Nigel Argall provides some understanding and tactics for youth and children’s workers who feel the main church leader ’doesn’t get what they do’ 


Ok, it was an attempt at a witty title but to be more specific, what we are going to explore here, is what happens when a church ‘employs’ someone to do youth/children’s work because they feel they should, but without a really empathetic understanding by the leadership of what the workers are trying to do. I use the inverted commas around ‘employs’ because it doesn’t’ really matter whether you are salaried or volunteer, if you are part of the designated team that is officially recognised as being in charge of this ministry, this is for you.

So, how do we end up with church ministers (vicar/pastor) having ultimate responsibility for your specialised area of ministry without really comprehending it?

Youth and children’s work has an unusual, and I’d say almost unique aspect. Most human organisations have a hierarchical ‘pyramid’ structure. Take a commercial enterprise that makes and sells widgets. There will be, (for example) a team of sales people, managed by a sales manager who then answers to a sales director at the highest level. In each case, each person further up the food chain knows more than those below. The sales manager will have started as a sales person. The sales director will have years of experience and knowledge. Hopefully the system both works and engenders respect as those further down recognise and defer to the experience, knowledge and authority of those further up.

By contrast, it is perfectly possible for a minister to end up running a church with little or no knowledge of youth and children’s work. They are ultimately both spiritually and indeed, legally responsible for an area of ministry that they don’t ‘get’ and indeed, may be wary of because they secretly recognise their vulnerability in this area. Many youth workers do end up as ‘adult’ ministers so you may be fortunate here, although there is a separate danger that these ‘ex-youth worker’ ministers think they do know all about it whilst actually living off an increasingly dated set of experiences and knowledge. If you have never thought about this, just pause and reflect on this for a moment. That is a scary place for a leader to be! In an ideal world, all ministers would have completed training which involved extensive exposure to, and indeed, considerable training in youth/children’s work but, meanwhile, back in the real world…

All this is then compounded by a second, significant and specifically cultural factor. Ministers are followers of Jesus. As such, they keep time to a different drum beat, they have different values to most folks in the world and specifically, they want to be supportive of all the fellow ministers in their different local churches. I say this because they are also human, so I am going to let you in on a secret, so secret that most ministers will not even want to acknowledge this, and certainly not for themselves. It took me ages to work this out from spending plenty of time in their company. Are you ready? Here it is: when ministers get together to chat and pray (think of a ‘fraternal’ or your local ‘churches together’ meeting), having a thriving youth/children’s work is the biggest status symbol ever. Yep, nothing comes close. Vicars don’t do fancy cars or big houses for obvious reasons, but a fantastic youth group really is something to drop into the ‘how’s it going?’ conversation and quietly build your reputation on!

In addition, (and I have talked about this before), but many churches will themselves have a strong commitment to youth and children’s work. It is somehow written into their DNA. There is simply a cultural expectation (that often endures for the long term), that ‘this is what we do’. A variation of this, for many churches close to universities is a similar commitment to student work. At best, this will also be structured into how the church works with significant paid posts and budgets for these valued ministries.

All, of this can however come together into a potentially toxic (certainly difficult), mix where the main minister welcomes what you are doing, indeed, applauds it and delights in the way God is blessing what you do. It is what the church wants to see happening and what makes him look good. The problem is, he simply does not intuitively understand it and that makes him feel disempowered and vulnerable.

Symptomatic of this could be:

  • · Suspicion and restraint when you propose a new venture that seems like an obvious development to you.
  • · Pressure on budgets (‘do we really need to spend so much on a youth residential?’)
  • · Lack of prioritisation – somehow the youth event is quickly cancelled to make way for the flower festival or Christmas Carol concert. (Believe me, I have seen this.)
  • · Lack of ‘presence’, the minister never shows his face despite repeated invites to activities.
  • · Lack of strategic insight and understanding – youth work only ever gets added to a strategic plan as an afterthought.
  • · Conflicting approaches is another expression of the ‘yes! We love what you are doing in the children’s work but… er … could you just…’ type of comment. I once met an otherwise successful minister who wanted to start youth work in his church. Subconsciously aware of his relative weakness in this area, he had latched on to a plan from an American book he had found and I spent considerable time trying to suggest that this was not the only possible approach!

So, if any of this resonates with you, what can you do? I am going to make and explore a number of suggestions:

First: Communicate what you are planning to do and why: your strategic vision. I know it sounds obvious but many great youth workers are great at what they do and not particularly good at saying what, why and how they are doing it. At best this will not just be about justifying your own approach but actually advocating for the needs of the young people themselves. Incidentally, foundational to this will be truly working out what your own approach is! Don’t just ‘pick and mix’ from a variety of sources. It is great to have different approaches in different contexts but underpinning all of it should be a coherent philosophy of youth or children’s work based on some simple principles that you can articulate to anyone who asks. Get this right first!

Second: Take or create opportunities to explain, explain and explain again what you are doing and why – both to your minister but to the wider church leadership team, trustees or whatever you have. If you don’t have access to them, ask to have access! I worked for two different Anglican churches for 11 years. In both cases I was required to present a monthly report to the PCC (the governing body) meeting, but, if that had not been the case, I would have asked for it to be so. This is good practice and the usual rules of communication apply, i.e., you may well have to keep saying the same thing several times in order for them to ‘get it’.

Thirdly: Stay patient. As a friend of mine says ‘when you don’t know, you don’t know what you don’t know’. It’s not your leadership teams’ fault that they know nothing about youthwork (although I do think it is their responsibility to find out, if they are helping lead a church that does, or wants to do, youth ministry.) There was a time when, frankly, you probably didn’t know much. You are just further on in the journey so be gracious and encouraging.

Fourthly: Be open to all suggestions. I have sometimes been kept humble by God, by receiving some really good and creative ideas from folk who really didn’t have much knowledge of youthwork. Even if the ideas are not good, they can challenge us creatively by asking insightful questions. But…

Fifthly: Know when to stand your ground. I was once approached by a Bishop who had up to that point, taken little interest in my work. He suggested quite strongly that I should organise a diocesan pilgrimage for children which involved travelling on a restored steam train to a village where we would all march to the local parish church for a service led by him. It wasn’t a bad idea; it actually had some merits although I didn’t feel his vision had that much appeal to young people. The problem was, that I was pretty good at having these sorts of ideas myself and it really didn’t ‘fit’ with the targets of work that we had already established for my department. In the nicest possible way, I didn’t need an ‘ideas man’ (how he described himself). A year later, having had no contact or support in between, he had a another go at leaning on me. I politely declined and continued with the work he was already paying me to do.

There is another variation of this. Every church has its ‘misfits’, indeed, every church should have a range of misfits and odd bods, it is a sign of the Kingdom of God. In one case however, I inherited a youth work team which had a middle-aged gentleman with significant learning difficulties. It wasn’t clear whether he was supposed to be a leader or fitted in because of his mental age. Unfortunately, his difficulties would sometime frustrate him and be expressed quite aggressively. After a while I discovered a significant cohort of young women who were, understandably, frightened of him and were staying away. It was a tough and controversial decision but I had to explain to the church leadership that any adults present in the youth group had to be there for the benefit of the young people, not for any benefit to themselves, and, bluntly, we needed to find another place for him within the fellowship. We were not a sort of benign dumping ground for unusual adults to try and find acceptance.

Sixthly: Look for creative ways to introduce people in leadership to your world of youth/children’s work. I once led a school’s work charity that did wonderful work in many local primary and secondary schools. At times I felt some tension with my trustees over how we approached ‘evangelism’ and after a while it dawned on me that whilst they were fantastically committed to the charity and all it stood for, nearly all of them had not actually been into a school for years. A significant gap had grown between their perception of what we did and what was actually possible in a modern school. I introduced a policy that any trustee should accompany one of our workers into a local school at least once every six months just to get a feel for what we did and what it was like. Anyone who has been into a really big, busy secondary school will, know just how frightening that can be with the sense of noise, bustle and activity. To be fair, they accepted the challenge and the results were fantastic, with them gaining a whole new insight and appreciation of just how skilled our workers were and what it was like to walk a tightrope of being in a secular school as a Christian but not overtly ‘proselytising’. This contributed in a major way to significant changes in our strategic approach over time, moving from a ‘proclamatory’ style of work to something more subtle, based on chaplaincy and Christian ‘presence’ in schools.

This approach need not be complicated. When did you last have a ‘meet the vicar’ session with your youth group? Although simple, this may need some setting up with both the ‘vicar’ and the young people being briefed. For example, ministers just need to be told to be authentic and be themselves. There are few things more painful than seeing a minister, out of his/her comfort zone and desperately trying to be ‘relevant’ to the young people. Look out for any obvious ‘banana skins’. I had one trustee whose name was Gayleen Smith. Traditionally, the first name is shortened to ‘Gay’. We had to explain to this lady in her seventh decade that we couldn’t take her into school and introduce her to the young people as ‘Gay Smith’. With huge grace she accepted our suggestion of a temporary name change.

I will finish with a gentle challenge. Having been in and out of hundreds of churches over many years, it is not unusual to find youth workers who accept their isolation within the life of the church and almost wear it as a badge of honour. It is easy to get into that mind set; ‘yeah, we are so radical, nobody understands us, we just have to get on with it.’ I am a huge believer in the value of church as one of the last truly multi-generational things left in our culture. It may take much effort to get your leadership on board but believe me, it will be worth it. Not only will the young people benefit but actually the whole church will be enriched.