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

7 volunteer leaders that your Youth Ministry could do without

I love working with volunteers – its one of the best things about being a youth worker. Volunteers are there because they want to serve, and they usually come without the baggage of entitlement demands and complaints. Volunteers blow me away all the time because of the energy they give to projects while expecting so little in return.

I’m hugely blessed right now to have an awesome team. All of my volunteers are a total credit to themselves and to the God they serve. The young people love them, and they support me in more ways than they know.

It hasn’t always been this way though. I’ve managed teams of volunteers for over a decade, and I totally understand the pressures of constantly needing more help. There are, however, just some volunteers that you could do without.

I’m a big believer that your ministry should match your resources, and that you should steward what you have, before you try and do more than what you can manage. Youth workers, however, are under constant pressure to grow numerically. This means a bigger team. Then begins the desperate pleas for help in the notices, and the increasingly lax expectations and requirements from your volunteers before they serve.

My volunteers go through a process which includes an application form, interview, references, police check, and probation period. Here are some of the potential volunteers that I turn away

1. Just there to make up numbers

Occasional willing help to keep young people safe by bolstering ratios is an ok thing to do. Having a volunteer on team, however, that doesn’t want to be there, but are simply worried that the youth group might collapse without them is just not helpful. They ooze disinterest and will more than likely be a limp member of the team.

Better a smaller youth group with a devoted and committed team, than a big one with disinterested and unengaged leaders any day

2. No servant heart

One of the reasons that I love my team so much is that they get stuck into everything. They’ll commit prep time in the week, they’ll cleanup without being asked, or they’ll arrive early and move chairs.

Volunteers who only come just wanting to be the spiritual big shot are simply not worth your time. Starting with a Christlike servant heart should be the foundational basis for anyone wanting to serve in ministry.

3. Not teachable

When I look for a new volunteer, I keep my eye out for the people that display faithfulness, availability, and teachability. A teachable person asks more questions than they give answers. They listen carefully before making judgemental statements, they respond well to ideas and corrections, and they respect the authority of the leader.

An unteachable person is often cynical, loudly opinionated, vocally dominant and undermining. They can be argumentative and they can foster gossip. If a volunteer cannot demonstrate teachability, then they will do little to help the wise development of your young people

4. Empire builders

We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t build empires we should build kingdom, and it’s true. A kingdom-building volunteer comes on to a team to serve Jesus in that ministry and to see how they can fit within it uniquely. An empire-building volunteer comes on expecting the ministry to serve their own aspirations.

An empire builder often talks about how they would do better, and how they started because they could fix what you were doing wrong. Even if they’re right about areas that need to change, their attitude will sink the ministry long before you can make any healthy changes

5. Unreliable

I have a busy team of people who lead full lives with jobs and family. For that reason I do my best to set realistic expectations and develop rotas that work for them individually. Leaders who often don’t show up when they say they will, or are consistently late are quickly taken off our rosters.

An unreliable team means an unreliable youth ministry; meaning the young people can’t trust it. It’s important that each volunteer signs a contract of expectations at the beginning of their time, and are then held accountable to it. Just because volunteers are not staff, does not mean they don’t have to keep to agreed expectations – especially when it affects the security of vulnerable young people

6. Called to other ministries

Sometimes brilliant volunteers show up with fantastic attitudes, but it becomes clear that really they are called to a different ministry. Although it may be heartbreaking and gut-wrenching to let them go, you too are called to build the kingdom and not your empire.

Making sure that you have regular supervision sessions with your volunteers should help you understand if there is a better fit for them elsewhere. If you release them, God will honour and provide

7. Haven’t earned it

One of the most obvious places to get new team members from is graduating young people when they become legal adults. I love this life cycle and believe it’s essential to develop young people eventually into adult team members. However, if they did not demonstrate a servant heart, if they were not teachable, and if they were constantly disrespectful towards the acting team – then I will not allow them to volunteer without some clear evidence of change.

We should set realistic, but high standards for our team. We’re not looking for perfect people (look at the disciples!), but faithful, available, and teachable people who are properly committed, servant-hearted and know where to place their priorities.

I’m totally blessed by my team today after a long time of cultivation and development. It was really worth the effort and the hard conversations. Does your team need some work?

You mean I’m not God? A 10 step guide to the youth worker power trip.

Let’s be honest kids, being a youth worker can give you a delicious feeling of power.

As the cool teacher, relatable counsellor, replacement parent, uber best-friend, and sassy sage figure, its easy to come away from interacting with your young people feeling all powerful. I mean, you get to teach what you want, give poignant advice to hormone-ridden and desperate young people, while simultaneously beating them at all their favourite games, and letting off an all-knowing air.

You can shape theology, guide political affiliations, and even mould dreams and aspirations. You can cut down with a word and build up with a look. You can even design exactly what you think God should look like to them.

This is the responsibility of a teacher for sure (James 3:1) but it’s more than that. A youth worker is put into a much broader, potentially life-shaping context with the most vulnerable and impressionable people imaginable. It’s easy to make yourself their sole spiritual, mental and emotional guide.

So, here are ten easy things to remember next time you start coming over all Gody:

1. Just don’t

Let God be God, and you be the big arrow that points to God. When that arrow starts turning inward, run away screaming.

2. Let other people teach

Allow other voices to speak into their lives; don’t let it all come down to you.

3. Be accountable to people who actually know how to hold you accountable

Don’t have yes-men mentors. Look instead for people who know how to ask you the uncomfortable questions like, ‘have you been acting like God today?’

4. Don’t set up teachers for failure

Don’t start every sentence with ‘your teachers don’t know what they’re talking about because…’ On some occasions that’ll be true, but don’t pretend you know everything about everything, especially when the teacher isn’t there to defend themselves.

5. Don’t set them against their parents

Very similarly, make sure that you are working with parents and not against them. Parents are not always perfect, but it’s not doing anyone favours by gossiping about them to their kids to make you look cooler.

6. Say you don’t know

Don’t waffle and make stuff up when you don’t know what you’re talking about. ‘Always have an answer…’ in 1 Peter 3:15 doesn’t mean pretend you know everything. You’re not all-knowing; say you don’t know and ask what they think. Explore stuff together.

7. Keep tight control of your boundaries

Don’t be omniscient – by which I mean always available. Keep to your working hours and days off. Keep your personal numbers personal, and don’t drop everything to be available.

8. Point to other resources and connect to other people

Your job is to facilitate the young people within the Body of Christ, so do just that. All roads should not point back to you, but they can converge on you as you help them connect to awesome resources and people that can do what you can’t

9. Remember who your God is

Keep your relationship with God fuelled and growing. Keeping yourself in humble perspective with Him should help you stay in the healthy human zone.

10. Don’t be an ass

When things don’t go your way, deal with it like a person, not an overly-justice-obsessed wrath mongerer. You’re not perfect, nobody is. Conflicts will happen and mistakes will too – get on with things. Apologise, forgive, move on, and be that big arrow that points back to God.

Young People and Porn… Dialing back on the Pop-Psychology

Porn addiction is a serious thing, and the very last thing I want to do on here is to minimise or trivialise it. It genuinely messes up minds, and mangles marriages. Addiction (rather than just habit or compulsion) rearranges your neurological pathways and replaces your body’s natural abilities to release chemicals like dopamine. It is a big deal.

However…

You don’t need to have had a massive childhood trauma to want to watch porn. You don’t have to be from a poor background, have messed up parents, have been abused, or be a closet sexual deviant. There’s not always ‘a deeper reason’ beyond that fact that porn is just easily accessible, rarely challenged, and it really feels good.

Can we just let that sink in?

Porn is readily accessible, growingly acceptable, and it feels good.

I’m sorry for the condescending tone but I recently asked a huge group of professional, career youth workers about their strategies for helping young people through porn habits, and it was like I’d turned on the pop-psychology button.

“There must be a deeper reason behind it.”
“Something must be missing from their life, can you find out what it is?”
“They’re probably clinically depressed.”
“Do you know what it is they’re trying to escape from?”
“Maybe they’re homosexual, and are looking for an identity outlet.”

That last one might have been my favourite.

Now all these things could be, can be, might be true. But first off, what are we doing diagnosing clinical disorders and conditions? Secondly, what if we are missing something much much simpler because we’re too busy searching for the obviously buried deep and dark reason. It’s actually pretty easy to convince young people that there’s a deeper reason through this kind of insistence – then you’ve created all sorts of problems.

Sometimes we should seek out reasons behind the reasons, and we should always be alert to the potential for hidden issues. Sometimes, however, porn is just accessible, acceptable, and feels good. Does that make it ok? No, of course not! But the way of addressing it is entirely different than going totally Dr. Phil on them.

Addiction is a big word. It’s a medical word. So is depression btw. Let’s be careful with our throwaway comments and start by looking at what is right in front of us.

Even just 15 years ago (when most of us youth workers were young people), accessing porn as a teenager was hard work, you had to really make an effort for it. If you were going to go to so much trouble to do so then the likely chance was that there was a deeper reason.

Today? Not so much.

Porn is no trivial thing. We must work together to see it less accessible and acceptable, and point young people to things that both feel good and genuinely are good for them. But let’s dial back the Dr. Phil a little ok? My kids are getting sick of it.

Thanks! 😛

What actually makes us relevant?

Relevancy is a word we throw around, and rightly so! It’s essential, as effective youth workers, to be relevant to young people. What we mean by this, however, dramatically varies depending on who you talk to.

Immersion – Being Just Like Them

For some, being relevant means being just like them. So the youth worker will immerse themselves in the TV shows, the music, the books, the clothes, the slang, the hangout slots, and all the latest crazes of youth culture.

A problem with this, of course, is there’s no such thing as generic youth culture. Young people are people and as people they are a varied mix of genres, personalities, and subcultures. It’s more likely that the immersive youth worker is just getting clued up on one type of youth culture; which will inevitably make them outsiders or even hostile to others. This form of relevancy makes you inevitably irrelevant to many others.

Another problem is the rapid pace of products and entertainment aimed at young people. A friend of mine who is a youth worker in China recently told me that they were among the very first to be hit by the ‘fidget spinner’ craze. This lasted a few short weeks before the schools cracked down and they were no longer cool, yet all the youth work resources were still writing about them. Youth culture immersion gives your relevancy a shelf life.

The biggest problem with this, of course, is the creepy factor. It’s fine to like a few things aimed at younger ages (I adore The Minions and Lego!), but immersing yourself in that world as if you were still a 14 year old girl, when you’re actually a 36 year old man is actually a bit weird. The novelty will quickly turn to distrust, and it probably should.

Is there another way?

There are supracultral truths about the state of humanity in general, and young people in particular that are always true. Human beings are

  1. Made in God’s image
  2. Damaged by the fall
  3. In need of a saviour
  4. Longing to give and receive love
  5. Built for relationship
  6. Want opportunities to change the world
  7. Need to be heard and understood
  8. Fighting with identify and character
  9. Have an eternal destiny
  10. Are afraid of lots of stuff

The list goes on. What else can you add to it?

Being relevant starts with treating young people like people, not as some social experiment that you can tune into if you read the right books and watch the right youtube channels. Although it is a great idea to know what’s happening in their world and be able to point back to it ‘relevantly’ in your conversations and teaching, that will only go so deep or last so long. There are other ways to be relevant and lasting.

  • Active listeners are relevant
  • Honest and transparent storytellers are relevant
  • Humble people are relevant
  • Compassionate and interested adults are relevant
  • Those who give time are relevant
  • People who create situations for voices to be heard are relevant
  • Those who ask good questions, yet don’t have all the answers are relevant
  • Those who talk clearly from the Bible are relevant (after all, it was written to every generation)
  • Those who constantly mention Jesus; his life, death, and resurrection are relevant

Trying to understand culture without the things above will leave you as a desperate square peg, jaming yourself into a round hole. Lets know whats going on in ‘youth culture(s)’ for sure – but even more than that, let’s actually try and be genuinely relevant to young people as people.

Why Fivefold Ministry matters to youth ministry – Guest Post by Jonny Price

Another quality and thoughtful piece by guest blogger, Jonny Price. Jonny is an experienced youth worker with keen insights and clear vision for the future of Christian youth work in the UK.

‘Fivefold Ministry’ is a concept that can be found in Ephesians 4:11. In it Paul outlines five roles Jesus has given the Body of Christ to help it to mature, these are:

  • Apostles – Pioneers of new work
  • Evangelists – Fresh communicators of the gospel
  • Prophets – Those who speak out about spirituality and the realities of life
  • Pastors – Nurturers, carers and protectors of the people
  • Teachers – Communicators of the wisdom of God

Each of these roles are responsible for a different aspect of the growth of the Body of Christ. Often this idea is applied to leadership of our Churches, but rarely are those same principles carried across to our youth ministry. I believe that they should be, and that if they are, they can have a great impact upon our work.

Here are four important lessons for youth workers to take from the ‘Fivefold Ministry’ concept.

1. It reminds us that not all youth ministry is evangelism.

Often, the stereotypical youth worker’s gifts are primarily the same as an evangelist, with a lesser emphasis on the pastor role. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as the ministry these youth workers build is not based solely on their gifts alone.

A youth ministry based on evangelism may be great for reaching out, but how do we then build up the faith of the young people we work with beyond their initial commitment to Jesus? A youth ministry based on teaching may be great for developing faith, and teaching the Bible, but how do we then make sure that our young people are being taken care of?

If we build a team of people with a variety of gifts, then our ministries will be able to evangelise, develop faith, care for young people, and equip them to do likewise all at the same time.

2. It helps stop our ministries becoming stagnant.

If we have a team of people who all have the same gifts, play the same role, or place their emphasis and passions in the same place, then it won’t be long until that ministry becomes stagnant, relative and misweighted.

If, however, we have a balanced team made up of different roles and gifts, then there will be a constant, healthy tension between the different emphases of the ministry. This means that the team will always be pushing towards new ideas, exploring blind spots, and growing deeper in what they are doing.

3. It opens the door to new types of youth worker

If we build our teams of people who think and act the same as us, then how are we showing the diversity of the Body of Christ? We risk inadvertently closing the ministry door to people who don’t act the same way as us, or who see things a bit differently.

If we are able to show the diversity inherent in Fivefold Ministry, then we will demonstrate a far more holistic ministry to our young people, and allow them to step into it themselves.

4. It allows our young people to take ownership.

One of the common misunderstandings about Fivefold Ministry is that it only applies to leaders. If instead we approach it as being applicable to the whole Body of Christ, then we will allow our young people to take ownership of our ministry too, and of their own faith development. We will start talking about faith more, inviting our young people to be a part of it. As a result, this will help them to see how they can live out different aspects of faith, because they will see these different aspects in us.

This is exciting! Imagine a youth ministry where you don’t need to meet up with young people week in and week out to see how they are doing because you know that through the relationships they have with each other, they are being taken care of. Or imagine that you know that the teaching you give at youth group is less essential because they are teaching each other from the Bible.

Bringing it all together

Yes, the Fivefold Ministry comes with problems, like all good and new concepts do. Working with people who have different visions of ministry to us causes conflict and strain. But with proper communication, even the conflict can be an amazing tool for development.

Let’s diversify our leaders and volunteers, so that they represent the diversity of the Body of Christ, and so through that diversity, our young people can experience and know more of the love of God, and the plan that He has for their lives. Surely this is the point of everything we do.

 

Jonny Price is the Youth and Children’s Ministry Leader for a Clifton Parish Churches in the North of beautiful York, where he lives with his wife, Carly, and son, Ethan.

When time allows he can be found cycling, either road or mountain, cooking or reading.

He holds a BA (Hons) in Mission and Ministry with a specialism in Youth from Cliff College, and is currently studying for an MA.

He loves Jesus and the Church, and wants to see the Church work to help young people live transformed lives by experiencing the redeeming love of Jesus.

Seven helpful ANCIENT books for youth ministry.

So here’s an odd post! In the youth ministry world we’re always looking for new, fresh ideas – things straight out of the packet with a long expiration date. However, there is nothing new under the sun, and sometimes the older ways say it best.

Here are a few relatively straightforward and massively helpful books on theology and practice that have genuinely and seriously informed how I approach my work with young people. Some are older than others, and none of them actually tell you how to do youth work. They do, however, tell you how to relate to God and how that should be expressed among his people.

I think they’re all pretty readable too, although granted they’re not necessary Dan-Brown-styled page-turners! Some are just sections – but well worth it!

(nb. I’ve included links, but most of them are available for free as pdfs online.)

Have an ancient(ish) blast

  1. St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation
  2. Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol. I (Book one, Chs. 1, 2, 6, 12, 13; Book two, Chs. 9, 8, 12-17)
  4. Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man
  5. Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity
  6. Thomas a’Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
  7. The Bible – Cheesy ending to the list but genuinely the ‘timeless’ classic! Read it over and over and over again! I try and spend twice as much time in the Bible as any other book – hard, but oh so worth it. … … Go Bible!

Are our employment practices driving youth workers away? (Research writeup)

This is a great piece of research, conducted and summarised for us here by Jonny Price, a quality and thoughtful youthworker from York.

 

I am deeply passionate about youth ministry. I believe that through Christian youth ministry, we can see lives transformed, chains broken, and bring people to fulfil what they were created to be through the redeeming love of Jesus.

To do this, I believe that relationships are key. The relationships we build during our teenage years can shape the beliefs and values that we hold for the rest of our lives. Youth and children’s workers are essential in leading ministries which allow relationships to flourish.

These relationships, however, take time to build. If our approach to the employment of youth workers doesn’t support this, then the relationships won’t get built, and the lasting impact with be negligible.

The Research

While studying theology, I spent some time researching the employment practices of Youth and Children’s workers by churches. I did this to discover if we are, in fact, negatively affecting the long-term relationships needed for healthy young people.

I have been working in youth ministry for a while and during that time I have seen several skilled and talented youth and children’s workers walk away from ministry, and some the church altogether, because of the way they were treated while employed by churches.

I got in touch with 17 Anglican Diocese (the ones who replied to me), the Methodist Connexional Offices, and Baptist’s Together. I had an online questionnaire, which gathered nearly 100 responses, and I interviewed 12 people who were either youth and/or children’s workers, had been youth and/or children’s workers, or who had managed youth and/or children’s workers.

There were many interesting things that came up in the research. With all the usual disclaimers about sample size, researcher bias etc, here are the six things that stood out most to me that we should all be aware of.

The Results

1.    Too much/not enough freedom

This is a two sided coin, and boils down to the way we are managed. Many of us will be placed under the supervision of the minister of the church/es we work for, and this can be an awful arrangement. For one thing, many ministers have no formal training or experience of supervising staff, which often means they do one of two things:

  1. They have no idea what they or we should be doing, and so go completely hands off.

    This can mean that the worker has no clear idea what their role entails, particularly if this is their first experience of employment, and so can drift from one thing to another with no plan. This can lead to disillusionment, purposelessness, and very little to do. Add to this that churches will pay for a worker out of their giving, it can lead to serious guilt.
  2. The minister goes to their only experience of supervision: training.

    I spoke to several youth workers who had been managed in the same way a trainee minister would, despite being experienced workers. This led to overly specific aims and goals, micro-management, and a sense of being patronised with no creative freedom to approach ministry in their own way.

2. Working to different goals

Generally, church ministers work to a bounded-set model, where membership is based on certain pre-set commitments. For example, church ministers would see attendance on Sunday as a sign of membership. Youth workers, however, often to work to a centred-set model, where membership is defined more by closeness to the centre (Jesus), than attendance at certain events. This can mean that there will be a communication breakdown between church ministers and youth workers, which will inevitably lead to frustration as they will be pulling in different directions.

3. The move to “proper” ministry

Many youth workers go on to make very good church leaders, but that doesn’t mean we all want to do it! There is an assumption, which I am sure we have all experienced, that we will move on to church leadership.

This came out in my interviews with diocese youth advisors, and some ex-youth workers (though interestingly, not children’s workers). Even in church literature about lay ministry, youth or children’s ministry is rarely mentioned. All of this serves to undermine youth and children’s work as valid ministries, and leads to workers in these areas feeling undervalued.

4. Lack of spiritual support

Church ministers, particularly in established denominations, have access to support from wider bodies, as well as having things like sabbaticals and retreats built into their working agreements. These are rarely, if ever, thought about for youth or children’s workers. One interviewee mentioned that they had asked if, as they were entering their seventh year in post, they would be entitled to a sabbatical, as clergy are. They were laughed at.

If we are to avoid burnout, we have to build spiritual care into our employment practice in the same way we do for church leaders

5. The longer we are in post, the longer we are likely to stay

As part of the research I looked at the amount of time people stayed in posts, the number of posts held, and their attitude changes over time. This was fascinating.

There was a definite trend that showed the longer a person stayed in ministry, the more problems they saw with the approach of churches to it, but the longer they saw themselves staying in it, and the fewer roles they averaged. Of those who had been in this ministry 7-10 years, just under half had done this in just 1 role. The average time in any one role was 2 years.

I believe this points to parts of the workforce with a strong vocational calling to this specific work, who will continue in it despite the problems they see, because they see the value of this work.

6. Continued professional development, or the lack of it.

Across all the research there was a repeating theme that Churches are unwilling to spend either the time or money on proper training for youth and children’s workers.

In some ways this is understandable if short sighted. If youth workers are only going to stick around for a couple of years, then why train them? The simple answer: if you train them, they may well stay around longer! They will feel empowered in their ministry, more capable and confident in what they are doing, and will know how to take more care of themselves and their young people.

In short, we will develop a workforce that is more motivated, more capable, and with greater longevity.

Conclusions

Let’s really work this problem together! There is a clear correlation between poor youth and children’s workers management and poor youth and children’s work. Our employment practices (or lack thereof) are driving quality people away who might otherwise have been totally committed to the long haul.

  1. Youth and children’s workers need to be treated as independent workers, not trainees. They need clear goals and accountability, with the freedom to creatively pursue the best in their work.
  2. There needs to be clarifying conversations between minister and youth/children’s worker about what constitutes success and what models they are working to together.
  3. Youth and children’s workers are genuine lay ministers and need to be referred to, celebrated and supported as such.
  4. Further to this, youth and children’s workers need the same levels of spiritual support built into their contracts including training, sabbaticals, and retreats.
  5. Youth and children’s workers need to be encouraged and supported to stick to single posts, rather than moving around every two years.
  6. Proper training and professional development is essential for youth and children’s workers. This should be generously budgeted for and expected.

 

Jonny Price is the Youth and Children’s Ministry Leader for a Clifton Parish Churches in the North of beautiful York, where he lives with his wife, Carly, and son, Ethan.

When time allows he can be found cycling, either road or mountain, cooking or reading.

He holds a BA (Hons) in Mission and Ministry with a specialism in Youth from Cliff College, and is currently studying for an MA.

He loves Jesus and the Church, and wants to see the Church work to help young people live transformed lives by experiencing the redeeming love of Jesus.

The Top 8 Reasons Why Youth Workers Burn Out

Youth worker burnout is a very real issue. In the UK youth workers last an average of 2 years in a position, and around 3-5 years in total before throwing in the towel.

I spent some time with a great youth worker yesterday who has put some real energy into properly researching this dilemma, and has made some very helpful observations. He has agreed to write up his findings for us – so watch this space!

Now our appetite is whet, I thought I’d compile a list of what I think are the top reasons Christian youth workers burn out. Enjoy!

1. Expected to be each Biblical office

Is the youth worker an elder, pastor, teacher, apostle, evangelist, prophet, deacon, or overseer? The truth is that this will depend on the unique sensibilities of each role in context, however most youth work positions expect their worker to be most if not all of them!

The problem is that the gifts and personality types of an evangelist are very different to pastor-teacher. The same is true for elder and apostle, prophet and deacon – there is a reason they are distinct roles within the church, and why it’s unhealthy (for ministry and minster) to be all of them at once.

As a pioneer will be frustrated, and likely to cause damage trying to be a pastor-teacher, and an evangelist will not have patience for the polity behind eldership. You’re heading for an emotional car wreck trying to contort yourself into these positions.

2. Mixed or no accountability / management

A common problem youth workers complain about is an unclear line of management. In some cases the management structure can be so arbitrary that everyone in the church tries to fill the void and become ‘the boss.’

Parents, kids, elders, pastors, wardens, caretakers – can all try to hold you accountable to their own standards and particular sets of expectations, whether or not they are in your job description, or conflict with the other 300 people you are trying to please.

In other scenarios you have a line-manager, but in reality they are  really trying to mentor you. Or you have a line manager who is also the Senior Pastor, thus has conflicting aims when you meet.

In *this post* I argue for a threefold structure of manager, pastor and mentor, which – when communicated properly to a church – is surely the healthiest model.

3. Isolation

Youth workers are often mavericks, and can find themselves easily in the role of ‘lone solider.’ Timetables are full, friends are few, and most of the time is spent with people in a completely different stage of life than you.

Youth workers need friends who are totally unrelated to their work – and youth workers need to know other youth workers.

Making the effort to get to network days and training are essential, as is carving out the time for just going out with mates.

There’s a lot of lonely youth workers out there, lets take it seriously.

 

4. Unrealistic expectations

I was also told a story yesterday of a youth worker who was expected to double her youth group numbers in six months. Really? Then there are training manuals and courses that leave you with the impression that you should be ‘always on’ for the young people and ‘make every opportunity count.’

A lot of these expectations come out of poor management. Having real goals that genuinely make sense of working hours and are regularly evaluated is key. As is holding the youth worker accountable to their working week, holidays and days off.

Focus, identify clear objectives, work to your resources, build a healthy team, take your time off, have a life and settle in for the long haul.

5. Having no idea what they’re doing

This might be the biggest issue. Youth workers, let’s admit it, we don’t have a clue! We’re expected to understand and relate to the monstrous and mysterious beast known as ‘youth culture,’ develop professional plans to execute sophisticated projects, and hold in tension conflict, personality types and genuine spiritual needs, emotional abuse and organic community.

We are expected to be team managers and recruiters, teachers and trainers, counsellors and mentors, sociologists and missiologists, scholars and facilitators – and expected to look like we’re none of these things so we can ‘fit in’ with the young people. Usually a youth worker has up to 1 year of training to learn all these areas where genuine practitioners have spent half their lives in school to develop.

We don’t know what we’re doing!

This can be helped by defining the role and having realistic expectaitons. It can also be resolved through ongoing training, professional development and support. Mostly however, we just need to hold tight to the expert… which is God.

6. Forgetting who God is

This is, unfortunately, probably the saddest, but most frequent. It can be propagated by all the above, and exacerbated by a lack of genuine spiritual mentoring and accountability, but mostly it just results from being tired all the time.

In my experience youth workers tend to be badly trained in how to use their Bibles. This means a shaky foundation and an especially insecure problem-solving mechanism. Without having a solid understanding of where their role comes from, and what is needed when the rubber hits the road, the proof-texting they have grown up with tires and leaves them wanting.

The worst thing is starting to forget what God’s voice sounds like, so you stop recognising him when he leads, warns and protects you. The security fails, the passion dies up, you start to feel guilty, believe you’re a fraud – and give up.

The most important thing a youth worker should take seriously is their own personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Before you are a youth worker, you are a child of God. When that turns round – so does everything else.

7. Just getting bored

I sometimes wonder if the reason that youth workers come across as so wildly creative is that they’re just desperately trying to break the monotony.

On the surface, youth work looks like a lot of activity, and it is but I’ve found that for every hour of creative fun, theres two-three hours of planning and then at least an hour of cleanup. Because you’re working with volunteers, this can often be alone and repetitive.

Add to this a lot of written work, planning, management, conflict resolution and reporting, it can start to get to you. Then you need to consider that you are spending your time dialoging with people of a very different maturity and life experience, having the same four of five conversations.

8. Low pay

Ok, this is going to sound weird, ungrateful and materialistic – but it’s still true. Youth workers get paid usually less than entry-level teachers for a similar job, expectation set, and working hours; and we all know teachers don’t get paid enough!

There, of course, is a pastoral humility required for ministry, a lack of material desire, and I’m not sure that the youth worker should be paid more than most of the congregation. However, for such a stressful job, the low pay can put a massive amount of pressure on the youth worker’s family.

This can affect a lot of life choices: Does my spouse also need to work full time? Can we afford to have children? My biggest stresses throughout my youth work career has been a secure place to live (we’ve had to move six times) and maintaining a car (been through seven in five years). We also once went two years without more than a half a tub of hot water a day and no heating. With a very unwell life, this was insane!

I know a lot of youth workers who survive off credit – lease-agreement cars, back-paying bills, and crazy mortgages – just so they can maintain a family alongside their work. I know it’s a difficult economy, but churches should carefully look into how their youth worker is living and consider the church’s responsibility for them.

7 Ways Not to Complain To Your Youth Worker – And A Few Tips How To

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.

Cheeky plug: for ‘How To Line Manage Your Youth Worker’ click here.

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 does 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!”

Me: “Sigh.”

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.

Drop it.
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.