The not so hidden problem of longevity in youth ministry

Imagine the scenario, as a young person you’ve loved the time you’ve been able to spend with your youth leader, they’ve entertained, taken you on residentials, had great conversations, listened to you, developed your talents, pushed you to do things and really been one of the key main influences in your life. It’s been amazing for you to have had a youth leader like them.

And what better option for you as a young person who has benefitted immensely from the efforts, personality and ministry of a youth leader in your local church, than for you to think then about becoming a youth leader yourself!  So, you check out the options post school, or post Uni even and decide to find an accredited course. Especially as during the time you were volunteering through uni you realise that people actually got paid for being youth leaders, and discovered that you needed an accreditation or a theology degree, or a youthwork degree to do it (and youth work degrees or theology degrees tend to be on a bypass from the average careers adviser) – So you pack up your graduate bags from one college, and head to another to do a post grad, or an undergrad in youth work finally heading towards the dream, the place in your heart you have always wanted to and felt called to be… a youth minister.

You graduate, you get a load of experience doing placements, you hone your reflective skills, theological underpinnings, group work resources, management and supervision skills, and develop a nuanced theory of adolescence and faith. All ready for the big wide world of the church based youth ministry position. Your faith, your practice, your time and your finances have been sorely tested. But you’re ready. Ready to fulfil the great calling set in you since your own teenage years.. but there’s one more step to go- Where next…?

So you hit the Premier Youth Work Magazine back pages. (the almost only bit everyone reads)

You Find a job and a church, you pack your bags again.

You fly and interview, move into the area, meet lots of people and start in the role. But theres a problem..

Becuase – whilst everyone in the church is happy for you to be there, there are some that only compare you to someone who used to be, someone whose photo is still on theministryy team photo, even though they left the summer before.

The young people sometimes mistakenly call you ‘ the new Scott’ (the previous person was called scott)

The Minister in the church who was keen to appoint you has decided to leave the church before christmas.

Some of your best ideas, Scott used to do, and the young people love playing the games he did.

The young people loved Scott, he was their first youthworker.

Your ministry might only be in the shadow of someone elses, and because of all the emotions involved, and deep connections this is going to be difficult.

However, as time goes by, your patience wears off and the young people grow to respect you, spend time with you and you start to develop groups, ministries, connections with schools, and things start to build.

Even though you didnt get a great honey moon period, the first year goes ok.

Then the new minister arrives.

And you dont get on. His dreams and approaches to ministry are different to yours, but somehow now the same as the congregation. He also line manages you. This becomes difficult.

Though he lets you get on with it, in his style, he becomes quick to try and influence, correct and criticise, giving you no back up as the other employed person in the church, in public in meetings.

Your writing is on the wall, your training didnt prepare you for the shift that a church could take when this kind of change could happen. Your ministry, and dedication to a career is in jeopardy, so is he reality of the house you have just bought in the area. Maybe you have to think about moving on, bu after this experience – do you think twice about working for a church again? You might do, and though this exact scenario didnt happen to me, shifting to the outside of churches in faith organisations can seem a grass greener thought.

Though this overall scenario is probably an extreme situation. What isnt is that there is a myth that is circulated that the average longevity of a youth minister in a single church setting is between one and a half and 3 years. And this is usually attributed to the following factors:

a) Burnout – doing too much- caused by excessive stress – do they have someone to help them give their life balance? 

b) running out of ideas – all the best are used up in 18 months – the warning signs are how soon you’re grabbing youthwork magazine for ideas…

c) a breakdown in relationship between the church leadership and the youthworker – where do they go to get help with dealing with this kind of thing? 

d) a non existenct managerial or/and supervision relationship between the church leadership and a youthworker ( see Davies 2012, in Ord 2012)  (see previous articles on managing a youthworker here:

e) Ending of funding for the role, (or end of contract)  Its one of the first to go if a church becomes financially struggling.

There are a few others.

But shouldnt it be shocking that someone who invests so much into being trained and commissioned into a vocation can be treated so badly in a church setting?  And have their ministry curtailed in less than 3 years?

Yes, not every youth minister is whiter than white – maybe the post academic professionals expect too much- but still. The emotional, spiritual and physical effect of a bad experience of ministry can be truly awful, and those who stick it out for the long haul – beyond 5-6 years in a church deserve huge medals.

But to the others whose enthusiasm, desire and vocations have been cut short by bad experiences the youthwork world is with you.

Does the system need changing? Yes.

Can the systematic, affiliation or regional approach to employing a youthworker in a church change? Not sure – who can actualize this…

who does all this affect? where do we start..

Whether or not Youth Ministry and employing a professional is the best route for you as a church is debatable (see my previous articles and But even so – please do consider them as whole people in the local collaborative ministry of the church, arrange for good management, supervision to give them ideas and time to try new approaches and ideas. Beyond 3-4 years, with good finances in place, youthworkers might stay a lot longer. Only if you stop asking them when theyre going to get a proper job…

Beyond 3-4 years, with good finances in place, youthworkers might stay a lot longer. Only if you stop asking them when theyre going to get a proper job…



Investing in volunteers is better that employing a professional youthworker

Yesterday i wrote a piece about what a church needs to do, if they were thinking about employing a youthworker as a member of staff within a church, to help with the designated need and work required. However, during today i have realised that this is a luxury that many churches have absolutely no hope of even thinking of, given tight resources and budgets. Having no young people is not an excuse however, as id argue that a youthworker should be employed to do mission work in a local community amongst young people whom the church doesnt yet know in a pioneering way, more so than in situations where their role is almost solely within a church & groups setting. But thats another discussion. So if its resources that prevent you from being able to employ a youthworker, or some other reason, then there are a number of alternatives open to you, that as a church should be done and are probably being done, with a few hints & tips that might be of use.

  1. Invest in current volunteers by giving good supervision, training and opportunities for challenge, growth and reflection. In effect disciple them in their current roles. If you have no volunteers- see point 9.
  2. Develop opportunities for training for current volunteers, like a rat in London, you’re probably not more than 10 miles from an unemployed or youth worker in need of a small extra job to deliver some training for your volunteers.  In house training in the context is ALWAYS more beneficial than sending volunteers to conferences, dont believe the hype about conferences. Get training you need specific to you and ask a youth worker about what they can offer, many should be able to lead sessions on group work & dynamics, ways of using the bible, reflection, conversations, young peoples issues. Yes you might have to pay for a days training, but itll be worth it. and more value for money than most conferences. and specific.
  3. Use some of the latest books on youth work & youth ministry as study materials in home groups for the leaders, yes its not the Bible – but neither were Nooma DVDs. As a start, ‘the art of youthwork’ by Kerry young, or ‘youthwork and the mission of God’ by Pete Ward are accessible and informative.
  4. Use the resources available from affiliation staff, Diocesan youth advisers those sorts of people.
  5. Facilitate ideas and vision days for the work with young people, and again arrange for someone to help you with that.
  6. Develop leadership skills with the children and young people so that they take on responsibility and decision making as part of the groups, as part of their discipleship – surely you dont need a youthworker to do that..
  7. You may be able to find a year out type youth worker locally depending if an organisation locally has them, but be aware they often take as much managing and will arrive with little training (regardless of what the leaders tell you) and may take a while to fit in. They also usually leave after less than a year. (this isnt the time to do a pros-cons of gap years, but getting ‘one’ is no walk in the park, but its an option)
  8. A similar option might be a placement student from one of the few university courses doing christian youthwork/ministry. This will depend on your location, and on resources again, its an option. You could ‘share’ a student with another local church, again an option.
  9. You, if you’re clergy reading this, might have to lead in discipling the young people, and thats maybe not your calling, but if taking a lead disciple role in discipling others isnt the role of clergy..? Maybe the young people currently in the church are too important to not be given the professional spiritual guidance that you are equipped to offer. For their sake, building a supportive relationship with a member of the clergy might have a much more significant impact on them, than effectively outsourcing it to dare i say it ‘ a youthworker’ or a one year gap yr student. There’s plenty of help around if you want it, see points above.

Sometimes the best option isnt to get the external person in, invest in who you have already. Especially as these people might be less likely to leave, and be able to support the young people for longer. It’s then about finding ways and approaches of working that enable both the volunteers and young people to be discipled. It’s not about running groups, but about discipling young people, so find ways that work. If its movie & sports nights with prayer, bible chat and lighting candles, then do this. And not unlike the

And not unlike the emmaus road, sometimes joining them in that discipleship, and other times be prepared to allow them to walk alone to discuss, think and reflect, question and react. If the group work model requires too many helpers, then find another one. Be Creative and consult with the young people. Let them lead you in this process.

The alternative to a youth worker, might not be a youth worker at all. it might be a church with a culture that all are disciples with responsibility to disciple everyone else. Young people might not be so different- just need time, space and respect, theyre not so separate or distinctive in any way.



Reclaiming artistic Supervision in the Church

We’ve got a bit of an issue in the church about management at the moment havent we?  for one it feels corporate, globally scary and tied in with images of corporations like Macdonalds, Apple or Facebook, let alone traditional industries like Ford. Yet Management is what seems to be whats being required more and more in the church, the youth worker needs a line manager, so does the administrator, or the finances need to be managed. Nelson (1999) talks then about new public management in a post modern world, of christian leadership in a post modern society and how Management  (especially new public management) is often about performance management, about managing data, numbers and effectiveness, and in a neo liberal context this is about value for money, efficiency, control and a focus on outputs and outcomes. What management tends to be is task focussed, with the individual playing second fiddle to their own efficiency in the role. As the old adage goes what can be measured can be managed, but is management itself a construct adopted too easily by the church, and if so what are the alternatives?

Where Management is barely mentioned Biblically, i was as shocked to find Supervision anywhere in the Biblical text, but i did, its in Numbers 8:22 and 1 Chronicles 25 3, 4 &6

The Sons of Asaph were under the supervision of Asaph

(6 brothers…..) were under the supervision of their father Jeduthun

All these brothers were under the supervision of their fathers for the music of the temple of the Lord. with cymbals, harps for the ministry of the house….they all were under the supervision of the King

For the task of the creative musician, the brothers required supervision, as they played their music, as they performed their service. They were supervised to perform artistically in the task of service and for the King.

Sue Cooper (2012, in Ord, J (2012) writes that balanced supervision is to have three essential functions ; ‘restorative/supportive, formative/educative and normative/managerial- and that the process itself must be two way’, she is writing in the context of the supervision of youth workers, a profession that prides itself on being artistic (Young 1999), creative, imaginative and socially constructive.

But as should Church and faith be also a theatrical pursuit, one that seeks to perform scripture as local gospel theatre (Vanhoozer 2014), with the full gospel that seeks faithful discipleship for world transformation, if that can be measured and thus managed and is not an unpredictable, creative art then i’m not sure what else it is supposed to be…..As Vanhoozer suggests, the picture of theology as science has held the church captive for too long, instead it needs to be dramatised and become a theatrical art form. (2014)

And thats where supervision comes back in, It is argued that taking one of those three aspects away causes supervision to be less satisfying for both parties, in the situation of the music, a heavy hand would constrain performance, too light a touch might produce chaos, somewhere in the middle improvised Jazz occurs.

Maybe Management as a concept needs to be dropped in the church.

A reclaimed view of artistic supervision could take its place, one that balances the managerial with also education and support in order for creativity to be realised, and for the persons in the supervision relationship to value the ongoing creativity that both the process of church and youthwork (where this is the relationship) are to be creatively performed.

If Supervision swings from development focus to managerial focus – what does that say about what we believe church to be- a science? or a faith?  Maybe a fuller understanding of supervision, especially its educative function for a creative ministry is one that will help to rebalance current practices of supervision in the church, whether that its clergy being supervised, or clergy as supervisors. To reclaim the educative function of creative supervision might also enable it to feel more like the kind of Discipleship that has Biblical tones rather than a form of management that seems at odds with the freedom even Jesus gave his disciples to decide for themselves actions, or even criticise him.

If the most important resources for an organisation are its staff, and one of the main complaints from youth workers (and other employees in a church) is that of the relationship with their line management often the clergy (Davies 2012) – maybe it might be time to rethink what it means to be an educative, supportive supervisor of people in the creative performance of church & mission in the church & world, in order that people are able to play the tunes as collaborative artists, in the improvised mission in service to the King.

Lets value and develop the right kind of supervision for organisation of the church, in order for it to perform practically and prophetically the gospel on the stage of the world.


How to Manage a youthworker; a note to Vicars.

Between October 2000, after just moving into our first house, and August 2001, Lynn and I were waiting in expectation for the arrival of our first child. It seemed a long time at the time, it seemed an odd but also expectant time, especially compared to the couple of years post wedding but BC (before children). In the 9 months we’d decorated a room, bought the baby grows, gone out in the evenings now and then (thinking that wouldn’t happen again for about 5 years) , obtained the car seat, push chair, moses baskets, as well as thought about the change in work hours, income, child benefits. Its funny looking back, now that Anna is 14, and thinking about how much we tried to get ready for her arrival. Got all the practical things ready, items, space and finances, but did we once think about going on parenting training ?  oh no, we just accepted this expectant arrival and made up being a parent as we went along. Its funny, though, because as soon as we got a baby, lots of other people suddenly became the expert in how to react and cope with a baby, from discipline, to rashes, to coughs, to when Anna fell down the stairs. Without meaning to, everyone became the expert. Yet we were the novices, albeit we’d been Uncle and Aunty to neices and nephews. Could this be different?

So, for a few years you’ve been planning to get a youthworker or childrens worker, or community worker into your church, or paid for by your church. You’ve figured out a job description, given your local needs and ambitions, you’ve recruited, obtained funding, policies, an interview panel, maybe even figured out some accommodation, a car, made some links with local schools, or the police, or sports clubs. As importantly you’ve got them a laptop, a phone and an office space, and even a small group of volunteers who have been keen to get involved in youth & children’s & community work, all this at the moment sounds ideal, seems a perfect situation. All going to plan, all items ready, and once the recruitment is over you’ve selected and recruited ‘The Youthworker’ .

‘The Youthworker’ arrives. Their due day happens, everyone is excited. The church, the ministry team, the schools.

You give them an induction, tour of the church, the old sunday school room, a not used but perfectly acceptable office that sometimes people use to photocopy something. Give them a few number of the local schools, a list of volunteer contacts and then promise to meet up a few times that week to chat about plans for the term, for the activities.

So far, so ok. Everyone loves ‘The Youthworker’ thus far. settled in, doing ok.

But you, something is slightly wrong. They need you, the church need you, to be ‘The line manager’ for ‘the youthworker’

What does that mean?  ‘Line manager’

Its a word a bit like other words, for the vicar ; Pastor, Minister, Visionary leader, Teacher – yes these fit into a frame of reference, and they were covered to one degree in Theological training. But ‘Line Manager’ what on earth is that? But the church look to you, and you used to be a sunday school teacher, or you did some youthwork as a curate, in 1987.

So you try to figure it out as you go along, sometimes you have a chat with ‘The Youthworker’  especially early on. You encourage them by saying that the youth group went well, you dont know why it went well, or how it went well, but one of the parents said their child took a friend, so yes be encouraging, you tell them the youth club went well. You spend a while then telling ‘The youthworker’ about some of the families in the church, and some other young people whom the church hasnt seen for a while, after all at least if you tell them then ‘The youthworker’ will be able to come up with a solution to solve this problem, after all youve tried a number of things already. You give ‘the youthworker’ some other pastoral issues arising from a different family, then as you’re about to ask about the youthworkers time off, the phone rings, its the funeral director about Fridays funeral, and you motion to ‘the youthworker’ to leave and that youll see them in a few weeks.

Hmm, not unlike trying to work things out as a parent – but what might it mean to line manage a youthworker?

One of the challenges of youth work in what could be considered the ‘faith-based’ sector is that Line Managers might have little experience of youth work itself as an approach, a philosophy , and not only that the youthworker might feel that they are ‘under managed’ ( Ord J, 2012: 158) (its possibly the reverse to ‘secular’ youthworkers)

So, without just moaning – what might be the solution?

  1. Most accredited JNC Christian youthworkers will have done a module on Youthwork management – so that they are ready to tackle management for themselves should they go on to lead projects. So, use the resource of the youthworker to ask how they would like to be managed. How often, what kind of questions would they like you to ask, might ‘the youthworker’ be able to design a form which you can use. The decide on the schedule, keep to it, and manage in the way that the youthworker requires for you to do. let them help you.
  2.  Have a handle on the work that they do, be present now and then to see them in action, if thats doing detached, or a club or an activity, let them know, but be interested in seeing how things happen with the youthworker, be interested in observing them, because you are also managing them, and will have to do appraisals, or review their probation.
  3. Find out about youthwork, ask the youthworker for materials, books or articles, so that you have an idea of what they’re trying to put into practice, and where you can get them to reflect theologically with you on their practice – after all this could be one of your strengths…
  4. You will need to consider the practicals, such as their holidays, their sickness, their TOIL (yes they should get time off for extra hours worked, even if you’re a workaholic) – and ask them, ensure they take it. Keep these records up to date, its your responsibility, as much as theirs.
  5. Give them opportunities to grow, reflect and create – whether thats retreats, vision days or team building – nothing worse than being the youthworker that isnt important on the staff team..
  6. Ask ‘The youthworker’ for some kind of report, one that isnt just about numbers of people, but progresses, reflections, personal challenges, so you have something you could have a conversation about, that they can share with you.
  7. To help you could form a small management group – consisting of people skilled in like minded professions ( teaching social work etc) which may help in a skills gap. Though youthwork is distinctly different.

If you still feel out of your depth to enable ‘The youthworker’ to professionally grow, after all, you’re not, and never have been a youthworker, then arrange for them to have external supervision, someone who can ask the challenging questions about their practice of groupwork, detached, or clubs.  It may also be that the way ‘the youthworker’ works, and thinks, and delivers activities, and gets young people to think, reflect and explore the tenants of the established faith view of the church is at a tangent to what you had expected or wished for. But yet, the young people love ‘the youthworker’ and the space for expression that they have created, is ‘the youthworker’ being provocative – or is this refreshing in a stable church that finds change and challenge difficult.. How might this challenge be managed and channelled to enable a spiritually flourishing community?  But what happens if you manage a situation like this, dampen down the youthworker and young people – what might be the end result?

Being a parent of a baby, or specifically Anna-Beth was and sometimes still is full of moments where i wish there was a golden handbook of being her parent, all ready to be used in times of emergency, or read and studied in those 9 months. Maybe managing a youthworker as a Vicar is similar, where do you go to learn how to manage someone who might be professional, theologically & theoretically qualified? after all- Management of staff probably didnt figure at Theological college, and NT greek doesnt transfer easily.

Where would you go for training in Youthwork Management – especially if you’re the type who wants to learn the theory. There are some courses out there. The MA in community work and applied theology at ICC would have been one such course, and it may run again in due time. There are others. There are people who may be able to provide training or guidance in this.

Of course it may be said the under management is better than intensive micro-management, yes agreed, but an avoidance of being an extreme alternative does not mean that you default to an invisible or at best a reactive role.  One of the main contributory factors to youth workers leaving their roles in the faith based sector were not young people (it never is), but the organisation context of the work ( ie the management and people/power structures of the church/agency) and lack of understanding of their role as youthworkers (Richards 2005:34). Good supervision, personal fulfillment and supportive colleagues were key contributors to keeping them motivated.

I guess its good to know all this from the outset. So here it is. supervise and manage them well, be supportive and create a environment to help them flourish and feel fulfilled, purposeful, challenged.  Maybe its not too different from parenthood after all.