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

(Sorry – slightly ranty post)

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

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

Ministry Lite?

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

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

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

So why are we so blasé about formal training?

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

Taking Youth Ministry Seriously

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would you not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it always necessary to get a degree?

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

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

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

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

So get on it!

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

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

😛 That is all.

Rant over.

 

Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

New Website For Youth Workers – www.myyouthworklife.org

Check out this press release from a fabulous new youth work website! For more information and a full look at the site, see www.myyouthworklife.org  or email hello@myyouthworklife.org

(Full text below the press release image)

New Online Training website for Youth Workers  – written by Practitioners for Practitioners

 

The all-new website www.myyouthworklife.org seeks to serve Youthworkers and those involved in Youth ministry across the country with practical advice, well-honed examples, and top tips to all aspects of Youth work and ministry amongst older children and young people. Providing a plethora of articles written by over 30 passionate and experienced Youthworkers- many with decades of experience of working with teenagers, Myyouthworklife.org provides insight and guidance on key themes such as The World of a Young person, How to engage with Secondary Schools, Effectively discipling young people, Working with Volunteers, Mapping your community, and Young people and Social Media and many more relevant and significant themes within Youth ministry today.

 

Borne out of a partnership between The Department of Lay Ministry at Ridley Hall Cambridge, The Diocese of Ely, and the Eastern Baptist Association, the website seeks to provide an entry-point for many Youthwork Practitioners to be further equipped in their youth work by means of using the website as a flexible training tool, to dip in and out of, or read through with a more structured approach.

 

The Editing team of www.myyouthworklife.org suggest that ‘the richness and the USP of this website is that it brings through the voice of one passionate Youthworker talking as if person-to-person to those that will read their articles. This no-nonsense training tool is already equipping many Youthworkers around the country to inspire and engage them in their learning, and pointing them to new ideas, ways of thinking, and further training if needed.’

 

The website, which is constantly being added to with new training material in response to aspects of Youth culture and prevalent issues within Youth ministry, is free to access and all material can be downloaded as printable PDF’s for the benefit of Youth teams who may wish to engage with programmes of learning together.

 

For more information and a full look at the site, see www.myyouthworklife.org  or email hello@myyouthworklife.org

 

Free Upcoming Training – Managing Difficult Behaviour

Next Monday evening at ‘The Monthly Meet’ we’ll look together at how to manage difficult behavior in youth groups.

This practical session will look at the dos and don’ts of getting a group’s attention, working with hyperactive young people, and keeping everyone safe in situations where there is escalating aggression.

We’ll look at non-physical ways to take authority, while considering exactly what the law says about things like ‘restraint’.

This should be considered essential training for every youth leader – make some time & let your teams know

7-9pm
Mon. 20th Nov.
Ty Llywelyn Community Centre
LL30 1LA

Lots of parking – even more coffee!

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 Youth Worker, keep hold of yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

YouthWorkHacks in America

Hey! Where have you been YWHs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is blowing your nose like youth work?

So I have acute rhinitis, which is medical code for ‘my nose is always full of snot.’ Here are four ways to release that snot, with pertinent ramifications for youth ministry

1. Don’t block the dam

When you blow your nose with your hanky, don’t block the nostrils. Allow the flow of air to leave your nostril easily; allowing the snot to move freely and gently in the right direction. Plugging your nose-holes while trying to simultaneously blow snot out just doesn’t work. Instead you cram bogies into your brain.

2. Jump up and down

Some gentle jumping up and down the spot, or walking heavy footed around the streets – all the time humming through your nose – will break the tendrils of your mucus’ finger holds, making your subsequent blowing far more effective.

3. Stay lubricated

The more you drink – particularly water and non-caffeinated hot teas – the more you will soften and dilute mucus. This will help the snot to flow freely. Basically, give your snot a waterslide.

4. Stay off the pain meds

Snotty noses are often accompanied by headaches – usually because we have blocked our nostrils when blowing our noses, so have crammed bogies into our brains. Popping headache pills that have codeine in them, however, will dry the snot up. Basically you just gave your bogies crampons, and locked them in place.

So how is this like youth work?

1. Don’t block the dam

Don’t hold things too tightly. Don’t stick your fingers into the proverbial nostrils of your youth ministry! Allow enough room for other people to have genuine input, for young people to be involved, and for the Holy Spirit to move. Blocking the movement, then trying desperately to blow life into it is very likely to backfire.

2. Jump up and down

Sometimes you need to be a loud and awkward voice that stands up for those who adults who don’t tend to listen to. Take opportunities to show your respect for young people by making sure their struggles are heard and their needs are met.

3. Stay lubricated

Constantly take in the good stuff. Spend time with God yourself, get into the Bible, be in church services where you’re not doing anything, and make sure you’re teaching from a place of personal learning and growth.

4. Stay off the pain meds

Don’t fall into the trap of being the complainy, gossipy, grumbly youth worker. It there’s a problem or a conflict, go and resolve it properly. Simply grumbling about how hard your youth ministry is will just dry you up and lock your problems in place.

Free the snot!
Free the youth ministry!
That is all.

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?