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How specific should we be when planning?

On the back of Jo Dolby's Balancing Act feature in this month's magazine, we have a series of blogs on tension and paradox within youth ministry. To kick us off, Simon Davies of CYM looks at Strategy and Spontaneity. 

How specific should we be in our planning? Should every session be planned out exactly? Should we have a long term strategy? How can we be well organised and thorough whilst leaving room to ‘go with the flow’ and respond to the issues that crop up along the way? Do strategies box in God and limit the Holy Spirit?

The questions above are ones that those who work with young people, Christian or not, find themselves having to make discerning judgements about. As educators, theological or otherwise, these judgements often take place before a session as choices are made about content, process, participation and personalities in the form of planning. More frequently however, we are confronted with these questions again, at times even more sharply, in the middle of the action. Young people interact. We run out of time. Important issues come up in the group. Strong personalities dominate. Others disengage. The plan disintegrates before our eyes.

Planning, for me, is principally about the twin disciplines of listening and responding. In doing so, we are firstly paying deep attention to the context and realities of young people’s lives. Secondly, we are seeking to respond in ways that lead groups and individuals into learning encounter with one another, God, self, and world. Thirdly, that this work and ministry is carried out in a range of settings that support the transitions young people go through during adolescence. With such a set of variables to attend to, the plan, or curriculum that arises needs necessarily to be one which is reflexive.

Listening carefully to dynamics of place and space informs our judgement, decision-making and action, but we also need to ask questions about them too

Let’s take a closer look at the scope of a curriculum for discipleship in youth ministry: one another, God, self and world. This is so broad and nebulous that it could include almost everything. What we need to do next is break these interconnected dimensions down into what I like to call ‘educationally useful categories’.

For example, we could take broad curriculum dimension such as ‘the world’ and unpack into ethics, global conflict, citizenship, refugees, family, world faiths, etc.  Likewise, ‘God’ as a dimension can be broken down to spiritual practices such as prayer, worship, Bible study, celebration, community service and so on, within which we seek to engage with his transforming Spirit. The lifetime journey as a disciple of Christ comes vividly into focus, as does our task of enabling young people to undertake theology and own a Christian identity for themselves. As individuals and as groups they can be enabled to relate their Christian experience and understanding with the whole of life; the whole of themselves and their lived experience to God. I am not suggesting some sort of academic or subject based approach here; my point is that we need to have a conceptual grasp of the possible terrain of learning, in order to, both through planning and practice, create rich and challenging learning and discipleship experiences for young people. In among this, we need to invite and recognise the Spirit of God, the one who brings order out of chaos in Creation (e.g. Genesis 1), is untameable (e.g. Acts 2), is intimately bound up with the rhythm and action of God’s people (e.g. Acts 6) and as an ever-present guide, provocateur and teacher (John 14:17; 16:12-16).

At the outset, we need to create spaces that mean that both the planned and the spontaneous can bear fruit. In considering this, we need to initially recognise that spaces have a basic architecture that influences the types of interaction that are a) likely to occur, and b) would be appropriate or resisted.

For example, the types of interaction that an open access youth club generates are different to those in a cell group or house group. Consequently, any specific session plan, and the methods chosen are likely to be of a different sort. In fact, sometimes the most difficulties arise for youth workers in delivering sessions when the basic architecture of place, the resulting social dynamics and accompanying expectations are in direct conflict with the methods or activities chosen to facilitate learning. Listening carefully to dynamics of place and space informs our judgement, decision-making and action, but we also need to ask questions about them too. How are young people engaging? Who is included and who is excluded from learning and why? How do facilitate encounter with God? What is modelled by leaders? Are dominant characters unhelpfully shaping group dynamics? What fruit or positive outcomes for young people can be identified? What is God doing with individuals and /or the group?

This sort of critical engagement is crucially informed both by our sense of overarching aims and appreciation of the scope of curriculum, but also our choices about activities and methods. It is true that while young people may engage in the same activities within a session, and that these activities can be selected to promote certain types of learning – all sorts of valuable outcomes can and do come about regardless. In some ways this is part of the adventure and the joy and should be celebrated. Choices about methods do matter however, in terms of the personalities, abilities and learning preferences of individuals. This is not about being as entertaining as possible, but is genuinely about ensuring that as far as possible, issues of diversity are rightly attended to, such that any unnecessary barriers to learning are removed.

Having a clear sense of what we want to achieve and an overall aim or goal for a session creates a space for us to improvise in-situ and still lead effectively, whilst still meeting the aims. Seeing a session as part of a broader aim and curriculum enables us to both respond to pressing issues that may radically change the character and direction of an individual session, but also to appreciate where the issues arising fit within a holistic discipleship programme. Moreover, our mapping against aims and curriculum areas can tell us whether or not we are delivering a broad, narrow or imbalanced programme. 

So in conclusion, there seems little point in trying to dissolve these tensions, because they reflect the organic nature of the work, and the multiplicity of the dynamics at play. Rather than avoid the issues, we need to more fully enter into them through wisdom seeking, and a reflective approach to practice which embodies a disciplined and attentive listening and responding.

Simon Davies is Head of Programmes and Partnerships & Acting Head of Institute at CYM.

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