Nigel Argall believes lessons from the Air Training Corps translate well into church life


I live somewhere in the middle of Cornwall. When I lived in Southampton, I was pretty much the only person I knew who owned a chainsaw. Down here, it seems like almost everyone has one – quite a lot of folks have two or three of different sizes. Like the old-school ‘wreckers’ who pillaged any ship unfortunate enough to run aground on the coast, when we have a big winter storm, we go out to find any trees that have been blown down, sidle up to the owner and say something like: “Er…got any plans for the wood?” We don’t have mains gas round here and life tends to be a bit more self-sufficient. A chainsaw and a downed tree can keep you and your family warm for a whole year.

Now, here’s the thing. I love using my chainsaw. It can cut through a sizable log in seconds and you can get into a rhythm using it but, as time goes on, it is easy to miss the fact that instead of spitting out wood chips, it’s now slowing down and just spitting out sawdust. The temptation is to grind on but what I really need to do is stop, and sharpen the saw.

This is such a profound metaphor, Stephen Covey devoted a whole chapter to it in is his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s premise is that it is not just a case of having your team turn up and do the work of youth or children’s work. How well they do it and how effective they are will vary enormously depending on how much training and development they have had.

I was recently told by my doctor’s practice that I’d have to wait months for a steroid injection in my knee. A couple of weeks later they got back to me and said: “We’ve had a few more people trained up to do the injections, come in next week!” It was scary knowing I was one of the first that my physiotherapist was doing, but it was brilliant to get the treatment and be up and running again. Training empowers people and gets things done that might otherwise seem impossible or out of reach. Before we explore this more practically, I have a profound question about something that will have impacted you way more than you realise so here we go.

What is the attitude of your church or organisation to training? By this, I mean the cultural attitude? Do they really believe in it and see it as important, not value it at all, or maybe pay lip service to it but don’t really expect it to change anything?

Let me give two examples. A few years ago, I worked at a theological college primarily training youth workers. There was a certain national denomination of churches who never sent us any students. I could never understand why until I met some of their leaders and discovered that they had, what I call, a ‘theology of instant equipping’. If folk seemed to have some talent with young people (and lots do), they were declared ‘youth workers’ and sent into battle. Those with pastoral and preaching skills were declared ‘leaders’ and likewise put in positions of authority. The idea of spending three years and many thousands of pounds on training clearly felt absurd to them. They had a commendable sense of urgency and a desire to respond to what they saw God doing in people, but I didn’t agree with their view. To use a metaphor from sport, most top sports people are ridiculously naturally talented in their chosen sport, but that talent isn’t enough on its own – they also train and practise incredibly hard.

By contrast, I spent nearly three years as a voluntary chaplain (or ‘padre’) to a local squadron of the Air Training Corps or ‘Air Cadets’. The clue is in the title, but they are obsessed with training. It is absolutely woven into the ethos of the organisation and any young person who stands still long enough gets training in something: fieldcraft, gliding, drill, shooting, camp skills etc.

Where does your church or organisation stand on this scale? To be fair, most are somewhere in the middle with at least some recognition of the value of training in enhancing the capacity and skills of its members. At best, many individual churches and projects will arrange training programmes or facilitate members to access training through their denomination or an umbrella, or associated organisation. A danger here however is that, at worst, this can become ‘tokenistic’. I have worked with a number of organisations that put on mediocre training. The trainer gets paid, the trainees can tick the box for attending, but no one really expects to learn very much. This can be incredibly negative as it engenders a cynical belief that we have to do training, but it doesn’t really work or make a difference.

So, what are we hoping for from training and staff development? 


1. The skill and ability to do new things, or do things better

It seems obvious but it may not be. As I said before, it’s great to have natural talent for something but I absolutely believe that despite variations in natural ability, a huge number of the things we do in youth and children’s ministry can be taught. This applies to be structured things (how to lead a Bible study, how to put a programme together), but also to those less structured skills – how to conduct a conversation with a teenager or how to share a faith idea with a six-year-old. This section also includes what I’d call ‘policy training’. That includes things like safeguarding. It may not be exciting or inspiring but there are certain things everyone with any level of responsibility in your organisation needs to know. You may include this as part of an individual’s induction or decide to send everyone on a periodic refresher course.

2. The best training imparts principles

The simplest training consists of the trainer saying (or demonstrating): “this is what I do…go and do it.” The best training looks at what the trainer does, explains the principles behind that and helps you work out what it means to apply those principles in your context. Take a principle like youth participation – talking with young people and inviolving them in the design of our work. Youth participation by a chaplain in a fee-paying school is going to look very different to youth participation by a street-based, detached youth worker meeting gangs in an urban area. Same principle, different style of application.

3. Training imparts confidence

That is good for the worker but also those on the receiving end of their ministry! I’m not sure how many steroid injections my physio had done before me, but she seemed to know what she was doing, which felt good! This also means that we don’t always have to learn something new in training. We might actually go away thinking ‘We are doing the right thing. It’s tough but there isn’t a better way of doing this.’ Training may well confirm what we intuitively thought was best to do. As a friend of mine puts it: “You didn’t know what you knew until someone told you that you did!”

4. Training imparts belief and energy

Those who have attended a big training conference will know the buzz of being in a big group of like-minded workers all pulling in the same direction. It’s encouraging and empowering.

“What is the attitude of your church or organisation to training?”

Designing your training programme

Let’s get super-practical. If you are in a management or leadership role, how do you begin to design a training plan for your team?

1. Reflect back over the last year or two

Mentally celebrate the good but then ask a tough question: what bombed? What didn’t work? ‘Failure’ is a harsh educator and may well start to reveal whole areas that you want to address in a training programme. Don’t be embarrassed here, face the reality. What skills do you or your team lack? Do some blue-sky thinking, asking how and in what ways can you get better?

2. Ask your team and ask them as individuals

Most of us are only too painfully aware of our shortcomings. This does however need to be handled with huge tact and sensitivity. Many of us feel shame about our weaknesses and an offer of training can bring out into the light the very weaknesses we’d rather try and hide! Don’t make the offer of training a kind of insult. It can however, be very positive as well.

Years ago, I ran a schools’ work organisation. We had three databases that we used (schools, supporters and churches) that had grown organically over the years and it became evident that we needed to collate these into one comprehensive database that we controlled and managed ourselves. This was not my gifting. I was still trying to work out what to do when my administrator said: “We are going to do it in Microsoft Access. I’ve found a local one-day training programme and booked myself on – is that OK?” Well, yes, I love it when people recognise and manage their own training needs.

3. Look around and see what is on offer

Many denominations will have their own training programmes. Talk to other workers, what do they do? If nothing seems available, could you bring in some experts and put on some training in your area, that may well get buy-in from other churches in your town? Many of the big national youth parachurch organisations such as YFC and Urban Saints do regular training events. Attending an event, even if some distance away can be a fun, team-building exercise in itself. And if that means no youth group that weekend? Remember, you have to stop in order to sharpen the saw! It’s worth it.

Training and development need to become a natural part of our thinking, our programme and way of working. Don’t stop ‘sharpening the saw’. Many pastors and vicars have studies crammed full of books. It has been said that you can tell when the pastor lost the training habit by looking at how old the books are! If there is nothing published after 2010…the saw is probably getting a bit rusty!