Here’s what 187 youth workers call their young people…

What to call the collective age group that youth workers minister to can be an hotly debated issue. When you mix the world of polly-correctness with adolescence-driven chemicals and egotistical youth workers, getting the terms right can be a real thing.

So, we asked 187 youth workers the following question:

‘What you think the most respectful way of referring to ‘young people’ is? (plural).’

There were a few given options* with space to add alternatives. Here were the results:

148 said ‘students*’
14 said ‘youth*’
6 said ‘teenagers*’
5 said ‘young people’
2 said ‘young men and women’, ’the beast’, ’kids’, ‘super saiyans’, and ‘yall’
1 said ‘you’ins’ and ‘young church’
0 responses for either ‘children’ or ‘adolescents*’

Here were some of the additional comments:

“I can’t stand ‘young people’.”

“My SP says ‘Young People’ – even when he speaks at Youth Group. Drives me nuts.”

“Personally, I think Students is a much better term. It’s the precedent for whoever comes into your ministry that we are students of God. Youth has such a negative tone in most places today.”

“I see it as holding them up by calling them students. They’re on the cusp of adulthood and I want them to feel respected and that we recognize where they are. Calling them youth (or even kids) is accurate but a little demeaning when they want to be seen as more grown up. Plus, as students in my group it conveys the importance of why they’re at youth group: to learn the Bible, God, maturity, each other, etc.”

“In seriousness though I would still choose students. Students still has a younger connotation and I could see adults being offended by it for themselves like youth being offended by being called kids.”

Now, these responses came almost exclusively from American youth clubs, which is less helpful for us here in the UK, but it does still provide some interesting questions and contrasts. ‘Students’, for instance, almost exclusively means someone in university here, which doesn’t provide us the same clarity as a term as it might in the States.

Personally, I do tend to use the phrase ‘young people’ when talking about, but not necessary talking to young people. It’s descriptive and accurate, and it – I think – doesn’t contain the condescending undertones of other terms.

It’s also worth adding to the discussion that the Bible uses the words ‘Youth’ (בְּחֻרִים), ‘young man’ (בחור) and ‘the young’/‘youths’ (ילדות) – as distinct from children or adults, so some distinctive term is useful to have.

So, perhaps not massively important – or even helpful – to a UK context, but it is still interesting to think about. Our next venture will be to ask this same question to British young people and see what they say.

Are you a British youth worker? We’d love to know your thoughts on this!

Photo by Jake Ingle on Unsplash

Finding New Volunteers: Appeal vs Approach

Finding and developing teams of volunteers is the bread-and-butter of youth work. When the team works – it works really well, and when it doesn’t – everything has to work around it.

I’ve just arrived home after a month away to find that my team had been brilliant. They had run and grown all the projects in my absence like pros. This is the first time in 13 years of youth ministry that I felt comfortable enough to leave for an extended period, knowing the young people we’re in good hands. It’s fabulous when a team just works!

But when you don’t have the volunteers to run your projects or (sometimes worse) you have the wrong volunteers in a project things can get very heavy and very stressful very quickly.

The Appeal

For years I ran appeals for help. Letters in news sheets, notices from the front of church gatherings, and direct mail-outs to hundreds of people. Every time I did this I noticed three things:

1. Hardly anyone responded
The ratio – however I did it – came back at something like one or two in every hundred.

2. The wrong people responded
I often got sent offers to help from people with ulterior motives who would be massively unhelpful – if not dangerous – to vulnerable young people, thus would need constant supervision.

3. I’d wasted ministry capital
I want my churches to read everything I give them, and listen up when I speak. This works less when I’m constantly begging for help from the front. No one is inspired by the sinking ship!

The Approach

I recently attended a training session led by the leaders of a large and thriving Children’s Church. Unfortunately I found them frankly quite odd, and took very little of what they said on board. However, they did get one thing very right – which is to approach potential help directly.

I’d suggest this has five stages: Identify, Encourage, Clarify, Invite and Followup.

Identify

Sit down and make a list of people in your context that could work for your project. They don’t need to be perfect, but they do need a couple of skills to start with, and some space for you to develop others. It’s not your job to decide whether or not they have time at this point – just make up a wish list.

Encourage

Seek them out and tell them why you have identified them specifically. This conversation is all about them. Tell them what skills they have and why you think those fit, and tell them why you would love your young people to be served by them. Leave this with them for a week.

Clarify

Followup with them and start to tell them the basics of what is required. One of the key reasons people don’t respond to appeals is that they are just too vague. Treat them like adults and tell them what is expected from a leader. Also let them know how they will be developed and supported to thrive.

Invite

Invite them to the project for a no-pressure, observation-only session. Let them see and have a look at what you do – right from the setup time to the debrief. This lets them picture what it is they would be doing.

Followup

Soon after (ideally within the week following) have a coffee with that person. Give them the application forms and initiate the formal process. Get them onto to rota in a supervised position until the process is complete.

 

This takes the same – if not actually much less – time as an appeal process. Although it doesn’t work every time, my experience has been that you will have more responses, better fitting people, and a more sound beginning for your volunteers.

Have you had success with appeals or approaches? Do you have any other ideas? Send us a message or leave a comment – we’d love to hear from you! 🙂

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.