and followers in the three years, learning the hard way. Then they were left to it alone, and had to guide and lead the early church, not long after the death and resurrection of their leader (and his disappearance), Peter stood up in front of the crowd, yet before he couldnt stand up for his faith. It is difficult to argue that Jesus made the disciples what they became, rather than what they were individually born as.  Image result for peter bible

So what might that mean for viewing young people as leaders in churches?  Are they given opportunities to thrive, develop their gifts, strengths to help contribute to the life of the community. And not when its too late – from as early an age as possible. They may be born with something about them, but the church community might also be a safe, healthy place for them to have their character formed through participation, empowerment and opportunities to contribute. They might not be born leaders, but the church can make them into them.  

 

I’m Tired, I need a break!

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About Five years ago, we as a family were travelling on one of our long car journeys, if it involved Perth or Devon in the route then it would be at least 6 hours or more. It must have been at least 2-3 hours into the journey, and as the driver usually in the car, you kind of get to know the routine with kids in the back of the car, they know and can recognise the Service station signs, especially the ones with Fast food outlet symbols on them, and so these are times to keep the kids distracted and not to be thinking about stopping, or the journey could be endless and tiring. However, I had forgotten about the fact that now my daughter could read. So if she wasnt distracted by her DVD player or nintendo DS, and she was beginning to sound a bit fidgety, possibly hungry and winey from the back of the car. And not only could she read the signs of the Service Station but it was the blue version of the ones above, and she then exclaimed innocently, spontaneously and with a sharp spike into the heart of a driving parent : “I’m Tired, I need a break, I could Kill!”

Tiredness could Kill take a break! -Might not be the best way of heeding a warning to slow down. But, if i were to be honest, if tiredness is symptom of trying to do too much, or trying to cope with too much, or hold onto the emotions too much, then i can understand being tired. I wont put it down to ‘being thursday’ and near the end of the week.

I was about to write a piece a few weeks ago as it dawned on me that aside from 4 years, I had been involved in some form of responsibility in Christian Ministry for the last 20 years, either in paid, part time, student or voluntary capacity depending on the circumstance. Thats 16 years of planning to engage and meet with young people in groups, or on the streets, of training volunteers, of fundraising, of networking, of organisational politics, of funding uncertainty, of creating strategies- and also the ongoing discipline of continual learning, reading, reflecting, and thinking. But for someone still under 40, 18 years feels a large percentage of that, and there’s been times in that time when I’ve been guided well, spiritually directed, and other times less so. But that’s also quite a few years of having public and personal faith. I’m not unique in this, public and personal faith occurs in many walks of life.

A few weeks ago I published a list of 40 things to help youth workers with self care during Lent- but what about me,  have I done it? How many have I actually done to help myself… probably not that many. Actually looking at this list again http://wp.me/p2Az40-Ol – it is probably about 10, mostly because I have had to maintain reading, walking the dog, taking days off on saturdays, and attempts to try and eat a bit healthier.. But even with self care – taking on too much responsibilities, being involved in lots of interesting projects around the north east, like Equip, and FYT as well as the organisational and funding challenges of DYFC are going to take their toll. But its always easier to give advice that take it. But similarly i am going to be kind to myself and recognise that things are not easy or normal. 

And thats before other aspects of life that can be even more emotionally tiring, like family illness, or bereavements.

What’s really difficult in writing this, is being a leader, even a male leader and feeling like its actually difficult to admit feeling tired, even weary in ‘Christian work’ – sometimes I feel like I have had enough, and i have no pretentions of being superman either, i like to contribute, to support, to connect, to help – not solve or save. Doing it all isnt a heroic stance, more a trying to help things happen.

Though what I think deep down what i have had enough of is trying to keep things going that arent going to, of trying to pioneer in the wrong context with limited support, of keeping something going that is on a shoestring. And so, what i have done to compensate is fill my time with things of life, things that grow, things where people are up for taking risks and working collaboratively with young people. Like a moth be attracted to the places of light, and be attracted to the dark places where even small amounts of light might make a difference.

In between a couple of meetings this week, during two good days of planning and writing essays, I took a detour off the main road and stopped at Hendon Beach near Sunderland, and even just for 15 mins stopped, and looked and listened to the almost complete quiet of still waters. As the pictures indicate, its not the prettiest, bluest water, but it was still a moment to gather and recharge.

Tiredness might not kill in youth work and Ministry – but its good to take a break, recharge and rest. One day it might happen….

 

 

 

Why I didnt leave the church

Last week you may have noticed that I posted an article that described what kind of churches in the USA were able to keep young people engaged, that post is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-NP, the research is from the Fuller institute in the USA, and worth reflecting on. In the last few years there has been a plethora of articles saying : why millenials leave the church? or why the church has lost a ‘generation’ – whatever a ‘generation’ is, none of them help, they just brow beat and demoralise further. Because there are some very good people in very challenging places spending time with young people. Since I posted it i have been thinking about what kind of things kept me engaged in the church I went to and stayed in as a young person between 1988 and 1996, and i thought they are worth sharing.

It might be that my experience was completely unique, and yes that is philosophically accurate, it was unique. The challenge that I think there is, is whether it is right to think that the same things that kept young people engaged 20 or more years ago, will be the same today. My hunch is not, but throwing out the baby completely with the bathwater might be a mistake.

So, Why didnt I leave my church in my teenage years?

I think there was a number of reasons:

1. It was my church. 

For, although it was a church I grew up in, and therefore by default my parents and sister also went to, for a number of reasons my parents left the church when I was about 12. After that point, though i was given the opportunity to leave, I continued to go, to be part of the youth groups and what then happened is that It became a safe place, a place away from my parents, almost a place where i felt at times as if it was slightly rebellious to go, rather than rebellious not to. But it became my church. I know of other young people who felt they had to find an identity of going to church which was a different one to their parents, especially those whose parents are in leadership or important, but that neednt be so. I realise this might not be a possible scenario for many young people, but this scenario for me, enabled me to have more of my own identity in the church.

2. I was given jobs to do

From the age of 11, ie just starting High school, i asked to and was given the opportunity to help with the Sunday school, I think it was the under 6’s group. And it was great. I learned so much, and had to think about doing games or crafts or reading or stories. I was, at age 11 trusted to help and make a contribution to help the younger age groups. Im not sure I attended the ‘meetings’ to discuss the sunday school, but that didnt matter, each Sunday i was a key helper in the particular group, and at the time, I think alot of other similar 11-12yr olds were given this opportunity. I would stake a claim that most of those who took on helping roles then, are more involved in churches now. I also remember the first time i had to ‘lead’ the group because the adult leader was away, yes i was terrified, and yes it probably didnt go that well, but again it showed a level of trust, and was an important part of being an apprentice. In a way, having this role, and then a few others during my teenage years ( learning to play the guitar, junior youth group leader from 16) all helped to give me responsibility, challenges, to grow up in a church and have quality time with adults, as much as quality time with other young people.

3. I was given opportunities to work things out. 

I think my youth leaders, and there is some massive credit heading their way, probably got sick of me asking things, I was curious, I asked about and was keen to learn about things like Creation, like Free will, like Suffering, at times i wasnt satisfied with simple answers, and Im not just saying that now, I remember having lengthy conversation with people in the church about these complex matters. I attended and at times enjoyed the lengthy sermons, because they caused me to think, and werent dumbed down- i was probably 15 or 16 by then. But i was able to work things out because most sunday evenings I would walk back to my youth leaders house and chat with them about the sermons, or something else ( their house was on the way back to mine), and I was given time. Sometimes the conversation would continue over a hot chocolate, or a longer walk with their dog – but time and space to be listened to and not have a stupid question belittled, or even to explore the answers together was granted to me. Deep credit to all those people who gave me time. They will remain nameless but you know who you are. Not only that, but they were there in the times of needing to chat, the life choice moments, and struggles.

4. I didn’t need the spiritual ‘special event’ because I  felt I had a Spiritual home. 

Dont get me wrong, as a church and youth group we went to some interesting special events. Nothing has changed that much. Some were dreadful. I remember once driving my car ( so I must have been 17) with a few others to a random hall in deepest darkest Leicestershire, to an event that had been ‘well promoted’ and told of a great band etc etc, only to find that out group of 8 who travelled 20 miles formed over 1/2 the ‘audience’ ( for me these experiences started to pose questions in my head even then of ‘event based’ youth ministry) , however, back to the point. And I think at least 5 times i went to Spring Harvest, which was the ‘grandaddy’ of all the events, all that Spring harvest did is put other events in the shadow. Because, looking back, the place that felt like a Spiritual home was my local church, thats where I was given opportunities to grow, be listened to and from 11 be gradually formed in a number of ways with adults, with time and with opportunities. What the events did was categorise me back into being ‘a youth’ and just with other young people – great for connecting a meeting others, but i could have been anyone in a sea of 500, or anyone in a small group of 20 and being just a receiver of what was being said.

5. I didnt leave because I didnt want to. 

I dont think that at any point between the ages of 13-18 I felt as though I wanted to leave the church. I had no need to because actually many needs and interests i had were being met by its community, and more than that, I was given responsibility and encouraged to think about developing being a leader, being helpful and contributing in a number of ways. Was there a youth group that i attended – yes. But I’m not sure a youth group alone would have kept me, though there was some fun and embarrassing moments, when someone thought that ‘four weddings and a funeral’ would be a good movie to show on a friday evening at the pastors house. Hmm, those 5 first words… In a way the group itself was a parallel to all the rest of the activity, people and support that was involved in the faith community and how i maintained involvement in it.  I wonder whether actually there are some young people who dont leave the church.

I realise the situation I grew up in was unique to me, I was probably very fortunate. Yet it is unique to everyone. In that place, in that time, I look back and think about what were the things that kept me in the local church. The question is – Can churches rely on the same things that kept young people as they did 20 years ago? 

Its kind of yes and no. It depends what it thinks those things are.

What the church needs to do is work with the young people it has today, right now, and give them responsibility from an early age, that will be different to each young person, the kind of support that gives them a culture of being able to talk, work things out, be heard and listened to and valued, deep. Provide opportunities for young people to become connected with many adults, doing adult things – ie music, or sports groups, so not just being kept with people of the same age. They also need to be challenged, or be given opportunities to find that challenge and thinking is good for them – i think this is different now – i think young people do want something easy, and easy is what they are given. Its that MTD thing (see http://wp.me/p2Az40-KS ).

The research pointed to two things: Young people appreciated a healthy place, and also a challenge.  That hasnt changed. Most young people leave because it isnt a healthy place – they are judged, they are given high expectations, they feel inauthentic, it is not a place for them, it is emotionally unhealthy – they have to connect with more leaders than they do school teachers, unhealthy ‘when its all about building relationships..’  Equally young people leave if they are under-challenged – in responsibility, in being able to ask questions, theological and practical, in tasks of mission, of leadership and learning.

In what way might those who have responsibility of local churches enable young people to feel that the church is their church?

 

Is Youth Ministry now judged on the quality of the leaders it creates?

I should let it go. I really should.

But like the nagging question that never goes away, there is i think more reflecting to be done on the question of the quality of youth workers as posed by Mike Pilovachi in the recent Youthwork Magazine article. The link is here: http://www.premieryouthwork.com/Read/The-Youthwork-Blog/Has-the-quality-of-youth-workers-decreased?a if you’re one of the few people involved in faith based youthwork/british youth ministry that hasnt read this article by now.

The questions is that all of a sudden, Youth Ministry, and by deviation the local church,  is now tasked with developing leaders of quality suitable for future ministry.

Call me Naive, but – when has this ever been the case?

Wasnt youth ministry all about responding relevantly to culture and trying to keep young people from leaving the church, and doing what it could to gather a few extras into it? ie responding to that statistic that 300 young people were leaving the church every week back in the early 1980’s?  and where it has been successful it has kept a few from leaving and attracted a few. Though not much more, as Brierleys statistics would testify.

Yes, keeping young people involved in the culture of the church might have meant giving them spaces to become leaders within the culture. The horribly named ‘junior’ leader. Yes some might feel as though they are wanting to develop leadership in the church further.

But are churches themselves and by definition those involved in youth ministry (paid, unpaid) in a position to develop leadership training for new youth leaders in a local church? In fact – lets face it – when there is ‘Mission’ to be done in the name of the church- how much training and equipping is there for it? Training isnt everything, but it might be helpful at times.. but im on a tangent…

The question of how young adults involved in youth ministry, get training as emerging new volunteers in youth ministry is a valid one – and training through being exposed to experience is crucial, but as is the ongoing one to one support of youth leaders with young people as young people learn to be volunteers – but if the youth leaders in the church are volunteers themselves, how are they going to help new leaders develop skills, actions, knowledge and practices, yes of course they can – but this is going to be limited by time as they themselves are volunteers.

Yet – what might it mean that an aim of youth ministry is to develop leaders? – When for so long it has mostly been about maintaining young people in the faith and the culture & community of the church. This is reflected in the limited resources for leadership training for young people (when resources for youth groups/sessions are in abundance) that exist in the youth ministry world. Yes there may be 100 ways to have a fun time with a group of young people and then use a bible verse to illustrate a key moment in the game, but the resource for developing leadership skills? or the resource for developing young peoples gifts? or abilities- not just leadership..? where might that be…

In a way, is the broader question one that whilst some kind of community development and responsibility in a church community is part of the tool box of youth ministry – community values that consider empowering people to furthering abilities, gifts and skills arent as evident in the values of youth ministry – as they may be in youth & community work practice- and as importantly if empowerment is a value of youth ministry it will only have ‘success’ if this is replicated in the wider culture of the local church. The type of empowerment that educates, develops and provides ongoing reflection and learning – not a leave them to it type attitude.

If developing leaders is a key part of youth ministry practice – then, as i said in my previous article here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-GK – shall those in youth ministry start thinking with this end game at the forefront of the youth ministry process? Should we be considering ‘what kind of leader’ do we want to create in youth ministry practice – with all our 11 year olds… Maybe future practice and purpose should affect the present in this way, and youth ministry equips young people for the Mission of God and their role in this as leaders and the future pioneers current youth ministry desperately needs.  Where focussing on maintaining young people in the church has barely worked anyway. We might as well just equip young people for the leaders and adults they might already be. Even from the age of 11. And what tools do they need for being creative, visionary, compassionate, Mission of God orientated people? And how might their flourishing as kingdom seekers be encouraged?

Its not just about teaching young people to be teachers of others, that is not the only quality needed in the Kingdom of God, lets create the possibility that young people in the church are community activists, world changers, dissenters for truth and leaders of a church hell bent on transforming society.

 

 

15 tips for every church to disciple young people

or ‘if you want to keep young people in church, value and trust them’

Its pretty obvious by now that churches are local, contextual beasts. There’s limited cultural shifting in any organisation thats over 25 years old, and so many churches fit into that category. So no amount of diocesan training, denomination conferences, inter denominational collectives, or summer worship at festivals, will enable dynamic shifting to take place. Maybe in some, no shifting is needed. However, the strategies for retaining young people through a meagre diet of Sunday school, summer camps and attending the regional city based youth orientated worship event are common,  But what might every church be capable of in terms of young peoples discipleship?  here a few ideas, tips or pointers.

  1. Cultivate a small group mentality from an early age  – spot the group of them at age 9-10-11, in existing provision ( sunday school, messy church, confirmation classes) and develop small groups – in houses, cultivate depth, social connections and spaces where discipleship can happen.
  2. Cultivate the gifts and abilities young people might have, or might not know they have yet. The leader 0r musical person might be easy, but how might the hospitable, the encourager, the reconciler find a space to have this gift encouraged in the church.
  3. Value the few young people, give them spaces to join in with other groups, with adults in small groups – dont assume young people just want to be seperate in their own groups, having them learn with adults in groups will help and challenge both age groups.
  4. Give young people responsibility and trust them if they fall, and trust them if they succeed – give them small jobs then larger ones, and from an early age. ie 9, 10 or 11.
  5. Dont put expectations on them to ‘bring friends’ to church things that a) they havent organised, b) they’re not involved in or c) that adults dont model the same behaviour.
  6. Create spaces where their voice is heard in decision making processes in the church, from members meetings, PCC, on youthworker interview panels, vision days, diocesan initiatives. Ask, how is the church actively excluding young people through its processes – and how might this change?
  7. Ditch relevency, for depth.
  8. Create mystery and spaces for enquiry and exploration
  9. Assign mentors to pray for specific young poeple ( make this anonymous)
  10. Dont force them to go to the latest christian ministry offering by ‘evangelical’ youth church initiative , valuing a young persons faith might not mean they have to support someone elses ministry. even if your church and the other church or ministry want to support each other, the young people in the church neednt be the pawns in what might be ministry game, if they say no to your pressure to go then recognise the strength of character, and their readiness to take responsibility for their faith, rather than conformity to their leaders.
  11. Find ways of developing discipleship with the few, and not bemoan the days of larger groups in the 60’s-70’s or 90’s. That isnt the young persons fault, if anything its yours.
  12. Let them be involved in deciding programmes, subjects, methods in their groups and group work from as early as possible. Give them ‘just’ space for conversations and see where this goes also. young people in churches might just be programmed to death..
  13. create a positive mindset about young people, as young adults – not youth/adolescence – but young adults whom you as a church are receivers of and responsible for – if the church doesnt think of young people positively, then the media who already doesnt has affected the church too much, that needs to be challenged.  If church is a family, or a body, or a city on a hill, then all play parts to contribute in its flourishing.
  14. Dont create a strategy for youth ministry – cultivate a culture that welcomes, encourages and disciples young people.
  15. Explain and talk through with young people the actual stuff in church – like liturgies, meetings, and ceremonies so that they can understand and find meaning in them.
  16. provide tools for exploring, for interpreting the world around them, and the scriptures- not just the answers that you want them to say, and they feel you want to hear.

Not all of these things are possible, though for many its a question of priorities, or changing existing ways of doing things, or employing the professional youthworker to ‘do it all’ . And culture within churches is hard to shift. Yet what if every church began to think about the ways it worked with young people- from programmes to people, from attendance to involvement, and activity to discipleship. It might be that even one of the above would represent a huge shift for your church – but maybe thats all it would take to think about the work with young people further and think about the young people differently and their faith development in the community of the church.

 

 

Why not team leadership in community organisations?

I’m just taking a break from writing my current essay on youthwork management, watching the France v Albania game, but with the following thought..
‘Can team leadership work in youth work or youth ministry?’ Does it exist anywhere?

Ha ha ha you might say. And I would retort in a similar fashion, in the current economic climate only a few expressions of organistions can afford one manager, let alone for it to be a team in name definition and role. Some places might have one person who says they’re a team but it’s still a one person takes the overall flack and has that role.
But even in small organisations the tendency is still to favour one person to be in overall control /leader than many as a team.
Pickard argues that a social trinity theologically underpins collaborative ministries.
Community plays a huge role in the construct of youth work practice.
As does conversations, negotiation and understanding power and oppression.

But in neither youth ministry or youth work are many examples of genuinelu collaborative team management. Yfc for example favour a centre director role for even small local centres, placing a large amount of responsibility on one person and for them to develop or have a range of skills. The same arrangement with different titles occurs in most similar organisations.

So the question remains, if within theologically understood and community focussed community organisations, management is required has the human nature for hierarchies trumped values or beliefs about community in the way that management and leadership is structured, enacted and defined. Has it ever been tried in community organisations, tried and been allowed to be persevered with, to the point where it has been deemed a success. Collaborative team management in community youth work & ministry , examples or thoughts anyone?

Surviving Youth Ministry – feeling like one of the lucky ones

I am beginning to think that i am one of the lucky ones. As I look around the church, and the stats concerning the churches that are growing, its demographics and the local experiences of churches. With a few exceptions id say i was one of the lucky ones.

I am a skew to the statistics that say that there arent many 30-50 year olds in the church in the UK. Theres plenty of over 60’s (and they are more over 70’s) – theres still quite a few children young people and young families. But not as many in their later thirties, forties or fifties.

Given that throughout my teenage years I was part of a local church, participated in its activities, for young people, its clubs, groups, enjoyed the services and teaching, and generally had a positive experience. I went to festivals, bought the music, adopted the experience as alternative culture, found acceptance and belonging and people to talk to about aspects of my growing up. All in all it was a largely positive experience for me. Through the experience I was given responsibilities, developed opportunities for leading services, sunday school, youth work and became a person in my own right in the church setting.

And here i am today. Ive just started an MA in theology, Im a centre director for DYFC, I still go to church, travelled through the ranks as it were, so the question is; If i had such a positive experience of growing up in the church community, the youth ministry of 1990’s with a new(ish) soul surivivor /Spring Harvest in its prime (which i went to) – why am i not an enthusiast for this type of Youth Ministry still today?

A couple of reasons;

  1. The second year of Soul Survivor i went to in 1997, was after id spent a year doing full time voluntary youth work /schools work in Hartlepool with young people in a couple of estates. What i realised then was that Soul Survivor was a gigantic chasm away from the challenges of these young people being accepted in a local church. let alone be accepted as part of a soul survivor congregation.
  2. I was invested in in my home church because id indicated that I wanted to pursue further Christian ministry, hence the responsibilities.
  3. At the age of 12 my parents left this particular church. I stayed. It became my space. Almost rebellion.
  4. At the age of 11 – there were 15 people in the youth club. On a wednesday night in the open sessions there were up to 60 young people turning up from the estate.  By the time I was 15 that number had reduced to 6. Six of us were invested in as leaders a few of us are still involved in churches. It might be that only those invested in as leaders actually survive. Those who became leaders a generation before me, are leaders in churches today.

So, id consider myself one of the lucky ones to have survived a form of youth ministry and still be in the church. Given that I had been brought up in a Christian home, and the personal vocation to become a leader- or singled out to be, and point 3 – i would say that these things contributed (as well as the supportive youth leaders/friends) to this occuring.

But what would I be advocating if I was suggesting that the type of youth ministry I was brought up in, and survived, is the one that I should be recommending to other young people? to my own children even, when i can identify at least 20-30 young people for whom it didnt work for, and a good number of them were also part of the christian families at that time. When i say work – I mean- that as they’re now in their 30-40’s that they are involved in the church community today.

So – why would i advocate a type of ministry that to my mind and experience, might only work for those who show leadership potential? and that only has a 6/60 – thus 10% chance of long term success. I should be advocating something that yes ‘did me good’ but taking a utilitarian perspective – didnt really do the greatest good for the majority of the young people, most of who were locally on the estate and whom the church never worked with again.

There are a couple of questions to be asked – do the proponents of the type of youth work that the church is engaged in think about those for whom it doesnt and hasnt worked for, both in the immediate and long term?

Would it make for good leadership to reflect on the experiences of our Christian youth and consider why it did or didnt succeed for us? and cause us to think differently about those whom it didnt work for – even if it did for us?

If responsibility and leadership are key factors in young people surviving youth ministry – what of young people who dont get these opportunities or feel like they want to- is something different going to ‘work’ for them?

If youth ministry hasnt worked for a large majority of people – in that they are not in the church 10,20, or 30 years later despite being involved in their teens do we argue that this is the fault of the church (of post teenage years) or that its university (that changes thinking) or individuals who make choices to fall away (blame the individual not the programme), thus ministry to teens remains aloof of the blame.  At what point does a critical eye on this work over the last 30-40 years (or longer) start to question its effectiveness for long term church. (yes its the only time im arguing for ‘bums on seats’ as an indicator, but im looking for 30-40 year old bums)

So, whilst i consider myself one of the lucky ones, i want to think about how a church, if it decides to start building relationships with young adults in a local area can maintain these using at least some kind of process, some kind of way that allows the young people to find some kind of faith and keep it. And for young people in church families, already embedded within the church, explore faith and discipleship with them, yes grow leaders, empower disciples, cultivate risky mission with them, and responsibility. It did work for me, but that was the bit that did.

Funny how being empowered is both a Gospel imperative, and a youthwork value. Whether the latter derived from the former is open to debate.  Jesus did say “You are the salt of the earth” and “go and make disciples’ ” – theres a process of now and becoming.  So it might be fair to say that any work with young people has to have their ongoing learning, ongoing process of becoming, flourishing, trying, risk attempting and change.

“Empowerment means the ministry of conscientization, of assisting people toward self-awareness of their own power, subjectivity, strengths and capabilities. To work in such a way that (young adults) discover their own voice and speak within their culture, their traditons and their humanity”  is a lengthy quotation from Bevans and Shroeder on the Missional purpose of the church in liberating from injustice.

Will this work?  It might do. Some of the other stuff can be left behind.

 

 

 

 

 

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