Thank you Billy Graham.

“I’ve read the last page of the Bible, it’s all going to turn out all right.”
[Billy Graham]

When I was 14 I first heard of the work of Billy Graham. I couldn’t believe the size of the crowds that he drew, or the authority of his voice. Could Christians really have that kind of impact?

By the time I reached 18 I knew I wanted to do exactly what he did. I wanted to speak to as many people as possible about Jesus. I packed up for Bible College and started to train. During my time there I read two biographies of Billy. These told of the lengths he would go to speak the gospel to small groups of people. I was inspired by how he kept ‘the main thing’ the main thing, and how clearly he made worship of the the Jesus of the cross his central focus.

Billy was the first Youth for Christ staff worker, a charity that I’m proud to be a part of today. He was a fabulous youth worker in his way, a bold preacher, a warm counsellor, and a wise leader. It was always in my heart to one day meet him and say thank you for inspiring me.

Today, at 99 years old, Billy passed away in his home. He is with the Jesus that he loved so dearly and made known so consistently.

Billy had spoken to over 200 million people since becoming ordained just as WW2 broke out. He gave his life to Jesus at 16, and followed him faithfully every since. He grew into a wise and solid figure and I’m always going to be grateful for the seed of inspiration he gave to me when I was so young.

Thank you Rev. Billy. Still can’t wait to meet you.

What makes a ‘rubbish’ youth group work?

I sometimes wonder about our standards for what constitutes ‘good’ youth groups.

If young people are as varied as humanity itself (which they are), and a leader’s love for them can express itself in many different ways (which it can) – then who are we to decide if it’s quality youth work?

I get to visit lots of different youth clubs as part of my job – and one of the things I’m supposed to do is say what’s not working and how to fix it. A few years ago I visited a ‘rubbish’ youth club.

The Group

It met in the evening; too late to be an after school group and too early to be an evening out. It was right around dinner time, so the kids were missing food and missing family time.

The meeting – which was a completely random mix of young children and teenagers – gathered round a few nasty looking go-pack tables, sharing over-diluted orange squash, and too-soft biscuits that had been stored in cling-film.

There were no games, and a completely incomprehensible craft. The materials they used were both too young for most of the group, and too dated to have been considered relevant for any of them; the weirdest bit though – was the youth leader.

The Leader

She was about 85 years old, wearing every manor of doily, and smelling faintly like old spice and fish. She sat a the end of the table and ruled the room like a quietly spoken drill master. I sat in the corner making a long mental list of everything wrong with how she ran the group.

At the end of the session, this leader broke the news to the young people that, because of her diminishing health, she would have to step down from being their leader. I was totally unprepared for the response.

Tears. Everywhere. From the youngest children to the hardened 16 year old boys. There were quiet sobs, many hugs, and a real brokenness in the group. She then proceeded to talk to every single person around the table one by one to tell them what she loved about them, and what her favourite memory was of each of them.

She had remembered everything! And – as was clear from her examples – she had spent decades opening up her whole life to these young people. She had taught many of them to bake; she was a math tutor to several more; she had provided a home for some who had lost parents, or had run away. She had looked after their parents, and she had been there for many of them, literally, since birth.

I had never seen anything like it!

They were committed to coming to this ‘terrible’ youth group, because she had committed to loving them.

I had never seen love like that.

The Love

These were healthy, holistic, cared for, supported, nurtured, discipled young people – in the worst looking youth club I’d ever seen – technically speaking.

Let’s get our youth clubs right, of course! Let’s be clear, fun, relevant, engaging, and accessible. But – so much more than that – let’s love.

If we get nothing else right – let’s get that right. Let’s love these young people. It’s that which holds everything together, it’s that that makes the pieces work, and it’s that which changes young lives.

Love transforms everything – genuinely. Whether or not you can afford the latest gadgets, or coolest paint scheme is irrelevant if you don’t love first.

1 Cor. 13

Photo by Kev Seto on Unsplash

5 forms of criticism that I’ll always ignore… or try to!

Exactly a year ago I wrote a post called ‘7 Ways Not To Complain To Your Youth Worker’. As a result I received comments and messages from other youth leaders that had gone through the same things. Some of the stories they shared were just heartbreaking.

This made me realise that we’re not done with this topic yet.

Critique is vital to health; it’s so important to have an objectivity about the work that we do, and a humble perspective on the difference between ‘God’s’ work and ‘ours.’ We need to keep ourselves accountable to trusted, godly men and women who will feedback with clarity and gentleness on our ministries. We need to be open to challenge so that we can truly grow as teachable and dependable ministers of the gospel.

Without an openness to healthy critique, we are just asking to fail.

However…

What do you do when the feedback is poorly given, ill-conceived, spiritually dangerous, or just personally stupid?

I don’t mean what do you do if you don’t like or agree with the feedback. There’s lots of stuff that we won’t like or agree with that will contain nuggets of truth that we need to listen to. This is a post, however, on how to identify feedback that needs to be left by the door.

I recently (ish) received some ‘feedback’ that was hurtful and – frankly – just wrong. As a result I spoke to some friends that I genuinely trust for their perspective – trying to find out if there was some truth that I couldn’t hear because of my upset. One of these guys said to me that he believed some feedback was a form of abuse, and needed to be disregarded quickly before it stuck.

Some critique must not be allowed room to breath.

So I’ve called this ‘5 forms of criticism that I’ll always ignore.’ A more honest title however, would be ‘5 forms of criticism that I’ll try to ignore’ or ‘5 forms of criticism that I really really should ignore.’ The truth is I’m human, and if you get punched to the gut, it hurts!

Hopefully, however, we can all team up on this, and support each other by identifying some kinds of criticism that really don’t need to be taken seriously. If there are nuggets of truth, we need to pray and ask God to reveal those to us in healthy ways that we can action unconditionally. Some feedback, however, needs to be named and shamed, and not even given time of day.

1. Hostage feedback

This is feedback that won’t let you off the hook. It’s forceful, repetitive, and needs very specific agreements. Feedback that holds you hostage usually comes in the form of a conversation that’s impossible to leave. ‘Thank you very much, I’ll go away think about it’ just doesn’t work.

When someone holds you hostage to their feedback, they’re expecting very particular agreements to what they’re saying, and very specific and immediate appropriation of their suggestions. It’s all on their terms. The ransom is only paid in complete submission and total surrender to their opinion.

If the person giving you feedback doesn’t respond appropriately to your need to go away and process it, then – rudely if necessary – turn and walk away.

2. Delivered via gossip

Thirdhand, or ‘gossip’ feedback, is when someone is hoping you’ll hear their criticism without getting their fingerprints on it. Criticism via gossip means they have spoken to everyone but you. The most hideous form of this is when it arrives on your doorstep via your wife, your husband, or your kids.

Gossip is an issue that needs to be tackled at the pastor level; however it is worth identifying the source, approaching them directly, and getting them to tell you their problem eye-to-eye. It’s always important to call gossip out, otherwise it festers and continues.

3. Without proper examination

I recently received feedback from someone I’ve never spoken to before that questioned my very relationship with God after they walked out of my session three minutes in. Not only did they leave with the exact opposite point that was delivered, but they made huge assumptions and bold assertions with very little information. There was no questions, no listening, and no attempt to understand. It was an attack – quite literally – on nonexistent content.

This particular feedback was given in anger (which isn’t always a problem) and was fuelled by significant misunderstanding. In this case I really struggled to let it go as it called my faith in God to account. So I sent my recorded talk to several friends who are theologically solid and not afraid to challenge me. They left with the opposite impression than the person who left early. Their feedback suggested a personal trigger, rather than a problem in the content.

If any feedback given doesn’t flow from the information that was available, then it’s probably fuelled by something else – something that’s personal to the individual. Don’t digest it – it’s probably not about you.

4. Overgeneralised and unspecific feedback

‘You’re always doing this’, or ‘you’ve never been like that’, or even ‘that project you run is total shambles!’ I’ve had all three of those.

Feedback, and especially criticism, needs to be given in love with the hope of edification and correction. This means it needs prior thought and careful steps before delivery. Usually overgeneralised and unspecific feedback means there is simply a difference of opinion – maybe they just don’t like you!

My response is usually ‘sorry, I can’t work with that, can you bring me a particular circumstance or tell me a specific example.’ If they can’t – leave it behind.

5. Overreaching feedback

2+2 equals a sack of bananas, right? Overreaching feedback points to a problem, then makes a totally inappropriate conclusion. Like someone saying you need to rethink your relationship with God… because there was a broken window at youth club.

In a previous position, someone complained in our eldership meeting that I didn’t want to go on their suggested safeguarding course. Their conclusion was that it was inappropriate for the church to hire a youth worker who wasn’t trained in safeguarding. Of course I had done lots safeguarding training, I just didn’t like the particular flavour of the course they were suggesting.

Feedback should flow between problem, consequence, and solution. If there is serious disconnect, then disregard.

But what if they’re right?!?

And here is my big problem! I don’t disregard a lot of feedback that comes in these various ways because I want to be open to change and growth. I don’t want to be a feedback snob! And there could be valid criticism buried beneath all that goop!

However, I have my whole life the work on problems, and I know that my work is held accountable to people who’ve earned the right to speak into it. I’ve regularly got things to work on, and all of my work is held accountable to a manager, a board, a team, good friends, and committed mentors. This affords me the space to be discerning about when feedback is given inappropriately.

So don’t be afraid feedback – surround yourself with people who love you, are smarter than you, and are not afraid to hold you accountable. If you have a system in place for healthy criticism you won’t need to jump at every wagging finger.

In a future post we will consider these five areas again, but in reverse – and talk about more appropriate ways to give feedback.

Thanks for reading!

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… ish.

Hi folks. It’s great to be back! And a massively Merry Christmas to everyone.

It’s been a fabulous Christmas season here in North Wales working with the most amazing young people, and an incredible team. We’ve had Christingles with chips, movies with muppets, and even hobbit-starwars mashup nativities! (Really… but don’t tell New Line or Disney… shhh…)

To be honest though, this has also been the most difficult Christmas season that I can remember.

After a week of deadlines (book manuscript, postgrad essay, and magazine column), my brain effectively stopped working. I couldn’t read, write or even speak properly, and I was having flash headaches when looking at screens. This was then followed by a week of about nine different seasonal events and school assemblies. My cool exterior was starting to show cracks from the emotional underbelly that I usually keep comfortably hidden under a tonne of peat.

However, with the help of an indescribable God, an unbelievable wife, fabulous friends, and a servant-hearted team, I seem to be back on the mend.

It’s been a weird experience though. My brain has always been the muscle that I can trust when everything else stops working. Not being able to string a sentence together while navigating continual brain-fog was a totally new experience for me. I went through a few days of carnal fear. There was one point where I was afraid that I may have done some very real cognitive damage. It was horrible!

So what have I learned? Well, it’s too soon to tell really, but here’s a few things that have drifted to the surface…

– Humans really do have limits! That stinks.
– The brain can get hurt too. Look after it.
– Good people are worth many times their weight in gold. Treasure them.
– Taking time out to do nothing actually needs you to do nothing. So do nothing.
– You don’t always need to justify a reason to grieve in order to feel grief. Let yourself grieve uncritically.
– Proper food makes a difference to everything. Eat right.
– As does sleep. So sleep!
– God doesn’t want your quality, or your ability – He’s got plenty of that already; He just wants you. Be His.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Ding Dong the Book is In

So, you may have wondered where youthworkhacks sneaked off to over the last week or so, and why you’ve not heard anything new about the quirky world of youth ministry.

Well I’ve (Tim) been writing a book, and it was due to the publishers yesterday! Mission accomplished, I sent it on time.

‘So whats the book about Tim?’

I’m glad you asked. 😛

The book is currently called ‘Rebooted’ and its all about taking youth ministry back to the factory settings found in the Bible.

Have you ever thought about youth work in the Bible? Was it a practice, was it a real thing – or did we just make it up it like we ‘invented’ adolescence and the Macarena?

I think that if you look through the pages of the Bible, however, you will be pleasantly surprised! You’ll find specific young people’s work, youth workers, mentoring programs, teenage-specific object lessons, and even Nerf wars! O.k. I may have made that last one up, but I still believe that you can find a pattern of youth ministry in the Bible.

This is that book. It goes through the whole Bible piece by piece and brings out eight essential principles for Bible-driven youth ministry. I call these principles supracultural – which is a really posh and snobby way of saying that they should always work, regardless of the time or culture or language you find yourself in. They’re foundational, so should always be important, whatever shape your youth ministry takes.

It now goes through – what I imagine will be – a grueling editing process. I’m preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best! So please be praying for my heart, mind, faith, and dignity to still be intact by the end of it. Thank you!

Over this next week I’ll be writing a paper on the theology behind incarnational youth ministry – so I may still be a wee bit elluisve. However, fear not! Once that’s handed in, I’m all yours! (Well, I’m Gods, my wife’s, my ministry’s … and then yours – but I fit a lot in to my weeks!).

See you soon!

t.

 

YouthWorkHacks has been nominated for two awards!

Last year it was an amazing privilege to be nominated for the Premier Digital Awards, Most Inspiring Leadership Blog – and then an enormous surprise to win it among so many fantastic blogs. This year I’m blown away to be nominated for two awards:

This, again, is amazing! Big thanks to everybody who nominated the blog – you guys n’ gals are awesome.

In the meantime, check out the fantastic talent that has been nominated alongside me:

Multi-Author Blog of the Year:

Clarity Magazine

yesHEis

Girl Got Faith

More Precious

Most Inspiring Leadership Blog:

Apples of Gold

Martin Salters Blog

Speak Life

The Additional Needs Blogfather

 

Again – these are awesome blogs, and it’s fab just to be seen on the same page as them.

Watch this space everybody! 😀

 

Please everyone? Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.

It’s really hard in youth work to juggle everyone’s expectations, hurt feelings, and mixed theologies. I totally try though, and I think it’s really worth learning how to get on peacefully with everybody. Some things are worth the passion, and the pain, and the fury – and some things are just not; and it’s those things we get stuck on. The little upsets that I think we spend a lot of our energies on. It’s also usually those things we can’t change.

This evening (yesterday now… as I’ll be publishing this tomorrow – which is now today! Hey!) I dropped one of my team members off home. It was about 8.50pm, and we stayed outside her house for about five or six minutes chatting about the day (it’s her birthday!). I noticed an elderly lady poking her head around the curtain, so I thought I must be bothering her with my headlights, so I turned them off.

After that she came outside, leaned on her face and stared at us. I said to my friend that she looked like she was going to start yelling at us so we should probably call it a night. We said good bye and I started to drive away.

On leaving, this tiny little elderly lady said something obscene and gave me the ‘up yours’ sign.

Perturbed, I reversed back, pulled my window down and asked if everything was ok. I asked a couple of times and she just ignored me – so I drove on home.

I was so upset!

Angry, confused, miffed, and totally weirded out.

I was sad and I wanted to go back and talk to her. Find out what went wrong and help change her mind about it. Tell her I’m a nice guy – a Christian youth worker just trying to get a female colleague home safely. Then I prayed. I told God how I felt and I prayed for this little old lady. Then I started to let it go, and arrived home.

Sometimes you just can’t please people. You can’t change how they feel or reverse how they think. Sometimes you’re just giving yourself away by trying. Hand these times and these people over to God; continue to be faithful to His calling on your character and push through to the positive:

You are a child of God, saved by grace alone, divinely adored and yet living in a hostile world. And that’s ok.

Grace goes a long way afterall.

Tomorrow, I’m going to sneakily leave some flowers on her doorstep and a note that says, “I’m sorry I parked outside your house last night when dropping a friend off home. I didn’t mean to upset you so. I wish you all they best!” I hope that little act of peace-making brings some measure of joy to an obviously hurt, vulnerable, and frightened woman.

It’s the best I can hope for – and whether or not she likes or accepts the gesture, it will have no bearing on, or power over me any more. I am a child of God, saved by grace…

…and I can’t please everyone.

Dear Youth Worker, keep hold of yourself

I think one of the hardest battles that I’ve had to consistently struggle through in youth ministry is keeping hold of myself.

From the day you interview, through to meeting the kids for the first time, sitting in Eldership meetings, and talking with concerned parents, you are constantly working with varied and changing expectations. You listen actively, you discern the needs, and you respond with the subtitles required to pacify, subdue or waylay the particular ethics on the table. This can often mean keeping yourself in a constant state of pliability.

After years of this, I wonder how many youth workers today feel like their identity is spiritual putty – or in consistent flux. Foundationally wobbly, this youth worker becomes an increasingly good actor, increasingly desperate for internal stability, and increasingly fearful of being ‘found out.’ At it’s worst, this becomes a hollowed out shell with Nike labels and an iPhone.

The sense of this is hauntingly familiar in Johnny Cash’s rendition of the song ‘hurt.’

Very very rarely a strange things happens in music: A song actually changes ownership from the original writer to a new cover artist. I can think of two, maybe three times that this has happened. Hurt was written by Nine Inch Nails, but was redone as a stripped-back acoustic cover by Cash just a year before he died. The last lines wobbled out in his aged, baritone voice as,

‘If I could start again,
a million miles away,
I would keep myself,
I would find a way.’

Hidden in these notes is a strong sense of personal history. A fear of wasted time, and loosing touch with who he could or should have been. You feel these words testimonially deep – you know he means them.

Sometimes I feel a whisper of that same fear in me: Do I really know who I am. Have I kept a clear hold of myself? Have I spent so long trying to navigate the many expectations that I forgot somewhere who I am?

The answer this this – and any identity crisis – is not to look inward. That’s the humanist, or enlightenment (or dare I say millennial) approch. The answer is to look to Jesus Christ. Our identity is discovered and shaped by our proximity to Him. Our nearness to Jesus sculpts us like marble.

Dear youth worker: Keep a hold of yourself… by keeping a hold on to Him.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

YouthWorkHacks in America

Hey! Where have you been YWHs?

Sorry folks – I’ve been in America for the last few weeks. I’m now sat in a motel room on the edge of Sacramento, California, on a quintessential motel duvet, after having a shower from what looked suspiciously like the one from Psycho.

Before arriving here we had spent a week in a tent in Yosemite National Park hiking, and then we were in the Santa Cruz Mountains before that hanging out with the In-Laws – which included a couple of cats, seven miniature horses, and two incredibly fractious chihuahuas.

So, sorry I’ve not posted for a while! We’ll be remedying that soon. However, I thought I’d leave you with a brief encouragement.

While visiting my wife’s old church I came across two young people that I’d spoken to on a camp here in California about eleven years ago. Both are still part of the church, and both still going strong following Jesus. I had a good long chat with each of them and realized that I had – in a small way – been part of God’s work in their lives.

This is now the second time that I’ve had a significant encounter with a young person years after my ministry influence in their lives. I had no idea at the time of ministry just how God was using me and how it would form a piece of their Christian lives for the long haul.

Being able to have these moment where God shared just a little with me about how I was involved is precious. It reminds me to treasure the time I have with my young people now – and to not underestimate what God can do with these passing ministry moments.

Anyway – I’m off to a Wedding now in Nevada City. See you all soon!

Dear Pastors, please protect your youth workers

Over the last few years I’ve been collecting stories of youth workers who have had terrible times in their job because the pastor didn’t know how to properly mediate between the worker and the church.

A year after starting in full-time youth ministry, I had my very own initiation to this issue. I had run my first very large holiday club and someone on the team had decided to create, distribute, and compile people’s feedback of the event. That was a good idea!

What this person actually did, however, was to take in the feedback forms, distill all the ‘good’ feedback into 4 very clipped bullet points, then proceed to berate me across several full pages of prose. It was clearly their own perspective, rather than a compilation of feedback. It was also deeply personal, it was heavily exaggerated, and frankly it was legally slanderous.

To make matters worse, they circulated their heavily biased report to forty members of the church leadership and holiday club team. This included several young teenage helpers.

It wasn’t sent to me. Instead, I found out about it when three young people came to me incredibly upset, saying they never wanted to serve in that church again. They didn’t just disagree with the feedback, they were shocked that a Christian could speak so ungracefully about another person.

As a 21-year-old youth worker, I was totally broken. I took this to my two Senior Pastors who were equally shocked and dismayed. They went through the tirade with me point-by-point, to see whether there were actually some genuine areas that needed to be improved upon. Mostly it simply came down to producing earlier communication, and trying to print T-shirt logos straighter.

What didn’t happen, however, was any conversation with the person that compiled the feedback. They were not challenged or rebuked. They were not asked to produce the original forms. There not held accountable to what they wrote, and no further communication happened with the forty recipients of the report.

I was left very confused and totally vulnerable.

Not only did I feel abandoned, but the lack of response gave the person who made the report free license to continue to make my life difficult in the following years. They served in a position on the church council, and continually destabilised my work personally. They were individually responsible for the cancellation of some projects, they started to pool people into a gossip group against me, and they regularly sent me rude, upsetting emails.

This was ten years ago now, but it still smarts. There’s no closure and nothing that can be done about it now. It needed a firm, and properly directed response from the person charged with my care. But to maintain decorum, and out of fear, I was left without the protection of a Pastor.

This comes up now because I’ve just heard three more stories from great youth workers who have lost health, security, and jobs because the Pastor failed in one of their most basic tasks.

Dear Pastors…

I know you have a very difficult job, but get your priorities straight. Your first task is to be responsible for those under your immediate care. That’s your family, and then your team. Youth Workers have it hard. They are often young, inexperienced, with new families, and thin skin. Don’t train them to defend themselves from a congregation that they need to integrate within.

Sometimes, Mr Pastor, you have to be the bad cop, and take  very special care of those charged with looking after the most vulnerable members of your congregation.

Let’s get this one right.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash