There are many expectations in our ministry – those held by church leadership, young people, parents and families and the congregation to name but a few. And when thinking about these, it’s important to distinguish between two things – expectations related to a role description (what you expect someone to do) and expectations related to a person specification (who you expect someone to be).
In the 17 years that I’ve been advising and supporting churches that employ salaried youth and children’s ministers, I have found that ‘who’ you are looking for is always more important than ‘what’ you want them to do.
Why is this? It is because when you employ the right person they will carry a vision for ministry, be adaptable, willing to learn and grow, enable and equip others as the job grows and develop with them. I’ve never known anyone to be in the same job five years on from being appointed – the job description has morphed beyond recognition as they have led and developed the work.
The reality is, with a fast-moving culture that we are expecting children’s, youth and families minsters to engage in, job descriptions and related expectations have to be held lightly.
In fact, especially as we continue to navigate the impact of COVID, I would say this: “Hold programmes and activities lightly but hold relationships tightly.”
With this in mind, it is hard to be clear about what you might want.
“‘Who’ you are looking for is always more important than ‘what’ you want them to do”
A few years ago I was advising a church on the kind of role they wanted to offer. After a while I realised that what they wanted was a youth and children’s minister / evangelist / worship pastor / social media and design pioneer.
A key question for churches to be able to answer well, in advance of advertising a role, is: “Are we clear on what the job will entail?” While, for those looking for a job, it is important to have a sense of your own calling and areas of primary gifting so you can be clear in your own mind about what you are looking for.
When I carried out a survey a few years ago into the terms and conditions of salaried workers, one of the questions I asked was: “What is your job title?” In the 600 or so replies, there were over 100 different job titles!
We aren’t going to nail expectations around everything that a job might entail and what work might be involved in one article, but just that one discovery from the survey illustrates that there are a host of opportunities and possibilities.
OK, let’s get stuck into some practical stuff. I would say that the kind of work someone might do broadly falls in to one of these areas – discipleship, evangelism, pastoral care and social engagement.
It would be a rare job that didn’t require all of these features to a degree, but each is broad and deep, with many possible ways of developing engagement, stimulating growth and encouraging a big vision (whether the work is aimed at children, young people, families or all three).
Let’s look at each in turn and see what they might involve:
A key part of the expectation here is to ‘make disciples’ and see children and young people grow in faith. That sounds obvious, but what does that look like practically? Most typically I might see this in a role where the title is ‘youth minister’.
This can often mean a focus on churched children and young people. An expectation might be that you have some theological training, are able to teach from the Bible, have a good understanding of spiritual disciplines and, crucially, what it looks like to practise those in front of the children and young people you lead.
Workers with this as their ‘main’ role might often find themselves being asked to preach and teach to the wider church family.
A challenge here might be how on earth do you measure this? At what stage do you call someone a disciple, and how do you determine whether they are growing in their faith?
It is interesting to note from scripture that as soon as Andrew started following Jesus the first thing he did was go and get another follower (John 1:40-42)! We can’t easily separate out ministry activity into neat boxes – Andrew hasn’t taken a course on ‘Reaching your mates for Jesus’.
If we are going to make disciples then we are naturally going to find ourselves engaging with evangelism.
Here the expectation of the role is to reach out and engage with children and young people in the community with the overarching purpose of sharing the gospel.
This might include (but isn’t limited to) starting a midweek kids’ club, open youth work that is church based but for young people in the community and getting stuck in to some detached work.
The title of Richard Passmore’s book, Meet Them Where They’re At, sums up what is expected. The church is saying: “We don’t have young people – we want you to go and meet them and reach them.”
One of the challenges is that this work can be isolating. In addition, it can often be misunderstood by the church employing you. Clear communication about the nature of the role and the work involved is crucial.
Evangelism takes time, building meaningful relationships with young people who have no prior contact with church is not going to see a flood of teenagers filling the pews in three weeks. The work needs excellent support and supervision, and needs to be done with integrity.
This means being upfront with young people about who you are and what you do; being clear if they turn up at an open youth club or kids club whether there is going to be a faith element.
Reaching out to others with the good news and making disciples is a messy business. None of us, however long we have been following Christ, is the finished article and that is certainly true if you are working with children, young people and families. We need to be able to care for those we are ministering to and with.
In some ways this feels most like the pictures we have of Jesus in the New Testament, as we consider the Good Shepherd and the need to tend a flock. I most often see this kind of role in a school – ‘chaplain’ being the obvious working title.
Yet, this can also be the primary role in a church where they have a ‘youth pastor’. One emphasis of the work would be to create a safe space for children and young people to be.
A dynamic here, articulated well by Mark Yaconelli in his book, Contemplative Youth Ministry, is that notion of being with young people. Yes, discipleship might play a part, but the overriding expectation is to care for and journey with children and young people as they grow up and transition through the different stages of primary then secondary school and off to the world of work or university.
This kind of work can be draining emotionally and spiritually. Being there for others makes it all the more important that the worker in this kind of role looks after themselves.
I often say to children’s and youth workers that the best thing we can offer children and young people is a healthy ‘us’. Not a perfect ‘us’, but an ‘us’ that is appropriately vulnerable, approachable and ready to listen. It is important in this role to have good support, but it is very rewarding!
You might be able to tell what is happening here. If we are making disciples and seeing children and young people reach out to their friends – with all the joys and challenges of doing life together – then we are going to find ourselves developing, hosting and running social activities right alongside everything else!
There is a kind of children’s and youth work that is about simply creating a fun space for children and young people to be. Light on faith development, but strong on building community and relationships.
Traditionally this might have meant routine trips to bowling alleys, ice rinks and Laser Quest, but I’d like to put a spin on that phrase ‘social engagement’. Increasingly,
I’m seeing churches pay attention to the concerns young people have about the world – food poverty, equality, racism, the climate crisis etc.
There is something about this work that stretches across the other three areas of discipleship (“Are we good stewards?”), evangelism (“Does the church care about the issues that young people care about?”) and pastoral care (“How do we support young people’s mental health and well-being while campaigning around difficult issues?”).
We can see from exploring these for just a few minutes how broad, deep and wide ministry with children, young people and families can be.
So much to consider and prioritise! Yet, there needs to be some discipline and focus – not everything can be a priority. And as I’ve mentioned, most people have a primary gifting that they need to be able to press in to in their role.
The first three tasks
Often on a job description you can see how the role is divided and what the expectations are by looking at the first three tasks listed.
Sometimes there are dozens of tasks! Don’t let that phase you; ask yourself the questions: “What is the primary role here? What is expected?”
For example, a youth worker role with an expectation of developing a relationship with a local school has a pastoral element but also potentially an evangelistic expectation.
Being really clear about what is expected and how the church anticipates you might go about starting and developing that relationship is important. But, more importantly, how are you going to work? How are you going to develop and build something well? How will you communicate your goals and objectives to your line manager?
In our hypothetical school, a starting place wouldn’t be: “Can I come in and take an assembly to tell the children about Jesus?” It might be: “Hi, I’m the new youth worker a St John’s, is there anything you need? How can I be a blessing to your school community?”
Here is how I would set out the first three tasks for this hypothetical role:
- Lead the youth work for the young people (aged 11 to 18) at St John’s.
- Develop a relationship with the local secondary school.
- Invest in the volunteer leaders of the youth work at St John’s.
You might have additional tasks, but I would argue that each of those need to serve these first three. That way you can maintain focus and keep the priorities front and centre. It can be tempting to throw in another 14 main tasks.
Yet just look at those first words of each line: ‘lead’, ‘develop’, ‘invest’. Each of those are broad in scope, meaning each can change and morph over time, which is why it is so important to focus on the ‘who’ rather than the ‘what’.