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Youth work is for life
(Not just until you get ordained / bored / a better job)
Is there an age limit to great youth work? David Welch doesn’t think so. In fact, the exact opposite is true: the world needs more youth ministry lifers, who have progressed through the stages of youth ministry development, with learning and wisdom to offer.
The other day, in the midst of a very ordinary conversation with a youth worker, I had an epiphany. I have been doing youth work for 22 years. He was 22. I had been doing youth work since before he was born. This left me wondering – where is everyone? I started out with many co-volunteers and other workers, but many are no longer in youth ministry. There are all sorts of reasons why youth workers quit: they are called to other things, they have other things to do, they burnout, or they can’t afford to keep going, to name just a few. But sometimes I wonder if it isn’t partly because these workers fail to take their ministry and development seriously.
As I’ve reflected more on it, I have started to realise that there are different stages to youth ministry. Sometimes we get stuck at a stage and don’t move on. Sometimes we fail at a stage and give up. Sometimes we regress. But maturity of ministry is rare, often undervalued and even mocked. The long haul is something we need to celebrate and encourage.
Birth – God’s call
Our ministry normally begins with either hearing God calling us directly or someone asking us to help out with something. For me it was about a friend asking if I would lead a lower school CU when I was a sixth former. It could be someone sitting next to you in church saying they thought you would be good at something or a significant moment at a summer festival. Our ministry begins with God’s prompting, in one way or another. Of course we may never start our journey – we can always say no. Our fear might hold us back. (What if the young people hate me? I hate coffee - what kind of a youth worker does that make me?) This stage is characterised by enthusiasm, passion and loads of new ideas. This is clearly seen in the call of many of the disciples – for example the call of Levi in Luke 5:27. To move on from birth to infancy we need to say yes to turning up and having a look or helping out.
Infancy – Helping
This stage is characterised by helping. Sometimes people are called helpers, sometimes junior leader, sometimes assistant, sometimes just leader – the title is not important. This stage is great because we are open to active learning as everything is a new experience. Youth ministers in their infancy can be faithful and good at building relationships with young people. There may be a risk that someone at this stage may not want to take responsibility for their ministry journey or commit to anything more than being present at the group. A good example from Jesus’ life would be when he asks the disciples to help with the feeding of the 5000 early on in their discipleship journey. To transition from this stage we need to say ‘yes’ to an invitation to lead a session.
Childhood – Leading sessions
So the childhood of our ministry journey begins when we start to lead sessions, taking responsibility for planning and delivering what we do, be it writing something from scratch or adapting some of the excellent meeting guides in Premier Youthwork. The group is yours for the day, morning or ten minute talk and it is fun, terrifying, exhilarating and sometimes risky. Someone in their ministerial childhood may be more willing to innovate, take (appropriate and fully assessed!) risks, be idealistic and feel part of the leadership team. I remember very clearly some of my early sessions (my first one? A reflection on REM’s song ‘Texarkana’: ‘I would give my life to find it’. And yes it was only just released at the time!) At this stage we may try everything from shocking people with outrageous illustrations to being quiet and lighting a candle. Jesus gets the disciples leading things very quickly – for example sending out the 72 in Luke chapter ten. The 72 are sent to lead something. Of course there is a risk that the session is such a disaster that we feel so discouraged and dare not try it again. People who supervise these sessional leaders need to be mindful of this and do everything in their power to ensure that sessions early on are successful and there is lots of feedback to help encourage learning and growth. If we want to move on from this stage, it often involves wider recognition of our gifts and experience by the church who may appoint us as a group leader. Perhaps we are publicly prayed for and commissioned into this role, or perhaps it is more private, but our becoming responsible for more than just sessions means we are ready to move on.
Adolescence – Leading a group
This is where a lot of people stop. This is not necessarily a bad thing – we find our level and stick to it. That’s ok! We become a group leader responsible for the direction of the group, creating the atmosphere and perhaps even deciding when and where the group meets. The buck stops with us – behaviour, rotas and most amazingly of all, we may even be trusted with the keys! By this point a leader will have an appreciation of the complexity of youth leadership (young people and their struggles are complicated, just like everyone else!). Leaders by this stage will hopefully begin to see that youth work is about a relationship not programmes, and will be discovering new gifts in themselves and modelling this for others on the team and young people in the groups.
This stage is a stage where a lot of people end up, sometimes for many years. These can be amazing years of growing experience and faithful ministry to generation after generation of young people. There is no need to move on or grow up, as long as a leader remains faithful to God and all that he has called them to do and be. However there can be a real risk of stagnation. We begin to repeat the cycles that have always worked before. We become lazy – by which I don’t mean we aren’t working hard, but rather lazy in our thinking. We don’t re-contextualise the gospel in the new generation and simply use what we have done before. We can get away with it because our experience allows us to blag it. But in our hearts we often know we are short changing young people. It may be that we begin to lack vision or direction – why are we doing this? ‘Because it worked last year’ becomes a default reply. Often group leaders have their own crises of faith and don’t express it fearing that this might cause a problem, and we forget that God is not interested primarily in what we do, but who we are. A group leader in a more developed crisis might have no patience for team members who are learning, who make mistakes or who aren’t seen as pulling their weight.
A biblical example would be to look at Jesus’ role in the sending out the 72. The disciples were being sent as sessional leaders, and Jesus acts as a group leader giving clear instruction and setting expectations. We leave group leadership stage when we ourselves become overseers of others. This may be marked by a public commissioning or other recognition by the wider church that we have become something else. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the Great Commission – Jesus giving authority to his followers and commissioning them to baptise and teach. At this point they become adults in ministry.
Maturity in youth ministry is rare, undervalued and even mocked
Adulthood – Responsibility for several groups
This stage is characterised by being a leader who perhaps works across a few groups – overseeing the group leaders and helping them and the young people when things are particularly difficult. One of the primary functions of someone at this stage is to discern gifts and callings in others and to help them reach their potential in their ministry journey. A person at this stage is primarily responsible for overseeing the vision of the entire work, and to help each group work together towards that vision. This may be a combined role – overseeing and continuing as a group leader. But watch out: a lot of people can become complacent, and think they know everything they need to know. They stop listening and learning. Complacency is a real danger at this stage, and we need to work hard to stay inspired and fresh in our work. This is how we see Peter behaving with the calling of Matthias in Acts chapter one (I don’t particularly recommend choosing people by casting lots – but it is biblical!). Having been through so much with Jesus, Peter steps into the adulthood of his ministry and shortly afterwards we see him discerning gifts and callings in others. The 12 do something similar in Acts chapter six.
To move on to stage six often requires a physical move. Stages one to five often happen in the same church community, but as Jesus himself finds, it can be a struggle to be recognised in wider ministry in your ‘home town’. People can find it hard to accept authority from someone whose earlier mistakes they remember. I have often seen people move church or geographical area in order to exercise these further stages in their ministry journey. This move is also often coupled with a growing understanding and appreciation of the wider task and context of youth ministry.
Middle age – Advising
This is when we become people who advise others. It may be in your job title if you are a paid worker (as in mine) or it may simply be that people start to turn to you when they are stuck. Others naturally look to you and your experience to inform the situation that they find themselves in. This stage is about encouraging others and inspiring them. A lot of people at this stage will be training others, be it informally in churches or formally on courses. This stage is characterised by wisdom and experience over the long haul. A leader is as comfortable with tears of pain and exhaustion as they are with laughter and mountain-top faith experiences. Through doubt and desert, a worker remains faithful and grateful. But the real risk is losing touch with young people. We can forget what young people are really like and give out trite advice. Young people change and their culture moves fast. Issues and solutions from the past no longer meet the needs of the present, and people at this stage need to deliberately expose themselves to ongoing work (perhaps as a volunteer again) to keep themselves honest and their advice real. It can be easy to either give simplistic advice and get frustrated when it doesn’t work or give over-complex advice that is impossible to follow and isn’t suitable. Sometimes the whole world changes and a person at this stage can easily miss it. We can see this with Peter, later on in Acts chapter ten, in his vision with the sheet and the call to the Gentiles. The world was changing, and he could have missed it. But God gave him the prompt he needed.
This middle age of ministry often involves exploring new ideas and theologies which were previously thought of as rubbish (eg Peter and the sheet of animals). This can mean grappling with new experiences, exploring mystery and discovering God in the most unexpected of places. The things that worked before don’t seem to work anymore. It can be a time of faith crisis. But if the youth worker doggedly perseveres, listens closely to God and hangs in there, they move towards the final stage.
The real risk of the later stages is losing touch with young people. We can forget what young people are really like and give out trite advice
Sage – Rich in wisdom
A sage is someone who is rich in the wisdom of the years. Deeply committed to youth ministry over many generations, they will be a person who has remained faithful to their call. God himself becomes central in both life and ministry, not programmes or even relationships. A sage will often have authority without ever seeking to impose it, and people will naturally look to them for advice and wise counsel. There is still a risk of irrelevance, bitterness or even despair. Sometimes sages can struggle to embrace change, instead seeing it as loss. In the New Testament, we see John as a sage as he writes to the seven churches at the beginning of Revelation – encouraging, exhorting and challenging. His perspective is wide and deep coupled with fresh and recent insight from the Spirit; John is a great example to us all (though not maybe living in isolation in a cave). This stage is something that we don’t leave behind, except to transition to glory – either through death (one extreme) or leaving our ministry scene to engage with another (another extreme).
Grab a cuppa (there’s a whole new article on what kind of hot drink you drink relating to your place on the ministry journey) and think: where am I at? Where do I want to be? What one thing should I do today to help me take that next step?