When might we be honest about failure?

Writing about failure in the practice of youthwork feels like a daunting task, its the conversation no one wants to talk about. Never from a platform, a stage, a training event, or even in articles or books. It might be that youth work & ministry is a bed of roses, and thats the only way to sell it – but that surely hides a reality of its challenges, and also at its worst points – failure. Maybe we engage in the process of ongoing reflection and improvement almost as a way of seamlessly moving from one experience of practice to another, positioning ourselves as the central point that is able to make failure or non-failure happen. The other difficulty about failure is that it stands in stark contrast to success, and the conversation about what success in youth work & ministry is like. For instance, do we regard a practice of youthwork to be successful numerically if 15 young people enjoyed it, or that 1 person was excluded from it, or that 15 young people attended out of 10,000 that might live in the town. And thats only about assessing success and failure in regard to viewing young people as numbers, as attendance- a potential failure in itself.

Also, for the sake of self protection, the responsibility of failure is often laid elsewhere – outside of the youthworker (unless they internalise it and reflect on it) and the approach (youth ministry) but attributed to ‘the church’, ‘the management’, ‘clergy’ , ‘the schools’, young people (for not meeting our expectations), or families. Could it be that responsibility for failure lay not in the persons, or structures, but in the approach instead?

But if we are honest about failure in our ministries- which are the failings that hurt the most? when did we completely miss the mark?

For me, its the failings that occur in my family, because of  youthwork / ministry. 

Its the having to move jobs, houses and communities for me, but also jobs, houses, schools, friends, communities for my wife and children. Either because of changes in jobs. Nothing in the work of ministry quite matches this for the effect of what might be professional failings. Yet, even in ‘stable’ youthwork roles, these are subject usually to changing funding pressures, expectations and politics, all of which have an effect on stability, longevity and the possibility to have a stable family life.

Setting this aside, though not belittling it for one moment, what are the professional failings that hurt the most – that we need to talk about?

A failing for me is when I fail to notice what’s going on with a young person. When there’s too much going on in the situation, in the group, the club or the street, where the club is short staffed, or there an activity in the programme, and then that’s the actual moment when a young person in a conversation drops a subtle bomb about something. For me its a failure if id not been able to give that young person time, in that setting to talk further – because i was so busy, being busy and trying to focus on the practice of the work, not the young person who its all actually for. 

Thats one of the big failings in youthwork for me.

A benefit, in some ways, of working with young people who are more distant from the church type activities, ie street based work, or open access clubs, is that its less likely that the work would put people off being interested in the christian faith.

Its not as if what i do in these moments is to do the ‘youth ministry’ thing which bends over backwards to try and keep ‘christian’ young people (and more than often is faced with a reality of leaking them left right and centre) . So its a luxury that the work im involved in is starting at the other end of the spectrum, which in many ways just tries to give young people respect, time, and explore with them a positive side of the faith, without the politics, barriers or challenges within church, that ‘church’ young people face.

Maybe its a personal failing that as far as i know, not that many young people have ‘become christians’ in the process of the time that i have spent with them, in Perth or in Durham – so is that a failing? or is it better to think that neither were young people turned off of the christian faith because of me either?  But if i have done that – due to incorrect attitude, actions, words then i would consider that a failure – because i hadnt even given that young person a chance that they could explore faith from a point in an early encounter with a christian youthworker.

Failure is a tough one, whether its failings on our part, which we might beat ourselves up over, failings of the organisations or churches we work for, which might cause bitterness or cynicism, or failings in the approach we are asked to take – which might cause, again, reflection, but also a challenge to rethink again approaches, methods and assumptions about the work.

Is it possible that the failings of some of youth work & ministry are downplayed , and why might this be the case?

Might it be because the youthworker is encouraged to be the person who internalises the fault of it?

Is it because theres too much invested in the current status quo of youth ministry – especially in ‘evangelical circles’ to think that it has failed many youth ministers, and especially young people. The key propenents of it survived, those that didnt aren’t around to tell those tales.

I was in a conversation with someone who was working in a church recently, who was receiving a really difficult time of it and about to leave their role, and had been involved in 2 other churches and faced other personal and professional issues in them. On one hand the person was seriously wondering about their own ministry, and felt that they were at fault in them. However, the common denominator, was also that the person had been badly managed and employed and communicated to in 3 different churches. Maybe its that churches dont know that they treat people badly, and maybe if we’re part of the church in youth ministry, we and the young people might be personally subject to the churches failure also.

Sometimes the failure we feel, maybe isnt ours to keep. But without voicing them collectively these stories arent told.

Maybe we fail young people because of something on the day – like being too busy in the club, and that can be sorted. But what if our ministry doesnt listen to young people at all – have we failed young people completely?

I wonder- do we ever think we fail in youthwork because we don’t trust young people enough? or give them space to think? or give them responsibility? These dont sound like the main voices of failure – for most its that young people dont turn up to groups and clubs that theyre meant to – just because we put all that effort into them, not that we failed to do more than entertain.

When we think of failures in youth work – mine would be that ive not done enough to listen, encourage and challenge young people- in the spontaneous moments- usually opting for the safe option, especially in the busy moments.

What might be the other aspect of youth work and ministry that we might consider that we’ve failed in – and how might these failings be embraced – how might approaches of youth work/ministry / church be awakened to the reasons that failings occur. Are there 1000’s of young people in the UK who have a story that suggests that their involvement in youth work/ministry was at fault, not them as a young person, but us, our representation of the church/gospel in our youth ministry, are these unheard stories out weighed by the one church leader who had a great experience in youth ministy?  And what might those of us still involved in it learn as a result? Can ‘ministry’; include a reality about failure, and still be ‘ministry’?

Let open up the conversation…. Lets talk about failure?


Learning Hope from Seaham beach

Seaham Beach is only a few miles up the road from me, here in Hartlepool. Up until about 50 years ago various coal mining industries peppered the East Durham coast, including some that were situated on the coast itself. They poured out their blackened waste products onto the beaches starting at Seaham and the ‘slag’ worked its way down the coast, there’s a black ridge of muddy sand on the beaches at Horden and Easington. But its Seaham beach that I love. The Beach was so black that it features in the ‘planet’ based shots at the beginning of the film Alien 3.

Its an often heard comment that Youthworkers seem happier, not dancing in the rain, but wallowing in the darkness. Wallowing in the muddy, coal ridden pool of water, and only being able to see the water around. The dark gloomy outlook shaped by the government ideology of neo-liberalism, the restrictions on funding, the council cut backs, young people and communities left behind in the funding rat race.  I wonder as well, whether the church is the same, sometimes wallowing in its own self-pity, or narratives of decline.

For 40 years, Seaham beach (the south bit) was a no-go area, even now it looks abit toxic with bright orange pebbles, grey sand and relics and monuments of its past. But the clean salty water has changed the landscape.

Is it possible that in the critiquing the darkness of the situation we’re all in- we’ve been too focussed on the present, understanding it, and adapting to it. Its almost like weve tried to stay afloat in the muddy water – not encourage the tide to come in and clean it all up.

What would an alternative reality be in Youthwork?  The present may not hold many clues- being too formulaic, clean cut-, the past was industrious and possibly messy- but is romanticised. What of the future- and what kind of society might youthwork – and the church- seek to want to create in a new reality, to be as both Tony Jeffs for the sake of Youthwork – a Forward thinking profession, and as Healy argues for the church to be practical and prophetic, not idealistic, but dawning in a new reality.

Hope is about finding ways the future can be embedded in the new present.

Visit Seaham beach, and other places in the North East, many stories can be told within the landscape. Its still a mess, an atmospheric mess, a combination of rock pools, landslips, rocks and the most beautfiully weird coloured stones. Yet visibility is over 50m in the sea and jellyfish have been spotted, the whole area is a site of special scientific research. Nature is finding a way back to redeem what was destroyed.



If you can deal with all of this, then being a youth worker is the right job for you

Beyond the table tennis jokes, and being paid to have coffee and go to meetings, being a youth worker is far more complex, from viewing young people in a distinctive way (at odds at times with the government, media, schools and social services), being involved in their lives in an equally distinctive informal way. Being a youth worker will require that you are astute in the following art forms, if you can rise to these challenges, then it might just be for you.

  1. If you can cope trying to view young people as more than just an economic contributant, with the dominant narrative of the neo-liberal agenda
  2. If you can react to having to find funding for your own role, from at times funders that have adopted the similar political agenda, whilst not being detrimental ethically to the young people and communities you seek to work with. (ie seeing people as more than ‘needy’)
  3. If you can cope when your job is one of the first to go, and shift to every government agenda for young people, to the point when the job that you trained for, barely exists in any pure form.
  4. If you can cope with 3, with barely a union, or collective voice to stand against the cuts. Or in a sutuation where your own professional accrediting body (JNC) is withdrawn from validity by said government.
  5. If you can react patiently when people ask you what you do, every time.
  6. If you’re ok being a professional working with young people that has their voice & opinion minimalised in most state structures such as schools, even if you’ve worked with the young person and their families outside of an institution for a while.
  7. If you can find job satisfaction in a role and find goodness in young people, despite maybe not being able to record, monitor or prove it.
  8. If you can resist external pressure to view young people into what they might become, rather than who they are.
  9. If you can cope being the only youth worker in some towns, villages or rural areas for quite a few miles.
  10. If you can work with the community centre/Church caretaker and get a set of keys.
  11. If you can cope with the people in your own family who have negative views of young people and challenge/bite your lip appropriately.
  12. If you can deal politely with the expectation that being a youth worker is only a stepping stone to a ‘proper’ job, like Clergy, Social worker or Teacher- again from your family at times…
  13. If you can cope with the multi-skilling involved in every week, from planning sessions, follow up work, youthwork in different settings, preparation, all the issues young people want to tell you about – such as school, mental health, self harm, sex, relationships, bullying, hopes & dreams, fashion. Then there’s the tidying up, evaluating, training volunteers. And finishes of 9-10pm, or later on detached possibly.

If you can rise to these challenges, doing so because you want to fight for, and believe in an approach that will transform young people in the context of their community, that is pioneering in valuing young people, that seeks the best for them, going beyond behaviours, narratives, structures and policies that constrain, then being a youth worker is for you.

14. If you can be inspired by hope, and love the work, approach and philosophy of Paulo Freire.

15. If you can dream and believe in a different future for and with young people.

Then become a youthworker. Join what nows seems more than ever a revolution.


Overcoming the fear of walking

I’ve made a number of excuses for going for a run, or doing any exercise this year so far. Exercise thats involves more than walking around Durham with 100’s of library books, or walking around tescos pushing a shopping trolley. These have been the common excuses for not going out running;

  1. the only time Ive got I should be doing something else more important (even walk the dog, but study has also been pretty intense)
  2. the time i have ive only just eaten
  3. its raining
  4. its cold
  5. the first run after 4 months is going to hurt, and i’m not desiring the pain
  6. the whole changing, showering and recovering time might be longer than the run and is it worth it.
  7. We have enough washing to do, without extra sweaty running kit to get washed

These have been the excuses that have stopped me going for a run this year, or more pertinently since the indulgences of Christmas.  Most of the other new years resolutions I have tried to keep, but the exercise one has been a bit more of a challenge.

My fears & inhibitions about running, and accompanying excuses, ive noticed are matched by an area within youthwork management that has been a struggle for me over the last few years also. That is the fear of walking.

Walking, or should I say, making a path by walking is the metaphor that Horton and Freire use to describe the process of creating something new (and has a book of the same name) , an enterprising making of a new path as it is walked. They use this image to describe the process of education in community, of community liberation.

Walking is to act and make the path.

My problem is that I’m too aware of the dangers of the path. I can picture the fields of corn that would be great to walk through, but I fear unadherance the country code, the farmers dog, or the tractor out of control. And stick wisely to the path already trodden around the edge- subtle changes to whats been done before.

Yet i have many ideas of what that path may look like. I have many ideas, too many ideas. I had many plans for youthwork in Perth, in Ottery, and right now at Durham YFC, and where i live in Hartlepool. Some of those ideas would affect churches, organisations, young people, volunteers and employees. Some never get past the ideas board.

What are some of the things that stop me from walking? and acting some of these out?

Sometimes its lack of resources, young people or finances. Sometimes its fear of change, of challenge or taking the risk. Some ideas may be great on paper, but the process of them coming to fruition might seem too hard work. So, its motivation, or time. Sometimes its a fear that ill get it wrong, or that someone else might be right.  Sometimes its that organisations havent wanted to or been able to walk with me (or vice versa).

Other times Ive been paralysed by the finance question – will the idea attract funding? or create it? – worrying about funding i admit has become a dominant reason. And its a horrible place to try and walk – especially as now I have responsibility for others and their employment, life and job security- or my own.  Its a place that i hate, but one that keeps following me around, a self defeating cycle.  (this is not a plea for money, more an indication of the sector, and Christian youthwork resources)

So, if the field is Durham, County Durham and Hartlepool, what kind of paths are to be made? – for that is where walking needs to happen.

What might it take to start walking, start making new paths in christian youth work & church in County Durham & Hartlepool?  What type of organisations or none are the best to enable this to happen?  What kind of walking needs to occur? What kind of resources might this need?

Where might God be calling me to walk – and have i the trust to overcome fear to follow?

There is that addage that a journey of 1,000 miles starts with one first step. There is a path to be made, can I make it by walking?

Anyone want to join me and walk together…..




Youthwork and Personality types

Over the last few weeks, on my youthwork management module we have delved back into the personality styles, and management behaviour theories such as Myers Briggs, or Belbins team roles. Usually these are offered in relation well, to teams, roles within teams or how people act in different situations such as organisations, with associated questionaires and elements of contextual adaption of the person in the role.

In a conversation with a friend of mine, someone very interested in Psychology, we discussed the limitations of some of these popular identifiers, and he suggested the NEO-PIR test, one id not heard of.  Further details of this are here (wiki)

The NEO-PIR test was brought about as 5 main characteristics were identified in every persons personality to some degree or another; these are; Emotional, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extraversion and Openness to experience. Within each of the 5 personality types contain facets, these are on the wikipedia page linked above.

The Crucial aspect of this test is that it measures personality types, not just personality styles, as generally personality is fairly fixed to a limited degree and can be plotted between the five aspects above. .

This got me thinking- if personality is relatively fixed- how might the type of working with young people that seek to improve their attributes – such as confidence, resilience or problem solving  claim to be able to do this – if the young person scores low on having these as a natural personality trait? (a trait, not a style)

The question is- in what way might any work with young people claim to make improvements of young people when aspects of personality may be more fixed that movable?

However, the trick might be to attempt to uncover the dormant strength of the personality of the young person, or to discover the areas where they are ‘high’ in to appeal to the problem at hand. The changes that a young person may be able to make in terms of personality might be small with a considerable amount of effort put in, yet a more effective method would be to discover with a young person their known personality strengths and discover how these might be utilised in the pursuit of overcoming a difficulty.

Maybe this challenges all the courses that young people are on which claim to ‘improve their confidence, or resilience’ when in fact it would be difficult to prove this from a personality trait perspective. How a young person might have utilised dormant confidence (a combination of conscientious/emotional) might be closer to the reality.

How much does youthwork take a young persons personality traits into account?  In doing so, might it enable youthwork to be better equipped in being able to meet needs and encourage the gifts of young people in the future.

Yes on one hand some forms of working with young people might be able to help young people with ‘soft skills’ but in what way do proponents of this see to make claims of what could be regarded as personality change, strong claims!

On an different perspective, I wonder what kind of personality type is the average youthworker? High neurosis and borderline emotional probably. Though i wonder whether different practices of youthwork encourage a different personality type.

If you’re reading this and have done a psychology A level you’ll know more than me on the subject, and im not claiming any kind of expertise at all, in dipping my toe in the water of thinking about personality types there may be questions that are raised as a result, yes more thinking required…

Youthwork and personality type.. any thoughts?


Youthwork Management Juggling

The old adage that no two days in youthwork are the same, is true, neither are any two days in a management position in a youthwork organisation.

Some days can be an ongoing juggle of all the aspects of the work, all the different areas of responsibility, all the planned activities, and all the reactive ones.

From all the funding streams, managing staff, budgeting, administration, emails (sigh!) , social media presence, planning, strategy, networking, volunteer recruitment, creating policies and adhering to them. Every day can feel like an act of juggling, juggling what might be in the diary, with what emerges in the day, juggling what to do to be effective, or important in these areas. Juggling with the daily requests and phone-calls.

Though I’ve tried to find, or created my own planning or priority system, none seem to work for me. For me using electronic organising is like Rimmer in Red dwarf and his revision timetable,  I spend more time adding things to task lists, than actually doing the tasks.

Outside of ‘just’ work, then there’s the juggling of study, family and ahem exercise. (no prizes for guessing which one of these has suffered recently)

Im not one for thinking that the roles required in these spaces are a cause of undue stress, but holding things in the air and keeping all of these things spinning around in some kind of order, seems to be the day to day existence of managing in a youthwork or community organisation setting.

Yet there are other aspects of the analogy of juggling that keep ongoing – juggling between values (of local org/national affiliation/youthwork) , juggling between maintaining the organisation via funding and maintaining values, juggling between delivering on plans and having ideas and creativity, juggling between what roles does a particular day, or team, or practice need for that day or time for things to work. Juggling between doing something safe, or attempting to be creative, juggling in the borders, between the systems and yet not implicitly endorsing the system in the work. Juggling between the ideal practice, and the reality.

As i also help to deliver the detached work, juggling between practice, and being responsible for practice. Ironically at times the nature of juggling in management can make it even more difficult to be excited about practice, yet id rather do more practice, spend time energised by and with young people on detached. But mentally this can be difficult after a day of management juggling.

Maybe juggling keeps the balls in the air for so long, on other occasions the clown doing the juggling needs to walk around the stage, needs to change the space, or take the balls being juggled in a different direction. But most of the time, youthwork management on a day to day basis is an exercise in juggling, especially in a small organisation where resources are limited, but the expectations still remain. There are some days when i have to get out, walk the dog or go and have a coffee with someone – chew the fat and get a new perspective on the importance of juggling, or a different method to juggle, or to put a whole load of new, easier balls to keep spinning in the air.





Focussing on faithful performance, rather than management by numbers

The dawning of youth ministry in the 1980’s was heavily influenced by that  statistic, you know the one I mean, that every week 300 young people leave the church. This week articles from


and Ali Campbell have continued the ongoing almost obsession both within and outside of the church with measuring its life or health by Sunday attendance numbers. There are many others, i am just highlighting these two because they’re the most recent. The Guardian ran the piece yesterday too. There’s a graph almost every month depending on who’s got research being produced.

Everyone knows on one hand that statistics can be presented in a number of ways – however i wonder if one of the key flaws to the traditional discussion is the use of statistics, or at least the measurement of people by numbers at all, within the consideration of the state of religion or the nations religion.

a lesson from youthwork:

Youth work, which has claimed to be an art, a Moral philosophy (Kerry Young 1999), one of its key demises as a universal service has been caused by political interference in regard to youthwork needing to justify its existence through adhering to the political ideologies of neo-liberalism. These prioritised efficiency, value for money in tendering processes and essentially young people as numbers/commodities and as clients. Because youthworkers couldn’t fight back, neither could they force young people to attend or did they want to (due to the nature of the informal voluntary relationship that youthwork consists of) the game of political neo liberalism, and this ideology implemented by new public management has led to the closure of youth services (a practice underpinned by an art) – replaced horrifically by schemes such as NCS which act in a business, outcome way and view young people more akin to a problem to solve, which may work with young people, but is far from what might be considered artistic educative youthwork.

So, why this sorry tale?

If the maxim that once some thing can be measured it then lies itself open to be managed is accurate, then might the church in determining its success by numbers be opening itself up to the same political managerial forces that have currently decimated youth services?

Maybe not – but where might the dominant ideas regarding management be coming from?

What i mean is – does the fascination with the outcomes of faith performance (ie the activities of clergy , church) in light of ‘people-as-numbers’, reduce the acts christian faith to scientific management and outcomes determined performances?

Instead – as Vanhoozer states (2014:182) – should the aim be to ‘present Christ, not extend Christendom’  and  be encouraged to artistically perform creatively in contexts, produce mosaics and prosaics of liberative, flourishing acts, acts of sacrament, worship and theatre. Concern about numbers or status anxiety is probably correctly identified by vanhoozer as a “perennial threat to the church’s faithful performance ” and should it act in ways that seek to attract- use tools of the empire, or business strategies of ‘the world’  which will inevitably hinder or produce a certain type of growth or faith.

So – instead of attendance – and i reluctantly say this – what about focussing on performances of worship/church as creative and artistic, on dramatic performance. Might authentic faith follow?

Whether faith performance should be measured, and then be called to management from this perspective should hopefully be open to question.

Faith as art,  might reduce faith to acts of performance, akin to the redundant art museum, but art is too static, unlike the drama of ongoing present performance, so as i urge ‘art’ i mean ‘artistic’ or art as  contrast to science/numbers.

If numbers are required, why is the outcome of the action what is recorded? , In the weekly statistics on film takings, there’s two recognised, one for takings overall, and one for takings per cinema/showing. So, What about measuring numbers of performances? or variety of performances? or number of voluntary hours committed by church people in society, chaplain hours, youth ministry hours?.

If the issue is that reduction of attendance is a sign of increase secularisation, (Moynagh 2012) Then the church should adapt its performance from its actions on Sundays thus measuring aspects of church performance in decline and start to identify and produce evidence on a regular basis of the church’s good artistic and active performance in the UK society.

And if attendance is the statistic that counts, could that not include all services in churches, messy church, mothers union (the original fresh expression?!), Wednesday services and others.

The danger of numbers is that creative performance is stultified because creativity & goodness of performance is gauged through the lens of people attending church on one service on one day. As soon as performance is weighed down by ‘how many people attended it, or Sunday services only’ whether it be youth ministry, chaplaincy, messy church, toddler groups its reduced faith to people-as-numbers, rather than faith in people.

As Moynagh argues (2012), churches that put on varieties of performance do attract more people, but if its didn’t attract people would that not mean that it was appropriate.

The danger of management of churches that inherits management models that don’t reflect the values or acts of mission, but management concepts from business which deem efficiency, control and value for money as priorities, not a liberative or theological underpinning of management fit for the futuristic values of the church as faithful performance. If the old adage that going to Macdonalds doesnt make a person a hamburger, managing the church like a Macdonalds chain will not make for a healthy spiritual diet in the UK.