The Top 8 Reasons Why Youth Workers Burn Out

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

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

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

1. Expected to be each Biblical office

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

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

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

2. Mixed or no accountability / management

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

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

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

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

3. Isolation

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

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

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

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


4. Unrealistic expectations

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

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

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

5. Having no idea what they’re doing

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

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

We don’t know what we’re doing!

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

6. Forgetting who God is

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

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

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

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

7. Just getting bored

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

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

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

8. Low pay

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

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

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

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

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

As youth workers, we get things wrong. Lots wrong, in fact, and all the time. How can that be, you ask? Well, we balance a whole mess of varied personalities, quirky projects, disjointed goals and unrealistic expectations. We are often accountable to different people than those we actually serve, and we expertly straddle the line between the easy-to-offend and the easy-to-disengage. We don’t have the odds stacked in our favour.

It also doesn’t help that the UK church is still in its infancy when it comes to hiring youth workers. Actually managing youth workers properly is a fine art that few have really mastered.

It’s not always crystal clear, therefore, where the management lines are drawn. The result is that everybody – parents, teachers, kids, elders, PCC, wardens, safeguarding officers, curates, the post-man, the dog – thinks that ultimately they are your boss.

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

We get lots and lots of complaints! This is stressful for anybody, let alone hyper-emotionally-challenged and miss-managed, octopus-styled youth workers. When you write your complaint letter to your youth worker, take a minute to think about how to get it right.

I’m going to share a couple of stories with you; these are all actual complaints that I have received.

Disclaimer – looking back over this post after writing it, I realise that it could come across unnecessarily cathartic. This is not my intention. Like all the best training, I believe these examples show lived experience not just abstract theory. So hopefully useful!

1. The Letter from the Fashion Police.

To Tim Gough
7th March 2010

As a member of Christ Church of the older generation, I write to express my utter disgust at your mode of dress at the Morning Service today – tatty, torn trousers at the knees for everybody to see – is that the way to come into any church – (or any Cathedral?)? I cannot think of any other member of the  congregation who would come into the church looking as dishevelled as you do.

I have been coming to Christ Church for well over 20 years now, and have never seen anybody coming in with torn trousers like your display today.

Would you go into Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral – or anywhere else for that matter – looking like you did this morning? I hope not. Wake up in future

A Parishioner (in disgust)

My casual exhibitionism and unfortunately sharp knees not withstanding there are a couple of things to points out.

The letter was not signed.
There is no hope here for dialogue, no conversation and no relationship. This is in no uncertain terms, anonymous trolling. A gentle chat with me afterwards would have had a much better response.

The letter was written angry.
Complaints, like all discipline, should come from a place of loving correction, rather than anger. This was in reference to ‘the service today’, so they went home and wrote it while they were still ticked. Flipping tenses around, making hugely generalised statements and telling me to ‘wake up’ with underlining didn’t endear themselves to me – it just made me feel hurt and attacked.

The letter was missing some perspective.
What does going into Westminster Abbey really have to do with a youth leader gathering teenagers for the youth club? A bit of reflection may have made this person consider the generational difference between themselves and the young people, and instead think, ‘wow, there are young people connecting with God in this church!’

2. The Glitter Covered Turd.

While working at a conference I heard a friend quote the classic missive ‘you can’t polish a turd.’ Immortal and well accepted wisdom. At that point, however, another friend responded ‘but you can roll it in glitter!’ Apt.

Rob Bell talks about ‘chocolate covered turds’ which I guess (in the etymologically sound world of turd-related metaphors) is roughly the same thing as rolling one in glitter. Bell talks about compliments that have sneakily lines thrown in like ‘I think your great, even though you believe this…’ or ‘I’m with you, even though everybody else hates you.’

I once received one monster of a glitter covered turd.

It was a well written, graceful and constructive complaint email highlighting a few areas that I needed to work on with some helpful specific examples. It read well, and even though it was a bit overlong, it was actually a good example. This was until I saw the carbon copy line of the email.

The email was copied into the Pastor, Associate Pastor, two Wardens and few other leaders they got on well with. At this point it was no longer approaching me as a brother, but it had skipped ahead to full on public rebuke (Matthew 18:15-16).

3. The Stealth Bomber Complaint (aka, Gossip).

About nine months into a job, the Church Wardens decided to be proactive in finding out how I was doing. They had received the glitter covered turd emails, had a few ‘backroom’ conversations and went off to do some fact finding. This didn’t include me.

My volunteer leaders started to report to me that they were being subtly interrogated by the wardens to find out what I was up to; how was I supporting them, was I towing the line. They felt a bit weird (obviously), and frankly a little violated.

It wasn’t until two years after this that they actually arranged a meeting with me in order to take over my line management which, in their words, wasn’t working. But this was after sowing discord among leaders, parents and young people, and without raising complaints directly with me. Whoops! The damage had already been done, and I was too inexperienced to know how to resolve the conflict from my end.

4. The Job-Destroying Accusations (aka, worse Gossip).

X’s Mum (also a Sunday School leader) speaking to 17 year old volunteer: “Tim doesn’t let my teenage daughter play in the band because he’s a sexist!”

Volunteer to me: “X’s Mum said you’re a sexist”

Me to X’s Mum: “The reason your daughter doesn’t play in the band is because, after asking her, she doesn’t want to play in the band.”

Same Mum to other parents and leaders: “Tim doesn’t let my teenage daughter play in the band because he’s a sexist!”

Me: “Sigh.”

This same parent caused me numerous issues that were always unnecessarily overblown and immensely complex to resolve. Had I known then what I do now I would have removed her from her leadership positions until she had sought some clinical help for her slightly sociopathic insecurities.

5. The Lobbing In The Grenade And Legging It Email Chain.

After an event had gone awry for a wide range of silly reasons, I received a damning email from it’s organiser spelling out what a horrible person I was for having such unrealistic expectations of him.

The email made its fair share of generalisations, sweeping statements, and emotional rhetoric – scoring a trifector on the ‘how not to complain scale.’ It was also copied into a fair few of his team and leaders, which conveniently covered his back from the actual reasons the event failed.

There’s the grenade.

This complaint obviously needed resolving properly, relationally; face-to-face. I responded to him personally, through email, phone and facebook. I reached out to his pastor, and got my line-manager to do the same. We arranged multiple times to meet and talk, and I gave up a lot of ground to make that happen – but he continually cancelled or didn’t show. After about nine months, I gave up.

There’s him legging it.

If you’re not willing to talk through your complaint relationally, then you probably need to take an emotional inventory on what you’re actually trying to accomplish by making it in the first place.

6. The Spousal Approach.

I’m not really sure why people think complaining through my wife will make me take them any more seriously, but it seems to happen all the time.

There are actually a fair few examples I can give here, so I’ll go with a relatively mundane one. After giving a talk in a church morning service, the Pastor went to talk to my wife giving her some points he thought weren’t quite up to par. He then ended by saying, ‘but don’t tell him.’ Really?

You’ve got to ask what he hoped to accomplish by putting my wife in such a crazy position, and whether perhaps he was trying to make sure I did hear the feedback while – in some odd way – keeping his fingerprints off it.

7. The Record Keeper.

Another such email that occupies a special place in my memory contained a list of compounded issues and faults the sender had found with me over two years of ministry. It was maybe three or four pages long and came totally out of left field.

Even through it was filled with mostly mundane annoyances, because they had been stewing on these things it came with the emotional intensity of something much more serious.

How To Actually Do It – A Masterclass In Complaining:

Here’s a random few bullet points to keep us on the straight, narrow and healthy for when you make a complaint:

Pray before you say!
Ask for God’s perspective and his heart before you even begin. Ask God (and yourself) how important an issue it really might be, and adopt a tone that fits that priority sense.

Start off in person.
Email, write or text if you really must – but consider that might be more for your own benefit. It may be better to write it out for you (maybe have a wise friend read it), then go and speak to your youth leader without it.

Go through the proper process and channels.
This might mean one-to-one first, or first approaching the line-manager (who will know more than you do). Be wise, and if unsure, build good relationships and find out.

Don’t ‘field test’ out your complaint by asking around what others think.
That’s called gossip – and it really doesn’t help.

Make sure you’ve thought about what to say.
Be clear and specific avoiding generalities and over-simplification. Make it about specific instances, rather than overgeneralised sweeping statements.

Search for the right heart.
Complaints can be made within the realms of righteous anger, but should be tempered with love, grace and particularly mercy.

Keep your perspective in check.
Remember the immense pressure any minister for the Gospel is under, and the particular stresses of a youth worker.

Look for an amicable approach.
It’s good to start off in a healthy and grateful place, think of something you value about the youth worker, and point it out.

Drop it.
When it has been heard, resolved, received or (in some cases) properly rebuffed. Back off and don’t labour it. Unless there is a legal/safeguarding reason for it to be escalated, let your complaint percolate with good grace rather than holding a grudge.

Allow the youth worker and/or line manager decide on the right course of action.
It’s much more appropriate to bring a problem to be resolved, rather than a list of solutions that you would like implemented.

Don’t not complain.
Feedback and correction are important to us. We’re big boys and girls – and need to have loving discipline in our lives. So don’t let this put you off – just do it properly. Thank you!


Your grievance and disciplinary procedures are there for a reason. They are more than just legal requirement minutia, or a safety blanket for ‘worse case scenarios.’ These procedures give important piece of mind to people under your pastoral care.

One of the reasons parents and parishioners complain so unhelpfully is because they don’t necessarily have the confidence that issues will be dealt with in a proper and professional manner.

Use your policies properly, line-manage your youth worker well, and you will create a culture that has confidence. Parents will rightly complain when they have young people under their care – help them have piece of mind by just knowing how to work through issues properly and respectfully.

I asked 185 youth leaders what they call ‘young people’. Here’s what they said

What to call the participants of your youth ministry doesn’t seem like it should be a high priority. Realistically though, how you label people in the plural will have a dramatic impact on that group identity and sense of value, and it will instinctively give subversive impressions to those you’re speaking to.

I asked 185 American youth workers what they call their teenagers, with the option to add other names. Here’s the results:

Adolescents – 0

Children – 0

Young Church – 1

Kids – 2

Young Men and Women – 3

Young People – 5

Teenagers -6

Other – 9

Youth – 14

Students – 145

Interestingly, ‘students’ is not a name we would use in the UK, as it usually refers more specifically to someone studying, usually at university.

Some of the comments that came with the results defended calling young people ‘students’ is it sets a tone that they are there to learn about God, while still being more respectful sounding than ‘youth’ which often carries negative cultural contentions. I totally get this.

There are 2 issues through that I’d like to gently raise: First, it sets the teenagers in ministry apart from other ages in ministry for a reason that is not actually specific to them. We are all – or at least all should be – students of God! This could set the precedent that the adults know it all.

The second issue is perhaps a more Biblical one. The  Bible uses the words ‘Youth’ (בְּחֻרִים), ‘young man’ (בחור) and ‘the young’/‘youths’ (ילדות) – as distinct from children or adults. They are a Biblical people group designated by their age, so should have this noted in the same ways ‘men’s’ or ‘senior’ ministry would be.

Whatever you decide to call your young people, make sure you are respectful, loving, compassionate, specific and clear. It’s worth some thought, eh?

Working With Introverted Young People

A few months ago I appeared on the fantastic youth ministry podcast ‘The Longer Haul‘ to talk about ministering to introverted students. This is an issue that keeps coming up, and I think represents one of the fundamental missteps youth ministry can take.

For those of us who prefer reading to listening, I’ve taken some of my key thoughts from the podcast and written them up here as notes. Enjoy!

The Extrovert Epidemic

Much of our youth ministry is focused towards the extrovert. This follows a cultural pattern of being extrovert-driven too. Our school rooms and classes, for instance, are geared towards controlling and regulating the extrovert by putting them in rows, or engaging and energising the extrovert by pushing group discussions and activities. Also, modern offices are moving towards more open plan layouts, instantaneous planning sessions, and group enterprises.

In youth work we’re very adept at running youth work projects and particularity events; “everybody jump or I’ll squirt you with this water pistol!” But it even exists in our naturally quieter, small group ministry, “everybody go round and tell us something interesting about yourself.”

This creates a subliminal constant message that the introvert is not as able as the extrovert.

Jody pointed out in the interview that often youth ministries take on the character of their leader. Very true! There are of course many extroverted youth workers, especially new or younger youth workers, as extroversion is not necessarily the best ingredient for longevity. Introverts more naturally allow their teams to outgrow them, run with ideas and create a space and flavour that reflects more than one person. Introverts often create safer boundaries, develop more realistic goals and allow more open dialogue for change.

Extroverts may need to learn this behaviour, as they are often the charismatic force that drives content, holding ideas close, while not always delegating effectively. This of course is not always true, but the intro-extroversion line seems to me to be a key player.

I believe that youth ministry models and strategies, on a whole, tend to lean towards the extrovert. It certainly seems, at least, that developing extroverts in youth work is more well-established. So we will attempt here to bring in some balance, by developing specific ideas for developing introverts.

What Is An Introvert?

We often hear introversion linked with shyness, and extroversion with boldness. Although there can be links, it doesn’t take more than an amateur pop psychologist to tell you that this is a false assumption to make all the time. You can easily by a shy extrovert or an outgoing introvert.

I think about introverts using two sides of a coin. On one side is ‘how are they energised’ and on the other, ‘how do they process information.’


An extrovert is energised by social stimulus in various forms (what kind depends on the extrovert), whereas the introvert tends to be drained by that. Both might enjoy going to a party, but while the extrovert may come back energised – like they have received from it, the introvert might want some down time – feeling like they have given out.


An extrovert tends to process verbally. When responding to a question they start speaking, showing their working until they get to an answer – you see the process and various types of responses and working out along with perhaps several answers. This is why extroverts are sometimes seen as rude through impatience. An introvert processes internally. They stop, think for a minute about what the question means, what else it could mean, what they know, how an answer could sound, how else it could be phrased etc. This happens internally an is why introverts are sometimes seen as rude through withdrawal.

This also might be why we as youth leaders subliminally prefer talking to extroverts. They provide more real time feedback on the conversation without looking like they are glazing over. It’s too easy to assume that the introvert is angry at us, or just bored or afraid when they are 1. giving us energy just by being there and 2. internally processing.

Bring It Together

When you put the energy (down time, reflective, away from most social stimuli) and the process (internal, cognitive) together you get your introvert.

It is of course very possible to be an internally processing extrovert, or an introvert who is energised by carefully cultivated social times. Just one of the reasons we shouldn’t be too prescriptive with any of this!

5 Principles For Introverted Youth Ministry

Jody pointed out that you will need both introverts and extroverts on your team to reach a diverse group. He’s bang on the money again, and we will now talk about putting some principles in place to get the most out of exactly this kind of team. Both introverts and extroverts will need to learn new habits and develop a wider awareness and tolerance, which, if trained and led well, will lead to quality, long-lasting youth ministry!

This requires more than just giving introverts space, as the extrovert will be tempted to fill any space that you give. This needs a rethink of our models to develop introverts intentionally and consistently alongside extroverts. Hopefully these 5 principles will be a good start to this process.

1. Stop using the word ‘everybody’

“Everybody get up and jump!”

“Everybody stand up and stay something about yourself!”

That little word ‘everybody’ can send fear right down the spine of the introverted young person, especially if you give them no time to think and process first. Look instead for inclusive but not expected phases that create safe opt-out spaces in your programs and sessions which allow young people to not engage with aspects of the activities without just dropping off the face of the planet.

2. Look For Ways To Show Value

Introverts (like all of us) need to know they are valued for who they actually are, not what an extroverted-youth-programs make them think they should be. One of the best ways to do this is to develop active listening skills. That’s listening which holds eye contact, makes affirming relevant gestures, repeats back what was said, and develops their side of the conversation over yours.

This is essential when they make a contribution to the group. You need to point to it clearly showing that you have understood their intentions and believe that it is valuable. This is something they will go away and process and become part of their historic experience with you – that you are someone who values them within their identity.

3. Stop, Look, Listen

It’s sometimes easier to spot the behaviours of the extrovert, which tend to carry less subtly in a group. We need to be watching the introverts, noticing what they do, and pointing to it. It’s all too easy to look through the introvert to the active extrovert behind them. Take the time to be with them certainly, but notice them when you’re not. We need to be present to and with our introverted young people consistently.

Be a youth leader who sees, hears and notices. Then names it.

4. Create Opt-Out Spaces

Similar to stop using the word ‘everybody’ this is about creating re-energising, processing times and spaces for the introvert. Make space for young people not to be part of everything. This will need some rethinking of our models.

Assuming that all your young people will equally want to do all activities is one thing, but forcing an introvert into a highly uncomfortable extrovert game is going to create a fight or flight response that’s going to be hard to forget – or forgive. So ‘up front’ games and questions should be voluntary – not pointing and naming. Group games and activities should be designed so they are easy to jump in and out of too. Ice-breakers should be easy enough to pass on too. It should be enough to say “I’m Tim, hi!” without having to then go on to explain my 14 favourite types of spatula… unless of course I want to!

This works for spaces too. Youth rooms tend to be noisy and busy, the layout is activity-driven. So having spaces that work for the introvert is a must. We have a ‘quiet room’ in our group setup with head-phoned music, books, colouring, beanbags and simple games. Conversation in their is kept to a minimum.

This is essential because a big fear for the introvert is letting people down;

“If I don’t participate, I’ll let my team down.”

“If I don’t say something, then I’ll let the leader down.”

These times and spaces should be intentional expectations for the fabric of the group – so rather than ‘letting us down’ they are participating in how the group is supposed to work.

5. Cultivate A Culture Of Conversation

Introverts can be incredibly creative and intelligent, and can be amazing conversational partners. In our youth ministry programs, however, sometimes the only time we give to conversation is before or afterwards, or during the break. This is not intentional conversation.

Developing real intentional conversation within our programs needs us to dramatically rethink the content. During one of our groups ‘Redefine’ we make sure every element (talks, prayer, worship, games) each has a give and take philosophy. Talks and teaching always encourage interruptions, we regularly run Q&A, and we put music up on the screen so they can bring their own instruments with them. Everything invites them to participate and add to the conversation. We also run TED nights where they bring their own talks and teaching.

Developing this as a culture – so a regular part of what you do – actually creates a lot more safety and sure-footing for the introvert as well as some healthy engagement for the extrovert. It’s win-win.

Find Out More

This is just the cliff notes of a great 50 minute conversation with Jody. Check out the whole thing at The Longer Haul here. Or on the iTunes podcast here.

This is an ongoing conversation – if you’ve got anything to add, please get in touch, or comment below. 🙂

Also – check out Chloe’s awesome comics on ‘Things Introverts In Your Youth Group HATE!”

When the ‘Father-Heart Of God’ doesn’t work.

I was talking to a classroom of teenagers last week about having parents for part of an explanation of the eternal nature of God. There was a young girl sat on the front row who jerked suddenly, and then glared at me through genuine tears for the next twenty minutes.

The ‘Good Father’ Myth

Parents are not always there and when they are, they are not always good. We cannot simply assume that young people have any real concept of a loving family. This myth has followed our evangelism for quite a long time now, that everyone has some concept of what a ‘good father’ is. It has permeated every part of our worship and still forms the cornerstone of much of our teaching.

The degradation of society, however, just doesn’t back this myth up. 42% of UK marriages end in divorce, almost half of those affect children under the age of 16, and the vast majority of child abuse happens within the family unit. Not everyone knows what a ‘good father’ looks like.

God is Father and He has a true, good Father’s heart towards us. We cannot assume, however, that everyone will understand exactly what that means. The Father metaphor in lots of cases can conjure images of imperfection, brokenness or even neglect and abuse – in some cases it simply leaves confusion or absence. In other scenarios, like what happened in my classroom, it can invoke real, deep pain and propagate ill will towards God.

Incredibly, fatherhood then becomes an obstacle, a stumbling block to a young person falling in love with God.

So what should we do?

How do we respond to this and redeem the image of Fatherhood? Here are two gentle suggestions:

First, rather than talking simply about ‘fatherhood’, we should make sure that we share which specific traits we are talking about: Warmth, protection, compassion, strength, solidity, and leadership. You can actually talk faithfully about the Fatherhood of God by sharing what it means specifically, and you don’t necessarily need to use the word ‘Father’ each and every time.

Second, develop a philosophy that makes God the original form or ideal of what Father means. God is the highest reality of Father, which means He sets the tone for what it really is. Don’t say ‘God loves you like a Father,’ instead say ‘God is the ultimate Father, and He loves you.’ This gentle change of orientation stops us making God in the image of our own broken fathers and creates a new category that He fully inhabits.

A new language for an old truth

My good friend Mark and his wife just had a baby and she is a little knock out! She won’t fall asleep, however, unless she is in physical contact with one of her parents. Mark spends hours sat with this little life sleeping soundly on his belly. Her parents are her safe place, a secure and protected zone of absolutely love and compassion. That’s what good fatherhood does!

Fatherhood can be a beautiful thing – and with God is certainly, always is! However, if we trip up on the first hurdle and can’t get past the word, then we’ll never get to the heart.

We need to speak to this culture about the truth of God as a Father – a truth that breaks chains and dismantles spirals of self-destruction. Our language needs to be basic and specific, and should show a real awareness of the problems many young people have with fatherhood as a concept.

In the way we teach, and the songs we sing we need to reach beyond just the word ‘Father’ and capture the reality behind it.

It is, after all, more important to communicate the real truth than to use the ‘correct’ words.

How To Work With A Visiting Speaker

For a wee while now I’ve been helping churches run events and projects, which inevitably means getting outside help. This usually comes in the form of musicians and speakers – although can be in the form of giant chickens and chocolate eggs.

Visiting speakers are awesome! You can find someone who treats speaking as a spiritual gift and a vocation, and they bring an outside breath of newness to your group. I loving getting speakers in, and I sometimes get used as a visiting speaker.

Some churches have policies and budgets for speakers, but in youth work land, we sometimes neglect these in the wake of enthusiasm and last minute planning! So here’s a little checklist to help you get the most out of your speaker:

1. Do your homework

Don’t just go for the biggest names as it’ll cost you your whole budget, and they might not actually be the best voice for your groups. You may even end up compromising the ideal dates and venues to fit their busy schedules. You should look instead for what a speaker values; ask for feedback from people who have used them and – if you can – listen to some of their recordings. Match the speaker to the people they are speaking to, not the topic.

2. Show your working

When sending an invitation to a speaker, specifically point to why you have asked for them. Share what traits they have displayed, or topics they have spoken on which you think will find synergy with your group. This is not about flattery (although it couldn’t hurt, right?), it’s about starting a conversation on the right track.

3. Explain details

Many, if not most, visiting speakers are in some kind of full-time ministry, thus will have lots of sporadic events and dates to juggle. For me that means I really appreciate a few months notice (not weeks), and will want to know who I’m speaking to, and for how long.

4. Give value

If you’re getting in a speaker, use them for what they are good at and are passionate about. Don’t just pair them up with someone they don’t know, or randomly drop them into a space they wouldn’t normally work with. Servant-heartedness aside (that’s for them to work on), they shouldn’t feel like a spare part or just another volunteer. Make sure it’s worth their time.

5. Decide on remuneration

This should (at the very least) be expenses for travel and board, but you really should consider a financial gift for their time. If I’m speaking for 30 minutes, at a 2 hour event say, 15 miles away, then I’ll probably put 5-8 hours total work into it. This includes speaking and being at the event obviously, but also prayer and prep and maybe meetings. I broadly try to delegate 15-35% of an event budget for speakers. Some speakers actually do have suggested rates and payment details – it’s better to ask in a frank and clear way early on – but with the attitude of wanting to bless, not wanting to save.

Note: If you plan on recording their talk and selling material with it in afterwards, then you might want to figure that in somehow too. At very least, you need to get their permission to do so.

6. Be realistic with your expectations

If your event starts at 6pm, don’t ask your speaker to be there with the setup team at 4pm to ‘meet people.’ If you want them to meet people then put on a dinner beforehand. There’s nothing more awkward than wandering around a hall, trying to find ways to be useful (or just stay out of the way) for 90 minutes while it all gets set up. This is time your speaker would rather have been with their family! Also remember that your speaker doesn’t know your young people like you do, and isn’t their to do your job of relationship building, or the Holy Spirit’s job of saving!

7. Ask for their requirements

I don’t mean a rider – as that might be pushing it! What I mean is sound, projection, or helpers to hand things out. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve arrived somewhere that didn’t have a music stand for my notes. Also – ask them beforehand if you want to record it.

8. Say thank you

It’s important to value your speaker. You can give some helpful feedback, but mostly show your gratitude for their work. Visiting speakers are professionals so they can work with feedback and understand that people have different needs. I try and give the ‘triple whammy’ of thanks: 1st, say Thank You in the event publicly, which gives the whole group an opportunity to be a part of it. 2nd, say Thank You to them personally, as the event organiser, when walking them to their car or dropping them off at the train. 3rd, say Thank You a day or two later, over email, highlighting the specific ways you think it was useful to the audience.

9. Don’t let them be a diva

You should value your speaker, but if you have given clear expectations in a timely fashion, then you should expect them to work within those parameters. You can’t change the shape of your whole event to fit them, and you can’t throw out your theology play book to accommodate something their playing with at the moment. They also should expect to be with you for the whole session to gel in well and talk to people afterwards. They shouldn’t nip out the back when their bit is over. Be clear and upfront, and hold them to the expectations you have agreed on.

Are Parents The Best Mentors?

Marginalise parents in youth ministry at your peril. They are the linchpin to effective, long term discipleship, and the primary Biblical institution for passing on the truth of the Gospel to young people. They are not, however, the only part of effective youth work. They are not peers or pastors for instance. They are not replacements to group discipleship programs, or evangelistic meetings.

So are they mentors?

What Is A Mentor?

At it’s core, a mentoring relationship is between an older, wiser, more experienced person who has cultivated a relationship of trust and positive-behaviour modelling to a younger, developing person.

More specifically, mentors need to have a degree of detachment, neutrality and  independence from the person being mentored. This gives them not only increased objectivity, but also the security of not making themselves a hyper-dependent God replacement.

There is also peer support, where we are continually encouraged to build one another up, but I’m unsure you could really count this strictly as ‘mentoring.’

Can Parents Do This?

Logically you could argue that they can, and sometimes do. That said, my instinct and experience tells me that parents have too much at stake, or are too personally invested to have that required objectivity. Their children are their own flesh, and their hopes or expectations for their children can all too easily bleed through.

Parents are integral to the life of a young person. This means they are often a topic that needs to be discussed with a mentor in ways that couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t be done directly with a parent. Not for secrecy, but again for objectivity. This is the same reason that therapists don’t treat their own family.

Parents also have a long term organic journey will their children that predates and will probably outlast the mentor. They grow with their children as parents and people, and the relationship turns in several directions as they both develop. This isn’t always stable and has it’s own sets of rules, norms and variable conditions that might not be helpful or secure in a mentoring relationship.

Finally, in today’s church climate, you cannot guarantee that the parent will have the Christian background or values needed to speak that Deuteronomy 6 truth into their children’s lives.

Who Are Our Biblical Models?

Moses was mentored by his Father-In-Law, Jethro, and Ruth by her Mother-In-Law, Naomi – but these are probably the closest parent-child mentoring relationships we see. These are very particular cases without the pre-existing childhood relationships in place.

There was also Moses and Joshua, Elisha and Elijah, Eli and Samuel, Barnabas and Paul, Paul and Timothy, Elisabeth and Mary, and Jesus with Peter, James and John.

Should Parents Do It?

There is certainly a lot of mentoring that parents can (and should) do. They are commanded to teach truth, walk with, listen to, not exasperate, and to condition their children to walk with God. They should be the first people to introduce a young person to Jesus and should always be an open, safe place to share openly with. Should.

It takes a community to raise a Child though, and a body of Christ to develop a healthy church member. The wisest parents I know understand this and they get that they cannot be all things. They realise that having a mentor for their child is not a snub or a replacement, but a healthy partnership that supplements and develops levels of accountability for parents.

How Should The Parent and Mentor Relationships Compliment Each Other?

Although not always possible, the mentor and parent should form some kind of relationship. This is important for safeguarding reasons if nothing else!

This partnership sows seeds of trust and develops the organic clarity that’s needed to distinguish the two relationships. It’s not the parent’s job to pry into the things being discussed (outside basic appropriateness and safety), and it’s not the mentor’s job (ever, ever, ever!) to replace the parent. *Note: This is still true for lone-parent, adopted, divorced, orphaned or unchurched. You are not the parent.

So mentors: Respect the parents. Don’t badmouth them or chip away at their foundation. Offer then support and be a supplement, not a replacement.

Parents: Invite the mentor over for dinner occasionally. Say thank you and show that you respect them and are grateful. Pray for them, and don’t assume they are doing your job for you.

Church: Implement mentoring programs within carefully constructed safeguarding policies. Preach often and share clearly on mentoring relationships in the Bible, and the importance of being one body, looking after each other.

Youth Workers: Don’t necessarily assume that you should be the mentor. Especially if you have a youth club of more than three teenagers! I will write soon on how to develop a mentoring program – but for now, check out the excellent XL mentoring program here – which you can fund through the Cinnamon Network here.

The Christology of Soul Survivor

Another year, another quality trip to Soul Survivor! We always go and we always love it, and this year was no exception. Brilliant people, great messages, passionate responses and more cheeseburgers than you could fling a ketchup sachet at.

All this said, the ol’ theology student in me still twinges a little bit during these trips. I used to be quite critical and unnecessarily found issues with lots of superfluous areas, but even after maturing deeper and understanding better, a niggle still remains.

It’s like there’s something missing, a foundational ‘something’ that should be holding the pieces together more coherently. This elusive piece shows up in the messages, the seminar choices, and really the whole structure. And I think I may, perhaps have finally put my finger on it.

Its Christology. Or rather lack thereof. See if you can see a pattern from the keynote messages:

  • The first main message of the week was all about responding to Jesus like Levi did.
  • The second was about being brave and expectant with the supernatural and not being afraid to have a go.
  • The third was focused around worry and anxiety, and how to live intimately in the moment with God.
  • The fourth message was about how Jesus loves the broken and wants to fulfill their lives.
  • Message number five was an exposition of tongues and how to pray with tongues.
  • Message six (my favourite) talked about the need to be wowed by God, experience woe at our brokenness, and then go into the world as an evangelist.
  • The final message was about going ‘all in’ for Jesus – giving him your whole life.

Did you notice it? They are all about us. Focused on us as followers and our lives and responses in light of Jesus. There was very little in the messages actually about the specifics of who Jesus is.

Unpacking The Problem

These were all good messages by and large, but they all came across individually and collectively like there was something missing. A perspective off, or a direction reversed. It’s almost like listening to a car enthusiast speaking about high performance sports cars, racing around a track without quite understanding the nature of gravity. You recognise the cars – and the passion for them, but you realise something is a little off in the explanation.

I carefully and gently suggest that what is ‘a little off’ is Christology; the understanding and expounding the person of Jesus Christ directly – and not just in relationship to our responses.

Soul Survivor constantly reminds us that Jesus loves us – and that we should love Him too. Twice during the week, Mike Pilavachi carefully and expertly explained the Gospel, clearly saying what Jesus has done for us. One of these times he did so – I think – because the speaker was calling people to follow Jesus without an explanation of what that actually means. Christology, however, is much more than understanding these Gospel formulas and the essential basics of Jesus’ character.

If Jesus doesn’t work in real life then Jesus doesn’t work. This means we need a real life, relatable Jesus with a full character arc, clear personal traits, and high definition colour individuality: A Jesus that draws the whole Bible together and is tangible and active in the present.

Christology needs us to have arrived at some measure of organic agreement on the who, what, when, where, why and how of Jesus – beyond the formulas and basics. Who is Jesus really, why did He do what He did, what does it look like today specifically, what does this following of Jesus actually look like beyond ‘tell people about Him, worship and adore’. Who is He, who is He, who is He?

When you walk with Him – how do you describe Him? Is it easier to talk about the specific tangible qualities of your wife, husband, mother, father, children or friend? Can you talk about Jesus that clearly and coherently?

A Subtle But Essential Distinction

You can probably tell if an organisation hasn’t got a clear and coherent understanding of Christology when most of the message focuses are placed on people responding to Him, rather than to Him directly.

Did you see the last solar eclipse, or did you watch people watching the solar eclipse? Which one of those two – if you were there – would you describe? Would you focus on the people standing still in the street, gazing up at it, and taking photos? Or would you talk about the eclipse, specifically and in detail?

There is a theological imperative to know the subtle differences between talking about the Jesus we relate to, and talking about the relationship with Jesus. Soul Survivor talked about and engaged with us as the participants – rather than a clearly presented Jesus.

Do We Recognise Your Jesus?

We looked at what it means for us to follow Jesus and to be loved by Him, but without really saying much about Him specifically. This meant that I didn’t always recognise the Jesus they spoke about, because they said very little actually about Him.

I challenge Soul Survivor – and seriously challenge myself – to put more than a bare-bones skeleton of who Jesus is to the young people who will listen.

I want to leave Soul Survivor knowing more of Jesus, not through just a ‘touch of the Holy Spirit’ or a constant reminder of His love (as valuable as these are). I want the messages, and the coherent shape of the entire festival to celebrate the specific qualities of who Jesus really is.

If we’re going to get something right, and have something to celebrate on the last night – then lets pour our energies, passions and efforts into this deeper understanding of the Jesus we relate to, not just the relationship mechanisms themselves.

Event Planning and Brainstorming (free worksheet download)

Every event is different.

Lolz (as my young peeps would say ); only kidding, they’re not really! In fact many events look exactly the same. There’s a bit of a flat-packed culture around youth events which makes us develop very cool looking, but equally shallow and ineffective events. You can check out some of my event posts on this issue here:

So is there a better way?

Yes – it just takes more thought at the initial stages. I have a procedure when planning new events that includes a properly thought-out initial brainstorm. Once an idea has been bought to the table, we subject it to this ‘Initial Event Brainstorm Worksheet’ (download below). This can be brutal, but it totally helps us craft solid events with lasting impact.

This simple sheet covers all the basic who, what, when, where, why, how and if-not-this-then-what questions surrounding an event. It allows us to specifically check out whether it will actually address our particular local context needs, it helps us risk-manage potential issues, and it helps us craft each event as unique to the people we’re reaching out to. Fab.

Talking about event procedure, this Initial Event Brainstorm is part 1 of 4. I will post the others up soon and walk you through how they all work. Find part 2 ‘The Top Sheet’ here. The rest will be posted soon – as will a video-cast on how they work together.

Download it here!

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Initial Event Brainstorm YWH

Whats The Best Way To Use It?

If I’m doing this in a team larger than 3 people, we tend to start with a big piece of paper (A1/A2) and create a star diagram (example below) and then fill in as many potential questions and answers as possible. Once we’ve got all those creative juices flowing, we transfer our conversations into the specific questions asked on the worksheet.

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View A Filled-In Example Here:

EG. Event Brainstorm YWH

Event Top Sheet (free download)

It may look a bit simplistic, but a clear, one-page overview of exactly how an event will actually happen is a pro-active, administrative God-send! Having one to hand has saved my skin on many occasions! It’s one of those deceptively simple little quirks that makes you not only look more efficient – but actually BE more efficient! Winner. After-all, an ‘on-top-of-it’ youth worker is a happy and effective youth worker.

A Top Sheet includes all the basic and practical information on your event. You can easily wing it to a trustee board, grant committee or senior pastor. You can keep an ongoing check on details and resources, and you can hold your team accountable to the right objectives.

These Top Sheets also provide easy reference material for the next time you run a similar event – and just can’t remember how you pulled it off last time! Or (heaven forbid) you can whip them out if a complaint or issue arises later that requires you to show a proper thought-through event procedure.

Talking about event procedure, this Top Sheet is part 2 of 4 of mine. I will post the others up soon and walk you through how they all work. For now – enjoy the Top Sheet!


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Event Top Sheet YWH


Here’s a filled in example:

Top Sheet Eg.