Q & A : Steve Chalke

Last month, Steve Chalke, founder and leader of Oasis Trust, surprised many youth workers by saying that churches shouldn’t employ youth workers straightaway and that young people ‘don’t have any money to tithe, and smash the toilets up, contribute nothing and use all the resources’. He spoke to editor Jamie Cutteridge about these comments and how to build sustainable youth work

JC: You’re a youth worker and passionate about young people. Presumably these comments don’t reflect your views…

SC: Oasis employs hundreds of youth workers, and about 5,000 teachers, who are all youth workers, aren’t they? Let me tell you what I meant. The conversation was about how you build sustainability into the work a church does in any community. I said something that I’ve learnt over the years: before you employ lots of community workers, children’s workers, youth workers, family workers or social workers you’ve got to employ someone who will bring to you financial accountability and therefore sustainability. Or else you’ll end up doing going bust. So, it’s nothing to do with youth workers as opposed to any other kind of operational workers. We’ve got literally 1,000 kids involved with us today in Waterloo. We’ve never asked the question about whether they bring anything; they bring loads. They bring themselves, their life, their energy. I don’t suppose they bring much money, but that’s not even something we think about.

Thirty years ago, I was one person working for Oasis on my own…So how do you get from that to that? And my answer is that you’ve got to think about infrastructure. If you want to run a sustainable youth outfit or family outfit, you have to think about infrastructure. All of this was in the light of Kids Company’s collapse…and what Kids Company didn’t have was infrastructure. So Camila – a fantastic children’s worker, a great visionary – goes out and does the thing, but who is actually counting the cash, doing the spreadsheets, creating the structures, thinking through processes, doing the administration and so on that makes a thing sustainable?

What I was saying is that if you don’t get that in place in the centre, you’ll take on youth workers or children’s workers, and then the whole things collapses and you make them redundant. Or if you don’t do that, it never really grows to scale because you end up with one youth worker and you’re always worried about the next year or three years of funding because you’ve not put the right infrastructure in place. You’ve got to is invest in the boring bits, which no one wants to invest in. If I stand at the front of the church and say, ‘Will you give me £10,000 so we can reach the kids on the street?’ they’ll say, ‘Yeah, all right.’ But if I stand at the front and say, ‘Will you give me £10,000 so I can employ an administrator?’ they’ll say. ‘Er…’ We’re kind of short-sighted. 

To do effective youth work we’ve got to give attention to management … movements need organisations and organisations need movements

JC: I guess part of the problem is that youth workers are activists; they’re people who like to go out and do stuff…

SC: The thing I say to people all the time is that the pioneer despises the settler. I always did. I thought, ‘I’m the activist and there are all these conservative people around who want to tie me down.’ I learnt the hard way that the pioneer’s ability to deliver sustainably is linked to the respect that they can develop for the conservative, the settler, and the skills that the settler brings.

Pioneers start movements but they need the settlers. Movements need organisations and organisations need movements. If you’re in a movement, you kind of, very often, look down your nose at organisations because you think they’re so, slow and committee-bound. Movements that despise organisations will always stumble and fall. What an organisation does for a movement and what the settler does for the pioneer is they map and regulate the ground that has been won.

So a movement that despises the organisation will not have the ground that it’s won mapped and solidified and become secure. On the other hand, settlers who despise the pioneer, or an organisation that despises the movement, throws away the potential for innovation, change, growth, movement and vision. Pioneers destroy what they’re doing by blowing it up; going too fast and it’s not financially sustainable. Or sometimes it’s financially sustainable, but how many youth workers do you know that have got burnt out, or ministers for that matter? What they’re doing isn’t sustainable in terms of the resources they’ve got, either financially or emotionally. The way in which a settler destroys things is they don’t blow things up, they don’t explode, they implode. A settler always wants to manage the risk out of everything. To do effective youth work, children’s work, community work, to grow what we’re doing in a sustainable way, we’ve got to give attention to that management.

Ten years ago I came to this church in Waterloo. I became the leader of the church in my spare time. It had ten elderly people, mostly in their 80s, in a building that seated 450 people and was empty except for these ten people. There was no money, they were bankrupt and the building was falling down. It was empty for the rest of the week. Twelve years later, the church has hundreds of people in, it has started and runs a children’s centre for hundreds of families, a primary school and a secondary school. We’ve developed a farm, we’ve developed a giant food bank and a debt advice centre. We employ lots of youth workers here in all that stuff. We work in St Thomas’ Hospital in A&E. We’ve got 150 kids in a football league every week. We’ve got some community choirs, we run a youth arts programme. We’ve just got permission to set up a youth health service for 14 to 25-year-olds with Guy’s and St Thomas’.

The first person I appointed was an administrator, because if I had appointed a youth worker or a children’s worker, or whatever, we would have blown the whole thing up. It was bad enough having me! What we needed was an administrator. Her name is Ro Leech and she came to work with me 12 years ago. There were ten people in the church…we employ 200 people now, in this area. Many of them are youth workers. If we had not employed an administrator to start with then we probably never would have employed anybody else.

JC: How much has the youth work world changed and how much does the work of Oasis try and reflect that?

SC: It’s a joined-up and integrated thing. The church here and some of the kids from schools are part of the church and some of their parents are. We run what you would think of as the classic youth group. It isn’t all detached work; spirituality is at the core of what we do. It isn’t like we only ever used to think about their spiritual lives and now we think about their health, education and jobs with spirituality is off the agenda… Actually there is a huge emphasis and we’ve done a lot of work on how you create an environment where people actually learn and develop a Christ-centred spirituality. The youth work I grew up in was very much, ‘Pray this prayer and give your life to Jesus and you’ll go to heaven after you die.’ I mean it really was that. Whereas this is very much about life before death, but with an eternal perspective to it as well.

JC: As someone who has been on both sides of the often tricky relationship between youth workers and church leaders, what are the things you think youth leaders need to hear about the reality of that relationship from a church leader’s perspective?

SC: Youth workers need to help church leaders in terms of the whole family, because actually in church youth work you have kids for a few hours a week if you’re lucky. Now we run schools we have kids for one-third of all their time. But two-thirds of the time they’re not with us; so we need to help parents parent. I’m not saying that a youth worker should front all that stuff, but I do think there needs to be a joined-up strategy about how we work with the whole family.

The second thing I’d say is this: we run 47 schools and somebody said to me a year or so ago, ‘What I want to know is, now that this school is run by you and you’re a Christian, can I come in and take an assembly?’ because they had always been barred previously.

I said: ‘Of course you can come and take an assembly if you want, but I was hoping for something more, something deeper. If an assembly is all you’re looking for, you can come and take it, but I can tell you that it won’t make much dent on the development of these children. It will be an entertaining 15 minutes and they’ll either say it was boring or exciting and they’ll have forgotten about it by the end of the day. Why don’t you come and run a breakfast club or an after-school club? Why don’t you run a club for kids that are learning English as a second language? Why don’t you set up an allotment or farm project with us? Why don’t you work with some of our young people who need tuition in a smaller group?’ Because those are the things that really do make a difference. And of course those are things that build relationships between the whole school as an institution and the churches, and also between the youth worker, or whoever, and the kids. Those are the things that build trust for the church in the local community. But it’s all about a longer-term investment of time than the quick hit.

In education there has been a major shift. Previously all that mattered was A*- C grades in maths, English, a modern foreign language, science, etc. That was a huge driver for every educationalist. But over these last 12 months, even Michael Gove has said, ‘Education is really about the development of character.’ There has been a huge amount of research made available and a shift has come about. We’ve got to invest in ‘character curriculum’ or find out how to develop it. At Oasis we’ve just developed what we called Oasis Nine Habits because there nine fruit of the Spirit. We’ve developed a course of character development based on the fruit of the Sprit for all our staff, who are the main conveyors of character, and all our kids.

I was a youth worker and I should have worked more with the whole family, even though I might not have been fronting it. And now, while I’m still a church leader, as an educational leader I cry out for the sensible engagement of churches in education.

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