Start the new year remembering to focus on the ‘you’ part of your youthwork

Starting 2019 ; Start with thinking about you

This piece starts with a look at boundaries and how in faith based youthwork these can be blurred, causing a number of challenges, and at times not knowing how to react to a desire for professionalism and yet maintain relationships. This leads me to reflect on self care and how the same ‘blurriness’ of ‘vocation’ and ‘profession’ causes similar challenges to the person of the youthworker.

Firstly boundaries

Once derided for its amateurness compared to its ‘secular cousin’ state based youth work, Faith based youthwork has undergone a considerable transformation over the last 30 years. With the rise of qualifications, and professionalism, there has been a concerted increase in ensuring that faith based youth work has rigorous adherence with policies, procedures and guidelines, including child protection, health and safety and also boundaries. In the main, it has to be concluded that if this increased awareness and policy implementation has made our practices safer and healthier for young people then this is undoubtedly a good thing. However, we might reflect that faith based contexts are different to ‘non faith based contexts’ in a number of ways, and as such it could be accused that faith based contexts have almost gone too far in regard to policies and practices and lost some of their distinctiveness.

Yet at the same time, issues about personal boundaries regarding vocation, self care and sustaining our ministry and personal lives still remain. We might ask;

Q: What are the personal boundaries that you might need to manage if your house is the venue for the ‘young peoples’ homegroup ?

Compare your responses to this, when it is fairly unlikely that any young people will even know where the secular youth worker even lives or would even disclose this to young people.

The reason for suggesting this, is that if we’re not careful the aspects of faith based work, such as meeting in homes, might become lost, because of a desire of adherence to policies that are meant for places of employment.

Though at the same time, this is not that we are not aware of the risks and boundary issues of hosting a home based youth discussion evening, but these might be better managed to create a homely vibe and open discussion, something that the cold church hall may not be able to offer. So, whilst there is definitely a desire to ensure safety and that our practices cant be regarded as amateur, we would also do well to reflect on spaces where there is a distinctive approach open to a faith group, that shouldn’t be eradicated by a drift toward professionalism, but that it does need to be managed appropriately. If you are thinking of running a young peoples home-group, what would you need to consider? Both for you as the host, volunteers and also the young people who attend; in regard to boundaries?

Faith based contexts do operate from a different ethical framework, with a sacred text having a higher regard than what might be seen as beaurocratic policies, and yet on another hand policies and frameworks for practice have now been adopted by churches in the last 30 years then have often been reactionary, like government policies in the national arena, to incidents of child abuse such as the Victoria Climbie case. This is in no way to suggest that churches can relax about safety regarding children and protecting them, and this is crucial, and having policies to protect children is vital.

But this does not mean to say that some of the key practices of a faith context, such as a home group cannot happen. We might need to careful in fully adopting policies and frameworks meant for larger organisations, for schools or for secular youth work provision, and spend time developing our own, and those that reflect both the youthwork and faith values of our own organisation.

As a consequence setting and being aware of personal boundaries is a challenge. For, the nature of the youth and community work that you do is not restricted to the one building, even the church, and as a youth worker we do work within an emerging and often invisible set of values and guidelines which distinguish us from the teacher, doctor or social worker.

From a theological perspective we have used words like ‘incarnational’ and ‘relational’ to describe the style and nature of the youthwork that we do, we can often then be tempted to negate thinking about boundaries for our own sake, our long term sustainability and increase aspects of burnout and stress.

We might want to follow in the footsteps of pioneers before us, but we need to recognise that we are probably very new in the field and just learning our trade. Even the pioneers, yes even Jesus, did not spend every waking hour in the company of the crowds, or even his disciples, being relational and incarnational does not mean acting self sacrificially to the detriment of ourselves and negating personal boundaries.

But, and this is crucial, one key aspect of youth work is the ongoing professional relationship[1] this means that there may need to be continual negotiation of boundaries so that there is a professional relationship maintained, and that young people neither build up co-dependence, or are kept at such a distance that the relationship is meaningless.

Some of these questions were first recorded by George Goetchius and Joan Tash in 1964, in the write up (published in 1967) of their emerging youthwork in inner city London on the streets. As the team of volunteers started to encounter young people, the supervision and training that they developed focused on four different aspects of the work, the first being team work, the second defining the problem, the third aspect of the training they developed for youthwork focused on the aspects of the youth work relationship, as they asked the following questions:

  • What is a relationship?
  • How does it come about and why?
  • What can go wrong?
  • Why do the young people need relationships with us? [2]

We might also add the question: ‘Why do we want to have relationships with young people?’ and be honest about this. It is imperative that we think about our role, our intentions as youthworkers, and also the nature, style and objectives of the relationships that are built between us and young people, as reflecting on this will help us to understand what it is we are trying to and also who we are trying to be, with young people. If we understand what kind of relationship we, and our volunteers are trying to create with young people, its function, purpose and how this might be coherent with its nature, then we might find it easier to identify where issues might arise regarding personal boundaries.

Moving on to Self care – looking after the you of the youthworker in 2019;

In her chapter ‘Sustaining ourselves and our enthusiasm’ Carole Pugh[3] recognises the stress and challenge of being involved in youthwork, and the emotionally draining nature of relationships, of the complexity of decision making and management, and she gives a number of suggestions which may help us to sustain ourselves.

Firstly, Be aware of the pressure points. Youthwork can occur with few resources, limited long term security, ill equipped buildings and unpredictable volunteers and young people. As Pugh says a sense of hopelessness can lead to fatalism, it can be difficult to remain hopeful (Pugh, 2010, p145), and this can lead to cynicism or retreat to the ‘golden age’. As youthworkers we need to sustain a youthfulness that is hopeful and transforming, being fatalistic, is not in the best interests of young people. Sustaining ourselves means sustaining our outlook.

Secondly, Pugh suggests that we are more likely to sustain ourselves if we know ourselves, who we are, our intentions, capabilities and self awareness in regard to shaping and building relationships (as stated above). It is important to know why we might lose heart when we do, to identify the causes. Pugh suggests that we need to hear the ‘inner youth worker’ taking time and space to find, listen and to understand ourselves. A key area that Pugh identifies as a mechanism, to help in this process is to have good supervision which can help with coping, sharing the problem and creating strategies for overcoming. It could be something more practical that causes us to struggle, it is fairly likely that you will work in a cold office, but if you end up working for 3 or 4 days a week in a cold office in a building on your own, then this may be as or more challenging that the situation of the holiday club where the church is busy for the entire 5 days.

Another aspect to manage, is how we prioritise the tasks that we have, from the tasks that could be daunting, challenging and difficult, which might be funding bids, trustee meetings, strategy document making or reports, and whilst this might not sound like managing boundaries, sustaining ourselves is a key factor in sustaining ourselves, and if we are able to sustain ourselves which is something we can take some responsibility for, we might be in a better position as youthworkers to create the kind of relationships we want to if we begin to create examples of how and who we are in our practice. As Christians we might pride ourselves with trying to want to have some kind of moral integrity and aim towards this, and this needs to be shown in how we manage ourselves, tasks and being aware of our own strengths and weaknesses.

The complexity of Self care & Boundaries in faith based youth work

A helpful section on Boundaries within faith based youthwork is written by Simon Davies, within a chapter ‘The Management of Faith based youth work’ in Jon Ords edited text ‘Critical Issues in Youth work management’ (2012). In his chapter, Davies suggests that the notion of ‘Calling’ and ‘Vocation’ as one of the key factors that link a persons identity, values and aspirations with the occupation that they choose, and this has a resonance with how in a faith setting Christian faith based youth workers relate to their personal values and work life, but at the same time this can present complexities which require managing, especially where there is a separation or overlap of the following:

  1. The geographic community where the work is situated within
  2. The geographic community where the worker lives within
  3. The field of the personal (ie being in relationship with others, with young people)
  4. The field of the professional (the functions of the workplace)
  5. The field of the personally held ultimate beliefs (what the worker believes)
  6. The faith community (the public expression of commonly held ultimate beliefs)

Davies suggests, as was intimated above, that the professionalization of some aspects of faith based youth work has encouraged the separation of personal life and professional work, however this is not always the case, and for a youth work based almost entirely in a church/faith community based setting it will likely to be a frequent occurrence where many of these (and other aspects of boundaries) will overlap. It is nearly always preferable or expected that a worker live within the geographical area of the church building, not far from schools or even where young people live themselves, it may also be expected that a worker make use of their home or office as a point of contact with young people. When these situations occur, not only might boundaries be blurred, they may even cease to exist[4]

There can easily become a real difficulty in having such a dynamic congruence between ones fundamental beliefs and working life. As one worker put it:

‘if our vocation is central to your sense of identity, then difficulties within your vocation are going to have an impact on your sense of self, and vice versa’ (Richards, 2005: 141, from Davies, 2012).

Davies also suggests, building from research, that the over mixing of ‘work self’ and the ‘personal self’ can have significant impacts upon mental health and well being, especially if achievement, role and function become the centre ground in a persons life, rather than being in relationship. The often result of this is stress and burnout. This can also be revealed through being in a leadership position where affection is received from followers and those whom a youth worker has authority over, and this becomes the source of their sustenance.

As a faith based youth worker – what are you responsible for?

Managing professional and personal identity is an ongoing process, and supervision and line management is a necessary component in increasing youth workers awareness of the boundaries of their responsibilities and their well being. It is to be encouraged that you ensure as a new youth worker that you put in place good line management for yourself, and suggest that discussions about boundaries, time management, workload and relationships occur in line management, (and if not in some external professional supervision) especially as the immersion of young peoples lives and involvement in the Christian community that is often expected of a faith based worker.

By virtue of a comparison, the same research, by Lake (1960)[5] in reverse can actually help us especially in faith based Christian youth work.

Whitehead writes that instead of being sustained by achievement and status, we might see and hopefully reflect on Jesus who was sustained instead by his relationship with his Father, and his sense of confidence, status and achievement flowed out of this. An unhealthy ministry might prioritise a sense of achievement, status and popularity, and seek these through giving unconditionally, trying to please and comparing a ministry with others. Having an acceptance that our sense of acceptance comes not from ministry but from our relationship with God, and that we are created by God and have an eternal purpose that whilst requires action, is not subject to earning love or approval. Growing in our security of God and our relationship with him, and attending to the relationships we have with family and friends needs to be the source of how we are sustained. This is also a vital message with which to share with young people, as it is a healthy foundation of ministry[6]. Get this right, and it will become far easier to identify in ourselves and in others where there are un-healthy boundaries, as often these will be revealed as a consequence of trying to do ministry as a way of gaining acceptance , approval or connection and could be detrimental to themselves or others.

Oh and before you think im only lecturing, re reading this stuff over the last few weeks has been hugely helpful and therapeutic to me.

A few concluding notes: 

We might reflect that the stuff that looks like acceptance, status and popularity, are in a way negated with a closer adherence to what we might describe as ‘youthwork values’ – for if we truly are about empowering others, then our invisibility should be noted, not our desire to be visible, dominant and surround ourselves with gatherings, and find our ego massaged by numbers of people. As well, if we value individuals (again a youth work value) then this as a precedent looks closer to a sacrificial and humble attitude to put others first, a not unlike Biblical imperative. The danger then the issues in our self care and boundaries might be less to do with faith, or values, but the ecclesial practices and expectations of numbers gatherings and popularity, evident in some parts of youth ministry.

Its is as pertinent, that the very things that are indicators of poor self care, are emphasised by competitive and outcomes orientated funded and programmes. If projects and ministries are measured and managed by numbers, attendance then these overtake any sense of values, theology and ministry to individuals, often, and might even then exacerbate poor self care and being able to do this. Making ministry less humane, might make is worse for the ministers doing it too. If Management processes and outcomes are less about the human behind the number, then self care for the minister might become even more of an issue. And when i say minister i mean youth minister as well.

Its a long one to start the year, but I am convinced that in Ministry and practice with young people, with any people, we need to look after ourselves, recognise the aspects of our work that cause stress and put us into places where our self care may be about to be tested.

And finally I think this is beautiful from Howard Sercombe:

“At the heart of a good youth worker is a beautiful spirit, a quality of connection that is positive, hopeful, good. It is often that this is transformative, projecting a possibility that young people can see for a way that is different. But the situations that youth workers have to deal with are often not beautiful; we often confront horrifying neglect or abuse, disturbing levels of violence, naked hard core damage to people that we care for and respect, the wanton waste of human life. A youth workers quality of spirit needs to be nurtured, maintained and protected, the most important resource for the young people you work with… is you; intelligent, wise, compassionate, engaged, skilful, insightful, well informed, well connected, articulate, creative, productive, confident you. Creating and maintaining this beast in the midst of high pressure and often poor resource provision needs work and constant attention” (Sercombe H, 2010, p168-169)

Start 2019, not just with the youth programme sorted until Easter, but also the programme that looks after you, beautiful, intelligent, creative youthworker.

This article was derived from a piece I recently wrote for CYM on this subject, It was published a week ago via my patreon site: and so if you would like to receive my posts early, you can do so via that platform.


[1] Sercombe, Howard, The Ethics of Youthwork, 2010, p27

[2] Goetschius G, Tash J, Working with the Unnattached, 1967, pp242-244, Routledge and Kegan Paul Publishing, Liverpool

[3] Pugh, Carole, Sustaining ourselves and our Enthusiasm in Jeffs T, Smith M (eds) Youth work Practice , Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

[4] Davies Simon, The Management of Faith Based youthwork, pp148-161 in Ord, Jon (eds) Critical Issues in Youth work Management, Routledge, Oxford, 2012

[5] This is referred to both Davies, Simon, and Whitehead/Nash (below)

[6] Jo Whitehead, Sally Nash, Ten Essential Concepts for Christian Youth work, Grove Booklet, Y40, 2015


10 mistakes that hinder youth ministry that can be changed!

I imagine you have heard the old joke:

How Many Youthworkers does it take to change a lightbulb?


why 100?

Well its 1 of them to change the lightbulb and 99 to write papers on coping in the darkness.

As I thought a little about this, I wondered whether there are other aspects of youthwork and ministry that we as youthworkers might be as guilty of, that at the same time as youthworkers we have to capacity to change.

  1. Proclaiming the darkness, without trying to change the lightbulb (something I wrote about here:
  2. Over Egging our own pudding things like : ‘Yes, church leader, get a youthworker with (insert organisation name) and we’ll be bringing the young people into church by the thousands, we are the answer to your problem’.
  3. Under egging our own pudding, things like ; ‘This was nothing to do with the youthworker, it was all God, or all the young people’- sometimes we do need to allow ourselves positive feedback, as often no one else might do. Its an unhealthy thing not to take some positive credit for our calling, ministry and actions in the moment, blaming ourselves for the crap moments (or others) and yet deferring every positive to God is really unhealthy.
  4. Making Youthministry Amazing again. Blowing our own trumpet is one thing, using the word amazing to describe it, as an enticement for others on the starting point – when at the same time the budget cuts and long term sustainability in the role is truly awful. It is not an amazing thing all the time, and can we use other adjectives in job descriptions instead of ‘exciting’…
  5. Not looking after ourselves. This time last year I wrote alot on self care in ministry (check out the articles in the search engine) but in a ministry where our satifasfaction is usually to help and support others we can neglect ourselves, boundaries, time and other relationships, let alone health, exercise and spiritual inner life. We can do something about this, by managing ourselves.
  6. Dropping the books post college; Ongoing reflective practice with young people demands that we keep ourselves sharp. If we want young people to have a deep faith, deep experience of life then they need to see that in us too. We need to equip ourselves with knowledge and believe that thinking and reading is important. If a fall back is to keep things simple for them, because its all we can cope with then, young people will find somewhere else to find depth. Without maintaining reading we have less to fall back on, and brains that start going stale.
  7. Liking our Hero status too much in our own Ministry; A level of ‘expert power’ is likely to be transferred from others to the lead worker, the professional or paid person who has arrived with great fanfare to spin the deep magic and rescue the church/young people. It is likely to be transferred as it is almost normal. As youth workers can we guilty of liking our hero status too much? When this gets in the way of young people or volunteers being participants, or developing the skills and opportunities for others. Or holding onto more jobs that we need to, so that we can be heroic…
  8. Only being critical, and not being constructive. It is easy working out what we dont want to do, what we dont want to be, how we’re not like others who work with young people, how we might see young people differently to others, how we’re not liberal, or not prosletysing, or not a short term fix, or not shallow or complicated – this is easy, and we , and i include myself (critical/satirical blogs get higher views, constructive theological ones dont) in this – but constructive pathways encourage others to join in, critical ones turn others off. We have something to say, we have a way of working that is positive and values young people, we are to dream and pursue a positive dream (even in the midst of the darkness, or where others dont see it) .
  9. Believing Bigger is better- and draining in expectation- Once we start playing the numbers game, its the numbers game that people will judge us on, once young people stay consumers and us entertainers (see my posts on participation) then the responsibility is on us to entertain, attract, grow and that pressure is immense and without a cure, except burn out and spinning a hamster wheel that is tiring. And then when youthworkers talk and proclaim ministry, numbers can be the core definer. This is also linked to the comparison trap, your young people and group need not be compared with others.
  10. Blaming everyone else, As Naomi Thompson in young people and the church since 1900 highlighted, there can be a tendency for churches to defer responsibility, and so as youthworkers in the church this can also be the case. Its the parents fault, its the elders fault, its the schools fault, its Gods fault (because I prayed), when all the time, its my line managers fault, ‘everyone else needs to ‘get’ what Im doing’. We need to be more self aware and take responsibility, and actually our poor practice or reliance on methods or decision making is our responsibility, sometimes we cant blame others, but when youthworkers get together, there can be a collective blame thing going on.

Some of these might be common in other ministries, especially the numbers game, and possibly even the limited positive feedback. Culturally every ministry role in the church times or other publication is being described as ‘Amazing’ or ‘Exciting’ so its not just the youthworker problem this. As youthworkers, and ministers we do need to look after oursleves, but also have agency an responsibility to enact some of the changes we want to make, challenge where necessary and develop new cultures of working where we can.

Guest Post: ‘Youth Leader: you are worth investing in!’

Youth leader, did you know you were worth investing in?

In this important post, Andy Wilson from Roll the Rock, discusses the issues that might arise if youth workers are not invested in, and also suggests how there is a pay off from investing a youthworker in how they are able to thrive in developing and connecting with young people. 

So much of social media asks for investment into work, investment into resources, and money for all sorts of things, but why is it we ask for the money, but neglect the leader/leaders who will be taking care of the budget and the teams?  surely if we are to see a longterm investment in young people, we need to see a long-term investment into those people who are leading!

There still does appear to be an understanding, or an opinion that the youth leader is there as a leader, and therefore needs to get on and do what they are meant to do!  Expectations run high from many people in terms of working with young people, but who asks the questions of how the youth leader is? How are they emotionally? When are they resting? How are they coping? who blesses, or treats the youth leader, and in very simple terms, ensures that they are valued and doing ok in their roll?

it is true to say that youth leaders are able to stay in their role for longer now, than maybe has been the case for a while, but the pressures remain, the expectations remain, the questions remain, and the mental battles, spiritual struggles, emotional weaknesses all still remain and are what the youth leader lives with, with so much of their life.

surely it is time, for the Church, to recognise those who have been in youth work for some considerable time, understood the context of the work, and are able to speak into, and share in the struggles of the youth leader, and release them into a roll of coaching, supporting, mentoring for those leaders around them?  But not only is it important for the Church to recognise the need for these kind of people in youth leaders lives, but it is also important for youth leaders to recognise the importance of having someone like this in their life?  As people start out on the youth work journey, it is often seen as an exciting adventure, a powerful position, and a place to enjoy, but sometimes there can also be that feeling, of “I have made it”, and not needing anyone else around us, to support, or ask the questions!  Image result for mentor

Investment should be seen as a positive thing, a valuing thing, a supportive thing, that enables longevity, and flourishing for the youth leader.  They are not just meant to survive, but thrive in who they are, and what they do.

Investment in them for who they are, recognises them first, and strengthens their identity, which has to come first, before what they do.  their worth and value is found in who they are in Christ, not in how many young people they have brought before Christ!

I am so fortunate to have the same person investing in me over the last 21 years.  they are so valuable, and taught me a precious lesson as i started out.  “always have a teachable heart!”  I wonder how many of us have a teachable heart? A heart that is open to others speaking into it, and how much does the Church value those who are able to do this?  Investment is exactly that, an investment, for growth, for development, it is not a withdrawal, but an investment, and needs to be seen as such, understood as such, and appreciated/valued as such.

Andy Wilson heads up ‘Roll the Rock’ a christian youthwork organisation in Harrogate: Details here:  They specialise in supporting, resourcing and investing in youth leaders and workers across Yorkshire. He can be contacted via

A follow up question might be, is that churches might be keen to be investing in their young people by recruiting a youth leader, but at the same time, as Naomi Thompson suggests in her recent publication, this is indicative of a consumer mindset, in which they worker is just imported in to get on with it. Young people, according to her research, valued wider church involvement, in volunteering and participating and have mutual relationships. Without more involvement or investment beyond finances, churches stand accused of only economically valuing young people, and young people as consumers to be ‘entertained’ (Thompson, 2018, p191) I am hopeful that this is not always the case, i am also hopeful that there is more of an understanding about self care, about youthwork management, and supervision than there used to be. There is information on all of these issues on this site (see categories/menus). A challenge might be is that ‘efficiency’ might mean that employers of youthworkers might wait until its too late to put support in place- rather than think ahead..

Working with young people is stressful – its just part of the job.

Ive got to admit, in my ‘professional’ time involved in working with young people, the stereoptypical 60 hours a week, mega stressed out youth minister role has passed me by. Its role i have seen at close hand, but it isnt a role I have done. Within this kind of role, i can only imagine, trying to stay sane might be needed at a number of pinch points… just after the deacons meeting, or indeed, that stressful 60 hour week that accompanies another. 

It might be the way that I am wired, but its not been the busy times for me that challenge the most. Its the long drawn out summers with no activities, the future uncertainties of funding, when you feel like you’re on your own – either physically in an office, or having to pretend to be agreeing with people when deep inside you think ‘its not going to work’ or ‘thats just missing the point, by a long way’ , and having to think this when its the organisation you work for, or your line manager that could be a cause of stress, as they change from strategy to strategy. Then theres emails, pressure to ‘grow’ groups, pressure to succeed and ‘have good stories’, a different kind of stress.

There are pinch points within every job, im sure, but im not a teacher, an office worker or police officer, and so have only the experience of being involved in working with young people. And it is a tough gig. High expectations from a number of avenues, though not always from young people (who might not care that you exist). High level of expertise needed in the role – but not always actually listened to when its needed, high levels of short term contracts, and also hugely seasonal and unpredictable work.  It isnt a blueprint for calm and tranquility. Less ‘lead me by the still still water’ (that other people seem to have) and more ‘Help Jesus Im drowning’.

I have no way of knowing the ways in which you react to situations in your youth ministry. All i will share with you are a few pointers that ive learned over the last few years. The first is that our emotions are linked to our motivations. Its obvious on one hand, but we’re more likely to be emotional about things that we care about, or that we have invested in because it gives us identity, a goal or meaning. If you want to read more – see Jocelyn Bryans book ‘The Human Being’ , i think this is important, as we not only start to realise the things we care about and how we care about them, but recognise this by our emotional reactions. We also do this with others. So when we start to get emotional, and that can be anger, upset,withdrawal and on a repeated basis then we might need to ask whether we might be investing too much into the ministry. It happens. Or even into ‘our calling’ (the goal) – and ‘this job’ might affect it – which it could. But holding on to that goal in such a tight way, might be damaging. Things that threaten the things we care about – might increase stress levels.

The few things:

It helps to get organised! This is not rocket science. And i have tried many many formats for this, the best way of being organised for you is to do the system that you can trust and that also causes less stress in itself. My filofax is 24 years old. I have tried every electronic diary in the world, but the note starts on paper. For those under 25 in youth ministry a filofax is a leather bound diary that has refillable pages, that cost alot… For its more helpful to physically write stuff down, and also with the pages write notes during the day at other things. Either way, being organised is helpful. However, spaces in the diary get filled up. So fill up the blank spaces with DAY OFF, or STUDY DAY, or TIME WITH FAMILY, – again i am the worst of sinners- but on paper it is easier i think to section out these things. Also as you are writing in it,other people might also see that and feel bad that your day off is being interrrupted by their ‘often trivial’ meeting. (its not always..) . However its more important, i find to have a system that you trust, rather than the best system. There is nothing worse than starting to forget meetings, or trying to juggle being in three places at once ( or this might just be a comedy routine in movies) .

Do stuff challenging, creative or physical in your time off.  If like me, you find that the banal conversations about aspects of work are well, banal and demotivating, then use this as a springboard to read further. Honestly in the last 5 years my library has increased significantly, though starting an MA helped. Do things in your time off that cause you to switch off, and that probably doesnt include going to the movies just for youth group illustrations.. but escape, and explore. Find hobbies, or if you have family, which i have had during all my youth ministry life, then you might be ‘doing stuff with the kids’ but it is what you need to be doing. Family is important, and is easily neglected. You might need to be sharpened emotionally and family are needed in this.

Conflict. It is messy. Its is sometimes needed (to get things done), but it is still messy. And all the advice in the world about dealing with it well, often it is your job to help others in churches do this. Its also linked to the fact that as i said above people are invested in the way things are, so change is difficult. By even being a youthworker in the space disrupts the status quo. Conflict is almost an inevitavility. And if there isnt conflict, then unless you have a brand new role that needs shaping (and that is possible) – or that the role has been deisgnated for a while and you’re just the same as the person before, then dealing with and also personally dealing with conflict is part and parcel of the role. Dealing with conflict in a culture of passive-aggressiveness, now theres a book about churches waiting to be written.

Get Support! Said it before, ill say it again. Being and feeling alone is the pits. Coping alone is criminal. It will be unlikely that they wont be anyone you can talk to about stuff. A previous colleague at college, a youthworker locally, former minister. If you need to pay someone and get ‘professional’ support from a youth worker locally, then arrange it. Someone who you can be honest with, but also who might be able to listen and offer guidance.

Recognise your own strengths and weaknesses, but also your limitations. Even more importantly communicate these so that people know that you arent a superhero. If you know that you cant function the day after a busy one, then make sure theres some time off booked. If you’re rubbish at admin and keep putting it off (but it is important- schedule it in, and dont leave it in a blank space hoping it gets filled up) . Try and use the ‘quieter’ times in the year to plan ahead, it is not always easy, but at least then there might be space for the emergency crisis at that busy time too. Only you can work out what you need to be able to function and flourish in the role that you are in. You are not the same person as the previous person. remind yourself, and remind others, your pinch points/stress points, work patterns , skills and personality dictate that you work differently, so you need to manage how you work and function within the role. Different activities may require different planning time – for you- sermons for a vicar might need 2 hours prep, for you it 5. If large groups, small groups, one to ones, conferences give you different fears or worries, and need extra preparation or recovery then assign this and also communicate this with your line manager. Part of their role is to understand and shield you.

Cultivate Dreams Spend part of your working with young people cultivating theirs or your own dreams. It might be that you do this on a daily basis. But in the nitty gritty of the week and even the yearly schedule in most churches, look at the bigger picture. What if you spend the next year helping a young person start a social enterprise? what if you began a piece of work cleaning up a local litter hazard? what about a new project, something to work to. Often dreams get lost in the daily church – but having seen a few dream cultivators follow their dream, especially for local good, it can be hugely rewarding. Armed with responsibility for your own diary usually, you might have this kind of space.

Sabbaticals, Study, Learning  Its not only that by doing ongoing learning it models this with young people. But it expands our brains, and resources and helps us look at things differently. You might even be able to arrange for the church to contribute to the costs or time. Oh and if you can arrange study days, or a sabbatical to give yourself time. You dont have to learn anything about youth work or ministry – it might be theology ( hahaha) or psychology, or art, or computing, it needn’t matter, but continuing to grow is. and its possibly a good distraction and something to ‘fill your time’. Keep reading, and pursue thinking and ideas. Read someones complete works!

Recognising the signs is important. How you start to react to things, that are the same as normal but your reaction isnt, or that you’re skipping doing things you like. I know when i havent been out on my bike for a while. Or when im not eating in a disciplined way ( too much ‘quick’ food like bought sandwiches, or snacks/cakes) are all signs or indicators of not just being busy, but also potentially not coping. Though quitting the mars bars is going to help anyway…Image result for afloat

This is one of those ‘im no expert’ articles, it is also a ‘everyone is different’ type pieces too, staying sane in youth ministry shouldnt even be an issue, it should be a space of developing faith in young people, of the challenges in mission, of listening and spending time with young people. Often its sold as ‘exciting’ – when its more dramatic than that, and drama means complexity, ups and downs, busy and quiet. Staying sane might be a battle at times, especially when on the face of it for others it can seem a breeze. There are no easy settings to work with young people. Youth ministry is a tough gig. Do more than stay sane, but in the tough times, do what you can to keep afloat. The answer isnt just ‘trust in Jesus’ though some of it also might be, especially if trust in Jesus also causes you to stop, pray and reflect, walk and breathe, and take time away.

Alternatively maybe it is better to recognise that imagination is required in the drama of youth ministry and insanity or delirium it provides is part of that process of genius… Image result for sanity

Normality is a pipe dream, so why not just let your imagination and creativity take over – just hone the craft of youth ministry instead!

There are a few other tips on dealing with Stress here: a post by Alan Bartlett, on Clergy Stress.

Where is Jesus in your practice? & 9 other difficult questions to reflect on in Youth Ministry

At the beginning of the week, I wrote probably my most dull, but most important article. No witty banter, ironic title or clickbaity picture. It one reason no one read it. Also it is summer holidays and so no one is really wanting to read a reflection on, well, reflection. In that piece I asked the question ‘‘Where has reflective practice gone in youth Ministry?’ and click on the link to give it a read. Warning it is a little long, but could be of profound help in your youth ministry practice.

This is a follow up to that one, where that suggested that reflective practice was needed more in youth ministry – in this one I put out there a number of questions that might help you reflect in your ongoing youth ministry, for you as a worker, team or volunteers or even more so, for the young people themselves.

The first one is taken from Andrew Roots book, Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry; it is 

Where is Jesus in your Youth Ministry? 

How might Jesus be ‘with’, be ‘for’ , be ‘against’ what your youth ministry is all about? Is Jesus a thing to be learned, an experience, a Spirit, a mystery or an activity far more predictable. Is Jesus in the persons present, or the persons absent, in the interactions and in the silence.

What am i learning about the young people? 

The ongoing learning in youth ministy isnt one-way. We as leaders and volunteers need to stop an be open to learn about, learn from and learn with the young people. So, it is worth asking – what are we learning about the young people – especially whilst we are with them in conversation. It might also be that conversation is the space of ideas. (stop press!) It might be that they have gifts, resources, and character that needs to be identified and not wasted in the life of the group, church or local community. When i say ‘might be’ i mean ‘will be’.

How will I recognise Faith?

More than just crying at the end of a worship session, think about how faith might be evident or found within your youth ministry practice over the next year, because if you start looking for faith in a variety of ways, then its likely that you will create spaces so that young people to show this, and that this will be what is found. It may involve young people leading, asking questions, taking responsibility – it may also be young people being disruptive and challenging, or young people getting passionate about social justice, or keen to learn more that a God -slot wont suffice. All indicators of desire for more, and desire that faith is important.

What Questions will i ask at the end of each session with young people? 

Ok, its a bit ‘meta’ asking a question about asking a question. But it is needed. You are the only person in your situation, in your church, with the young people you have. So, you are the right person to work out what would be appropriate reflective questions to ask in your team at the end of the session. The stuff that you put down on the review form ( i hope you do one) . The reason that these questions are important? – they embed behaviour. If you ask at the end of the session ‘did the young people enjoy the activity’ then our focus will be on ensuring young peoples enjoyment, which is fine, but it can be a continual spiral of meeting interests and keeping them happy. If you ask ‘did we have any conversations’ then the focus is on how your team connected in the space with young people – this becomes the driving force. So what you decide to ask is important, and worth spending time reflecting on.

Am i creating the right kind of space for healthy youth ministry?

What makes your youth ministry a ‘healthy space’?  are young people free to have questions, promote ideas and suggestions? are they able to explore dangerous topics (see, the latest issue of youth& childrens work magazine for a few to reflect on  )  Aside from the controversies, (though they are important) – If youth ministry is all about relationships and conversation , and not just relationships and conversation as a strategy for ministry, it is ministry ( Pete Ward, 1997) – then a healthy space is needed for conversations to be honed, created and nurtured. A space that had social boundaries, that accepts contributions, gives equality to voices, and allows for different spaces of conversation. From the conversation when a young person makes their own tea (if they’re allowed in the kitchen), to the conversation sitting at the edge of the hall when there a sports game, to the provocative one in the ‘teaching’ or learning activity. A healthy youth ministry is where young people feel safe in conversations, and it is in conversations where safety is possible. It isnt the building or what it stands for.

Is my youth ministry challenging enough?

In a post a while ago, What young people want in a church?  Research was done that showed that in 1400 churches in the USA, that for 15 year olds, the thing that kept them in the church was that it was a healthy space, and that it was a place of meaningful challenge – young people in effect said that church was a place that needed to mean something to them. What if tasking young people with the challenges of costly discipleship was actually attractive? ie it causes them to take risks, take a stand, create spaces of hope in the world, give, share and love their enemies. – more than a moral code of behaviour… So – what about making youth ministry challenging? And creating a culture where challenging, risk and helping young people use their minds, to learn, and also be given tools to explore further – rather than be ‘given’ answers. Young people will only be given space to develop challenges if we ourselves as leaders continually learn and be challenged. So – how are you going to develop in your own thinking/learning this year too?  any theology/youth work books needing to be added to your actual reading ? (not just the bookshelf so they look pretty)

In what way does the youth ministry enable young people to become learners who create & perform?

Young peope, like us will not possibly learn everything. So theres no point waiting until that magic moment happens so that they ‘are ready’ to act or perform. If they have the idea, or desire or given space to create opportunities, such s those above, then young people also need space to create and perform. Beyond what theyre told they can do. Imagine how they might run the church website… or the media channel, or develop a community resource, or serve the local community, or write to their MP about an injustice… They need leaders who say ‘you can’ – and provide resources and space. And if you give young people space to develop their own, then its likely that as a church you will keep them in the space. Become facilitators, as part of leading. Still lead, just change style. Young people will only stay consumers of the product of your youth ministry for so long. It is not their fault it hasnt changed as their needs for it to change have occurred.

How am I going to look after myself this year?

This is tough work, especially if you do this as a volunteer, have family, full time job and also try and have a social life. It is tough if youth ministry is full time. So, looking after yourself and sustaining yourself is important. Make sure that if you do give yourself the odd evening off the rota that it is used to sustain yourself and sharpen the sword. Keep a hobby going that is distracting. Do exercise. Experience faith from a different perspective and learn in the space. Keep learning. And take time off. And not forgetting how your own faith is to be honed in the ongoing.

How will i avoid classic youth ministry temptations? 

Like Joseph – run away from the unhealthy stuff of ministry or challenge it head on – like the ‘comparison’ game, the ‘numbers game’ ‘ the success game’ and the ‘growth game’ – all take away from the value of the young people in your group, in your space with which you have been given to do ministry. Your young people are unique, and what you do with them is create memories, and opportunities for them to enact goodness in the world. Nothing else. They’re not your success story, or to be used as a trophy to display on your travels. But also avoid comparing yourself to others, and this goes for ministers too…  there is also the ‘safety game’ – in which you have to fight against the role you have in making the young people ‘moral conforming citizens’ which is often what the parents think your role is. Its been the watchword for youth ministry for decades.

What do I hope for young people by the end of this academic year? 

We all know youth ministry is about to start again after the summer. But if you had a hope for the young people you have interactions with- what would it be – and what would it look like for each of them individually – the young people in school, after school clubs and churches. They wont all make it to a universal point, but could you dream something for them, hope and desire something for them, to help? maybe its to harness one of their gifts? maybe it is that they ask questions? maybe it is that they challenge us? maybe it is that they desire to explore further? Yes it might be about ‘following Jesus’ – but what might that mean in your context so its a challenge?  So what would you realistically dream for, and dream with your young people from this term..? What about for young people you dont know yet…?

None of this is easy to reflect on, but doing real life, proper ministry with people is difficult, the fact that the people you do ministry with are under 18 (probably) , is no way to think of it as any less valued (even if there is still that tendency in some churches) . If we value the young people in our churches, then they deserve it of us that we think deeply and meaningfully about our practices, about their faith, and about how we form them in the place of the world. So 10 questions to get you thinking about the practice of youth ministry – to begin and continue reflecting on throughout your ministry.


What are 12 things youth leaders cannot do?

Thank you to Clare McCormack, for sharing the following article on 12 things that ‘Pastors’ cannot do, which you can read here:

And so, when it comes to being a youth leader/worker…

What are 12 things a Youthworker cannot do? 

From the above piece, i think three are appropriate to steal from the above list that apply to Pastors:

  1. Escape mistakes. All of us will mess up sometime, often unintentionally and even unknowingly.
  2. Live sinlessly or perfectly Nobody can. Including you. And me.
  3. Know everything. Even the most experienced and knowledgeable youth worker doesnt know everything about everything. Nobody can answer every question somebody asks.

But what else cant a youthworker do?

4. Try and keep up: No youthworker in the world can keep up with every music tase, film series, TV boxset, sports team, series, league, drama, awards nominations, soap opera, political update that will make it possible to have a conversation with a young person ‘seem authentic’ . 

5. Keep young people in the church: Young people have all the freedom in the world not to attend our groups, clubs and services. We should focus on creating the right spaces so that young people want to stay, and that doesnt include ramping up the budget and smoke machines, that might be making faith be a meaningful, practical and life, world transforming performance.

6. Run on Adrenaline for longer than a month. You know your Youth worker who leads all those sessions, plans those groups, trains volunteers and participates in all those church meetings. Thats just the bit that you see. If you imagine doing all this, then also being in schools and juggling all this when in conversations with young people they are thrust into helping deal with a mental health problem, a teenage pregnancy counselling situation, or planning a large youth event ( because ‘thats what young people need..’), and the odd preach (to cover the ministers holiday) Then it might be likely that some of what your youth worker is doing is running on little relaxed sleep and time, and mostly adrenaline. It wont last, and usually cant last longer than a month. If planned activities make a diary full, then the unpredictable has no space to be fitted in, yet a youth worker needs space to respond to crises, and also plan ahead.  If you see pro-plus, red bull or lucozade empty bottles in the youth workers bin, then start to worry, panic when they say theyre spooning coffee granules on top of their biscuits.

7. Always see church in the same way as the congregation. It can sometime be the case, that a youth worker sees the church differently. The youthworker sees the church busy day by day, often with groups, clubs and activities during the week, full of young people, families, conversations, energy and creativity. And its great. And so their view of church is different to the adults who turn up once a week on a sunday and moan that there arent any young people. Neither might a youthworker be able to find Sunday morning a space for spiritual rest and recharge, when they’re thinking ‘how on earth do young people engage with this’ or ‘ill use the sermon space to plan this evenings youth group’  (admit it you have done this too..) 

8. Create morally upstanding young people out of the congregations children  Nope, thats the parents job. What a youthworker might be able to do is help and guide young people to reflect on their place in the world, and how they might attune their life around Gods purposes for them, that include challenging oppression and power, sacrifice and suffering and also simplicity.

9. Solve the problem of church decline in the UK, or even in your local church. Even in a small congregation of 10 people, thats 10 people who can do more than one person alone, even if they are trained and employed. A youthworker isnt the answer to church growth problem and therefore they arent the solution. Though they may be able to help the church develop whole church responses in their community so that the whole church is part of the response, thats if the youthworker is given the space to do this.

10. Admin. Nope. We just cannot do it. Its not in our DNA.

11. Stop Moaning. They say that it takes 100 youthworkers to change a lightbulb, 1 to change the bulb and 99 to write papers on coping in the darkness. Being a perpetual state of frustration is part of the tension/adrenaline urgency, as is the awareness of the now/not yet dynamic to the ministry that hopes and dreams for a better life and world, where young people dont have to ‘just cope’ with life (with the help of various mental health professionals) or where churches and organisations prioritise sacrifically doing good with the weakest in communities, not just give energy to the potential leaders, and succeeders.

12. Explain what a youthworker is, nope, though we do actually know. But its easier not to tell anyone who asks. Keeps the mystery a bit longer.

So, you might think you have employed a superhero to galvanise, revolutionise and radically transform your church and community with young people, but there are at least 12 things that a youth worker cannot do.



Dealing with the difficult: ‘the day after’

Later that Day, two of Jesus followers were walking from Jerusalem to the Village of Emmaus, seven miles away’ – this is the unassuming beginning of how the gospel writer Luke opens the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

‘Later, Jesus appeared to the disciples beside the sea of Galilee, many of them were there, Peter said, ‘Im going fishing’ and they all joined him’  is a paraphrase of Johns description of what Peter and some of the disciples did, a few days after the resurrection.

‘The Ethiopian had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and now he was returning’ is Lukes description of the Ethiopians situation in Acts 8.

For all of them it was the day after, or at least the evening after. 

For Peter, it was the day after the miraculous resurrection, but he knew there would have to be ‘a talk’ , For the disciples there had been such a commotion after the resurrection that they needed to head home, maybe they had to go anyway, back to Emmaus. For the Ethiopian, he was on his way back to Ethiopia after being to Jersusalem on some kind of pilgrimage and hed left probably early, disheartened and confused. We know he wouldnt have planned to be travelling during the heat of the sun…

What of the days after in our Youth work and Ministry;

the day after the residential – everyone had an amazing time but back to the office and you wonder how to make it even better next yearImage result for youth camp

the day after the detached session when there was a fight and you ended up chatting to the police till late, today you have to let the chair of trustees know

the day after the PCC meeting that really did. not. go. well

the day after every youth group which gives us challenges, hopes, energy and life – to be met with a monday day of admin

the day after the funding bids returned unsuccessful

the day after handing in the essay or dissertation to be marked 

the day after anything can be a day of mixed emotions, when the adrenaline has peaked and run out, where there are difficult decisions to be made, where there is sense to be made in what might be complexity and confusion. What we might also be good at doing is creating the highs for others, including young people, the event, the club, the camp, the holiday club, and so for them they also have the ‘day after’ to deal with. God might be said to be more miraculously present in the high.

What of the disciples as they walked away into the night from Jerusalem

What of Peter taking the boys out fishingImage result for peter fishing

what of the Ethiopian travelling home

None of them were technically alone, they each had persons with them, whether the chariot rider, fellow disciple or mates on the boat. But having been in the moments of ‘high’ they were now alone, their emotions all over the place, confused, perplexed.

No one is remotely surprised by this, not even Jesus has a go at Peter for fishing. They needed time to breathe, recharge and remind themselves of a skill they once had, the familiar.

However, it is in the day after that God met them all in the familiar. On the familiar road, on the familiar beach with that familiar smell of fish being cooked, and in the familiar chariot hurtling through the desert.

It was in the day after that serious business was taking place. Serious education, discipleship and questions like:

what are you discussing as you walk – tell me more’ – Jesus wants to hear and help us understand

‘Do you understand what you are reading‘ asks Philip, tell me more about how you perceive it, feel about it

Fellows have you caught any fish‘ asks Jesus, the bread is nearly ready, and I know you’ll feel alot better a)having caught something, and b) eating it.

Now come and have breakfast‘ says Jesus who spends time with them on the beach, in the day after, Can i find understanding, belonging and acceptance here?, asks the Ethiopian on the road, Did our hearts burn as we began to understand? – exclaimed the disciples on their road.

So, whats it like for you in the ‘day after’ ? More to the point, what might it also be like for your volunteers, young people in the day after also.

without intending so, our ministry moments might be so highly narrated with God, that by default it can become that day to living is devoid of seeing the spiritual in the mundane – when this neednt be the case

understandably ‘the day after’ a day before of a struggle, challenge, meetings or big decision can bring about a range of emotions, confusion, fear and anxiety. Going fishing, walking or a drive in the car (across a desert..?) may be whats required.

We might also need to be present in other peoples days after, in between the spaces, not just in the spaces, but in the spaces of time, in the day after.

This isnt the time to talk about self care in ministry, only to reflect on the effect of its variety of challenges and emotions.

So – what about you – what about the ‘day after’ for you- what do you do?

If God met the disciples in the days after, we should expect the same dangerous God to meet people in the times unexpected to our design today too, including ourselves.


10 Tips for creating a Healthy Youth Ministry

For a moment, stop and think about what it is like for a young person in the present day. If reports are to go by, then incidents and reporting of anxiety amongst young people are on the increase, as a result, young people may just have their self protection antenna switched to a firm on. But then again thats the same for most of us adults, for it is usually in our own self protection to avoid situations that are unhealthy, or damaging, if we can help it. In the recent report from the Fuller institute, 1400 churches were interviewed who had kept young people from the age of 14. One of the key findings was that young people stayed when church was a healthy place

Healthy churches are the subject of Peter Scazzeros books, it was also what Rob Bell was talking about on a recent Nomad podcast – it seems that burned out ministers are now making ministries out of preventing others from burning out too. Cynical or not, the questions about the health of our churches, and ministries have to be asked. Would it be possible to say that the church space where young people go is emotionally, mentally and spiritually healthy place to learn, to become responsible, to flourish, to be accepted in the church community, to be treated as an adult at the appropriate time. How might we work towards this?

A friend of mine, Jenni Osborne, saw my previous post on the Fuller research and asked a colleague in a local church for 5  top tips to keeping a church based youth club healthy and thriving, and came up with these:

  1. Plan in advance. I know, we youth workers are all fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants types (I’d bet we’re not actually) and love to plan on the fly because there’s just not enough hours in the day! Well….Image result for plan
  2. Look after your team. Invest in your team, find out what makes them tick, uncover their strengths and encourage them to play to them. DO NOT EXPLOIT THEM…
  3. Look after yourself. If you are going to be in this job for more than a metaphorical 5 minutes then you absolutely MUST MUST MUST look after yourself. Eat well, sleep well, rest well, manage others well, be managed well, go on training for the latter two, ask for some help with managing your diary for the middle two, learn to cook for the first! It’s too easy to give in to the stereotypes of late night eating of mostly brown food, burning the candle at both ends with Friday night youth club and Saturday morning Prayer Breakfasts or whatever your picture looks like! It’s too easy to allow the thing that yp have said to you or about you to prey on your mind, refusing yourself sleep or rest. Much harder but much more worthwhile to learn how to cook, to rest, to recharge, to say NO. You’ll be around for many more young people!
  4. Don’t be afraid to challenge your young people. Youth clubs are not all about eat-as-much-as-you-can with a side ordering of table tennis/Wii Sports Resort/pool/Jungle Speed. OK maybe they are, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also make room for challenge about how they live their lives: use fairtrade fortnight to challenge their consumer habits; use a ‘sleepover’ activity to highlight homelessness; get them raising money for a local charity or one that sponsors a child/village/cow (providing a cow for a family rather than sending the cow to school!); give them space to ask Big Questions about the existence of God, why things happen the way they do, or what happens when loved ones die; sit with them while they try and process painful stuff. Pray with and for them, the effects will surprise you!
  5. Invite your Church Leaders onto the team or along to a regular ‘Q&A’ time. Young people want to be listened to, not only by you but by others who say they care. If your church leadership has invested their time and money into you to work with their young people, then they are saying they care and yp will want to see that in action and be listened to by them.

I might add a few others to this list to make it a total of 10; which relate more broadly to the culture of the church, and the youth leader themselves:

  1. Working at 80% might give you the energy for 2-3 more years. Strategise the odd session off to train and supervise volunteers. Not every week has to be youth club night.
  2. Provide yourself with the kind of opportunities to be challenged that you also give the young people – so do a course, study, write or read
  3. Delegate. ‘Wait’ is an acceptable response to a request, delay a yes or a no, if you can.  ‘Yes’ might add to your ‘to do’ list, it might also take the opportunity away from someone else. It might also take you away from family time, time off or doing something that actually was important. like phoning a young person or spending time with someone. Image result for delay
  4. Ensure as much decision making about the nature of groups, curriculum and events and activities is given to young people. A healthy place is one where there are no sudden shocks, that might affect them, like all of a sudden their younger sister is allowed to join the group. (what a night mare!) Young people will opt out if they smell a rat, a fake or fear. Though this doesnt mean that risks arent taken.
  5. Balance space with activity, activity is space. Leave spaces for conversations for young people to have conversations with themselves but also with the leaders that seem as young person directed as possible. Every week neednt be 100% high energy, high adrenaline mega programmed to its final 2 1/2 seconds.  Trust in conversations, and keep trusting them, its a basic human need to be listened to, listen intently to your young people. Just give space. Have a weekend away, just to be on a campsite, no talks, no activity, just space to walk, cook, explore, spend time together. Brave. well why not?

So – develop the practices of a healthy youth ministry, be aware of your health, spiritually, emotionally and physically, and then also regard the health of your young people. Challenge practices in the church that become of high anxiety, stress and pressure, whether this is the ‘numbers game’ the ‘success’ game or the growth one. Cultivate health, depth, gifts and participation instead. You never know, it might produce longer lastingness.

any other suggestions? – please share them here for others:

7 not-so-Deadly Sins in Youth Ministry


The film Se7en came out in 1995, I watched it when i was 18, i think, just. Or i may have been nearly 18. And it was pretty graphic and shocking for me at the time. Unlike Trainspotting or Aliens it isn’t a film i have given a re-watch to ever since. If you’ve not seen it, IMDB describes it as “A film about two homicide detectives’ (Morgan Freeman and (Brad Pitt) desperate hunt for a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins. The movie takes us from the tortured remains of one victim to the next as the sociopathic “John Doe” (Kevin Spacey) sermonizes to Detectives Somerset and Mills — one sin at a time.” Whether the film is in any way successful at telling this story is difficult for me to remember, but throughout its main story line is the effect of an ignorance of the 7 deadly sins:  pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.

So, for some strange reason over breakfast I was wondering – probably because theres two conferences on youth ministry happening this weekend- is to think about what would be ‘the 7 deadly sins of Youth Ministry’ and focus on these 7 original sins, and i think there would be some merit in doing this to highlight areas of ministry that are prone to envy ( the successful ministry down the road), wrath (after the leadership meeting) , gluttony ( too many cream cakes during YF tuck shop) or Pride (‘its all about my ministry’). But I thought that would be a little obvious, and its likely that in the depths of time that Youthwork magazine probably did something similar.

So, instead of focussing on these 7 original sins, as I was out walking this afternoon, I thought about a different sin, linked to them all, ‘Ignorance’ and wondered if Youth Ministry, in part, or more in full, has been found to be guilty of ignoring the following aspects that have a real impact on the nature of youth ministry, the depth of engagement in young people, and how youth ministry might be threatened by what it accepts from the culture around,  in 7 key ways.

  1. Ignoring Theology for pragmatism. – Good theology helps give young people connection with a world story that they can assimilate as their personal story (McAdams 1997), Challenging Theology is what helps to keep young people in local churches so says recent research here: .  Settling for an easy night, of fun and distraction from the concerns of the world, might only be so helpful. Neither is settling for what Christian Smith calls is Moral Therapeutic Deism (2005) – connecting young people with a God who is ‘there for them’ to give them confidence, however, as a personal myth to believe in it will go so far, just it might need changing when it is tested.
  2. Ignoring young people. This seems strange as youth groups are full of them, but how many youth group evenings are judged as successful by the quality of conversations between youth leader and young person, and not by who and how many turned up? Young people can be ignored if they’re just to take part in the activities. What they need is a healthy place to be where adults take interest in them, listen and shape activities around their needs, interests and gifts. And that is on just a local level, and the local church.  Where do young people feature in the shaping of area strategies, of national programmes. Its also apparent when young people are counted as just numbers.
  3. Ignoring History. A bit like the Premier league, which only provides statistics of games back to 1992, as if football didnt exist before then. An understanding of History reveals christian youth work practice that nowadays would be seen as innovative, more risk taking and politically active. Meeting young peoples needs was core philanthropy in 1830, for example. Its what Sunday schools were developed for.  What might be one persons innovation might only show a blind spot for history, or good practice down the road.
  4. Ignoring the effect of culture.. What I mean here, is not the effect that culture has on young people. This is extensively researched, and if not the Guardian usually has something on ‘Millenials’ to reflect on most weeks. What I mean is the effect of the prevailing culture on Youth Ministry itself. The Sociologist Wolfe said:

In every aspect of religious life, American faith has met American culture, and American culture has triumphed… the faithful in the USA are remarkably like everyone else (Wolfe, 2003)

An example of this is in the marketing and programming of youth ministry resources, that are described as ‘almost Fordian’ (ie representing the process of making one size/colour fits all, mass produced motor cars) by Danny Brierley (2003) – It is an example of where the influence of Managerial theory and practice is inserted into the church. The same could be said for any youth ministry programme that claims to be efficient, calculated, predictable and be able to be controlled, for these are dominant tenets of the business model of Macdonalds. Without realising it, the prevailing culture wins, if a youth ministry seeks growth and transformational leadership to do this, then this again is from the management guru handbook, more so than Theology – however biblically justified. Youth Ministry is undoubtedly involved in the culture, it creates culture, but is also subject to it – it is worth being critical of the sources, methodologies and ideologies of practice – having filters set to ‘on’. Being predictable and efficient – might give 4 spiritual laws, but maybe not the complexity of a deep faith, and young people exploring difficult questions. Keeping up with culture isnt making Youth ministry more theological or relevant, its possibly only turning it into efficient organisations that are cost effective.  Managing a good youthwork organisation or it being managed well might not actually be having the best effect on young people.

5. Ignoring Youthwork (& Education) philosophy. What the Values and practice of Youthwork can bring to Youth Ministry is an increased focus, not only on young people and their needs, but processes shaped by values that are in their favour, such as empowerment, voluntary participation, inclusion & anti-oppressive practice, and informal education, what it also can provide, again according to Danny Brierely, is an ethical yardstick for youth ministry. Youth Ministry will only be improved by encompassing more of the discipline of youth work. Not only that but a refreshing of different concepts of education especially as young people participate in youth ministry in a voluntary way would be critical.

6. Ignoring Pioneers. For too long the biggest conferences are sponsored by the same people who select the same people to be the experts. Critical and Pioneering voices, generally are put to one side, unless they have been youth ministry flavour of the month in the past – and can still retain ‘Hero’ status. But in the main, those who are known for good, solid local practice are ignored. Those who lead ministries and have several lead responsibilities in organisations are the heralded experts. Some are the pioneers, but others are selectively ignored. Organisations, cultures and practices are only developed further through critical thinking, questions and dissent. Yes people will only keep the hamster wheel turning, critical thinking will ensure the hamster is travelling in the right direction. Pioneers are what the Disciples were, lest not forget, improvising in the new spaces what they had been taught.

7. Ignoring ourselves. Not unlike the film, the final twist is played on the main character and the audience. The final ‘deadly sin’ in Youth Ministry is when we forget about being honest and kind and generous to ourselves. We help define youth ministry and youth work through our very actions with young people, our communication with churches, partnerships, agencies and schools, we also define it as a practice through the cultures of the settings we create, the young people we invest the most time in, creating healthy spaces for young people also starts with being healthy ourselves – not perfect- just healthy, self-care is important, and probably the most ‘deadly’ of them all on an individual youth ministry level.

Could I have included others, possibly. But what might be yours? Excluding obviously ‘critical blogging’….


Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: