As youth workers, we get things wrong. Lots wrong, in fact, and all the time. How can that be, you ask? Well, we balance a whole mess of varied personalities, quirky projects, disjointed goals and unrealistic expectations. We are often accountable to different people than those we actually serve, and we expertly straddle the line between the easy-to-offend and the easy-to-disengage. We don’t have the odds stacked in our favour.
It also doesn’t help that the UK church is still in its infancy when it comes to hiring youth workers. Actually managing youth workers properly is a fine art that few have really mastered.
It’s not always crystal clear, therefore, where the management lines are drawn. The result is that everybody – parents, teachers, kids, elders, PCC, wardens, safeguarding officers, curates, the post-man, the dog – thinks that ultimately they are your boss.
We get lots and lots of complaints! This is stressful for anybody, let alone hyper-emotionally-challenged and miss-managed, octopus-styled youth workers. When you write your complaint letter to your youth worker, take a minute to think about how to get it right.
I’m going to share a couple of stories with you; these are all actual complaints that I have received.
Disclaimer – looking back over this post after writing it, I realise that it could come across unnecessarily cathartic. This is not my intention. Like all the best training, I believe these examples show lived experience not just abstract theory. So hopefully useful!
1. The Letter from the Fashion Police.
To Tim Gough
7th March 2010
As a member of Christ Church of the older generation, I write to express my utter disgust at your mode of dress at the Morning Service today – tatty, torn trousers at the knees for everybody to see – is that the way to come into any church – (or any Cathedral?)? I cannot think of any other member of the congregation who would come into the church looking as dishevelled as you do.
I have been coming to Christ Church for well over 20 years now, and have never seen anybody coming in with torn trousers like your display today.
Would you go into Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral – or anywhere else for that matter – looking like you did this morning? I hope not. Wake up in future
A Parishioner (in disgust)
My casual exhibitionism and unfortunately sharp knees not withstanding there are a couple of things to points out.
The letter was not signed.
There is no hope here for dialogue, no conversation and no relationship. This is in no uncertain terms, anonymous trolling. A gentle chat with me afterwards would have had a much better response.
The letter was written angry.
Complaints, like all discipline, should come from a place of loving correction, rather than anger. This was in reference to ‘the service today’, so they went home and wrote it while they were still ticked. Flipping tenses around, making hugely generalised statements and telling me to ‘wake up’ with underlining didn’t endear themselves to me – it just made me feel hurt and attacked.
The letter was missing some perspective.
What does going into Westminster Abbey really have to do with a youth leader gathering teenagers for the youth club? A bit of reflection may have made this person consider the generational difference between themselves and the young people, and instead think, ‘wow, there are young people connecting with God in this church!’
2. The Glitter Covered Turd.
While working at a conference I heard a friend quote the classic missive ‘you can’t polish a turd.’ Immortal and well accepted wisdom. At that point, however, another friend responded ‘but you can roll it in glitter!’ Apt.
Rob Bell talks about ‘chocolate covered turds’ which I guess (in the etymologically sound world of turd-related metaphors) is roughly the same thing as rolling one in glitter. Bell talks about compliments that have sneakily lines thrown in like ‘I think your great, even though you believe this…’ or ‘I’m with you, even though everybody else hates you.’
I once received one monster of a glitter covered turd.
It was a well written, graceful and constructive complaint email highlighting a few areas that I needed to work on with some helpful specific examples. It read well, and even though it was a bit overlong, it was actually a good example. This was until I saw the carbon copy line of the email.
The email was copied into the Pastor, Associate Pastor, two Wardens and few other leaders they got on well with. At this point it was no longer approaching me as a brother, but it had skipped ahead to full on public rebuke (Matthew 18:15-16).
3. The Stealth Bomber Complaint (aka, Gossip).
About nine months into a job, the Church Wardens decided to be proactive in finding out how I was doing. They had received the glitter covered turd emails, had a few ‘backroom’ conversations and went off to do some fact finding. This didn’t include me.
My volunteer leaders started to report to me that they were being subtly interrogated by the wardens to find out what I was up to; how was I supporting them, was I towing the line. They felt a bit weird (obviously), and frankly a little violated.
It wasn’t until two years after this that they actually arranged a meeting with me in order to take over my line management which, in their words, wasn’t working. But this was after sowing discord among leaders, parents and young people, and without raising complaints directly with me. Whoops! The damage had already been done, and I was too inexperienced to know how to resolve the conflict from my end.
4. The Job-Destroying Accusations (aka, worse Gossip).
X’s Mum (also a Sunday School leader) speaking to 17 year old volunteer: “Tim doesn’t let my teenage daughter play in the band because he’s a sexist!”
Volunteer to me: “X’s Mum said you’re a sexist”
Me to X’s Mum: “The reason your daughter doesn’t play in the band is because, after asking her, she doesn’t want to play in the band.”
Same Mum to other parents and leaders: “Tim doesn’t let my teenage daughter play in the band because he’s a sexist!”
This same parent caused me numerous issues that were always unnecessarily overblown and immensely complex to resolve. Had I known then what I do now I would have removed her from her leadership positions until she had sought some clinical help for her slightly sociopathic insecurities.
5. The Lobbing In The Grenade And Legging It Email Chain.
After an event had gone awry for a wide range of silly reasons, I received a damning email from it’s organiser spelling out what a horrible person I was for having such unrealistic expectations of him.
The email made its fair share of generalisations, sweeping statements, and emotional rhetoric – scoring a trifector on the ‘how not to complain scale.’ It was also copied into a fair few of his team and leaders, which conveniently covered his back from the actual reasons the event failed.
There’s the grenade.
This complaint obviously needed resolving properly, relationally; face-to-face. I responded to him personally, through email, phone and facebook. I reached out to his pastor, and got my line-manager to do the same. We arranged multiple times to meet and talk, and I gave up a lot of ground to make that happen – but he continually cancelled or didn’t show. After about nine months, I gave up.
There’s him legging it.
If you’re not willing to talk through your complaint relationally, then you probably need to take an emotional inventory on what you’re actually trying to accomplish by making it in the first place.
6. The Spousal Approach.
I’m not really sure why people think complaining through my wife will make me take them any more seriously, but it seems to happen all the time.
There are actually a fair few examples I can give here, so I’ll go with a relatively mundane one. After giving a talk in a church morning service, the Pastor went to talk to my wife giving her some points he thought weren’t quite up to par. He then ended by saying, ‘but don’t tell him.’ Really?
You’ve got to ask what he hoped to accomplish by putting my wife in such a crazy position, and whether perhaps he was trying to make sure I did hear the feedback while – in some odd way – keeping his fingerprints off it.
7. The Record Keeper.
Another such email that occupies a special place in my memory contained a list of compounded issues and faults the sender had found with me over two years of ministry. It was maybe three or four pages long and came totally out of left field.
Even through it was filled with mostly mundane annoyances, because they had been stewing on these things it came with the emotional intensity of something much more serious.
How To Actually Do It – A Masterclass In Complaining:
Here’s a random few bullet points to keep us on the straight, narrow and healthy for when you make a complaint:
Pray before you say!
Ask for God’s perspective and his heart before you even begin. Ask God (and yourself) how important an issue it really might be, and adopt a tone that fits that priority sense.
Start off in person.
Email, write or text if you really must – but consider that might be more for your own benefit. It may be better to write it out for you (maybe have a wise friend read it), then go and speak to your youth leader without it.
Go through the proper process and channels.
This might mean one-to-one first, or first approaching the line-manager (who will know more than you do). Be wise, and if unsure, build good relationships and find out.
Don’t ‘field test’ out your complaint by asking around what others think.
That’s called gossip – and it really doesn’t help.
Make sure you’ve thought about what to say.
Be clear and specific avoiding generalities and over-simplification. Make it about specific instances, rather than overgeneralised sweeping statements.
Search for the right heart.
Complaints can be made within the realms of righteous anger, but should be tempered with love, grace and particularly mercy.
Keep your perspective in check.
Remember the immense pressure any minister for the Gospel is under, and the particular stresses of a youth worker.
Look for an amicable approach.
It’s good to start off in a healthy and grateful place, think of something you value about the youth worker, and point it out.
When it has been heard, resolved, received or (in some cases) properly rebuffed. Back off and don’t labour it. Unless there is a legal/safeguarding reason for it to be escalated, let your complaint percolate with good grace rather than holding a grudge.
Allow the youth worker and/or line manager decide on the right course of action.
It’s much more appropriate to bring a problem to be resolved, rather than a list of solutions that you would like implemented.
Don’t not complain.
Feedback and correction are important to us. We’re big boys and girls – and need to have loving discipline in our lives. So don’t let this put you off – just do it properly. Thank you!
POSTSCRIPT NOTE TO EMPLOYERS
Your grievance and disciplinary procedures are there for a reason. They are more than just legal requirement minutia, or a safety blanket for ‘worse case scenarios.’ These procedures give important piece of mind to people under your pastoral care.
One of the reasons parents and parishioners complain so unhelpfully is because they don’t necessarily have the confidence that issues will be dealt with in a proper and professional manner.
Use your policies properly, line-manage your youth worker well, and you will create a culture that has confidence. Parents will rightly complain when they have young people under their care – help them have piece of mind by just knowing how to work through issues properly and respectfully.