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.

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