Welcome to Toolbox. Helping you lead and manage volunteers and staff. As Christians, we keep time to a different drumbeat than many of the people that walk this planet alongside us. Specifically, we are different because we are open to the spiritual. Not just in a vague way but within a precise, theological framework.
We believe in a God who is active in the world he has created. We believe in a God who wants to draw people to himself, to see their lives turned around, sin forgiven and plans aligning with his.
Periodically I must remind myself of this and what a wonderful thing it is. I say that because it also gives us permission to ‘dream dreams’ – to believe that what is humanly impossible, is possible with God.
Plans that seem unlikely come to fruition; projects that logically speaking have no cash, get funded; doors that are closed get miraculously opened. All of this is breathtaking but also brings an interesting aspect to youth and children’s work in a church and parachurch context.
We must tread that line of being open to the miraculous and impossible, while also working within the broad human and legal systems of our society and culture.
Last month, Ali expanded our minds and expectations as to what is possible. When we say ‘youth work’ (for example), most of us will imagine something quite specific, normally something that we have seen done or even experienced in our own youth.
Our God is creative, always doing new things and I hope Ali’s article will have sparked your imagination to a bigger variety of options. We can work, as Christians, within an existing (secular) project, bringing a different type of salt and light, life and hope.
Equally, we might feel led to throw off the shackles of that more ‘chaplaincy’ style work and be free to do something much more explicitly faith based. Perhaps we feel led to focus much more specifically on a particular group or age band, working with young people at risk or facing particular hardships. Perhaps we simply want to see more of our own ‘church kids’ exploring faith and owning it for themselves.
I am a huge believer in this process of imaginative excitement, but I also believe that there comes a time to prayerfully try and nail down just what God is calling us to do.
This is a biblical approach. Think of your favourite Bible stories. Each one required someone to stop looking at all the possibilities and simply focus on one story, the story God was calling them to live at that moment.
“We believe in a God who wants to draw people to himself, to see their lives turned around, sin forgiven and plans aligning with his”
So, in this month’s column, I hope to help you take just a couple of steps out of the overwhelming pool of possibilities into a much more focused ‘calling’ – for your church, project or indeed, the person you might employ.
I am also conscious here that God’s guidance often comes in sequential steps as we respond in faith. In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas set off on what is a clear ‘call’ but not a clearly focused one. At some level they seem called to Cyprus to ‘preach the gospel’ but God seems to have not revealed any more of the plan than that.
Christian history is littered with examples like this, think David Wilkerson in New York or Jackie Pullinger in Hong Kong, but I dare to suggest they are the exception, not the rule. Read the second paragraph of this article again!
I want to start by sharing a story. However, I do warn you that this story is by no means all neat and positive, but it was a learning experience for me and it raises some crucial issues.
My first full-time church youth worker job was years ago in a small, Dorset market town. While in many ways a tough call, it was also deeply satisfying and with my team, we had built a medium-sized and fruitful church-based work.
Many of the young people were learning to be young disciples and many brought their friends to a huge variety of activities to explore faith. I ended up staying six years but predictably, by the sixth year I had that ‘time to move on feeling’ and I applied for and explored a number of alternative posts I might move to.
Halfway through the year, I was approached by a woman from our church who was hugely enthusiastic about starting a new ‘bus project’. She had access to a suitable vehicle that was kitted out as a mobile youth centre and she offered to put it in the town square once a week on an evening as an evangelistic outreach project.
I felt really torn. She had access to the vehicle and was pretty much offering to do the work. She had energy and enthusiasm. To many it seemed a no-brainer, but I wasn’t sure.
She was lovely but not someone who had worked on any of our youth teams before. I was worried she might draw some of my regular team away to this new project and, If I’m honest, my heart just wasn’t in it. I was already applying for new jobs while trying to do the existing work well, and my focus simply wasn’t on any new ambitious plans.
Having said that, how could I say no to a youth outreach project?
In the end, it turned out to be a bit of a messy compromise. I gave the project my ‘blessing’ but warned that I was not going to get involved. It felt unclear to me whether we (as a church) really ‘owned’ the project.
In practice, it ran quite successfully for a short number of months, but energy then faded and it fizzled out pretty much as I was leaving for a new job. I wasn’t proud of this but what did I learn? Here are the lessons and some still unanswered questions:
- Different types of work will attract different types of volunteers (and indeed, paid staff). We all have mixed and deep motives for what inspires us to work.
- A church needs a strategy, a plan. No plan means ‘planning to fail’ but…
- We also need to hold lightly to the strategy! God can and does guide and steer us into new works (see Acts 13 again).
- Just because there is an ‘open door’ (in this case, the availability of the bus), we do not have to walk through it. It might be God’s plan or just a blind-alley distraction.
- With hindsight, my ‘bless but don’t get involved’ decision was wrong and lacked courage. It also made me professionally vulnerable. What would have happened if there had been a disaster, say a safeguarding incident, on a project I had commended but wasn’t really involved with?
- I had (and still have) no doubts about the integrity of the woman who led the project, but I simply didn’t know her very well. Relationship is key in any team doing this type of work. Where there is no relationship, we need to proactively build it.
“One of the things I love about youth and children’s work is how it can draw together a hugely diverse team of volunteers”
Overcoming the ‘desert of too many options’
Here are four statements which are possible answers to the question ‘Why do we want a (youth) worker?’
In the light of the multitude of options outlined by Ali last month, I invite you (and your planning / leadership team) to see which resonate most closely with you.
Incidentally, I will tend to use the word ‘youth’ but include ‘children’s’ or indeed ‘youth and children’s or family’ options. Substitute as required.
I am assuming at this point that you are at least starting to close on what sort of work you feel called to do, and are starting to think ‘Who might do this?’
We need somebody to do it with us, or somebody to do it for us
These are good answers, but one answer is better than the other. One of the things I love about youth and children’s work is how it can draw together a hugely diverse team of volunteers – young, old, single, married, new converts, old in the faith etc.
The reality is, however, we often find a preponderance of married and family people on our teams. This is not surprising. If they have children, they are invested and highly motivated to see good work done in the church.
The problem for them is that they are already snowed under with work, church and family commitments. To get someone to draw alongside, support and lead them is a great plan and a great motive.
I’m slightly less comfortable with the ‘do it for us’ answer. By definition (and there is no need for embarrassment here), many churches that might employ a youth worker tend to be medium to big, and middle-class / professional in culture.
That is their way of thinking. Want something done? Well buy in a professional to do it. There are many huge strengths to this but also a potential weakness: it is a recipe for the (much later) employed worker to feel isolated and unsupported.
Yes, the salary is paid but does the church really ‘own the work’ in the best sense of that or simply expect them to get on with it? “We are paying you, what else do you want?”
Because young people are important, they should be our priority
You may like to revisit the first article in this series. Plenty of churches do (say) ‘old folks’ ministry. To be committed to and able to work with young people is very special. But why do this and not something else?
Motives will vary including the desire to see young people become disciples (to experience the riches of faith we know), through to concern for the future of the church itself. Once we have established that this is our priority, then we can start exploring how, why and where we will do the work.
There are lots of young people in our area, we want to do something for them
Remember that I challenged you in the first article to try and define what area you served. This might be abstract (students for example), but will often be geographic, a parish, village or town.
Crucial to this is also defining what ‘doing something’ means. The answer might vary from an almost ‘secular’ style work through to the most explicitly evangelistic. Even if we are faith motivated, we will almost certainly find ourselves doing activities with no particular religious content.
Lots of teenagers leave the church, we want to keep ours
Anyone from an evangelical background will know that we love and revere those who can really work well with non-Christians. Actually, it is a primary, biblically based and under-valued calling to be able to work well with ‘church kids’! Indeed, a cynic might say: “What’s the use of outreach if we can’t even keep our own?” I’m not agreeing 100 percent with that but there is some logic to it.
Using the questions
On a practical level, if you are doing this as a group exercise, get each person to pick a first (and possibly second) statement that most aligns with what they think the church / project should be doing. Invite them to comment on how well it agrees with their own hopes and ideas.
Does it really strongly express their view or was it just the ‘nearest’ thing? Invite them to comment and record the ideas. Incidentally, I asked earlier: “Which statements resonate with you?” I also need to ask now: “What level of unanimity was there?”
If you largely coalesced around a statement with just a few dissenting voices (which are to be welcomed – we need to avoid ‘group think’), you are well on your way to a strategy. If there was widespread disagreement, you may need to do some more thinking, praying and exploring.
Take your time, pray and if necessary have subsequent meetings. Incidentally, this advice is not a cliché. As Western Christians we tend to the professional approach of ‘have a meeting, make that decision’.
Is it really urgent? Sometimes, like a marinade, we need to wait, listen, seek God and listen again to each other. Cast your net wide. If you have a denominational youth officer or ‘champion’, talk to them about what you’d like to do.
Visit other churches and projects to see what is possible. This process is a high-level skill for whoever is leading it and it does not have to be the church leader!
I must throw something else into the mix here. Many of us are used to thinking ‘as a church’: our patch, our calling, our young people. Could it be God is calling you to some creative work either with other Christian communities in your area or indeed, with other organisations?
Youth for Christ and Urban Saints are great examples of Christian organisations with decades of experience of promoting local groups within, or attached to, local churches. The exact arrangement varies but usually the parent organisation can provide advice, training and resources to help promote a local group in return for affiliation to the national organisation which will involve financial support.
There are predictable benefits and costs. The former includes the chance to let an experienced organisation guide you through the potentially scary process of setting up a new project.
Advice can be both ‘spiritual’ but also, bluntly, very practical in nature. Nobody wants to make a mistake or find they have failed to comply with the law in their project. Many organisations will also have ‘big events’ or annual residential camps that you can attend with your young people.
Costs include both the literal cost (money!), but also consideration of how well the national organisation’s values and aims align with your local aims and indeed, even the theology you espouse (see again, Ali’s article last time).
This option is, again, a good reason for travelling round and seeing what is happening elsewhere. Some projects will grab your imagination and help you to think ‘we could do that!’
We are going to look specifically at job descriptions next time but what we are trying to do here is nail down the specific, strategic aims that will drive the job description. Now, to be honest, this may also require some tough negotiation.
I once worked for a big Anglican church whose implicit motto (as admitted by the vicar), was ‘we will do everything, and we will do it well’. You can’t. That is a recipe for burnout.
A common occurrence is the clash of aims. Someone who is going to be sold out for a street-work based outreach in the centre of town, is probably not going to be brilliant at working with the church’s own young people (see the story I started with).
You may well be able to combine several different styles of work (we will explore this more next time), but you do need to know which is your priority, which things need to be done, and which you want done well!
Narrowing this down will also help avoid the ‘impossible’ expectation trap. Like Ali, I have seen jobs that even Jesus would struggle to do (he doesn’t play the guitar to lead worship)