The Heart-Breaking Side of being a Long-Term Youth Worker

I’m a huge advocate for youth ministry as a long-haul vocation, rather than a one-stop ride on the way to ‘proper’ ministry. We’ve got to dig in, get comfortable, and prepare for a real journey.

There is, however, a darker side to being in it for the long haul, one we don’t often talk about in the wake of trying to keep people from giving up. In a nutshell it’s this: people leave.

Friends to but not friends with

When you are ministering to young people it is important to remember that you’re not their mate. You can be a friend to a young person, but not a friend with a young person. We’re not their peers (that would be creepy), and as adults with duty-of-care, we need to exercise healthy boundaries that are stricter than the average friend.

All that said, you do grow to like young people. You spend a lot of time with them laughing, making memories, opening up, being supportive; and many of them – over the long haul – mature into fully fledged adults. I can honestly say that I’m now friends with several adults who used to be in my youth group when they were younger.

These are the first of two groups who leave.

When friends move away

When kids become adults, they do things like go to university, get jobs, and move away. This has happened to me more than a few times now, and it’s a sad recurring story.

When you have invested so much into a young person – who then grows into a healthy adult – a bond is made and the relationship can easily grow into an adult friendship. Then quite suddenly there’s marriage, new families, and jobs far away. It’s always sad to see friends go, and there’s a bittersweet irony when these friends used to be young people to whom we invested so much into their maturity into adulthood.


When young people drift away

It’s not just these maturing young adults that leave. Over my years as a youth worker I’ve seen many young people come and go. In some cases, these young people stayed around for just one week, but in others they were around a year or so then drifted off without a word.

Sometimes they fell out with God, other times they fell out with me. In some cases, there was an issue at home, a tragedy, or just a change in personality. Whichever way, young people often leave.

The longer you spend in youth ministry the more you look back over the names and faces that you no longer see. There are good memories to be sure, but there’s also grief and loss.

This is the other side of long haul youth ministry that we rarely talk about – and it’s important to remember that we’re not alone. Considering how isolated youth ministry can be, this feels like we should prepare for this more.

How do you handle the loss?

I’m not entirely sure, as I’m only just realising that this is a thing in my life, however I offer up a few simple suggestions to get us started.

  • Let yourself grieve
    It is important to genuinely feel what you’re feeling and to allow yourself to move through the stages of sadness.
  • Make an event of people leaving when you can
    Closure goes a long way and celebrating a young person’s movement into adulthood is incredibly affirming for them.
  • Keep in touch
    Be realistic, but keep a few details and drop a ‘hello, how are you?’ every now and then. It will be valuable to both of you.
  • Remember that it’s hard for them too
    You’ve been a significant part of their life, and you too will be stepping out of their world.
  • Keep healthy boundaries
    Goes without saying, but make sure you do move through your ministry with the right measure of strict and organically reactive boundaries to keep the relationships in safe areas.
  • Pray for them
    Give thanks to God for them, and them let Him have them completely.

Premier Digital Finalist for the 3rd Year!

It’s really exciting and humbling to be going to the Premier Digital Awards again this year, after being shortlisted as a finalist for both the ‘Most Inspiring Leadership Blog’ and ‘Multi-Author Blog of the Year’ categories.

Huge thank you to everyone who nominated Youth Work Hacks, and a big thanks to Premier Digital for recognizing this humble little youth work blog!

It was amazing to win both of these awards last year, and particularly to win ‘Most Inspiring Leadership Blog’ for the second year running.

Do check out the other utterly amazing blogs in these categories – have I’d a wander through them all, and they are fabulous! Special plug to Chris Green’s ‘Ministry Nuts and Bolts’ which is fantastic… and he used to be my New Testament teacher at Bible College!

Most Inspiring Leadership Blog

Campus Awakening

Ministry Nuts and Bolts

Nick Wright

The Additional Needs Blogfather

Multi-Author Blog of the Year

Be Loved

Clarity Magazine

Girl Got Faith


The other ‘other’ side of mental health

There are few health-related topics receiving as much media attention at the moment as mental health, and rightly so. It’s been a tragically misunderstood and vastly under-resourced part of human conditions for years.

The NHS says that one in four adults and one in ten children will experience mental health problems, however only a small amount of the NHS budget has been historically set aside for mental health research, diagnosis or treatment. This is getting better (£11.9 billion in 2017/18), but the waiting lists are still too long, and the medical opinions between departments are still too rampantly inconsistent.

I know from first-hand experience with both anxiety and depression, just how debilitating poor mental health can be, and I have friends who have gone through incredibly serious treatment for significant mental health conditions.

That all said, there is another ‘other’ side.

As mental health is dialled up to 11 in the media, and the – much needed – mission to re-educate the public on its seriousness is highlighted, pop-psychology has also been dialled up, and genuine illnesses are in danger of being sensationalised as almost fashionable. There is a tendency to become very reactionary to basic terms, there are thousands of websites where you can get ‘self-diagnosed’, and there are all kinds of misinformed instructional blogs on how to be treated.

Some of these videos and blogs are incredibly helpful, but many are not. With the internet being the shape it is, we have no way of knowing if the guy at the other end of the keyboard is an actual MD, or a college drop-out sitting on his parents couch with a can of Monster and ill-fitting pyjamas.

The dangers of self-diagnosis online

Please understand that I write this out of a genuine desire to get people who are really struggling in front of actual doctors. The internet, even when it’s right, is by its nature anonymous and impersonal. This means that even if you do get a correct diagnosis, the treatment suggested might not be at all helpful for you, and could even be harmful.

With the growing awareness of mental health conditions and symptoms there are, thankfully, more people seeing doctors. This has, however, led to an increased burden on the NHS, which makes it understandable why they have created online ‘mood assessment’ quizzes. Even this quiz, however, with its genuine research and actual stock GP questions is marked with the disclaimer: ‘The quiz is not designed to replace an appointment with your GP.’

Psychology Today warns us that self-diagnosis may be missing something important that a doctor would be able to tease out with you, they say ‘you may be overwhelmed by anxiety and think that you have an anxiety disorder. The anxiety disorder [however] may be covering up a major depressive disorder.’

I have two very good friends with diagnosed, long-term clinical depression. Both receive treatment from doctors for their conditions. One of these friends takes medication, which – in the main – helps, the other isn’t allowed that particular medication because it causes triggers for his (also diagnosed) hebephrenic schizophrenia. They can’t be treated the same way. One of them sees a counsellor at their office, the other cannot be alone in a room with someone unless there are no windows and they are facing the door – which has to be locked. They both have ‘depression’ but different treatment plans made specifically for them.

There is also a blurred line between feeling something and suffering with something. Anyone can ‘feel depressed’ for instance, however not everyone has ‘clinical depression.’ Mental health includes things like chemical imbalances, vitamin production issues, and beta misfires. Self-diagnosis and treatment may be replacing another important need in your life where you should, in fact, be working on resilience and maturity. Mental health and hypochondria have (very ironically) become a taboo pairing.

In Youth Work

When it comes to young people, media-sensationalising, youtube ‘experts’, and ‘10 questions to find out if you’re a psychopath’ online quizzes – many of which are aimed at teenagers – easily throws fuel onto this fire.

I have young people who tell me regularly that they can’t participate in an activity or follow a rule because of their self-diagnosed / undiagnosed ‘mental health.’ This also carries on to personality types and additional needs. I recently was told by a young boy in a classroom that he should be allowed to bang his lunch and disrupt the room because he had ‘dyspraxia.’ Not only is this a poor understanding of dyspraxia, but it made light of two other people in the room who genuinely do struggle with dyspraxia and are trying to manage it.

I wouldn’t want to make light of a young person’s self-identity, of course. There are many young people who do have genuine mental health concerns, and some are still without a diagnosis. However, there is still a line to be trod between total acceptance and total rejection.

I have other young people in my groups who, along with parents, carers and doctors, are working on mental health issues and have asked me to support those efforts. I am all for this!

So, here’s a few things you can do:

  1. Get educated. Learn about conditions and treatments. Find out about the diagnosis procedures and the nuances of what is done in support.
  2. Get connected. Find out what mental health facilities are available in your area, especially for young people. This goes beyond the NHS and will often include support forums and charities.
  3. Get compassionate. Always start with grace and mercy. Don’t immediately judge or write off a young person’s self-identity, but talk with them, ask questions, and work on it with them healthily and compassionately.
  4. Get supportive. Young people with additional needs and mental health conditions often have a ‘one sheet’ created by doctors, teachers and social workers. This single page gives information about that particular person, what their triggers are, and how to help them. Ask them to see it and be a part of their growth and management.
  5. Get honest. Don’t try to be a doctor. Always follow medical advice, and always refer young people to professionals. Strongly suggest seeing their GP, and even offer to go with them. This step can actually be a huge fear obstacle to overcome, especially with some mental health conditions, so be understanding. However, do be firm, challenging, and help them get the help they need.
  6. Get talking. Make mental health a regular topic of discussion with your young people, and work hard at removing taboos. Bring into it the need to medical support, and the dangers of self diagnosis. Do it well, and self diagnosis won’t need to be a thing.
  7. Get praying. Need I say more? 🙂


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Living with insomnia as a youth worker

For as long as I can remember I have struggled with sleep.

Most nights I’ll drift off nice and easily, but then I’ll wake up at the smallest sound, and usually I’ll be wide awake by about 3am, only to have my tiredness return by 7am. This is always fun.

When I’m asleep I grumble, mutter, and grind my teeth. Sometimes I tell full-blown stories. In fact, this was one of the first things that my wife discovered just after we got married. One time, while fully asleep, I opened my eyes, leaned up on my pillow, looked at my wife and said to her:

“Harry Potter… He’s an angel… and he’s got these wings… and he flies around… but he gets really really tired about every fifteen minutes.”

With that I dropped back onto my pillow, but my wife was laughing so hard that she woke me up!

I average about four hours of sleep per night, but that’s not consistent. Some nights I’ll get two hours and some nights I’ll get ten. In fact there really is nothing consistent about my insomnia.

I’ve taken meds, tired therapies, and I’ve talked to doctors. The last doctor I talked to , however, spent most of the appointment telling me about a recurring nightmare of his wherein a giant set of chess pieces were trying to kill him. Fun, but not really very helpful. I haven’t exhausted the entire list of medical options, but I have dug pretty deep.

The thing is, I just don’t sleep well.

For the tech-heads among you, I spend far too long in REM, nowhere near long enough time in NREM, and I tend to only complete the first few sleep cycles, leaving the latter cycles (which mostly deal with cognitive function) incomplete and disturbed. It’s not good for organ recovery, and it always leaves me a little groggy.

Enter the world of youth work

Other than the shadows under my eyes, which I mostly hide with framed glasses and eye-cream, you wouldn’t necessarily know this about me. I don’t talk much about it for fear of the ‘I’ll fix it’ crowd. I’m also slightly onto the ADHD scale, and I’m rarely visibly short of energy during my youth projects. But boy do I feel tired a lot!

I think if I really had to pinpoint when this cycle of poor sleep began, it was when I had a series of operations in my early teens and spent a month in hospital, and no-one sleeps well in hospital! Not long after this I entered into the church youth work scene, first as a young person, then a young leader, and finally a professional youth pastor. It’s all I’ve ever really known.

My introduction to and growth into youth ministry happened on a parallel track to the setting in of my sleep disorder. The two grew together.
The general patterns of youth ministry are simply not well suited to someone with diagnosed insomnia. There are inconstant hours, late nights, early mornings, spontaneous events, overlong meetings, high-energy projects, deep one-to-ones, all-nighters, back-to-back camps, locks-ins, and then reports. If I hadn’t grown into youth ministry while developing insomnia, I never ever would have learned the energy management to go with it.

So what do I do / what should you do?

I honestly have no idea. I’m constantly trying to ‘work on my sleep.’ This is frankly one of the weirdest posts I’ve ever written because I have very little wisdom to give on the subject, despite actually having quite a lot of experience.

I mostly wrote this as a testimony to any other youth leaders who struggle with sleep. Hopefully it will be a little ‘you’re not alone’ post that might offer some solidarity.

I’ll say a few random things though:

  1. Youth leader – take your days off, book holidays, don’t distain rest, turn off when your home, don’t be an ‘always on’ leader.
  2. Insomniac – seek help, develop consistency as much as possible over sleep quantity (waking up a the same time tends to be more important than going to bed at the same time), make peace with the fact that you will just be tired. Life’s too short to care too much. Also – don’t underestimate the power of regular exercise and a good diet.
  3. Managers – Be careful how much you ask from a youth leader that isn’t on their job description, and take care over which meetings you invite them to.
  4. Nappers – if you nap, try to do it properly.
  5. Self-diagnosers – Please see a doctor before you announce to the world you have insomnia. Some of us really do.
  6. ‘Helpful’ people – I’ve read books, talked to doctors, and probably spent more time googling than you have… probably at 4am. Please don’t try to fix me. Encouragement, sympathy and prayers are much better! Thanks 🙂