Personal Vulnerability, through the storm

It would be easy to wait until the garden was full of roses, until the stream was calm, and until the struggles of life were over, and a sense of victory, progress or achievement was gained, to write this kind of thing. The ‘salvation’ story of transformation, looking back and how I could chart all the moments, doing so from the point of view of being in a ‘final’ good place. Its like reading into the Easter Story, and forgetting what Holy Saturday might have felt like, in real time. And today, a glimpse of brighter days ahead is looming into view, but im not having in a picnic in the meadow yet.

I am in the middle. But then again, so, most likely are you.

In the past I have written here on the professional challenges I have faced, from thinking through redundancy, from management and also from funding issues. You will also have heard me talk and get angry about some of the structures and narratives that are used as the easy cop outs for a neo liberal ideology to place all the blame of personal reactions, on the individual. See for example, the resilience narrative, and even to some point, some stuff on mental health. And I could do the same again. Get angry.

This isnt the time though. This is the time to get real. With a glimpse of the future light in view, I want to use this space to share with you an number of things.

As one of my line managers said to me about a month ago ( i have 2 jobs, therefore, 2 line managers) ; ‘James, you have had the year from hell’ , lucky for me, it was in a phone call and i was sitting on Middlesbrough railway station at the time and so I held this, and held it together. And holding it together, has been part of the last 12 months. Just at times, clinging on at times.

So, turning up at churches, events, training groups or seeing people and they say to me ‘You’re looking well’ , could be a mixture of the increased fitness, being outside alot and getting a slight tan, or copious amounts of nivea cream to stop my face from drying out. Im sure a disclosure about using nivea creme moisturiser (for men) might be more shocking than anything else. But, guys, if you’re going through crisis and want to ‘look well’ i highly recommend it… But maybe I can look well. Maybe I can look well, because of a number of factors. Maybe I can look well, because I have been also able to feel quite well during some of the challenges. And I have been able to feel well because of a number of factors too. But as I say, I am acutely aware of being ‘in the middle’ of stuff. This isnt a boast, a ‘look what ive got through’ piece.

I was so hoping that I could write a piece about dealing with a significant amount of personal challenges in the last year without using what seem cliches. But I cant. I will write about a number of specifically other aspects of the last year over the next few weeks. What follows is a snippet of it all, and in Mental Health Awareness week, an attempt for me to share some of it. It wont be coherent.

I discovered 3 months ago, that I am more of an introvert that I had given myself acknowledgement for. Though one of my friends pointed it out to me 2 years ago, I hadnt given it much thought. Or wanted to deny it. This aspect of my learning and self awareness, I will explore another time. In her book ‘Quiet’, Susan Cain describes how the internet, and especially social media, has become a haven for the quiet creative, the introvert, the thinker, and I agree.  It is funny, whilst social media at the moment is getting an absolute bashing for the offensive stuff. I counter this and say that it is only a tool. And if it is used by tools then it will reflect that. Social media for a good many number of people, including myself, is a safe space where friends gather. A space to start off being vulnerable. A space where like minded friends are, (also known as an echo chamber) who I, and others are able to share stuff with, like written pieces, but also share and request the need for prayer, for help, for advice. As a tool, social media can be as uplifting, as supportive, as positive. When you know that 100’s of people are praying for and with you, from all over the world. Yes, that. (thank you)

So, getting back to the personal bit, much of which I have still avoided to talk about, one of the first things that I did over a year ago, was realise and use social media, (specifically twitter) to express personal vulnerability, to ask for help, to ask for prayer, to also give me a space where i could ‘talk’ in text, could give me the first few experiences of being able to talk about what was starting to go on in my life, without speaking verbally. They say the hardest thing is to admit you need help. What i did, and trusted early, because I had prayed for the many others, was use that space to begin being real, to begin acknowledging need, and to begin the process. It gave a number of people, and they are heroes, the opportunity to hear me, and make the connection with me to not only pray, but also stand and stick with me through to where I am today, that wouldnt have happened without social media first. I thought it might mean that people would treat me weird, but they didnt at all. Metaphorically, they just held my hand.

As a youthworker I might encourage a young person to ring childline, as a youthworker, I needed to find similar avenues. I also needed to then find people who I could do the real vulnerable stuff and begin to talk through it all in detail. (and no thats not for here)

The second thing I want to say. Is that 6 months into trying to work out stuff, even, having the most supportive friends, pray (ers) and beginning to reflect on myself, my relationships, work situation, emotions, reactions and health. I referred myself to counselling. If nothing else, that having the year from hell in 2018/9, required some healing from and giving myself that opportunity would do me even more good. I know it may not be for everyone, and its not affordable to many, but I would highly suggest not making counselling a last resort. It has been an additional critical and reflective space, that has been really helpful, more than that, crucial, for me in this process. Its not a weakness to admit. It really isnt. And yes of course i would say that.

I didnt want to use cliches, like ‘dont struggle alone’. Talk to someone, talk to anyone. But I cannot avoid them. Where you find community, safety, and friends, and you need to do not be afraid of being or looking weak or vulnerable. I have found, and cried when realising this, that it gives other people the opportunity to help, to support, to give, and to create a place where you can feel strong, cared for and thought of. Even in the midst of the storms.

This week is Mental Health Awareness week. I was reminded of this when I saw Alistair Campbell interviewed on BBC breakfast this morning. Details of the programme, talking about his own personal journey (through mental health) is to be found here:  This piece is not to try and work out what my personal challenges have been, though unemployment was certainly one of them, more to share something about how from the perspective of the middle point, I am able to look back a bit, and reflect on the ways i found strength, found community, and support, from the very beginning, or maybe the part of that process was an earlier middle. As I said, this is still the middle, and so do continue your prayers, and thank you.

I could end this piece about talking about self care. And it would be appropriate to talk about ‘how in ministry we need to look after ourselves’ (and i have written about that here ) but what I also needed to do was look after me, and realise that it was okay to look after me. And so might you.

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Is Death a conversation that the church and youth ministry should be having more of with young people?

Youve outsmarted the young people this time, or so youve thought. Over the summer and the proceeding years you’re beginning to build up a range of resources for every given topic that they might want you to talk about. Sex, Relationships and Sex, all covered, all newly resourced, all ready, you even went ahead and got hold of the new PODS resource from FYT  on Sex education for the under 12’s,  then theres stuff on ‘other faiths’, evangelism, and ethical dilemna that are up for discussion, abortion, marriage, war and conflict and homosexuality, and with Mental Health in the news so much recently, you’re genned up on this as well; so you’re all set, ready for the beginning of term open planning session that you’re about to do with the youth group.

So the evening of activities and chat goes well, and theres the usual comfortable atmosphere, people connecting, chatting and getting along, after all the group has known each other a while, and last week even you had asked them to think about what they might want to do this term, so they, for the first time are a little bit ready. They may well be excited as they also get the chance to pick the outing or trip for the term, but that is by the by.

And in the main you are right, a number of them did want to talk about sex, or homosxuality, or mental health, a few even wanted to talk about evangelism and church stuff. But the one thing that united them all, was a different subject altogether. They wanted to talk about Cancer. Not only cancer, they wanted to talk about death.

This is not a fictitious story. This happened to me and our group of youthworkers at Durham YFC. The young people wanted to talk about cancer, and more importantly they wanted to share, and talk, in a group about death.Image result for death

Finding resources to talk about death and cancer with young people doesnt seem to be easy in ‘youth ministry world’ – theres not much about this, more about morality than morbidity. Even as youthworkers in a team we wrestled a while with actually doing the session, how it would be done, and how we might deal with the consequences and emotions. But young people trusted us, to talk about death. And, if there is one thing that the institution of the church could do, more than other – is to help young people, all people, be more prepared for dealing with death.

The reason that this subject has been brought home to me today is that I was at a funeral this morning. But unlike any other funeral I have ever been to, it was a funeral of someone that I have absolutely no connection with, aside from the person being a fellow human on this earth. I was there to help out with some of the technical aspects and to help out a friend who is the vicar leading the service. So it was a rare experience. A rare experience that outside of being clergy, organist, funeral director and church warden might be a rare one for any of us. It caused me to think about the funerals I had been to in my life, and also realise that even as late teenagers my own children have never been to a funeral, they havent had to (and its not that we prevented them) , and maybe thats not uncommon. But neither had anyone talked with them about death before either.

So – where are the opportunities to talk about death and where young people get the opportunity to talk about it? and by whom?

Death is a pretty real occurrence in the lives of the many young people, especially from estates where low life expectation due to poverty is a thing. One vicar I know had done three funerals in the last 3 years of 40 year olds who’d committed suicide relating to mental health and drug abuse. But that kind of thing isn’t confined to the challenging estates is it?  A number of schools have experienced teen suicides. Tragically. And what if it is their best friend is the first funeral a young person has to go to, or their 40 year old uncle. There is much to be done for after the event, sure, counselling and therapy, and none of this would prevent sadness, shock and mourning – but at least talking about death before hand might help a little, surely.

Young people drink alcohol like the rest of us. The young people i see drinking do so for social reasons, rebellious reasons and because of escapism. Yet ask a number of them what their other trigger points are that ‘its the anniversary of my best friends death’ ‘ or ‘it would have been my best friends birthday today’  a trigger point for many young people (and undoubtedly ourselves at times) is that drinking is about remembrance, about raising an underage bottle, about making a moment special because the person meant something. But as well, this might also tell us that young people have no other outlet to work through and remember this person, death is to be dealt with through drink.

Im not in any way saying that helping young people deal with the realities of death is going to prevent the tears, the desire to go and get drunk, but neither will it do any harm either. A number of churches and schools have worked together over the last few years to do mock weddings, in order to help young people talk about relationships, commitment, love, sex and also the process of the wedding itself in the sight of God. But what about doing mock funerals? Could all souls day, could halloween be the ready made opportunity for churches, youth ministers and schools to work together to provide a space where young people can experience the emotions of a funeral, can experience the emotions of death and can have done some kind of preparation. Now i know immediately that this might be insensitive where young people have already experienced this and there is a conversation to be had about specific situations. What might the church do that no other organisation can do? – help people prepare for death might be one of them.

Yes I know this is depressing. Yes i know this is not ‘good news’ and not the talk of the gospel, and making church and youth ministry exciting is the game in town. But so is relevancy, and there is nothing more relevant for a church to do that help young people prepare themselves for a guaranteed experience. That one day they will mourn, grieve and cry. That one day they will confront morbidity.

That one day there might be a reality to death that is hinted at in Disney cartoonsImage result for bambi mom death, with the exception of Bambi, or where characters overcome it immediately in video games, or where there is a heroic death for the character like Boromir, (Lord of the Rings) whos death saved many.

Yet amongst these examples of death we find various perspectives of dealing with the death of Jesus. The heroic death, the quick death who was mourned only momentarily, and even where death is only hinted at – and ‘life moves on’ – and ‘we cant focus on good friday too long’.  That a perspective of Jesus’ death must ‘include both what the cross says on its own, what the resurrection says on its own, and what each of them say in light of each other’ (Trevor Hart, 2014, p227). And yet, Tolkeins word ‘Euchatastrophe’ fits is is goodness emerging out of tragedy, Jesus death is a tragedy because of what proceeds and succeeds it and their relation to one another. It was no shallow grave. Death was beaten, but death and mourning was experienced it is short term fullness. The tendency to only talk about good news, or to have a happy ending in our testimonies might only extenuate a sense that we are the ones that cannot cope with death.

The sacred story that the church plays within, and where Christ plays in 10,000 places, is one that includes death as part of its life, the two go hand in hand. The reality of death counters any temptations for constant unreal celebration. It is in this reality where many young people might want the church to find them, and be with them in.

I would like to make a number of suggestions for helping deal with death.

  1. Get the young people to bring stories, films, and other TV or video game examples of death, and share what is going on in them, in regard to human life, feelings, and emotions.
  2. Could small groups of young people in years 6,7,8 be given the opportunity to sit at the back of churches at funerals (of people they do not know) as a part of talking about death
  3. Have special all souls services for the under 18’s in the parish. Where they can remember all under 18 who have died in the area, for pets, or even the celebrities/role models that mean something.
  4. Have mock funerals, and maybe arrange to have visits to funeral parlours, or the crematorium (that can be a real shock)
  5. Have death cafes, or evening groups where this subject is advertised and where young people can spend time thinking through death, dying and preparing themselves for what mourning and grieving might involve.

I am sure there are a few other examples too, and some of these might already have been tried. Whilst youth ministry has been often about ‘the life, and life in all its fullness’ a full life might need to have a healthy dose of reality in relation to death in it too, and if this is suppressed, ignored and avoided that might be an issue.  We might set up young people for greater trauma. We might have such an under realised notion of death that the now of the present becomes only all consuming. Life is not lived but consumed, without as much greater purpose. Facing death head on, and having a healthier place to mourn, celebrate, grieve and commemorate might be, and could be one of the key significant aspects of faith based ministry with young people. And the week of Halloween, might just have been the perfect opportunity. (but then we avoid it by having light parties instead..?)

 

References

Trevor Hart, Between the Image and the word, 2014

In such a high expectancy culture – young people are in deficit of empathy more than ever

Think about all the expectations thrust upon a child or a young person:

youll grow up to be like your mum

work hard and youll get good results

what will you do when you grow up

you need to get to university

you need to just cope

you must fit in

you must be different

you must conform

you must look a certain way

you must be busy every night doing something, at a club

you will be deficient without this (the advertisers message)

We expect you in this school to do well (so our league tables look good)

We expect you to behave in this youth club

We expect……………………..(fill in the blanks)

We expect you not to have sex, we expect you to have sex

we want you to fit our agenda, our expectation of this club, this group, this church

Youll make a mess if you do this…

 

And then theres the generational stuff

Millenials ‘X’ and Generation Z ‘Y’ – expectations of the guava shaped cheese straws thatll be ruining snack time for everyone. Or something else. Expectations that as a millenial  you will be like this or that or the other.

Expectations that technology is ruining your life,  and on that technology stuff

do something photo worthy

compare yourself

be likeable

be popular

be successful

sound interesting

achieve

Pressure to expect, expectations of pressure.  I wonder in youthwork and ministry whether theres been the same tendency of expectation

‘come on this trip, you must attend this, ‘weve done something amazing – we think youll like it’

‘what did you think of the mega exciting thing we spend doing for you?’ – expectation to conform, to please. To keep the work or ministry going.

If Shakespeare did say this and it isnt an internet meme, he wasnt far wrong:

Image result for expectation

Hang on for a moment – whatever happened to empathy, respect, listening, compassion? When was the last time we heard or used those words when thinking about working with young people, when starting ‘a project’ or a piece of work. 

Is anyone taking the actual time, to actually listen to young people at all. Take them seriously. Take them respectfully. Be empathetic. Realise that there is a real person inside.

One of my greatest pleasures of being a youthworker was to have time for young people, in a busy organisation with sessions and programmes, I could be the person in between, the one to play pool with or share a coffee, the one who wasnt about expectation or pressure, about programmes, but was about the deep stuff of struggle, of questions, of help. But theres no money in being a youthworker in between anymore. Theres also no money in the mental health provision young people need, because theres no money in being someone who might be able to listen to young people anymore. It does significantly feel as though talk of empathy in youth work and ministry has gone. Replaced by ‘active listening’ but listening that might not go deep enough. But has even professional youthwork got time for empathy? probably, just.

Of course all of this could just be me, and my reflection on where I am at, having managed, supervised and trained a whole load of people to be youth work/volunteers over the last 2-3 years, It also feels like its been a while for me to have sat down, listened and genuinely felt that kind of connection to empathise with a young person. So it could be me out of touch.

But it could also be me, looking at the many 100’s of job losses in youth work. It could be me looking at the 100’s of job losses in teaching and schools struggling as organisations to cope. It could be me looking at youth ministry vacancies, it could be me hearing of 6-12 month waiting lists in mental health queues, it could be me knowing that only communities with high crimes get any attention from statutory youth provision, it could be me in seeing various youth ministry organisations make sweeping generalisations of young people, it could be me when Theresa may says ‘nice try’ when theres a question about cuts to youth provision and its effect on young people. I have written before about how young people have stopped being cared for in the UK, and having no compassion – at least from policy makers and the government. Closer to the ground, do they get any empathy either?

The oft quoted Carl Rogers suggests that empathy requires a number of factors, and non judgementalism is the first thing, stating that it is impossible to be accurately perceptive of anothers inner world if we have formed an evaluative opinion of them (Rogers 1960: 154), because in that judgement we will fail to be accurate of another, understand the other and listen to the feelings, body language and responses by another.

I think we get this, but even a non judgemental approach seems thinly veiled nowadays. Almost old school. And not really said because we want to empathise, more that we dont want to lose out on funding. But what would empathy look like anew in youth work and ministry? What would an empathetic government policy on young people look like? What does non judgement look like when data is used to predict not only class sizes but also educational achievement and ‘predicted grades’ even before a primary school offer is accepted. Where is the empathy then? Where is the opportunity and chance?

Rogers also suggests that students might find themselves in a more appropriate climate for learning when they are in the presence of an understanding teacher.

Being empathetic involves being sensitive, moment by moment to changing felt meanings which flow from the person, from rage, or fear or both. It means temporarily living in anothers life without making judgements, sensing feelings they might not be aware of, communicating senses and pausing to check for accuracy. It involves time, and involves laying aside own views or judgements and values to enter their world without prejudice. (Rogers)

Empathy of this level undoubtedly requires significant effort, significant time, is complex and demanding. It maybe a direction where a shift need to start in, and I know empathy isnt everything, and Rogers is a bit of a dreamer, but maybe we have to dream at least in a compassionate direction. Image result for empathy

And there are many occasions where culture is driving empathy lacking policies, processes and practices in the direction of young people. Empathy isnt everything in the relationship we might have with young people, as youthworkers, teachers or health care, but its pretty clear that the ideology of neo liberalism that places value for money and competitiveness over human dignity and creativity, squeezing time to ensure only the efficient matters, does not stack in the favour of empathy. Neither does the media, generally.

Empathy, isnt just about the soft stuff. In 1972 Carl Rogers also wrote the following:

‘Will the school psychologist be content with the attempt to diagnose and remedy the individual ills created by an obsolete education system with an irrelevant curriculum; or will he insist on having a part in designing an opportunity for learning in which the student’s curiosity can be unleashed and in which the joy of learning replaces the assigned tasks of the prisons we now know as schools?’

It feels as though when young people need it the most, empathy has been sucked out of society like an particularly tarte lemon. Replaced by higher and higher levels of expectation. Replaced by less and less avenues of support, replaced by greater levels of competition, replaces by being the pawns in competitive organisations. Compassion fatigue yes, empathy removal almost certainly. No wonder those who know what youthworkers did in schools found them valuable (but not always valuable enough to pay them to be youthworkers) because, between the gaps there was a space for conversation, reflection, time and listening, and sometimes even empathy.

What steps might be needed to make an empathetic culture that young people grow up in? Am I dreamer… yes, but we’ve got to start a new from somewhere. How can we expect young people to thrive when expectation and pressure is the driver?

 

Rogers Carl, A way of Being, 1980

The Carl Rogers Reader, Kirschenbaum/Henderson

Are young people born since 2000 to be known as the Austerity Generation?

Imagine being 10 and at youth club that evening the leaders pass the bucket around, and ask you to make a cake to sell to keep the youth club going.

Imagine being 11 and the youth club that you went to closing.

Imagine being 12 and your parents have to move house because, after your brother moved out last year, they cant afford to stay in the same house, and they need to be in something with one less bedroom.

Imagine at 12 1/2 having to change school and friendship groups because of this.

Imagine that at 13 your birthday meal has to be got from the foodbank because the universal credit payment didnt come through on time after the house move.

Imagine being 13 and not coping with your new school, and you ask for help and counselling, but no one really though you were serious.

Imagine being 14 and developing an eating disorder

Imagine being 14 and having to wait 6 months for a Camhs referral and appointment.

Imagine being 14 and just having to cope and be told you need more resilience.

Imagine being 15 and trying to cope in school, where there was no let up.

Imagine being 16 and advised to stay in school or college

Imagine being 17 and realising that in college, that you get to do a 1 day timetable in something that you really dont want to do.

Imagine being 17 and the thing you want to do, you cant because the education maintenance allowance doesnt ‘exist anymore’

Imagine being 18 and realising that college might be the answer, but a bus ticket to it is too expensive.

Imagine being this young person.

Imagine that every year since you were 10 you were directly affected by the underfunding of youth services, education, travel, housing, social services, mental health provision, imgine that every year there was a change to be made.

Imagine how that uncertainty might have an effect.

When its not just one thing.

Its been one thing every year.

Imagine that being 14 might have been easier with a youthworker around.

Imagine that being 16 might have been easier with a youthworker around to help think through education choices or help realise dreams and potential.

There will be 17 year olds, who for the last 7 years all they have experiences is something that had, being taken away. Something they want that might be good for them being out of reach, something that used to exist not being there anymore, something that makes their already challenging life even more difficult to try and reach. I guess thats tough love by the tory government, or just tough luck.

Imagine thinking that it wasnt just your postcode that you feel left out in, but that its the wrong time in the world to be a young person.

Imagine how being 10 was a time of hope, of dreaming and of looking forward to the rest of life with excitement. Imagine having all of that dashed by austerity cuts.

Imagine being blamed because you’re now a bored teenager who hangs around the town.

It isnt what you dreamed for. what you wanted. But dreams are dangerous now.

Imagine that you are still the problem.

Imagine that no one still wants to listen.

Imagine being shunted from one 6 week course to another.

Imagine being in between. Out of one home, not in another.

When a secondary school teacher in a Northern Secondary school said to me a few weeks ago;

‘Young people perceive that no one cares about them’

‘Children and young people deserve investment, they have been at the rough end of austerity’

‘They are vulnerable first and foremost, they need people who care and then be alongside them’

They might just be right.

Yet, that doesnt seem to matter to the current government.

In a discussion at the UK prime ministers questions yesterday there was the following exchange:

Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)

Q7. Last year, a quarter of young people thought about suicide, and one in nine attempted suicide. Young people are three times more likely to be lonely than older people. Knife crime is up, and gang crime is up. There are fewer opportunities for young people than ever before—68% of our youth services have been cut since 2010—with young people having nowhere to go, nothing to do and no one to speak to. Is it now time for a statutory youth service, and will the Prime Minister support my ten-minute rule Bill after Prime Minister’s questions? [905633]

The Prime Minister- Theresa May
I think “Nice try” is the answer to the hon. Gentleman, but he said that there were fewer opportunities for young people here in this country. May I just point out to him the considerable improvement there has been in the opportunities for young people to get into work and the way in which we have seen youth unemployment coming down?

Whilst the question may not have got to the hub of the whole matter and the situation facing many young people who have now experienced 7 years of austerity, and have a firm grip of how their lives are and have been affected. It is as true to say that the response from the Prime Minister is one who has no idea on what 8 years of targetted cuts that have affected families may have had on young people.

Young people still the brunt of the cut backs. Still demonised by the press. They deserve much better. Even just to catch up with what young people 10 years had the benefit of, no not the benefit of, the right to have.

‘Nice try’ – even the question about young people is belittled in response.

Its as if no one is pretending to try, and helping young people to survive is a mish mash of agencies scrambling around for the crumbs off the plate. The gaps are huge and many are falling through.

‘Nice Try’ nah when it comes to young people, this government have barely tried. And dont even start on NCS.

Mark Smith has written this piece at length on the http://www.infed.org site detailing all the research and reports which indicate the effect of austerity policy on young people education. Harrowing. austerity affecting young peoples wellbeing and education

How might churches communicate to young people that church really is a healthy place for them?

Most church websites, when talking about young people say something like this:

We have lots for our young people to get involved with. From mid week groups to mentoring we’re passionate about walking alongside the youth to help equip them in their personal lives.

or

Our Connect Groups meet in _______ for all aged 10-17yrs old. Great fun, with food and talking about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

or, now and again, the section on youth and children may even include aspects of policies:

______welcomes children and young people into the church. At our 10:15 service on a Sunday morning we have a range of groups catering for all ages from 0 to 18 years. We also have a range of mid-week groups.

See more about the groups and events we have for chilren (under 10s) and youth (10s and over) by browsing the tabs on the left.  All our groups work within social service guidelines for adult:child ratios and our volunteers are regulated through the Diocesan Child Protection Scheme.

_____Protection of children and vulnerable adults policy is linked with the Diocese of Durham Safeguarding document available here. (and then a link is provided)

And though these three examples arent completely representative, two were large anglican churches and one a charismatic church in the north east, they are three of the larger churches that might be able to put more resources into keeping a website updated. If I was a young person, what i would hear from these website is that my only access to be included in a church is though being part of groups or services. Activity and being busy is the connection with faith and the church. And in the main, it is good to know what is on offer. Thats what the website is all about.

Some churches want to let everyone know what they think about young people, often saying that ‘here at _____ church we think youth are amazing’ , or that ‘we believe young people are a chosen generation and ready to be raised up to win hearts for Jesus’, though i am not sure that this jargon isnt going to put some young people off, less make them curious.

One of the things that the Fuller Youth Institute identified about a church that was able to keep young people, in their research of over 1500 churches over 4 years,  that had 15 year olds in them, was that church was a healthy place, that took young persons intelligence and critical thinking seriously and where faith became meaningful for them. (The link to the research is here on this post of mine in this site: https://wp.me/p2Az40-NP )

So, in thinking about creating and being a healthy place for young people – i wonder what does the church website communicate about young people- and how the church is a healthy place for them? (and yes a website isnt everything, but it can be an entrance point)

As someone who is meeting young people on the streets with all kind of questions, and concerns about their life, faith, identity and sexuality, through being involved in detached youthwork projects – I guess I would want to be able to know – and so that young people could see from the church website whether they might be accepted or welcome into the church if

  • They were struggling with mental health or depression
  • They had a disability
  • They were diagnosed with ADHD (as an example)
  • They were LGBT and identified as being part of the LGBT community and also wanted to explore faith.
  • They didnt like being part of groups

as a few examples, there are others.

And if a church is active in sharing its inclusiveness- especially via its website-  then its going to be easier for a young person, or a young persons friend to feel as though the church is thinking and ready to accept them within it, regardless. And if theres something said on the website, it also communicates to a young person that the church has discussed and thought through the specific ‘issue’ (if LGBT is seen as an issue). It communicates confidence, as well as inclusion.

A church might say it welcomes all, but for young people especially, this might need to be more specific, and should be.

Moving on to other matters; What else might a church website communicate about young people? And communicate about its community and attitude that it might be practically for young people? could it include things like:

  1. Come along and be challenged to try a radical lifestyle of self denial and a faith that is controversial? 
  2. In this church we welcome young people who have tons of questions!
  3. If you’re here longer than 6 weeks be prepared to get involved and serve (we want you to be part of what we do) 
  4. We love to give you new space to try new things – especially that help you show Gods love to the local community
  5. Dont worry if you have doubts – we all do – just come along and join in finding out more together
  6. Oh and we all fail, so just give things a go – thats what we’re all about

again, i would think that there might be more things that could be added- but what might be the kind of messages that could be communicated to young people on the church website – to say that church is a healthy place – a place for curiosity, participation, questions and doubt and connectedness.

At the very least, as one church did do, mentioning something about how the church is making steps to ensure that those who work with children and young people are adequately disclosure /dbs checked is a good thing. It should be a bare minimum – but what about other policies that a church could communicate about how it works with young people – such as confidentiality, inclusion of aspects said above, or even a complaints policy/whistle blowing policy for children, and young people and parents to be able to make complaints should they need to. All part of a transparency to a point, and creating a healthy space for young people.

Then, how else might church be a healthy space?

  • how or who decides that groups change or end – that affect young people
  • might young people be avoided of embarrassment factor – being asked to do services from the age of 12 unless they want to
  • where peer groups can stay together – regardless of age
  • where young people can develop their gifts – not just pigeon holed into what the church needs doing
  • and they were not pressurised to do the thing that the leaders want them to do, because its what the lleaders feel is how faith is/was expressed – ie the worship youth event, or the summer festival – when there are other alternatives to being together and connecting spiritually.

And again, i would think there were other things, for churches to think about in terms of how they might be healthy (and challenging, meaningful) places for and with young people to participate and be disciples of Jesus in. The fuller research also identified other examples take a look at the report.

What do you think – how else might a church communicate, that it is trying to create a healthy space for young people? And let young people know more than just the activities on offer in a church.

Some of the inspiration of this post is from  the book ‘4 views on pastoring LGBT teens’ , a copy of which can be ordered here: http://www.gemmadunning.com/p/4-views-on-pastoring-lgbtq-teenagers.html

What do we expect teenagers to be made of, a substance tougher than steel?

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I saw this quote doing the rounds on Facebook today. Excuse its language. But dont excuse its sentiment.

On one hand we could argue that young people in the 80’s and 90’s didnt have it too badly – and I should know i was one of them. Politicians got headlines for peace deals, climate change caused action, peace was a hopeful reality i large parts of the world. There were EMA grants, nearly free higher education, still a general reality that post university meant employment, house prices were going up, but a 2-3 bedroom house in areas north of sheffield might still be ‘only’ £40,000. And the rest.

And so, those who grew up optimistic in the 90’s, maybe had it too good. or too easy. Previous generations had it easy in comparison. Even those in the 1990’s, at least they had hope. In the main.

Fast forward to today. All the things that might have been an issue for teenagers in the 80s or 90s are still there, but multiplied. There’s double the advertising on TV with its 40 extra channels, online and on screens – with all the worry about life and expectation this causes. The News is an always open door to constant fear. The financial cut backs are extraordinary and yet the expectations on young people are higher – or shall i say the expectations on schools to be performing and have high performing pupils is greater than ever. To the point that those left behind and being actually left behind, left out and notionally excluded. When outcomes and targets rule, then humanity and inclusion falls way short.

Then there’s the cut backs on all the funding for young people to actually get support to cope in this situation. mental health and social work budgets slashed, and open youth clubs eradicated all together. And it is left to the voluntary and faith sectors to pick up the pieces, but doing so whilst also competing for funding and being in a similarly perilous state. (whilst the budget for HS2 or trident is secure seemingly).

So – where does that leave the young person? – Does society view them as the victim in all of this? the oppressed even. 

Nope. If anything the young person is to blame for all this. Those bloody millenials ruining it for the rest of us. Generalise and blame thats the strategy of the media, but initiate self reflection on the current holders of power….

Blame the phone, not blame society that created that need, or the adults who foisted it into existence and made implicit demands on parents to pay for ‘an essential’.

So – what do we think young people are made of to cope in all of this? 

Well – not enough resilience for one. (hence all the resilience classes)

Not enough confidence ( hence all the ‘self confidence classes’)

And yes, these are needed. And not just for the teachers.

as if its all an individual young persons fault. Young people are having to cope with so much more than ever before, and doing so without the hope that things will improve. Society expects young people to cope within all of this. Its not surprising that so many struggle. What if it wasnt just about coping and surviving as a young person.

I wonder if young people might collectively rise up and challenge, critique and get passionate about the systems that are causing so much damage to them and their peers.

Things that help a young person, Goals, Self worth (ability + competance), Purpose and Value (Bryan, 2016) – if any of these start to be affected, then they will start to struggle. So, therapy might help to help a young person talk through coping through these. But fundamentally the sources of these things need to also be dealt with. Blame Neoliberalism, but a new system needs to be created – one that is more human/humane, and the rest. But if a young persons purpose and value is wrapped up in ‘things’ or ‘image’ or ‘popularity’ – then its no wonder that they are stressed, worried. But that isnt new – the only difference is the current speed of change or intensity. The main difference is fear caused by the news, inequality between rich/poor, deficiencies in the education system (especially 16+) but also the efficiency drive, and also limited hope economically – where only the strong might survive…

What might young people be expected to be made of?

Filters that are sensitive to fake news

Resilience to cope with oppression, abuse and uncertainty

An internal buoyancy to be able to react positively to fear

An innocence of humanity to see beyond divisive politics

A Hopefulness of spirit to maintain motivation in school

A self confidence to be both an individual and like everyone else

To be able to glide effortlessly through being a teenager, ready packaged and prepared for the ‘breeze’ that is ‘being an adult.. or alternatively – does any of this really change that much…

Teenagers – Adults, we might need to learn about how they cope with it all, we might need the same lessons. Well pretty much anyone working within ‘people’ related jobs has had to sharpen up their armour in the last 10 years. Coping working with humans and enabling their flourishing in a neo-liberal world, from teachers, nurses, social workers, youthworkers (if any are left) – all subject to ridiculous efficiency, cuts and demands, outcomes – all to the exclusion of breadth, inclusion, time and care. All to the exclusion of the purity of professions and vocations and just bad management and policies. Its no wonder young people are blamed, for to say that society has a responsibility – might mean funding those who work with them properly.

Developing Hope Inspiring Relationships


For the best part of the last 6 years, I have had this quotation on my desk.

I originally got it when I attended two days training on Mental Health Recovery, run by Perth & Kinross council, and at the time there was alot of free training available.

As a detached youthworker, I have always found validity in learning from other disciplines and thinking as to how people are, whether it is psychology, sociology, and so, to develop an understanding of Mental Health, and its recovery was of valuable insight. It was training attended not just by other professionals, but also persons in recovery.

As a youthworker, there was much in the discussions that was of use. But it was this summary of the kind of relationships that inspire people to have Hope that struck me. And it immediately resonated with the kind of relationships that we, as youthworkers, might seek to have with young people.

I think when working on the streets, it can be difficult to see hope, let alone enable young people who might be drowning the end of their week at school in alcohol to see hope also. Yet, for every conversation might be littered with a sparkle that hope is a possibility.

For, in a way, there is much talked about ‘relationships’ in Youth work ( especially youth ministry), actually, you dont have to go far to find references to ‘building’ relationships as the crux of youth ministry practice. See for example, Pete Ward (1996), Nigel Pimlott (2008) Dean Borgman ( 1999), though some of the relationship talk is criticised by Griffiths (2011) , and Root in revisiting relational youth ministry (2007)  takes another stab at the same sort of subject.

Thinking about relationships has also permeated, though not to the same extent, within the tribe of youthwork, in 1965, Geotschius and Tash (who else) suggested that a relationship is ‘a connection between two people in which some sort of exchange takes place’ , Huw Blacker, in youthwork practice ( Jeffs and Smith) describes how relationships a purposeful, as they share information, they are opportunities to promote learning and are defined predominately by the context that they occur. So different relationships occur between young people and youthworkers depending if they occur in the church, the streets or the school.  What it seems to me, is that Youth Ministry is based upon relationships, but the details of them are lacking- its just ‘what happens’ ,  And youth work provides the details of the relationship and seeks to put it in sociological context.

I think that is why I like this above summary.

All our Youth work & Ministry is about the business of transforming, and to do this we need to inspire young people to Hope, to Dream and to seize possibilities. So, from the streets, to the cafes, to the groups, as youthworkers we dont take lightly the privilege of spending time, and building a positive relationship with a young person. We are probably inspiring hope without realising it. If developing Hopeful relationships is what is needed within mental health recovery, then it is worth developing within core youthwork practice too.

(I am thinking that ‘tolerating uncertainty’ in the future is about the short term exploring and improvisation – rather than not having faith or long term certainty)

A previous post on maintaining a hopeful perspective in youth ministry is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-10b