The friends you never call

Statutory youth work in the UK has been one of the areas hardest hit by the Government’s austerity drive. While many churches have plugged gaps left behind, Naomi Thompson explains how those involved in the Christian sector can support those facing the brunt of the cuts

Since the coalition Government came into power in 2010, local authority youth work has been subject to massive funding cuts and, in some areas, wiped out completely. According to UNISON figures, at least £259 million was cut from UK youth service budgets between 2010 and 2014. Further significant cuts by local authorities have taken place since this data was published with the latest data suggesting that £500million has been cut from youth service budgets since 2010 (according to CYPNow in 2015).

There has also been some talk of crisis in the Christian sector. Martin Saunders said last year: ‘25 years ago, churches were falling over themselves to employ youth workers. Training colleges were rapidly developing new courses to cope with the demand… Existing para-church organisations were expanding and others were launched… 25 years on, British youth ministry suddenly finds itself in a rather different and more challenging place’.

However, any such crisis in the Christian sector is merely a hiccup compared to what is happening in the wider field. Last year, Tony Jeffs, challenged those that talk of crisis in the wider field, saying, ‘Whenever discussion of “a youth work crisis” occurs it is important to recall that the “crisis” relates almost exclusively to secular units’. According to Danny Brierley in Joined Up, the Christian youth work sector has been the largest part of the field since the early 2000s. This was long before the Government’s austerity measures kicked in.

As someone with a ‘foot’ in both the Christian and wider youth work sectors, it has been interesting for me to witness the lack of dialogue between the two. Interestingly, over the last few years, youth work gurus Mark K. Smith and Tony Jeffs have shown little sympathy for the decline of the statutory sector and appear to, at least at times, champion what they perceive to be the thriving faith-based sector. At a recent conference on youth work training, Mark reminded the audience that the history, and likely future, of youth work was in religious and social movements and, as such, a decline in professionalised training does not signify the end of youth work altogether.

Bridging the divide

Whatever is being said by way of intellectual debate, the fact is that much good youth work has been lost over the last few years. Young people in the communities we work in have lost the relationships, activities and guidance they accessed through local authority youth work. Youth workers have lost their jobs and those left behind are stretched and under-resourced.

So how might youth workers in the Christian sector offer support to the wider youth work field during this time of uncertainty? You could engage with some of the campaigns that have been created to defend or protect youth work. Campaigns such as ‘In defence of youth work’ and ‘Choose youth’ have an active presence on social media and it has been great to see a growing number of Christians engage in these online conversations. Last year, the ‘In defence of youth work’ national conference focused on building relationships between the secular and faith-based sectors. The small number of Christian youth workers who came, tended to be those already actively engaged with the campaign.

You could also think about getting in touch with other youth workers in your community to offer mutual support, find out what each other are doing or trying to do. Church-based youth workers often have an acute understanding of what it is like to be line managed by an individual, however wellmeaning, that does not necessarily have an understanding of youth work and its process and impact, whereas many workers in the local authority sector are just adjusting to this situation. Christian youth workers can come alongside their colleagues in the wider sector to offer peer support and perhaps even the pastoral element of supervision that is often missing from line management meetings. As these mutually-supportive relationships develop, opportunities may emerge for working together.

Shared values

I recently spoke to 15 youth workers who were involved in partnership working between Christian and secular organisations. The experiences they had to share were overwhelmingly positive. I asked these youth workers to list three shared values they had in common with their partners and they came up with, among others: believing in young people; contributing to their wellbeing; having fun; providing safe spaces; offering support; respecting young people and each other; working together and building community. However, they also outlined some tensions in working together.

Models of partnership

Of the 15 youth workers I spoke to about their partnership working, most but not all were the Christian partner. Three dominant models of partnership emerged from those conversations.

For Christian youth workers who want to reach out and engage with local need, partnerships with other organisations are important in achieving this

Model 1: non-Christian volunteers

‘I run a nominally Christian youth group for the cathedral, but I have very few Christian volunteers. Most of the volunteers are young people themselves and have little or no church background.’

The employment of non-Christian volunteers to help out with church-based youth work is something that is often resisted by churches even when there is a shortage of willing volunteers from within the congregation. However, it was discussed as something that could be very positive. One youth worker explained that, while it did come with its challenges, he felt that it encouraged an ‘ethos of inclusivity’ within the church, saying, ‘The fact that our volunteers are mostly not Christian sends a message about inclusivity and acceptance to the young people: we are a church, but all are welcome, and invited to contribute.’

Model 2: secular funding

‘The local councils were brave enough to “hire” a church to run their youth provision despite a number of reservations. I was told by one councillor that, “Despite all the God stuff, the church has earned our respect”. We were also able to do it in our own way - avoiding any pre-defined outcomes such as targets or accreditation.’

The second model involved churches or Christian organisations receiving funding from local authorities or other secular commissioners to deliver youth work provision. This was something that one youth worker explained was based on an ongoing relationship of trust built with the local authority through the church’s delivery of community-based youth work, several years before receiving funding to do so.

In some cases, this work was based on collaborative relationships, in others, it was felt that no real relationship existed between the partners. One youth worker said: ‘The project simply received funding from the local authority. Records were kept to show how much work was taking place and occasionally there would be a monitoring visit. Other than fulfilling their contractual obligation with the local authority there really wasn’t much in terms of collaboration.’ The workers also recognised some of the challenges that receiving secular funding threw up, such as the work feeling disjointed or having to adapt to changing priorities of the funder.

Model 3: equal partnerships

‘We run a local activity network of all local interested groups in providing positive activities for children, young people and families. We meet every six weeks, give updates on work, identify gaps in provision, and then collaborate to fill those gaps. Sometimes this includes fundraising, sometimes just creative working. It has led to holiday clubs, lunch clubs, trips, residentials, play days and targeted work. For example, we realised that at Halloween there was often a spike in anti-social behaviour, so we collaborated between four agencies and took 20 of the most likely offenders away for the night. This was a great trip, and it reduced antisocial behaviour on the estate at home.’

The most positively-discussed model of joint working was that based on equal partnerships between Christian and secular organisations. These partnerships were usually motivated by a desire for social justice and to engage with and respond to the needs of the local community and did not involve evangelism or proselytising. The forms of work delivered through these partnerships included youth clubs, youth forums, detached youth work and schools work.

Positive experiences

The youth workers I spoke to had many positive experiences of working in partnership. Those experiences based on the equal partnerships model were the source of the most positive examples, where the Christian youth worker had worked as an equal partner on a project with colleagues from a secular organisation: ‘We ran a residential for young people from all over the district. This meant that while I was able to support other youth workers, funded by the parish councils, I was also able to take young people from the church along. While there, they got the opportunity to work with and get to know other young people from all over the area. This opportunity wouldn’t have come about had I not been a part of the secular team as well.’

A non-Christian youth worker also related positive experiences of working with Christian youth workers, suggesting that the work was richer for their input and expertise: ‘From a secular point of view, the Church has never asked that we make religion a part of our provision. Young people have naturally brought discussions about their faith to us and we have had the resources to discuss and answer. The church workers have never been worried about discussing other faiths and have always approached the topic with honesty and respect.’

The youth workers also felt that working in partnership meant that the work on offer to young people was enhanced and the overall quality of youth work in the area improved: ‘Doing things together builds relationships between partners. This then improves collaboration, shared values, referrals between projects and joined-up working.’ For Christian youth workers who see at least part of their role to reach out and engage with local need, it is clear that such partnerships are important in achieving this.

Negative experiences

I also asked the youth workers to tell me what was negative about their experiences of partnership working. The most common response to this question among the 15 youth workers was simply ‘nothing’. The second most common response related to there being ‘suspicion’ between the partners. However, several of the youth workers reported that suspicion is reduced and understanding increased by the process of working together and building relationships with each other.

Other examples of negative experiences related to bad practice on the part of both the Christian and secular partners in certain situations. One Christian worker expressed his discomfort at the way his organisation had misled funders about the work they were delivering: ‘Privately the Christian [organisation] was vehemently evangelical in its outlook. It would only employ Christian youth workers. There was a clear agenda of wanting to evangelise to the young people. However this was never articulated in the contractual agreement to deliver open- access youth work on behalf of the local authority.’

Another example of a difficult experience occurred where the partnership was unequal and the Christian youth worker said he felt his organisation was ‘used’ by the secular partner: ‘We enabled them to hit all their funders’ targets, because we had done the hard graft of building the relationships, while they had more funding, were better paid and would not have succeeded without us, but this was not reflected in any contribution to our costs.’

Tensions also occurred in the use of non-Christian volunteers, especially when the youth worker wanted to engage in faithbuilding work as part of the provision: ‘The lack of shared Christian values means that it can be difficult to do anything overtly faithfocused. My motivation is theological and it has at times caused tensions, sometimes creative, that the volunteers don’t share the same motivation. I always try to do something a bit more focused in the youth club – a time of silence or reflection. Not all of the volunteers see this time as worthwhile, which can rub off on the young people.’

Other youth workers also mentioned that their ability to share their faith explicitly was restricted in the partnership work they engaged in. It was also stated that the vision of the Christian youth work could be compromised by working together or receiving funding from secular partners: ‘Our vision and our ability to change and react to circumstances has felt very restricted by the money. Because they want a certain style and amount of work, we weren’t always free to use our time and resources to best help the young people. This is partly because our understanding of helping young people does not necessarily line up with the council’s.’

It was also felt that it was sometimes the church created tensions when a youth worker attempted to work with external partners, where the wider church did not share the vision or see value in such work. Despite the existence of some negative experiences, all 15 of the youth workers felt that their experiences of partnership working were positive and worthwhile overall.

Over the last few years, I have seen the field I love decimated. Good youth workers have lost their jobs. Young people have lost the support they received from them. If there was ever a time for Christian youth workers to stand by their secular colleagues, that time is now! I challenge you to think about how you might better reach out to your colleagues in the wider youth work sector and whether any of the partnership models discussed might help you in meeting the needs of young people in your community. Call some secular youth workers and arrange to meet for a coffee. Engage with campaigns to defend youth work. It is time we work together to offer the best we can for young people, to support our colleagues in crisis and to protect good youth work.

Naomi Thompson (FORMERLY STANTON) is a lecturer in youth and community work at Goldsmiths College, University of London. 

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