Continual Reconstruction

A few of my friends have recently asked me whether I would do a follow up to this piece that i wrote a few years ago: Trying to survive after falling off the evangelical cliff. I think looking back on this piece, and time, part of me was in a place of trying to survive even in the current situation of that time, yet placed significance in some of that as a fall away from aspects of evangelical church, life and culture, theology and boundaries. I was surviving myself.

The piece i think a number of my friends want me to write is on the reconstruction, and to share some of the resources, some of the aspects of my own reconstruction that may in turn help others, just may, because reconstruction will need and take a number of ways, specific to each one of us. A piece on reconstruction. Because, deconstructing does seem popular at the moment, or at least, maybe that’s because I am clocking it, noting it, my own echo chamber is full of it, because it seems its where i am, and have been. But I realised, whilst soaking in the bath last night, that reconstruction is continual. We don’t ever make it, but embrace the path of searching, with its stones, litter and obstacles. Yes there have been for me certain tools and people along the way. So, friends, this isn’t that piece on reconstruction. Yet.

But this, a poem on continual reconstruction. Some of my own, some of others who’ve been desert friends.

 

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Personal Vulnerability, through the storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Mentoring still the ‘silver bullet’ to solve all society’s problems with young people?

There was a time when Mentoring was the deemed to be the silver bullet, the approach and method that would solve the problems that young people were causing society, from the Big Sisters/Brothers schemes in America since the 1900’s to many school and community projects, funded by the US government in the states, to the voluntary and statutory projects here in the UK. Though in a way it has always gone a little bit under the radar. Though they had expanded significantly up until 5 years ago ( McCleod, p101) And its status under the radar might be one of the reasons why its maybe not as talked about as other ways of working with young people, such as open clubs, detached or programmes. At least that might be my own blind spot, and having been involved in mentoring, managed an mentoring project and written an honours thesis on it a few years ago, it would still trigger my attention a little.

One of the issues mentoring has always faced within youthwork is that it has been seen as the gradual process of changing group work and the facilitation of groups and community education, to the narrowing of intentions to individuals, to the point where the group work disappears altogether for the individual mentoring projects, these fears were first realised in Jeffs and Smith’s piece individualisation and youth work and so, many a critique has been written about what mentoring is within a youthwork philosophy, how it could encompass youthwork approaches and values, but that generally ultimately it begins to veer towards an individual therapy approach, aka counselling, guidance or life coaching which is fine, but its not then as easy to quantify as youthwork per se. Its maybe why as a youthworker its dipped below the radar. Though some of the larger mentoring networks have closed down in the last 6 years, victims themselves of the wider financial constrains within youth provision.

That being said, having a mentor can have a profoundly positive and also negative effect on a young person, with much of the research (by Fairbridge group, now Princes Trust) suggesting that the more positive effects occurs after a year of the mentoring relationship, and where the mentoring relationship ended under 6 months or was terminated this had a negative effect, on the whole.

But the mysterious thing about mentoring is how it works at all?

And this is the fun bit. There seems to be no real logic as to how mentoring actually works, it is a mystery. But then it should be, putting two people usually strangers together.

The relationship can occur within the confines of a school, and be about trying to help a young person with attendance issues. Yet the relationship between the two people might have nothing to do with the purpose of the relationship, they are two people who click, sometimes two people with shared interests dont click, sometimes they do.

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One of the pieces of the magic jigsaw, is the how of the interaction.

Commonly known as the process of matching. In one situation i was in i was told that i would be mentoring a young person, they were told that they would have a mentor and then we would meet, week 1 was the initial meeting, and with only 7 meetings afterwards, there was going to be issues, it would feel like trying to rescue the person, and they knew it. In another project, the mentoring, one to one conversations after initially meeting the young people on the streets in detached work, the relationship had already occured, and the young person was opting into the choice referral with a person who they bonded with a little. In another project, the one i used to manage at Durham Youth for Christ, the coordinator would arrange for the mentors and young people to meet each other in a three way meeting with himself and then the two would decide after 2-3 meetings whether they would continue. Often this worked, as it gave both parties to opt in, or out to the relationship (but not being involved in being mentored)

The matching is important then for the magic to occur.

The magic of mentoring is also more likely to occur when the objectives of the relationship are known, and where the young person has the opportunity to shape them, even in a situation where the pressure is on to get ‘results’ the greater pressure on the relationship, the less likely for the relationship to work to its fullest. And its the relationship that the mentor has to attend to and prioritise (Tina Salter, YMCA GW college, Innovations in Youth work, 2014), and the skills required for the mentor are listening, and trying to build rapport and trust, especially if the relationship is going to develop beyond a social status, to increase personal giving away, sharing and any more serious disclosures.

The magic also occurs when the young person has confidence in the relationship.

It is one thing i notice on the streets, theres only so much young people say until they trust the relationship, the purpose and the workers in person. It takes us to give away who we are and our purpose for then young people to know whats going on and make a decision to invest in the relationship. The same for mentoring. This is where time is a factor, for, if young people know its only for a very short term, then its unlikely that they, understandably will invest in it, it will stay functional and practical (despite the best intentions of the mentor to show empathy, the short term nature overrides this, often). If the mentor is promising a better future for the young person, it has to be accompanied by a promise of time for the relationship – ie over a year. So at least the young person knows and is confident that they have space to grow into it and build the relationship.

In the same way a group might undergo ‘storming’- so there is usually boundary testing in the mentoring relationship. Or behaviour that the young person is invoking a reaction, whether sympathy for a situation or shock, or to get an aggressive or disappointed reaction. Or the young person is trying to asses ‘whose side’ the mentor is on, theirs or the school/probation – or neither – and this can make or break. This was always the benefit of being independant from a school in mentoring ( ie who pays for it) but thats not always possible.

An interesting aside to some of this is that in the UK we often assign mentors to young people who are most in need, in the USA many more young people from across the whole spectrum have the opportunity to engage with a mentor. In this way it destigmatises. But also means that the mentor might offer more than coping strategies or support for a problem, it might be support to succeed, or develop critical thinking ( Rhodes, 2002, 46-50). But it means that mentoring has a different focus. And mentoring type relationships do occur in work, apprenticeships and graduate schemes, so its not just about young people in schools.

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But how does it work?

Rutter observed that vulnerable children with one good relationship were less likely to develop behaviour problems than others, deeming that good relationships outside the family have as much positive effect as those within. In another study Werner and Smith concluded that resilient young people sought support more often from non-parent adults. One relationship was often enough. Rhodes discusses that social skill enhancement, dialogue and listening and being a role model are the contributory factors to ensuring that mentoring works, or that the mentors influence the young persons development, but none occur without an emotional bond. And it is that emotional bond that needs honing and developing within the nature of the relationship. A purely functional goal orientated relationship is unliekly to develop these development factors. The active, mysterious ingredient, in a good mentoring relationship is a close trusting connection. No bond, no relationship and then limited positive impacts ( Rhodes, 2002, p37).

Looking at Goffmans presentation of the self in everyday life (1960) there is the sense that each interaction is also a performance of the self presented in a way to others, to gain and receive what each individual wants. Yes it could be selfish as a model, but in a way the presenting of the self and the rules of the game being played all occur within mentoring, from the falseness, to the status, and also the deliberate hiding of truth for an advantage, all aspects that affect a persons performance through their interaction. What is revealed on the front stage ( body language, clothing, speech, make up, hair, content of conversation) that affect the performance as well as the back stage ( the objectives, formality, room, time, finances, style). When broken down like this, the mentoring relationship can be viewed as an ongoing performance of persons, developing rapport as they present to each other, giving away truth, reality and falseness in the process of nurturing or forming a relationship that develops meaning and actions. The conversation is a little piece of theatre, and in mentoring the two persons performing might be ‘forced’ together, or find their way to perform together.

The problem with the silver bullet and rescue approach is that the relationship is highly managed, professionalised and the young person targeted, the magical rapport is going to take a long time. Informality, where it is at all possible, and where the young person has at least some autonomy as to who they are being mentored by, will have some positive bearing on this, as will the promise of time, and the skills of the mentor. There is inevitably, as Gina McCleod writes, a crossover in youth work between different approaches and when we become guides, wise, and supportive, and this can be in informal mentoring in whatever context.

Not unlike much youthwork, being able to ‘bottle’ it when ‘it works’ is great, but its really difficult to replicate it at any time. The most formal mentoring might pair the most suited persons, the least official mentoring and short term volunteer could develop a deep bond quickly. In Mentoring there may at least be some ways of shaping the relationship in its structure, to create more of a possibility for the magic to happen, but again thats also the same for the youth club setting too. There are stages in the relationship, and its a relationship to be finely attended to by its participants with small amounts of external influence where possible, but time pressures and objectives and targets affect the relationship too and its possibilities.

Still, What surprises me is that there arent more schools wanting mentoring projects around the country, or that churches and voluntary groups arent setting even more up, especially given how significant they can be at helping young people with the day to day advice of life, and being a supportive person in the mix, that may help in preventing a Camhs referral or be someone to help with pushing, questioning and encouraging. And whilst young people need this more than ever, may be thats also the kind of person we all need from time to time.

Is youth mentoring the silver bullet? maybe its gone out of fashion as a new thing, but as youth workers do less group work and more individual work, then more and more of what is done is closer to a form of mentoring. Maybe it isnt the silver bullet, there isnt any silver left.

Credit for this piece, goes to a friend of mine, John Ristway, who still runs the mentoring project in Durham, whos dedication to develop as informal and participative youth mentoring programme in schools was a source of great inspiration. This project is still being run by Durham Christian Partnership, please do search them out and make a donation or volunteer.

If you would like to receive training on setting up mentoring in your church or organisation, then please do contact me and click the link in the menu above. Thank you.

References

Goffman, Irving, 1960, The presentation of the self in everyday life.

McLeod, Gina, Advising and Mentoring, in Youthwork Practice, Jeffs and Smith, 2012

Rhodes, Jean 2002, Stand by me, The risks and rewards of mentoring todays youth, Havard

Salter, Tina, 2014, The place and use of mentoring with young people, GW YMCA, Innovations in Youthwork practice.

And theres a piece here : http://www.infed.org/learningmentors/mentoring.htm  on mentoring on the Infed.org page which is a little in need of updating.. but worth a read anyway.

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..