A wiser person than me once said: "There are 2 ways to jump off a cliff:
1. Stand at the edge, look down and tentatively step off.
2. Take a running leap into the abyss"
I've definitely done a bit of the former in the last 18 months or so but the decision back in April to go for the latter has been an exhilarating and daunting experience and one in which we have seen God's immense faithfulness and confirmation as well a good number of bumps and bruises!
In the midst of lots of 'lasts' - various meetings, Forums, visits and such like, I'm preparing for some more significant last events.
Firstly, the two monthly Hub gatherings which happen early in July (and have happened in some format or another, every month for the last 9 years!) where employed and volunteer workers gather for mutual support, prayer, input, encouragement and lots of tea and laughter! These 2 hour sessions once a month have been a safe and essential space and have retained my sanity and renewed my hope on many occasions!
Secondly, my official leaving do in the Bishop's Garden just before the end of term, which I'm looking forward to and dreading in equal measure!
Part of my preparation for all those events as well as for my own processing and moving on has been in taking some time to reflect on those last 9 years - youthworkers who have been and gone, groups I have been involved with starting and supporting, initiatives I've been part of, areas in which I've seen growth. frustrations and challenges and devlopments in my youth work practice and understanding, as well as reflections on what I have learnt and how I see things 'now' as opposed to 'then'.
I was just shy of 28 years old when I began in this role. I'd had two other main roles in my career but had been doing youthwork already, in a paid capacity, for more than 10 years. I'd worked as a Parish Youth and Children's Worker for 3 years after graduating and then, after doing my PGCE, had managed a supported accommodation project for homeless young women. I was married but we had no children, in fact we'd been told it was unlikely we'd be able to. We'd done the 'first house purchase' which is always a significant thing but it had been incredibly stressful, with dodgy builders, a flood and a project which sapped our energy and our finances. We knew that God had called us to move south, Andy got a job quicker than me (in the secondary school in the parish where he is now a curate!) but we didn't really have any idea what was in store for us in this great county. Without kids in tow we could move quickly and spontaneously - those were the days! And the rest, as they say, is history!
So here I am, 9 years later, living 300 miles from those first jobs and very settled in Essex. We have lived in 3 houses in those 9 years, added two children to the gang and learnt a huge amount along the way.
This post is an attempt to make sense of some of those lessons, observations and thoughts. None of it is fully formed, it couldn't be as we're still being formed in so many ways. But for what it's worth, these are some of the key factors or headlines for me which have helped to navigate through these 9 years - and I reckon these are a good guide for longevity in ministry generally. And although some assume you're employed as a youthworker, many of these should be relevant regardless of your role. If you're working with young people, I want to encourage you to stick with it and these are my starting points....
Some keys to stickability:
- Pray, lots: I'm happy to confess, at this point in my career, that I was terrified when I started this job. I really didn't think I could do it! I was suddenly responsible for seeing youth ministry flourish across a massive geographical area, with 186 churches in my patch, countless congregations, clergy, youth leaders and young people all out there somewhere and I hadn't a clue where to start! Since I'd come to faith at the age of 15, I'd been exposed to and tried many different forms of prayers and spiritual discipline and obviously, I knew it was important. But it really came into it's own at the beginning of my time as Youth Adviser! And it's developed ever since. This role exposes you to the breadth and depth of the Anglican church, from silence and taize style chants to praying in tongues, from liturgical daily offices to sung eucharistic glorias, choral and charistmatic, traditional hymns and band led choruses. I've honestly loved it all. Personally, as the children came along, our formality of regular prayer gave way to chaotic attempts to do something which mildly resembled thankfulness, praise, adoration and supplication. I'll leave you imagine what that might look like. We've become members of an Anglican religious order in the last 9 years too (The Order of Mission) and that has given us the focus of a rule of life and a rhythm of prayer, joining with others across the world using the Moravian Daily texts as well as our own Common Worship. This is the foundation and the surrounding walls of your ministry. Much as we might not have a 'stipend' and therefore be paid not to work, we are, as Christians working in full time ministry, paid to pray. It's the very least we can do. "His grace is sufficient for me for His power is made perfect in weakness."
- Get a mentor: someone you commit to meeting regularly, who listens, processes with you and challenges you. Someone a bit further ahead on the journey. Invaluable. Doesn't really matter who it is, just get one.
- Understand that youthwork is intergenerational: yes, its about 11-18's, of course. But if we ignore those who are 'nearly' there or who are just above that bracket, we're unnecessarily dividing ourselves. The connections, influences and understanding of the generations is crucial to good youth work.
- Live in the truth that young people are a gift to the church. Obvious, of course but they are a gift from the minute they are born, as are we all. Its dangerous to see youthwork as the holding place where young people are entertained and contained until they are grown up and able to 'cope' with big church! Evidence shows us, they don't stay around that long. If they are a gift, we need to live and function in that way - use them, include them, don't try and keep them wrapped up out of the way....
- A passion for youth ministry is not always instinctive but it is teachable and it is catching. I'm pretty comfortable with saying that I'm instinctively a good youth worker. I have always felt able to relate and connect with young people quickly and develop appropriate relationships, even as I've aged and they have stayed young! And I'm clear that this is my vocation - I've heard God speak on this path for my life in a way I've never heard Him speak about anything else. But I've also had great training, brilliant (and less brilliant!) examples to follow and lots of spaces for experience, mistakes, disasters, funnies, third, fourth and fifth attempts. It's all invaluable and I've noticed that just as I had good people who I watched and copied, so others do the same with me. It's humbling but ultimately, just the way it should be. Instinct + great equipping = great youth work.
- Understand that you are constantly being formed (otherwise known as blagging!). Blagging is also an instinctive skill which can be caught and taught! It's not cool to blag too often but it's often very necessary in any youth work or ministry - you never know what might happen next!
- Realise that you will probably have to 'manage up' and get on with doing it well. Often, employed youth workers, particularly in church settings are line managed by non youthwork practitioners. Its not unusual in other sectors too - but it can be tricky. I've learnt through the years that line management is something which both parties need to take full responsibility for. It's obvious really but if you don't communicate how you want to be led or share how someone can get the best out of you, it's going to take a lot of trial and error before you find the right medium. Personality profiling, Myers Briggs, Belbin etc can all help to understand one another better and really see both you and your line manager thrive.
- There is no substitute for sharing life with young people beyond the events. This is about home, family, inviting shared space. We've always run a youth group of some sort in our home ever since we were married. It's something quite intimate really but we've found it invaluable in connecting deeply and showing how we genuinely love and care for them. They see the reality of life, chaotic kids, piles of laundry, stress and how we handle it! and yes, appropriate boundaries are key but those shouldn't prevent or hinder this type of deep ministry. It also has an impact of numbers, of course. 15 or 18 young people in our lounge would be tight! But the quality of relationships with the 3, 5, 10 which are the usual numbers are precious. How can you recycle time, maximise the work with young people in other areas? Could you invite them with you during a supermarket trip and have a coffee afterwards? Could they help you out with a community responsibility?
- Recognise your role as a significant adult beyond the 11-18 age bracket. This is something I've only recently noticed for us but realise how key it was for me as a new Christian and as an adolescent. As young people who have been in our youth groups grow up, move on, move out, we've kept in touch with many in their next stages of life. Some have headed to Uni, work, travelled, are exploring ministry, have got married. We've been introduced to fiancées, been asked to be godparents, given many references and shared countless cups of tea, coffee and other beverages with young people who were once in braces or dressed as Goths but who now work in the NHS or teach or programme MRI scanners! It's a privilege to move from being a youth worker to being a significant adult to being a friend. If the church as a whole can grasp the power of this, we could be on to something!
- Get a handle on administration. Sounds boring I know, but there is only so long we can continue to rely on the stereotypes that youth workers don't do finance or admin and just float around playing uni-hoc or other random games and occasionally being a bit spiritual! Particularly in the Youth Adviser role, I have had to develop skills around project management, developing and monitoring budgets, setting up processes for various schemes and writing training programmes. At the core of all these things were young people, their leaders and their growth development and nurture. But to make that happen, the back room stuff had to work. Boring I know, but good skills to take into the next thing.
So, for now, that's my list. I'm sure there are other things you could add from your own experience! Feel free to share, discuss, debate!