An Accidental Epiphany: Mirror, Body and Self

You know the feeling when you have an epiphany moment all out of the blue? well that was me this morning.

Im aware the following image might put many of you off your tea, or breakfast or supper. So, you are warned.

But after weirdly having a bath last night, i was standing in the bathroom this morning, almost naked in front of the mirror. (yeah apologies)

And yes, i noticed that i was tanned quite nicely (its only 3 weeks since im back from tunisia) and, even with an all inclusive holiday, and some disciplined weight loss last year (3 stone) so, in a way, i have some realisation, that the very overweight pale me wasn’t what i was looking at in the mirror.

Despite the weight loss and tan i hadn’t stood and looked at myself deliberately.

I stood, looked, and thought, for the first time and said to myself: ‘I actually look ok’, and then i realised how good it felt to actually look and say to myself that i look ok.

It felt good to appreciate myself physically.

It felt good, and i sighed.

I sighed because i realised that i hadn’t done this before, and yet i did it this morning without realising it.

it was as it i hadn’t given myself permission to appreciate my own body, my own appearance, the way i looked.

As if i felt comfortable in my own skin, and appreciated it for the first time. Though in Tunisia i felt alive, with water, and being submerged in it almost all week, just fabulous. I still didn’t give myself the acknowledgement of appreciating my own skin, my own body, my own skin and bones that God has given me.

I wonder why i hadn’t done this before? had it even occured to me..

confidence? shame ? fear of ego? fear of being proud? fear of the flesh? Or just not wanting to give myself the attention that i could have done, rushing here, rushing there. all excuses ultimately. But shame, fear and unhealthy body image cripples us all doesn’t it. Diets, weight, discontentment, the lies of youthfulness and hiding reality and ageing. If only we, if only I, if only we could help ourselves by redeeming our bodies. By knowing from an early age that we have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide, nothing to be embarrassed about, despite the lies. Messages of unworthiness surround, nakedness as a shameful thing, bodies that are secondary to minds, hearts and accomplishments. I might run the risk of not realising quite how unique i am in the mirror, or loving the reflection i find there, and try to make the rest of life about satisfying a body im not respecting.

Yet, we dont, the being better, younger, fitter, smaller, thinner, pull takes over. The lies make us ignore who we are, and force us not to stop in the mirror and tell ourselves that we are already beautiful. We can feel good about ourselves… as we are.. and… so can I. 41 years into life itself, I acknowledged feeling, and acknowledged being content with who i am physically, and muttered it out loud. And it felt good. It was good. Maybe its a freeing thing.

I wonder if for me, the extensive internal work, therapy, self awareness and this process has also had an effect on how i feel about myself physically. If digging deep into the who i am, the interal may, may also have a knock on effect on how i feel about myself in my own physical skin. It might be crude to say that I have fallen in love with myself, but, actually to love ourselves is important, to healthily respect ourselves means we have contentment, a virtue that a material and commercial world would do its best to help us to not have. To be able to breathe and connect with ourselves might need us to feel good internally and have internally positive feelings about our external. Maybe it’s less about self awareness and more about resisting the lies that tell us differently about ourselves. I only hope this might be an encouragement to feel good about ourselves.

But if in giving myself the space – or more to the point – having life circumstances where my only choice, was to focus on the internal me, and be confident and aware of how i think, who i am, how i am, and my energy, passions, dreams, and becoming in tune with my emotions in a way that is fabulous, then maybe all of that leads me to stand in the mirror and go. James, you look good. And to feel good about what i saw. To feel good about myself. To like what i saw in the mirror. To almost feel at peace, to almost feel embodied.

It was an accidental epiphany. But a significant one.

I hope it doesnt put you off your tea. But i hope that you can get to a point where you can look at your own body and for your own sake do the same. It might make your life so much more fulfilling.

As John Duns Scotus said, calling it the harmony of goodness;

‘true love for the self always overflows into love for the other; it is one and the same flow. And your freedom to extend love to others always gives you a sense of dignity and power of your own self. It is such a paradox’ (taken from Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance, p103)

Advertisements

I’m a secret introvert.. but that’s a good thing.

I hope I’m not a disappointment meeting me face to face

That’s something I’ve said a few times in the last few years. To the people who have read my blogs or follow me on Twitter, who then do meet me. Me, hiding behind a million words of creativity and not knowing if i live up to an expectation.It was only recently that I realised something that helped me think through all these awkward moments;November 2016 might be a significant moment for me. I couldnt say for definite how significant in the rest of the whole of my life, as i hope theres alot of other moments that happen in the rest of it.

I was delivering a talk at the Newcastle Diocese office, i blogged on it here: ‘Young people as performers of the gospel’ in which i shared with a group of youthworkers and delegates from the diocese a day of conversations on developing the space of drop ins and helping young people become performers of the gospel.It was stuff that I had just finished writing up for my MA thesis that summer.

And the first, and so far, only, time that i have communicated this in public.On one hand i was significantly under prepared. On the other I though i knew enough to be able to get my way through an afternoon session after a fairly interactive morning. So, although i got some good feedback. I still felt a little raw.

A friend who was in the room met up with me for a coffee a few weeks later. In debriefing the session they asked me whether I had considered how much of an introvert I was. Saying that they had only seen me in other situations, but when they saw me in that public space, that they identified me as being more introverted.I kind of pushed back. Me. An introvert.?That was for quiet people.

I was a youthworker, I loved conversations, i loved making myself known, i loved people.But i wasnt , and still am not, one of the crazy types. Have always been perceptive, reflective and prefer the significant conversation.. to the many conversations. In the kitchen, rather than the party.

But I pushed back, also because well, it didnt really register for me what that might mean, or help, and if it did I only thought negatively, so i didnt give it any more thought.

Ministry, youthwork was for the lively, or at least that was one space that being an introvert wasnt the place to be that in.

Also…I thought i was ok.

I thought i knew who I was, even had the audacity to publish blogs on self care for others, even try and talk about stuff like boundaries, self care and management with others.

Yet realistically, I was hiding alot.

Realistically I hadn’t really ever thought about the deep stuff.

Just thought I knew. Even now I’m only just beginning.

At the beginning of this year I met up with that friend again.

She asked me whether I had done anything about being introvert. I fessed up. Keeping up with all youthwork theory and being articulate in the knowledge stuff i really had. (Don’t accuse me of not buying a youth work book post college)But take a step and look at myself? Nope.Of course. Because she knew I was an introvert, the best thing to give an introvert is a book on being one.Its popular, it’s maybe not complete.

Quiet.. by Susan CainYet at a point in my life of significant struggle.

I devoured it.

Cover to cover with at times tears in my eyes.

Cover to cover beginning to open my eyes to look at myself.Cover to cover being ready to accept the reality of who I am.

 

But also… Cover to cover and recognise my own strengths, my own gifts, and my own power. To realise my place in the world and who I am to be able to construct and change it.

Before digging wide and providing practical reflection on what being introvert might mean in the world of youth and community work, management and leadership.

That can wait.

In a way I wanted just to share with you from me, about me and how this self discovery has been helpful. In more ways that just work.

The book helped me dispel the myths, and erradicate my own fears of what being introvert was all about, it helped me to view the changing world around and how the path of extroversion is heralded and prioritised.

It helped me realise how I think, and also how others do.

To a point.I have more to learn and dig. I have more to gain by doing so. But ignoring the me and the me when dealing with the difficult stuff was negligent on my part. Self care is one thing… becoming self aware another.

Maybe we can only truly care for ourselves when we know ourselves.Maybe I had to be ready to hear my friend. To be ready to undertake personal reflection, and for that I am thankful for the circumstances that brought me to that point.. however painful.

Oh, and maybe I’m just grateful for the friends in my life who aren’t afraid to speak and share their truth to me, knowing how much it could benefit me.

I bought the book. I confess I haven’t read it again since. But I will do.Or I’ll give it away to someone else who might need it, and benefit from it like I have. The start of a process, started from whatever age or point..

No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are. (Paulo friere)

And… being an introvert isn’t that bad, in fact, it’s better than that. Much better.If you want to hear more, and just read a book on this. here’s a ted talk

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: https://www.patreon.com/JamesBallantyne and so if you would like to receive my posts early, you can do so via that platform.

References

[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?

100

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: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1c7)
  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: http://rolltherock.org.uk/  They specialise in supporting, resourcing and investing in youth leaders and workers across Yorkshire. He can be contacted via andy@rolltherock.org.uk

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: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/vicar-know-better-anyone-many-clergy-close-edge/amp/?__twitter_impression=true 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 https://www.youthandchildrens.work/  )  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.