Don’t ‘mind the gap’, make the most of it...

For the first time ever, Youthwork opened up its doors for a one-day writers masterclass. Sixteen youth workers gathered from all corners of the country to share ideas, learn skills and to hone their craft. In the coming weeks we will be posting guest blogs from the attendees – here’s one from Pete White.

 A gap is an empty space, somewhere in between, a place of nothing - why would you want to spend a whole year there? For some young people a year doing nothing may be appealing, after spending most of their lives in full-time education who could blame them? However there’s much more to a gap year and spending it wisely seems important.

My gap year was an immensely significant time for me; a year when I discovered new things, new skills and abilities, new confidence and ideas, new relationships (including meeting my future wife) and importantly I discovered my passion and calling to work with young people. My life would never be the same. Obviously if we give a year to something our life will be changed but the gap year has a power to change people and enable growth and maturity because it offers an experience of ‘liminality’ that is often rare for young people.

 Liminality or liminal space is the place of 'threshold', the neutral space where we are able to grow and change due to different experiences that take us beyond ourselves and our normal patterns of behaviour, giving us opportunity to take risks, grow virtues and develop character. Tribal initiation rites are often used as the key example of liminality where young boys are taken out of their village and home, subjected to some trial or ordeal and return as a man. The key thing is the change that happens and that this is recognised by the community, leading to a change in status or role on return.

 It seems to me that a 'gap year' or indeed any significant time spent in a different cultural context offers that liminal space. For young people leaving the security of their home and journeying to a different cultural context, often alone or joining a new group to be challenged and learn to serve. It may have that experience of adventure, ordeal and being on the edge that is characteristic of liminality. In this space people will grow up and find meaning and purpose, discover God in new ways and return as different people.

 This is for me the power of the 'gap year' and why that term is both helpful in suggesting that liminal place that is 'betwixt and between' but also unhelpful in its proposal of being an unimportant time filler. As youth workers we need to encourage young people not just to fill the gap but to make the most if it, and of course, be ready to help them assimilate the change on their return.

 Pete White is the diocesan youth officer for the Diocese of Peterborough.