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Youth and Children’s Ministry Training: Beyond the classroom

We all know that training is a hugely important step on our journey of working with children and young people. Whether it’s part-time, full-time, a few days, numerous years, distance learning or residential, there are lots of valuable lessons to learn through training: safeguarding, community learning, education, child development, communication skills and applied theology, to name but a few. But there are also important lessons to be learned that aren’t always gleaned through a conventional classroom environment - lessons about friendship, compassion, innovation, resilience, understanding and worship.

As well as academic qualifications and insightful teaching, our relationships, training placements, extracurricular activities and embarrassing moments have all helped to form us into the youth and children’s workers that we are today. We spoke to former trainees around the UK about their holistic experience of training in youth and children’s work...

Let’s talk about sex, baby

My colleague and I had persuaded our trustees to pay for us to attend a sex and relationships course with a view to later discussing STIs, ‘intimacy pyramids’ and Friends clips with year nine’s in the local secondary school.

The course trainer wanted us to be prepared. She was simply desperate to spare us any embarrassment or awkwardness in our delivery of sensitive topics. So, to dispel any taboos around using technical, colloquial and slang words for sex, she had come up with a master plan. She’d get us to say them... all of them... repeatedly.

We were split into pairs and given an envelope with all manner of sexual phrases and excruciating terminology about body parts, sex acts, positions, fantasies and diseases. As luck would have it, my male colleague, with whom I was comfortable and juvenile enough with to have breezed through this exercise, had disappeared, and I found myself stood next to the shyest, prettiest, most innocent looking wallflower you could ever imagine. So, of course we were paired together. And of course there wasn’t enough space in the main room so we were ushered out into the corridor to sit alone, cross-legged on the floor opposite each other with nothing but an old Alpha poster to avert our gaze. We had an envelope full of all the words I had spent the last ten years trying not to think about and we had to take it in turns to describe them to each other using as graphic language as possible so we could guess them. I swear I could hear Matt Redman singing ‘Intimacy’ as we squirmed with awkwardness, our eyes centimetres from each other, everything else longing to be a hundred miles away.

However, we got through it and I did learn a few things (she wasn’t as innocent as she appeared). I look back on that episode with tears of hilarity and humiliation in equal measures. God, in his mercy, has not brought our paths back together since. Oasis may have a training manual with a chapter entitled ‘Throw ‘em in the deep end’ and if they do God bless them for it; and bless them for that trainer whoever she was, for putting me through that ridiculous situation; I certainly came out of it… trained.

Joel is a mentor and youth worker in Sheffield. He ‘undertook’ Oasis’ Esteem, sex and relationships training course.

BFFs

Once you unloose the stereotypes and peel back the layers, the life of a youth worker can be a terribly isolating existence. That’s why through rose-tinted glasses I look back fondly on my training. Moving to London bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I naïvely sought to single-handedly change the world, fed upon a diet of pesto and pasta. Swiftly realising the error of my ways, I quickly bonded with my peers, embedding these friendships at our first residential. Every Batman needs a Robin (or two in my case).

The truth is, when I reminisce about training, my immediate thoughts are not of a three-hour lecture on the Old Testament, nor the chaotic scenes of our Friday night drop-in sessions for young people. I think back to my friendships with like-minded and ambitious young youth-workers, two of which have since stood by me at the altar as my best men.

Yes, we were naïve and often in trouble for causing untold mischief, but as iron sharpens iron we challenged one another to be better youth and children’s workers and wholly better people. Supporting one another through assignments, placements, injuries and relationship breakdown, we formed a brotherhood strong enough to withstand the cold of a November dip in the ocean at every Youthwork The Conference! Since graduation day, this bond has only continued to grow stronger, as we constantly reflect with one another and are invited to speak at each other’s churches and weekends away.

In the face of today’s ever-shifting youth work context, it is comforting to have made friendships that are consistent, edifying and meaningful. As colleges and universities move away from degree-led programmes, my encouragement would be to seek training and find like-minded youth and children’s workers to pray, share and have fun with. Not only will it be a benefit to you, it will greatly benefit your work with children and young people. It did mine.

Ed works for The Liminality Group. He studied youth work at Oasis College.

In our training we were encouraged to plan and be organised, but not to let that hold us back if we saw an opportunity for a great moment to connect with God

Jesus fancy dress

At church one of my 6-year-olds came up to me and told me I had made a very big mistake when I asked everyone to come to our ‘Pop-up Nativity’ dressed as their favourite character from the story. When I asked him why he said: “Well Siobhan, you’re just going to end up with a church full of people dressed as Jesus”. To him, there was no question of who a Christian’s favourite character should be. It made me think about accepting the kingdom like a child.

In the end, John didn’t come dressed as Jesus. I’m guessing he was talked out of it by his parents not wishing him to come to church in a nappy and blanket. I understand completely why his parents made that decision, but it challenged me to think about the subtle ways we might hinder a child’s spirituality.

It was because of my training that I didn’t just fob John’s comment off as a funny anecdote but thought about it at a deeper level and reflected on what my response should be and how my response might affect this 6-year-old. This experience made me think more carefully about what I say and the language I use when teaching children.

Siobhan is a families, children and youth worker in Teddington. She studied at Cliff College.

Prank war

One of the funniest things that happened during my training was a small ‘prank war’ which took place in the first year of my studies. It began with some simple shifting of furniture. Sometimes I would come back to my room to find my bed turned upside down, or my room completely rearranged. I began to respond by moving my friend’s furniture to other places in the university. He spent two whole days looking for his bed which I had hidden in the library! Other theologically charged pranks included hanging all of my friend’s clothes on a tree (it was actually quite beautiful) and finding teabags everywhere among my things. Three years later, I am still finding teabags in my shoes, socks, pillowcases and trouser pockets!

While elements of the prank war were annoying, it is a good reminder of the solid friendships which I made during my training. It’s a side of formation which doesn’t often get highlighted but through training you can make life-long Christian friends as part of your preparation for ministry.

Ben is studying for an MA at London School of Theology.

Pitch (im)perfect

During my training, I was a youth worker for a big city church. We had about 40 older young people in our group and a few of them had expressed a common interest of High School Musical. I thought it would be a nice idea to host a film night at mine with a select few to create a little musical community. These were very successful - ten young people attended the Saturday night every other month. Successful that is until the fourth session. After the High School Musical trilogy we decided to watch Pitch Perfect which was a popular, funny film. Watching the film, my face must have gone through at least ten different shades of red, due to the amount of innuendos and every other inappropriate thing imaginable. What seemed like a fun, light-hearted film on realisation was so not youth group friendly!

To top the evening off, the lock on my front door broke. So I had to send ten teenagers out of the window (thankfully it was a big window on the ground floor)! God certainly showed me grace in the parents’ reactions to this evening. I felt it was a shambles and the end of my career in youth work but the parents and young people saw the humour in the situation. They were so supportive when I was panicking and, looking back, they all blessed me in a time of stress.

Through this experience and other moments in my training I learnt never to just presume how people (especially parents) will react. I also learnt not to show a film without re-watching it through youth worker eyes!

Abbie is youth worker in Chesterfield. She studied at Cliff College.

In the face of today’s ever-shifting youth work context, it is comforting to have made friendships that are consistent, edifying and meaningful

Paint bomb

While I was training, I worked with 13-to-15-year-olds on Spring Harvest’s campsite in France. I attempted to run an activity with a group of young people where we filled water bombs with paint, attached them to a canvas, and threw darts at them to make some pretty art. It completely ‘bombed’ - half the water balloons exploded as we tried to fill them and the other half wouldn’t pop when they were filled. So we just ended up playing with the paint instead, putting handprints on t-shirts, trees and the marquee our work was based in.

As the session finished, and I was cleaning up, a dad, who had been watching the whole activity from his tent came up to me. I immediately began trying to form a decent excuse for the chaos that had just happened, when, instead of complaining, he thanked me. He explained that he was impressed to meet youth workers who would let young people express the creativity of God in their own ways.

It was a brilliant end to a very fun morning, and it taught me a fresh lesson about letting young people experience the joy of God even through activities which don’t go as planned!

In our training we were encouraged to plan and be organised, but not to let that hold us back if we saw an opportunity for a great moment to connect with God and young people and this experience was a perfect demonstration of that!

Ruth is a family worker in Manchester. She studied at Nazarene Theological College.

With the help of brilliant training facilities, patient tutors and supportive peers, mortal embarrassment can ensure that we’re ahead of the curve, funny childish observation can help expand our own thinking, accidents can be turned into creative masterpieces, apparent disaster can reform our preconceived judgements and shared experiences can create lifelong friendships.

Youth and children’s work training is full of stories like these. Our subsequent work with children and young people is also packed with similar anecdotes. It would be much simpler if training occurred solely in the classroom but years of experience have shown that it is through the proverbial battleground that we learn to be the best youth and children’s work soldiers we can possibly be.

We have compiled the information here with the help of David Howell and the UK Christian Youth Work Consortium. Together they run cywt.org.uk, which provides details of the majority of courses available across the UK. All details are accurate at the time of going to press. We advise you to consult the specific websites of the various training colleges and organisations for more detailed information.



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