13 Rules-of-thumb For Giving Better Talks

Here are a few golden rules of thumb for public speaking. These have nothing to do with content or spirituality, but they should help all of us speak more clearly and accessibly. Better speaking means clearer delivery, and clearly delivery means that more people will get it. Winner!

1. Don’t commentate on your talk as you give it.

‘Oh, sorry, that was rubbish wasn’t it…’
‘Ah, it looks like no-one gets what I’m saying…’
‘As you’re all switching off, I’ll end with this..,’
‘Right, so, just like me, I’m going to be really controversial now…’

Commentating on your own talk swings between under-confidence and over-arrogance. It’s rarely helpful, and often distracting. Say what you planned to say, and let’s do the commentating later.

2. Ditch the intro.

If you don’t hook me in the first 30seconds, then to be honest I’m already starting to drift. The introduction is your time to set up the intrigue, grab peoples attention, and bring them into the ride safely.

Talking for five minutes about who you are an why you’re here does none of that! If you really must make an intro, then get the service leader to do it. Ditch the intro and get straight into it.

3. Fit an orange in your mouth.

I’ve been a public speaking voice coach for a number of years and two of the most consistent problems I hear are ‘I speak too fast’ and ‘I’m too nervous.’ A great way to begin to remedy both of these is to open your mouth wider.

Opening your mouth allows more airflow and stretches your facial and neck muscles. This oxygenate your system, gets blood flowing, and releases endorphins, which makes you less nervous. Opening your mouth wider also increases recovery time between words and syllables, so you speak slower.

How wide? Just imagine you need to fit a whole orange in your mouth, then practice in front of a mirror. You won’t look as silly as you think I promise you!

4. Check the mic like a ninja.

‘Check, check… can you all hear me?’ [tap] [tap] [tap]

This screams under-confidence and insecurity. A tip I got from a comedian friend is to just say ‘hello’ into the mic and wait to hear if you get a response.

Use some kind of phrase or breath to check the mic like a ninja, rather than making it obvious.

5. Leave your kids out of it.

So this is a little bit content related. The amount of times that I hear a speaker effectively bad mouth their own kids, or spouse, or parents from the front is terrifying. They are not fair game, and you will lose the respect of people in the room if you do. Even passive mentions should be checked with them first.

Personal stories and experiences are great, but be respectful in how you put them together or the people you’re speaking to will stop trusting what you have to say.

6. Pause. Breathe. Pause.

Using the right amount of empty space makes talks into great talks. Reflection moments, and time for a point to sink in are golden. However, in usual conversation we call these ‘awkward silences’ so we don’t tend to feel comfortable with them publicly, and therefore don’t know how long to do them.

Obviously learn to fit the pause to the point, but for now start with pause-breathe-pause. Say your point and pause for what feels right. Then breathe in deeply, and do the pause again. Then continue (It’ll probably be 3-5 seconds all together).

 

7. Walk. Stop. Walk.

Some inexperienced speakers are constantly walking around the stage, bobbing around like an excitable terrier, with seemingly little understanding of where they are, where they’re heading, or why. An actor once told me that power and authority comes from standing still and straight, while intrigue and informality comes from slowly walking around. The trick is to use both intentionally.

If you walk from your lectern/music-stand/pulpit to somewhere else on the stage, stop and deliver a line from your talk stood still before walking back. Walk with a line. Stop with a line. Walk with a line.

Again, these are best matched to the point, but its a good place to start and learn body control as your speaking.

8. Learn some technical stuff.

Public speaking is a vocation, an art, and a skill. It has technicality that is worth the time to learn. Technical stuff should never replace the need for solid content, but it is important to make that content heard.

I’ve already mentioned breathing and body awareness, but also think about matching your points to the right volume, pitch, pace, timbre, and register. Find what part of your vocal instrument matches the point to the audience and practice so you can control it.

You can learn some of this stuff online, but vocal coaches and singing teachers can help you best with this. I coach people all around them world through Skype – so there are options available. If speaking is a big part of your ministry, it’s worth some time and money to train specifically as a speaker.

9. Smile properly. Laugh lots.

Unless it really doesn’t match your content, a gentle yet active smile that reaches your eyes will keep people with you. Humans respond to subtle smiling features on a face – we recognise them subliminally and we emulate them. This also increases endorphins and blood flow – and it usually opens your eyes a little wider letting more light in. All of this makes you more comfortable and confident.

Laughing lots before a talk is also a great way of relaxing nerves and getting more oxygen to the brain. It’s well worth traveling down to your talk with some funny people in the car!

10. Get there early.

One of the best tips I was ever given for talks I was worried about was to get there early. This gives you the chance to do two very important things:

First, it allows you to meet the people. Make connections, shake hands, tell stories, and ask questions. If you’ve already made those connections then both delivering and hearing the talk will go much more smoothly. I’ve been known to stand with the welcome team in places I’ve not spoken at before, just to say ‘hi‘ to as many people as possible. It’s always well received and really helpful!

Second, it gives you space to test the mic, adjust the stand, and look up and around at the room to see where the dead spots will be. It dulls the surprise of coming in fresh when you’re about to deliver. Well worth the early wake-up call.

11. Pick out your players.

When I’m nervous (which is still – after 18 years speaking – all the time), I tend to just look at one spot and keep talking to it.

To remedy this, pick out four to six people in different parts of the room and go back and forth looking at them. I think of this like football; I pick out some players on the wings, and people in the centre and keep passing my talk to them.

Realistically, this keeps me speaking to the whole room, and not just a small cluster in it.

12. Ignore mistakes.

You may need to occasionally correct a sentence, but don’t linger on it. Correct and move on.

Drawing attention to your mistakes makes an audience loose interest, and it makes you feel less confident and competent. Move through it and move past it.

13. Ignore numbers 1-12.

These ‘golden rules of thumb’ are there to help you deliver a clearer message and to be a support for your point. If they become the main thing, however, then throw them out. Some of the best speakers regularly break these rules because their own character can make it work.

If these are helpful – great. Use them and enjoy. If they breakup your flow, however, or make you panic, or get in the way of personality, then get rid of them!

Have fun. Speak well.

If you want more on this, check out ‘Bizesize Messages: Nailing the one point.’

10 financial tips to a youth worker from a youth worker

This might be one of the most hypocritical posts that I’ve ever written and that’s saying something! I’m rubbish at handling money. I don’t care all that much about it and I don’t think all that much about it either. In fact, it was only when I really understood my serious lack of stewardship gifts that I handed the responsibility over to my wife and then we began to get straightened out.

I do, however, spend a lot of my time mentoring and coaching youth workers. That – along with my own disastrous financial experience – means I understand and have lived through many of the pressures and conflicts surrounding money in ministry. I don’t think we pay ministers enough for sure, and youth ministers are often at the bottom end of this – but this is the reality of our world that we need to learn to live within.

I’m fortunate now to work for a charity that wants to support me well for the work I do, but many youth workers don’t have this, and even those of us who do still struggle. When I was in my first youth ministry position, I thought I was paid quite well – that was until I discovered that we were in the bottom 10% in our area and were racking up more and more debt each month!

The bottom line is that we don’t get into ministry to be wealthy, and we are often paid less than many of people that we serve. This is the nature of the beast. Some of us also get into ministry quite young, want to start families, and hold the baggage of student debt to boot.

It was only a few years ago that my wife and I were still in almost £10,000 of debt. A better job, a clearer understanding, some generosity, and a lot of planning helped us clear this completely. Credit for this needs to go to my wife, but here are a few things that I picked along the way.

This is the one of the weirdest posts I’ve ever written, but the more time I spend with youth workers the more I realise that many of these basic skills and understandings are just often missing.

Hopefully these aren’t too condescending, and hopefully for some people they may be helpful too. Enjoy!

1. Make peace with the reality of your role

As a youth worker in the West, you should consider yourself a missionary. Your work primarily will be finding and winning souls in a culture foreign to your own. There is frugal mindset that comes along with being a missionary, and an acceptance that you’re not going to be exactly like the people who surround you. Thrift stores should be your friend and an old car your chariot.

I see many youth workers who still aim for the idyllic lifestyles of families with different resources surrounding them and assuming that’s what ‘normal’ looks like. Dates, houses, cars, strollers, supermarket choices etc. all try to follow in these lines. As a missionary you need to budget robustly, spend creatively, and prioritise clearly.

2. Don’t buy anything on credit

Every time I go to a youth worker gathering, I find myself wondering how so many fellow workers are driving newer cars. Then there’s top phones, branded clothes, and planned holidays. I’m one of the slightly better paid youth workers in the UK, which still means I take home less than an entry level teacher – so how are my brothers and sisters doing this?

In some cases, it could be two sources of income, generous gifts, or well-planned savings, but it’s unlikely to be these across the board. I started to ask around and it turns out that so much of it is bought on credit. Little is actually owned, and variable debt is piling up beyond the means to pay it back.

I think this comes from not having the mindset of the missionary and assuming that were supposed to be just like everybody else – and thus have what everybody else has. If at all possible then, avoid buying anything you don’t need to on credit. Consider, for instance, that buying a mobile phone out right – even brand new flagships – then having a sim-only contract works out at almost half the price of a ‘free’ phone under a regular contract.

Credit promotes false economy and dictates financial terms for years to come for the promise of instant fixes.

3. Become a jack-of-all-trades

Creativity goes a long way financially, and as youth workers, we should really be rocking this:

  • Learn some basic mechanics and maintain your own car. YouTube is your friend.
  • Use comparison websites, understand vacation calendars, and book ahead.
  • Look for, save, and use coupons.
  • Know how to squeeze the most from your computer – update the hardware and keep the software clean.
  • Spend some time learning about different bank systems, savings accounts, investments, and long-term interest.
  • Know which shops sell which products at the best prices – even if this means doing the weekly shop in four different places.
  • Know which days and hours in a week are the best times to find bargains.
  • Don’t pay people to ‘make things easier’. Learn how to do things yourself.

4. Save anything

For the longest time I said that we couldn’t save until we were out of debt. I then said we couldn’t save until we are in “a better place financially”. Both of these what are based on misinformation and poor assumptions.

Sending a standing order, even just £5 a month, into a savings account is worthwhile. By the end of the year, £10 a month might pay for Christmas. My wife and I started off with two very small savings accounts, with ludicrously small standing order amounts. The first would cover spending on holidays, or birthdays that we forgot about; the second we would never touch unless in an absolute emergency. Even the silly small amounts have made a difference to our budgeting and planning. We also save loose change in a jar for the occasional take-out or treat. The best thing about this is it’s not money we factor in and so it doesn’t affect our budget.

5. Budget everything

Have a look through your last year of accounts and find out everything you spent on beyond direct debits and standing orders. Chart all these out and put up some budget boundaries.

Just about everything we spend comes out of a carefully planned budget. Food, hygiene, coffeeshops, appointments, entertainment, streaming services, fuel – everything possible is budgeted! It even includes a little bit for pocket money and date nights. This took a long time to get right, but it’s so worth it.

6. Give cheerfully

A think it’s a biblical principle to give out from all we receive – and not to wait to give until we are able. My wife and I give regularly, in small amounts through standing order, and less regularly in large amounts a couple of times a year.

I believe it’s a poor and unfaithful decision two wait to give until you ‘feel’ secure. Although there are many ways of giving, it’s too easy to count out financial stewardship through fear.

7. Receive gratefully

Enjoy gratefully the help you get from friends, family and church. Speaking gifts, dinner at people’s houses, babysitting, old cars, or even help gardening are wonderful expressions that we should not be too proud to receive when offered cheerfully.

These things shouldn’t come with strings attached, and you shouldn’t let yourself create guilt-burdened links because of them. Say thank you, be thankful, and receive gratefully.

8. Shop smartly

EBay, facebook, gumtree, and charity shops are your friends. Don’t always buy new and know how to shop smartly. Read reviews carefully and make sensible choices for what you really need.

Last year I bought a new phone, and I really wanted a good one. I needed long battery life, durability, and a solid camera. Everyone was telling me to buy the new Samsung flagship, however, after careful reviews I bought the LGG6. Because this came at the same time as the Samsung, it was overshadowed by it, and was therefore much much cheaper. No one wanted it even though the package was almost identical, and in some areas better.

This also goes two ways, sell what you don’t need regularly. Don’t horde, and keep cash moving.

9. Automate it

If you’re like me, then you might be a little bit reckless, impulsive, and fearful when it comes to money. Setup standing orders and direct debits so you never forget to pay bills, pay off debt, save, and budget.

Automate everything so you’ll never get late payment fines or unplanned overdraft fees. Don’t just trust memory; instead use the systems that are available to you.

10. The best things in life are free

Enjoy the good things that don’t cost. Hang out with friends, go for walks, take up healthy sports that don’t require memberships or much equipment. There is a lot to enjoy in life that doesn’t require money – just a joyful spirit and a little creativity.

Enjoy – remember that we’re just passing through. 🙂

 

The trap clause that all youth workers have in their contracts – and needs to be removed.

Endemic in the youth work world is employers who don’t really know why they want a youth worker. Most churches know that they want someone to work with young people – running Sunday schools, providing entertainment, organising camps, and doing some measure of discipleship – but beyond this, it all gets a little fuzzy.

If a church can’t answer the question ‘why do you want a youth worker’ with anything more generic broad generalities, then my suspicion is that they don’t really know what youth worker actually does, and how a youth worker will need to spend their time.

With such a limited understanding of a youth worker’s working week, and with pressure to justify the cost hiring one, a sneaky clause gets added into job descriptions. It usually runs like this:

‘Any other duty or duties that the pastor or elders deem necessary.’

And it’s everywhere!

I recently asked some professional Christian youth workers whether they have a similar clause in their contract – all of whom did. Here’s what it looks like for them:

‘Other duties as assigned’

‘Other duties as found applicable.’

‘Yes and it’s been crazy trying to say no. It’s a trap clause.’

‘Oh yeah! And I’ve realized that can entail so much.’

‘We have the other duties as assigned clause as well. They include hospital visits, handy work around the church, senior adult outings, and many other things that don’t always equal youth ministry. Throw in to that mix the fact that I am children’s pastor as well, and yea, time can be sparse’

‘That or, “Youth and Associate Minister.”’

‘Ah, yes… youth pastors can wear many “hats.” … I don’t mind doing other things so long as they don’t begin competing for time where my focus needs to be… youth ministry. Learning to say, “No” is big!’

In my time helping churches hire youth workers, I’ve never seen a contract that did not have this clause in some form or another. It’s everywhere!

So what’s the problem?

When I was working my first full-time youth work position, this sneaky little cause in my contract could easily account for between 40% and 60% of my working week.

I had three-hour staff meetings every Monday morning with the two Ministers, which required my input for maybe 20 minutes at most. This met in my office, and set the tone for my week. Off the back of this, I would often have to you organise prayer meetings, home-group gatherings, music, lifts, and often with no warning or preparation time. This regularly bleed into my days off – which, as you can imagine, were rarely taken.

Because I was still trying to perform my youth work job, this stuff was piled on top of what I was supposed to be doing. This meant that I was regularly working 70 hour weeks.

After a year of this, I raised it as an issue with my senior pastor. His slight impatient response was this:

‘Well, we all do that Tim. That’s just ministry!’

As a result I was always tired, always forgetting things, always navigating conflict, and spiralling quickly towards burnout. After nearly four years of decreasing health, and acting on the advice of a doctor, I sought another position – and almost quit youth ministry all together.

Now this was nearly ten years ago, and it is a particularly extreme example. It should also be nuanced by the fact I was too young and inexperienced to battle for my time properly, and I actually wasn’t line-managed in all the time I was there.

It does, however, flag up the potential dangers of the ‘any other duties’ clause. I have also since seen many youth workers burned out with similar stories. It has got to stop.

How to fix it… or at least start to

Some of the youth workers that I spoke to saw the necessity of a clause like this when working for small churches with under resourced teams. Some even enjoyed the added experience that came from these additional jobs. However, all of these said that it should be for a specific, pre-agreed, maximum amount of time. For instance, they said that the ‘other duties’ clause should account for ‘no more than 5% of a working week.’

This is not a bad idea, however, I have a slightly different answer:

Just take it out.

There is no practical or legal reason this clause is required in a contract. If it’s in your contract, request a conversation with your manager about removing it. If you’re about to hire someone, don’t put it in in the first place.

The ‘other duties’ statement is a trap cause, as someone said above, and as such is a recipe for abuse. It demonstrates a serious lack of understanding by the church of their youth worker’s week, and gives contractual, legal permission to burn out a fellow minister of the gospel.

This is not ok.

I do believe that youth workers should be actively involved in their church outside of youth ministry; but that it should be voluntary and given as an act of service. It’s a pastoral issue, therefore, and not a contractual one.

If you hire a youth worker properly, and line-manage them clearly, then you won’t need to dictate their priorities. A quality, well-supported and well-managed youth worker will develop ministry that integrates with the wider church naturally. Making sure they’re in line and supportive of the church ethos and mission will work without needing to leave a hook in.

So, please please please let’s get rid of the ‘other duties’ clause – and see if we can’t extend the health and longevity of our youth workers by a few years, eh?

Thanks 🙂

 

Dr. Andrew Root’s response to my critique

Earlier this week I posted a critique of Dr. Andrew Root’s work, particularly on relational or ‘incarnational’ youth ministry. My hope was to encourage a little more critical reading of his works considering his slightly unorthodox theology.

I’m a great admirer of Root and wanted to give him the opportunity to read and respond to that post before I published it. He graciously did so, and his reply is below in full. I incorporated some of his suggestions and clarifications, and I agreed that my lack of engagement with his later books puts me at a disadvantage. However, as he agrees, many of my issues still remain.

My drive behind this dialogue is not to make anyone simply agree with me, or even with Dr. Root, but to engage in a public exercise that encourages more critical reading of the resources we adopt.

With that in mind, here is – with his permission – Dr. Root’s reply:

 

Tim,

Thanks for this email and thanks for engaging the work.  I think this is fine and mostly fair, but there are parts I’m not sure about.

First, the reduction of evangelicalism is a fair critique but this must be read next to my support, affirmation, and commitment to an evangelical perspective in Christopraxis.  As a matter of fact, to truly understand what I’m up to, you’d have to look there.  The other works, as you mention, are trying to balance idea construction with the practice of ministry.
Second, no doubt, I’m bound to Bonhoeffer as a theological dialogue partner, and seem to understand the atonement different than you.  But to understand this all you’d have to engage the conceptions of Luther and the passivity of human action.  My point is that your critique is not so much with Bonhoeffer as it is with Luther.  Looking at work from Christopraxis on will show a deeper engagement with orthodox and Pauline conceptions, which don’t show up in your review.  You mainly just stick with 2007, 2009, and 2011 work.  I hope I’ve developed since then.  So putting your critiques in dialogue with Christopraxis, Faith Formation, and Exploding Stars would be important, I think.  I’d imagine some of your concerns will remain.

Third, the burnout thing is most troubling.  I’ve mentioned in multiple places that you can only be a place-sharer to about 5 young people.  The push of the perspective is to change the youth worker’s conception from being the one doing all the relational ministry to ordaining other adults into ministry, to take responsibility for their young people.  I’ve also discussed a lot about open/closedness and claimed that place-sharing provides starker boundaries than other forms of ministry.  And this is based in a certain anthropology.  You may rightly disagree, but it isn’t right to assume that my perspective doesn’t see or deal with boundaries.  Also, you mention Blair and Christy’s review, but don’t offer how I responded to their critiques.  You’re welcome to critique my responses to them and call it inadequate…but I did have responses to their critiques you don’t mention.

Finally, and this is probably where we differ, my whole project revolves around conceptions of revelation.  I’m simply trying to explore where and how we encounter the living presence of God.  I think a legitimate critique is found in contrasting my views of revelation with those of others.  The first question really is, “Do you see ministry as centrally about revelation, or something else?”  So critiquing my conception that ministry bears the weight of revelation is fair, as is offering an opposing view of revelation.  At the end, stellvertretung (place-sharing) really isn’t the center of my thought (I mean, it’s close to the center) but the real core is ministry as the constituting reality of God’s act and being.  So yes, sin, salvation, etc. must be seen through the biblical narrative of God’s act to minister to Israel, to be a God who is found in historical acts.  Again, wrestling with Christopraxis will more clearly show this.

These are simply my reactions, since you kindly asked.  But again, thanks for writing something up.
Blessings to you,
Andy

 

Dr. Andrew Root (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is the Associate Professor and Carrie Olson Baalson Chair of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, Minnesota. He is the author of fifteen books on ministry and theology, and an experienced youth worker.

 

A Call for More Careful Reading of Dr. Andrew Root.

This is just a gentle post asking for some care when reading Dr. Andrew Root. He is well worth the effort and he is invaluable to interact with. I am personally challenged by his experience working with so many hurting and broken young people throughout his career. I’m inspired by Root! I like him, and he has a lot of value to add to the conversation.

However, his densely written work is easily accepted as completely correct because it is written a head higher than most other youth work literature is. Many of us in the youth ministry world are simply not used to reading academics, and therefore we don’t bring the level of conversational critique required when engaging with the convincing and well-cited prose that academics, like Root, writes in.

Before publishing this, I sent a copy to Dr. Root and asked for his thoughts. He graciously and very gracefully replied. On the whole he saw it as a mostly fair critique, noting that we probably do come from different theological angles. Agreed! However, he did also clarify a few areas. Some of these have been incorporated into what I’ve written below. The main thing, however, is that his thinking has developed in more recent publications, particularly in his book, Christopraxis (2014). However, I have not yet read this, so cannot comment on it. This may make some of the critique below moot, however, as Root said in his email, ‘I’d imagine some of your concerns will remain.’

As this post is designed to encourage more critical thinking and careful reading, it’s not important that readers necessarily agree with my critique, so much as they simply engage with critique. For this reason, I have asked Dr. Root for permission to publish his response. If he is agreeable, then I will do so as soon as possible.

Dr. Root brings us a massively useful set of perspectives that we should carefully consider in our work, but that doesn’t mean that he is completely, one-hundred-percent on the ball, or that his views should be appropriated in their entirety. Academia works by moving conversations forward in micro-increments, with hypotheses tested, and attempts made to falsify. That’s how iron sharpens iron in the academic world. However, as Root’s books tend to skirt the middle ground between academia and populous, that context can easily be lost through no fault of his own.

I’m sure Root himself, from an academic background, would fully support me by encouraging us to engage in these kinds of innovative conversations with critical thinking and great care. Nothing should be swallowed hook, line and sinker, without some real thought – especially when it is at this kind of level.

This post isn’t written to target Dr. Root, but to use him as an example of taking care when reading literature that sits on the line between dense academic work, and popular practical materials. Root has become this example because of the number of blogs and groups currently reviewing him are in complete agreement and offer total support. It concerns me that reviewers and interviewers don’t ask critical questions of some of his more abstract or innovative ideas. They may simple not be aware of how unorthodox some of his claims are.

I recently wrote a paper analyzing the last few decades of ‘incarnational’ youth ministry theory (mainly looking at Pete Ward, Dean Borgman, and Andrew Root), and – after reading everything Root has published specifically on the subject – I was left with a few concerns that I’d like to outline here:

Approach to Evangelical Youth Ministry

First, Root’s own analysis of evangelical youth ministry is a little bit reductionist at times and comes with a tendency to erect a straw man in its place. He may, therefore, simply be fixing the wrong leak!

There is plenty to agree with in his survey of youth ministry. For instance, he says that there is a ‘dangerously high reading of cultural influence its blood stream’ (2007:23, 81) and it has settled into a pattern ‘that is more embedded in individualism’ (2013:110-111). Amen to that and let’s get on it!

He then, however, reduces evangelical youth ministry into a formulaic or purely functional approach, that makes ministry ‘goal-orientated rather than a companionship-orientated’ (2007:23). He, using this false dichotomy, writes as if any kind of potential influence is unhealthy, and thus any youth ministry that is trying to influence a young person to become a Christian is depersonalized and dishonest (2013:113-114). He sees this as manipulative leverage (2007:17; 2011:151).

There is very little nuance in Root’s critique. He doesn’t, for instance, differentiate been healthy and unhealthy influence. Talking someone down from the ledge before committing suicide would surely be an example of healthy influence? Many evangelicals would argue that this is exactly the type of influence they exercise by trying to help young people know the Gospel. Root, however, doesn’t consider these potential perspectives. Because of this, academic reviewers such as Dr. M. Dodrill (2013:12), Dr. B. Bertrand (2013:46), and Prof. R. Haitch (2013:38) believe that Root misunderstands evangelicals.

Root provides an important cautionary tale about manipulating young people through inauthentic relationships. However, he would do well to read other evangelical youth work theorists less as strawmen. Further, his sweepingly negative comments about influence cannot stand under scrutiny. Relationships are by their nature influential and contain a variety of moving goals.

In Root’s reply to me, he said this is fair critique, however should be placed in dialogue with his affirmation of evangelicalism in Christopraxis (2014). I will update this after I have read it.

Place-Sharing in Practice

Second, Root’s view of ‘place-sharing’ is dangerous if improperly applied. As much as I love Root’s compassion-driven model which focuses on empathy with the pain of young people, I’m troubled about what that could look like in practice.

For Root, we most deeply encounter the nearness of Jesus in His crucifixion, so Jesus empathised with our pain deeply that we – using the crucifixion as our base line – should likewise share in the pain of young people. Place-sharing requires us to indwell or inhabit another’s pain so completely that it becomes our own (2007:129-130; see Smith, 2009:113). This is not about getting young people to ‘accept… the gospel message’ it is about ‘sharing in suffering and joy, about persons meeting with persons with no pretence of secret motives’ (2007:15). One begins to wonder what the distinctives of the ‘gospel message’ are under Root’s theology (a point we’ll return to in objection four)?

Root’s approach puts the youth minister into very vulnerable positions. In his impassioned plea to place-share in the pain of young people, Root has encouraged muggy boundaries (Hickford, 2003:111). An immersed relationship cannot extend to a group of young people, twenty-four hours a day. This is a recipe for burnout — and sets a precedent for young people to allow themselves into unsafe situations. In Root’s response to me, he reminds me that he does say on several occasions that the youth minister can only be a place-sharer to perhaps five young people and should see it as a responsibility to ‘ordain’ other adults to do the same. Root also talks about openness and closeness and claims that place-sharing has starker boundaries than other methods (although this I believe points to the poor practice of those other methods, rather than to the soundness of his). Root does, however, indeed give more boundaries than I initially suggested. That granted, I think my problem remains. Empathising so deeply with a young person that their pain becomes our own is dangerous with any number of young people. It doesn’t provide a healthy relational dynamic where the hurting party can develop without attachment, and where the outside party (now the equally hurting party) can detach and remain true to their own identity and responsibilities. I recently shared this concept with both a Christian psychotherapist, and a PhD in child psychology. They both were deeply troubled and saw this as a fundamental gap in Root’s knowledge of counselling theory

This reveals another significant problem in Root’s writing. His relational examples are only between equal partners (marriage and friendship). This ‘leads to an overly simplistic and gendered divide between instrumental and expressive relationships’ (Betrand and Hearlson, 2013:49). Frankly, expecting a teenager to be an ‘equal partner’ and carry the baggage of a much older youth minster is a recipe for relational abuse – if not actually abusive in itself.

Root has responded to Betrand’s and Hearlson’s critique in the Journal of Youth Ministry (2013). Where they believe Root is ‘not interested in in young people hearing the Gospel’, Root responds that he wants ‘nothing more, than for young people to encounter and respond to the gospel’ (59) and says that this is not encountering an idea but Jesus himself. This Jesus is met, Root believes, in the revelation of ministry, thus Jesus is genuinely present within place-sharing. Salvation, he says, is found in encountering Jesus through participation in relationships. He concedes that he has ‘little concern for people converting to the idea of Jesus’ (60). Again, there is much to agree with here. Surely encountering the active person of Jesus is essential to the gospel. However, reducing the gospel narratives and Pauline materials on salvation to simply ‘encountering Jesus’ without doctrinal subtext is simply too small a picture of Jesus. It seems that for Root, salvation is little more than relational closeness to Jesus, rather than any atoning consequence of dealing with sin on the cross to win our forgiveness. Two people being close does not make them married. Covenantal promises, commitments, and sacrifices to adopt a whole new way of living is also important for a couple. Further, leaving that encounter necessary for salvation to be contained within the practice of human relationship feels very much like remoulding Jesus into our image, rather than seeking His. Root’s response is worth a read as it does clarify his position somewhat, however I was left with more concerns than less, as both the focus of salvation and Root’s very particular approach to Bible interpretation became starker.

Place-sharing, if clearer boundaries were applied, could be a helpful way to talk about the value of interested adults in the lives of young people. However, Root’s presentation of it as the Incarnation’s continuous form is unsound, and as a practical approach it is a recipe for burnout and abuse.

Theological Basis

Third, Root uses Dietrich Bonhoeffer as his de facto foundational thinker, but he also sees Bonhoeffer through rose-tinted lens. As much as I would agree that we have a plethora of helpful things to learn from Bonhoeffer, it is also worth noting that there are problems and nuances in Bonhoeffer’s theology which are heavily influenced by his context.

Bonhoeffer’s Christology was born out of a very turbulent life experience. He emphasised the this-world focus and concrete nature of Jesus becoming flesh (words used by Root) which was heavily outworked in a strongly social gospel. Abstract or internal knowledge of God was almost entirely dismissed by Bonhoeffer. He intended that ‘all Christian doctrines be reinterpreted in “this world” terms… The only way to find God, then, is to live fully in the midst of this world. Christians must participate in Jesus’ living for others’ (Godsey, 1991). Bonhoeffer, during the later period of his life, discontinued his daily Bible meditation, denying that Scripture contained any timeless principles. He said, ‘we may no longer seek after universal, eternal truths’ reading the Bible (Bonhoeffer and Krauss 2010:71). Further, as someone who leaned towards universalism, Bonhoeffer lacked a strong theology of atonement or soteriology (Weikart, 2015).

In many ways, Root’s understanding of the Incarnation is not his own. The ghost of Dietrich Bonhoeffer walks each and every page. Haitch sees Root’s work as little more than a ‘cut and paste’ approach (2013:13-14). Even the phrase place-sharer is Bonhoeffer’s (Stellvertreter) (2007:83). Root said that Bonhoeffer’s part in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler was driven by the belief ‘that it was the only way that he could truly (truly = in the imitation of Christ) share the place of those crushed by the wheels of the Nazi political machine’ (2007:85). This would have been the ideal place for Root to have added some words of caution about using Bonhoeffer as a de facto position on Christology, however we are left wanting.

It’s not that Root using Bonhoeffer is a problem. Bonhoeffer is a legend with much to teach us! However, Root uses him uncritically, and that is what causes issues. This is the same difficulty that I’m having with popular reviews of Root. There is much for value, but it must be read carefully and in balance.

In balance to this, Dr. Root would like me to be aware that in his later work, particularly in Christopraxis, (but also Faith Formation in a Secular Age, and Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs and Zombies) that his thinking has developed and shows deeper engagement with orthodox and Pauline conceptions – and particularly with Luther. I concede that not reading these yet puts me at a disadvantage, however, Root also concedes that despite this some of my concerns ‘will remain.’

Understanding of Salvation

Fourth, Root’s theology seems to miss key creedal components. He seems to go out of his way, for instance, to avoid talking about the atonement in any distinctive form, which makes me wonder what Root’s theology of salvation really is? He writes as if he is trying to unstick the incarnation from any kind of soteriology (2013: 132-133, 148-149; 2007:91-94), and avoids it being the way in which God’s wrath is appeased (2013:128).

From my reading of Root, salvation is reclassified as ‘finding your person bound to God’ (2013:70; see Bertrand and Hearlson, 2013:47); sin is re-understood as ‘antihumanity’ (2007:90-91); and new-creation is deemphasized in favour of individual, world-bound empathy (2013:99, 149). He does not cogently discuss victory, God’s glory, heaven, obedience, or proclamation in mission. He, I believe, marginalises the Father and subtly remoulds the classical understanding of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (2013:147). Finally, Root neglects to properly unpack essential views that emphasise the historically understood divine aspects of the Incarnation (such as Athanasius or the Nicene Creed) – and favours writers like Barth, Torrance, and Bonhoeffer, all of whom lean towards the Incarnation being something in itself salvific.

I find it difficult, in how Root has written, to see much effectual reason for Jesus to have died for sins apart from fulfilling some kind of ultimate act of place-sharing in our death. Root frequently moves the ‘goal’ of incarnation from a divine action to a participative human action (2007:89-94).

Summary

Do I think these objections result in an insurmountable problem with the work of Dr. Root? Certainly not – and in many ways I don’t like nit-picking someone whom I respect so deeply. It’s easy to find problems in anyone, and I’m sure Root could answer or clarify his approach to all of the above. Many of these are probably just misunderstandings, or rabbit holes that needed a little more clarification and nuance at the time of writing.

The problem is I – as a reasonably well-informed, theologically-educated, and experienced youth leader – after reading all of Root’s work, came away with these issues. It worries me greatly, therefore, that in the youth work populous, little, if any, critique is being offered. Why is it that the only real critical questioning has been relegated to the academic realm?

Let’s please read innovative work carefully, and appropriate it into our contexts with great attention to the young people that God has placed in our lives. It’s important to engage with deep thinkers, but deep thinking alone doesn’t make something correct or adoptable. In the case of Root, there is I believe, enough serious divergence from orthodoxy to require great care in reading.

My absolute best to Dr. Root, who I think is an invaluable thinker in our times. My hope for all of us, however, is that we can gracefully look deeper and more carefully at what we adopt.

 

References:

Bertrand, B., & Hearlson, C. (2013), ‘Relationships, personalism, and Andrew Root’, The Journal of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 45-55

Billings, J.T. (2012), ‘The Problem with ‘Incarnational Ministry.”, Christianity Today, 56, 7, pp. 58-63

Bonhoeffer, D. and Krauss, R. (2010). Letters and papers from prison. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press.

Dodrill, M. (2013), ‘A call for more critical thinking regarding the ‘theological turn’ in youth ministry’, The Journal Of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 7-20

Glassford, D.K. (2016), ‘Bonhoeffer as youth worker: a theological vision for discipleship and life together’, Christian Education Journal, 13, 2, pp. 435-437

Godsey, J. (1991), Bonhoeffer’s costly theology. Available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-32/bonhoeffers-costly-theology.html

Haitch, R. (2013), ‘Response to ‘Incarnation and place-sharing’ by Andrew Root’, The Journal Of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 37-43

Hickford, A. (2003) Essential youth: Why your church needs young people. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications

Root, A. (2014) Bonhoeffer as youth worker: a theological vision for discipleship and life together. Grand Rapids: Baker Books

Root, A. (2013), ‘Evangelicalism, personalism and encounters with the person of Jesus: a rejoinder’, The Journal Of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 57-67

Root. A. (2013), How we talk about sin in youth ministry. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7I4gHCKElw

Root, A. (2011), ‘Participation and mediation: a practical theology for the liquid church’, International Journal of Practical Theology, 15, 1, pp. 137-139

Root, A. Relationality as the Objective of Incarnational Ministry: A Reexamination of the Theological Foundations of Adolescent Ministry in Griffiths, S. (ed.) and International Association for the study of Youth Ministry (2004) Journal of Youth and Theology Vol.3 No. 1 April 2004. pp.97-113

Root, A. (2007), Revisiting relational youth ministry: from a strategy of influence to a theology of incarnation. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books

Root, A. (2013), ‘The incarnation, place-sharing, and youth ministry: experiencing the transcendence of God’, The Journal of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 21-36

Root, A. (2013), The relational pastor: sharing in Christ by sharing ourselves. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP

Root, A. and Dean, K.C. (2011) The theological turn in youth ministry. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books

Smith, F.J. (2009), ‘Revisiting relational youth ministry: from a strategy of influence to a theology of incarnation’, Theology Today, 66, 1, p. 109

Weikart, R. (2015), The Troubling Truth About Bonhoeffer’s Theology. Available at http://www.equip.org/article/troubling-truth-bonhoeffers-theology/

White, D.F. (2008), ‘Toward an adequate sociology of youth ministry: a dialogue with Andrew Root and Anthony Giddens’, The Journal of Youth Ministry, 7, 1, pp. 91-100

Winstead, B. (2016), ‘Bonhoeffer as youth worker: a theological vision for discipleship and life together’, Wesleyan Theological Journal, 51, 1, pp. 230-233

What does a youth work consultant do? With Ali Campbell

Welcome to our new series: the variety of youth workers. We’re going to be looking at six types of Christian youth worker including; The Consultant, The Freelance, The Parachurch, The Church-based, The Secular, and The National Role. Each will be written by a known practitioner in that field.

Kicking us we’re fortunate to have Ali Campbell; youth work consultant and founder of The Resource. Ali has been involved with youth work at the local and national level for decades, and is a solid wealth of information. This is a long post, but it’s worth it – enjoy!

What does a youth work consultant do?

Yeah, that is a good question!  As I work for myself, as a sole trader, it is not something I have been appointed to – so, in some ways, I get to define what it looks like for me.

I set up The Resource in order to be that, a resource for the local church and faith based organisations working with children, young people and families.

So that is the first thing, I aim to be a “resource” through sharing ideas, material, thoughts and articles about ministry and signposting those I engage with to the resources, ideas and material of others – a key thing for me is adding value, so I try and make a point of knowing what is “out there” and, if I can’t help directly – I try and make sure I know who can!

Secondly, I work for people in a number of ways – it could be writing resources and material, it could be doing a piece of research around children, young people and the home (which I’m particularly interested in from a faith perspective), it could be visiting churches and helping them think through their strategy and vision, it could be advising organisations on employing youth and children’s workers – looking at job descriptions and contracts, stuff like that, it could be training sessions delivered for a diocese or group of churches or a theological college.

What does an ‘average week’ look like for you?

Ha! There is no average week – but here is a snapshot.  Most mornings I start early, about 7am, to get emails replied to and maybe line up a few scheduled posts for my Facebook Page and, if I’m feeling inspired, cracking out a blog post on ministry.  I then look through my “up coming” deadlines and try and prioritise what I need to work at – so, right now I’m planning for a lecture that I’m delivering this weekend coming (as I type) on Reflective Practice at a residential retreat for those preparing for ordination. I’m on a retainer with a small charity, so a portion of most days is spent doing work for them – involving funding applications, tinkering with their website and promotion of their activity.

As my time is flexible, I also generally do school drop off and pick up for my youngest daughter.  I then have this sign in front of my face that, from 9am, I try and keep at the forefront of my mind – it just says, “do what is in front of you.”

Working for myself, I could spend my days chasing work (if I don’t do work for people, I don’t get paid so that is a motivator for getting myself out there!), however, I’ve found my days are more productive if I focus on the work I already have – not might have one day.  Working through my work generally means writing, preparing presentations, researching and hanging out with my Mac and a coffee 🙂

How is it different to other types of youth ministry you’ve been involved with?

I’ve been involved in six different kinds of roles within youth work, each is different, with it’s own challenges and joys – these were:

Volunteer youth worker.  Where I started at 18, did this for a decade.

Student worker. Two years study with Oasis before there were degrees, getting a certificate in youth ministry.

Full-time youth worker.  Worked for a local church for 7 years.

Diocesan adviser.  Worked for a Church of England Diocese for 9 years.

Children’s and youth event host / leader.  Led children’s and youth stuff at a national family conference for 14 years (this isn’t concurrent, I’m not that old!)

Youth conference organiser.  Led a team organising a couple of national conferences plus worked with a team of people to plan and run the now sadly finished “Youthwork The Conference”.

I don’t count what I do now as a seventh, it is more an amalgamation of all of the above.  The main difference is not being responsible for a bunch of young people – although I have gone full circle, and volunteer in my own church.  I guess this means I can be pretty objective as I go out and about to encourage and support others.  It also means I have to find ways of keeping my hand in, as there is nothing worse in ministry than teaching, lecturing or speaking to people about what you “used to do”.

What are the pros and cons of being a consultant?  /  What do you find easier, and what’s harder?

I think I’ve learnt from a lot of mistakes that I’ve made in the past about how I manage my time, plan work, invest in my own live with God. I wouldn’t say that it’s any easier(!), but I think that just comes from age, being nearly 50.

Big pros are working for myself and – in a work context – being asked to do a piece of work because people want me to do it. That might sound odd, but I don’t sit around wondering if I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing when it doesn’t match up to my job description.  Generally, the work I’m asked to do is pretty focused, and if people come to me with a very vague proposal, I try and help them drill down to what they actually want me to do and when they want it by.  I also love the variety and pushing myself in to new skill areas. When I started The Resource in September 2014, for example, I had to get to grips with creating my website, how I was going to communicate what I was doing, becoming a sole trader and thinking about tax, invoicing and all that admin stuff.

What is hard is not, at this moment, mentoring or discipling a group of young people myself.  Although, that isn’t strictly true as I have a 10 and almost 13-year-old in my own house.  It is also hard, at times, not being part of a wider organisation – that sometimes creates “Credibility” all by itself – “hey, I work for such and such.” I have to demonstrate to people I know what I am doing and share a bit of my story about why I’m working for myself.  However, what I love, love, LOVE is not being involved in politics and hierarchy stuff. I sometimes feel that I don’t have the influence I could have, but then I am reminded that I can (within reason) say what I like if there is injustice, young people are not being listened to or valued, or I think the national church needs to sort its priorities out and – because I work for myself – nobody can “fire me!”

What do you miss from before you were a consultant?

A team.  And growing a team. I miss having my own team to be part of – throw ideas around, encourage each other, iron sharpens youth ministry iron etc.  I’ve had two very different teams.  One, when I was a full-time youth worker at a church, were all at least a decade younger than me – encouraging, equipping and releasing them in to ministry stuff was a joy.  Secondly, I had a team of experienced people at the diocese, I had to determine best how to focus their many talents, so we could be of most benefit to the churches we served.

I’d love a team again.  Right now, don’t see how that happens, I think being a sole trader and just being / doing “The Resource” is the fit for me, but – I’m open to what God says about that!

What would you say to someone who is considering becoming a youth work consultant?

It is wonderful.  It is hard work.  It is flippin’ scary starting out.  You have to have a combo of confidence in the Lord and confidence in what He has called you to.

There are knocks, work you think you should have had you don’t get; Challenges around your identity and worth, depending how you get going with being a consultant. I haven’t mentioned it, but – although it feels absolutely right for me, I had to go through a redundancy to get here. If you can choose to make a start with this, rather than react to circumstances – I’d take that route.

Here are a couple of things that I would say to you if you want to make work:

  1. You have to put yourself out there. It is you that you are selling, and you represent yourself not an organisation. So, work out what you have to offer that is distinctive, create stuff for free that shows people what you can do, add value to the work of others, and bless other ministries doing similar things to you.
  2. Network like crazy. Be at things that matter in your field of work. Whether that’s conferences, gatherings, training.  Look for gaps – what isn’t being spoken about or done? What training isn’t being offered but should be?
  3. Find support and accountability. Get a bunch of people around you who will pray for you, encourage you and back you – but who will also call you out for heresy, when you are working too hard, or losing perspective and balance. You might need to sacrifice things to make this work, but don’t let those things be friends or family.

I love it and, right now, wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

 

You can get in touch we and or follow via:

Twitter: @AliCampbell_68

Facebook : www.facebook.com/alitheresource

Web: www.theresource.org.uk

Call: 07921 472589

Email: ali@theresource.org.uk

 

When musical tastes become the preconditions for worship

The time of musical worship can be a nightmare to crack! With so many tastes and values in the room it’s amazing that we ever get through it without broken teeth, flying drumsticks, or choral tantrums.

Part of the issue is we’re just so darn picky!

I, for instance, am really cynical about 90s-00s contemporary worship music. I find it simplistic, boring, messy, boring, poorly written, boring, rubbish to play, boring, and theologically… quirky. Is this a fair assessment of all worship music from that era? Probably not. Does it summarise all of that era’s worship? Definitely not! Does it tell me something about my heart? Very yes!

And here’s the problem: The straight line we draw from ‘does this please me’ to ‘does it please God’ is logically absurd! Worship was never primarily designed for me.

Our worship should reach in three directions:

  1. Upward. We’re to love and honour God.
  2. Outwards. We’re to serve and uplift each other.
  3. Inwards. We’re to encourage our silly hearts and tired minds to respond.

The problem is we tend to add a fourth step; something like, ‘we’re to like the music’. This totally reverses the process which ends up looking a little like this:

  1. Double Inwards. Am I properly entertained by, and comfortable with the music provided?
  2. Inwards. Do I feel that I can now respond to God?
  3. Outwards. Do I feel that I can encourage others to get stuck in?
  4. Upwards. Do I feel that God likes what I’m doing?

The problem here is that every one of these steps is now governed by ‘do I feel…?’, which makes worship self-serving rather than God-serving. This is a huge problem when you consider that worship in the Bible always included sacrifice and making ourselves lower than Him.

If our ability to worship is governed by our acceptance of the music provided, then everything stops working.

Put another way: if worship must first meet our conditions, then we won’t fully be worshipping when they do.

If the music fits us so perfectly that we ‘switch on’ our worship mode, then it’s likely that is it isn’t always worship that we’re doing. It’s not that we can’t worship to our music preference (of course we can), the problem is making our worship and adoration of God conditional on our music preferences.

Our love for God shouldn’t be conditional upon anything but His love for us.

How many times have you heard (or thought!) something like:

  • I can’t worship to an organ
  • The music is too loud to worship
  • I can’t focus on God because the singer was off-key
  • God can’t get through to me though a guitar solo

For me – I always lose it if a drummer goes out of time!

Now some of this is simple human distraction – worked on with time and patience. However, these things can be heart issues. It’s a heart issue when we won’t try to worship if our preferences aren’t met. This then ends up being subliminal and habitual. The symptoms are things like:

  • Constantly grumbling about the music wherever you go
  • Easily snapping in and out of worship
  • Connecting better at conferences than your home church
  • Not connecting with God musically when at home alone

I want to nuance this slightly as there’s other reasons that the above can exist, and God takes whatever worship we give Him, even if it’s conditional or a bit self-centered. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we’re never worshipping in music when we’re conditional, but I would challenge all of us that if we are conditional, then our worship will quickly hit a maturity plateau. And when our worship plateaus, so does our faith.

We need to love God so dearly, and long to worship Him so fully that the music style will not stop us from doing so! We should all strive for a place where if all we have is a set of lungs and some rattling paint cans, that will be enough.

My encouragement here (and my challenge to myself) is to worship God regardless, and not to make our adoration of God dependent, or conditional on our tastes. We’re not a vending machine that only pays out with the right coins; God shouldn’t have to tease it out of us. Let’s overflow to Him, however off-key, out-of-time, or poorly written the music is. God is always worth it!.

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

Let’s stop telling future youth ministers to skip training!

(Sorry – slightly ranty post)

Over the past decade, Bible Colleges in Britain have really started to struggle getting people to apply. This has been most clearly seen in youth work courses. Not only have several large and well-established youth work training centres now closed, but many of the biggest Bible Colleges in the UK don’t even have a dedicated youth work teacher.

I find this really weird, because also over the past decade, loads of deep-thinking books and resources have come out on youth work. There is now a plethora of relational practice books, educational theory journals, and theological youth work PhDs published each year. The knowledge base is constantly growing. I thought we were just starting to get it?

Ministry Lite?

Youth ministry has been seen as ministry lite for a while now. From the outside it looks like underpaid, entertainment-driven purgatory, where a Nike-sporting young wannabe is waiting for ‘real’ ministry to start later. Only a cursory glance into the youth work world, however, would reveal just how many areas youth ministers need to be carefully developed in.

Youth ministers need to be trained theologically for sure; but they also need to understand HR, safeguarding law, project management, team development, conflict resolution, additional needs, mental health, and a mountain of other very specific, and vocationally professional areas.

Youth ministry is no joke. Done badly it can bring down a church, done really badly it can bring the entire Gospel into genuine disrepute. It’s now easier than ever to make these huge mistakes without even being aware of the issues that cause them.

So why are we so blasé about formal training?

Paediatric doctors will train for years. As will mental health nurses, psychiatrists, counsellors, sports coaches, and of course teachers. We see these as professions which require real training efforts. We take these seriously because they are all involved with the care of vulnerable young people. But wait – isn’t that exactly what we do in youth ministry?

Taking Youth Ministry Seriously

Youth work is no joke. It involves holistic care and theological security. Youth workers – especially those in lead ministry positions – need training. Experience alone simply doesn’t cut it; theological illiteracy is too epidemic, laws change too quickly, and young people vary too widely.

I’m not saying that youth workers need to be more intellectual or more academic. Not at all! We’re not running a school after all… but come on! A little hard effort into understanding complex issues and deep truths about young people goes for miles in ministry.

In most of my posts I’m totally on the youth worker’s side – but in this one I’m asking the impertinent question: What are you doing to show that you take your own ministry seriously?

Are you enrolling on courses, reading books, going to training regularly, and asking for a bigger budget to do just that? Do you know the options for degrees, further professional development, or even research? Do you know the gaps in your knowledge – and where to go to fill them? Are you intentionally putting yourself in situations where you’re challenged? Do you surround yourself with people smarter than you?

I really believe that youth workers should see their role as a calling – something long term. If you believe that’s you, then taking a few years (yes, years) out to do proper foundational training should be seen as an obvious thing to do.

Training doesn’t replace experience of course, nor should it eclipse your own reading, but you can build concurrently and afterwards. The first time I did a theology degree, I spent my free time volunteering in several youth projects – and worked part-time. It’s much easier to gain experience while training than it is to train while working.

Why would you not?

There are several routes into youth ministry, and many of them don’t require any formal training: Internships, apprenticeships, or graduating from voluntary work are often the most regularly travelled paths.

I love these options and I’ve seen some great youth workers come out of these routes too. However, these options often (if not always) leave signifiant holes that need to be plugged. They tend to be too particular, too basic, or too unaccountable.

When someone asks me about youth work training – and specifically about getting a degree – I always ask: why would you not?

Yes, some people hate the classroom and really don’t do well with traditional academic methods – but there is now so much choice in the UK for youth workers who feel just like this. There is also a wide range of funding options, distance learning courses, and timeframes to consider. You can usually discover a good fit if you are willing to put the effort into finding out.

There is also a lot of criticism levied against formal theological training: It’s not worth the money, universities are too hampered by their awarding bodies, youth don’t need another pasty-faced academic, I’d rather just be doing it, I can get all the same information from books etc. However, I’ve only ever heard these arguments from people who decided not to train. The Dunning-Kruger effect comes to mind.

The fact remains for me that the best youth workers that I’ve ever met personally are both well-experienced, and formally-trained. They didn’t feel like they we’re already ‘good enough’ to skip it and move on, and they didn’t feel like youth work didn’t deserve the time or the effort. They are all doing amazing work today that will long outlast them.

Is it always necessary to get a degree?

It probably sounds like I’m saying that right? Well, no it’s not… but I’d like us to start seeing degree-level-trained youth ministers as the norm rather than the exception. At the moment there are a lot less formally trained youth workers out there, and I’d really like to see that balance tip.

So there are genuine ways you should be able to go into youth ministry without getting formally trained – but I’d love to see that as the exception, not the rule. And I’d hope, if you are in that position, that you’d be looking for options as your ministry develops.

There are experiences, information, and learning environments that you just cannot get any other way – from people who are paid to stay up-to-date and informed – in a space designed for you to make lots of mistakes and ask lots of questions. Why would you not see that as the first option?

I kinda think about it like cyclists legs. Cyclists legs really creep me out; it’s like they have a chicken, or half a ham wedged into their calf, while the rest of their leg is super skinny. Experience might build a couple of big solid muscles, but training should give you what you need to develop everything in balance.

So get on it!

Formal theological and practical training in youth ministry is worth every minute.

Rather than asking ‘what else could I do’, start looking at formal, foundation training as the first option. You wouldn’t want a doctor working on you without proper training, or a mechanic working on your car with big gaps in their knowledge. Lets take youth ministry at least as seriously.

😛 That is all.

Rant over.

 

Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

Is your youth group autism friendly?

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a hugely broad and varied collection of conditions, symptoms, and traits – so trying to gather ‘autistic friendly’ guidelines is a difficult task. However, a few basic rules of thumb, and a keener understanding of what to look out for will go a long way.

Understanding ASD Basics

Autism is a cognitive disorder characterised by social discomfort, repetitive behaviours, linear focus, concrete thinking, and difficulties with language. The spectrum is so broad that you may not notice any traits at all – but you could also see so many physical and behavioural characteristics that you end up mistaking it for something else.

Physically, you might see a young person constantly making fists, shaking their arms, or flapping. They might hum, or click their tongue. They might resist physical contact, and will often struggle making eye contact.

Socially you could experience a young person with ASD standing too close to you when they talk, speaking too loudly, or ‘ignoring’ cues. They can be uncomfortably honest or seem inappropriately aloof.

One of the most common traits, however, is a difficulty when trying to grasp something abstract. So taking figuratively, sarcastically, or metaphorically can be a huge wall to concrete understanding.

Common Problems in Youth Clubs for Autistic Young People

We do love our extrovert-driven, spontaneous and loud up front presence don’t we? But these three pieces can actually be the most unhelpful traits for integrating young people on the spectrum.

Extrovert-driven assumes a social ease, spontaneous assumes that unpredictability is comfortable, and loud assumes an ability to take complex cues from voice changes. None of these are necessarily safe assumptions with autistic young people.

Then our teaching styles can be heavily reliant on abstract story telling and object lessons. Both of which are an enemy to the concrete learner. I often do a talk about two figurative people called ‘Bill and Ben’ who live in a cardboard box that I hold in my hands. An young person with ASD might not know that I’m talking figuratively, and that the box I hold doesn’t actually contain some form of tiny person called Bill.

Some Guidelines for ASD Friendly Projecting

Your ministry should serve the people that come – so I’m not going to suggest you change everything to fit all the varying people that could ever be. This would also be impossible! Some of these guidelines, while being very helpful to many young people with ASD, might be incredibly unhelpful to, say a young person with Downs Syndrome. So read with caution and apply with care.

There are loads of tips and guidelines online that you can find to help you – here are just a few that I’ve found to be particularly useful:

Create Consistency

Having a regular plan, or at least consistent names for project elements (‘game time’) will create a track that a young person with ASD can follow. They know what’s coming next and can transition smoothly into it. Sometimes it’s worth printing off a simple plan for a session that they can follow, with a space to tick off what happens as they go. Routine, although we can hate it as youth workers, is really important to a young person with ASD.

Know The Parents

Talking to parents can give you clear insights into the particular triggers and needs of their own child. This allows you to fit into the young person’s social development while learning how you can very specifically support their needs.

Be Visual and Tip Your Hat to the Concrete

Having clear, physical, colourful visual aids can really help to teach young people with ASD – especially when they are things that they can handle and work with themselves. At the same time, when you teach with objects and when you use stories, do make a note that it is ‘just a story’ or ‘just a metaphor’.

Create Your Environment With Care

It’s tempting to fill a youth space with lots of competing sounds and sights – filling the room with intense environmental distraction. This can be torturous to a young person with ASD, and makes it almost impossible for them to focus. I’d actually argue that this habit we have towards intense levels of environmental distraction is bad for most young people anyway – even those with ADHD. Choose your environment carefully – take care particularly over the overt use of lights and sounds.

Watch Your Language

By which I mean abstract, figurative, sarcastic, over over generalising language. In the same way you would speak to someone who has learned English as a second language, avoid too much that needs interpretation over translation. It’s great to use abstract language – just make sure that you let people have another way of seeing it too.

Provide For Unstructured Time

Many young people love the free time to create their own activities and have their own conversations. This time, however, can be very difficult for an young person with Autism. Always make sure there is some optional ‘thing to do’ or ‘space to be’ in unstructured times.

Keep Instructions Simple

Everyone hates a three hour explanation for a game anyway. Find a way of communicating complicated instructions simply and visually that doesn’t have long sequences. Videos can be similarly difficult to follow, so if you have it, then turn on the closed captions feature.

Provide For Note Taking

If you’re giving talks or asking them to take notes or write anything down – provide for how they do this. One young person I know with ASD loves to draw – so during talks I’d let them draw what they think I’m saying on a board at the front. Sometimes handwriting can be a struggle – so why not provide a laptop or tablet for them to use? This is particularly important to think about in nonverbal young people.

Allow For Messiness

Some young people with ASD can focus better if they are standings, rolling, swinging, bouncing from foot to foot, or just walking around. Create a youth work culture that accepts this as ok (within reason), and provides safe spaces for it.