This monthly column looks at God’s work in schools: in schools’ work, and children’s education as they think Christianly about what they study
One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt in 25 years of youth ministry is that my best ideas don’t matter. Neither do yours.
My name’s John Prockter, and if this were a court, I’d have to put my hand on my heart and admit my ego can sometimes get a little out of control. At times I think my strategy is probably the most effective, my delivery near perfect in tone and my ability to evaluate most likely second only to Amazon.
Another strength of mine (he said with a wry smile) is that I highly value networked relationships. I’ll often devote days to visiting other youth projects. My favourite experience is seeing peers in action with young people. You see, getting sucked into someone telling you how great their work is easy. But it’s not until you know how much someone loves their people that you realise the truth: “Your skill set doesn’t really matter when relationship is king.”
Let’s come back to my first statement: “My ideas don’t matter.” What I mean is that some of my best ideas have failed miserably over the years, whereas at other times, the right relationships have opened up opportunities that created a massive shift in the impact I’ve been able to have.
Consider the following three principles:
1. Devote your school’s ministry to a set of relational principles and hold your programme lightly.
I’ll never forget visiting a few projects in the early 2000s and discovering the need for Christians to get into the personal development space in education. We’re talking about helping young people overcome challenges, enabling them to evaluate their time and how to use it, and bringing their values in line with their behaviour.
Of course, all the work done in this field is massively beneficial. Still, when I found this new wave of schools’ work development, I threw myself in so hard that by the time I was ready to roll with a delivery method, I’d used a good deal of time and resources that ultimately just sat on the shelf.
Funnily enough, as I was becoming laser-focused on personal development, I almost missed another important trend that was gaining traction at the time: prayer spaces.
In the end, both the mentoring and prayer space strategies made a massive impact locally, but I would maintain the best work I did at that time was when I was listening and making time for individual young people.
“Your skill set doesn’t really matter when relationship is king”
2. Keep your expectations in check and remain open and ready to respond.
The truth about education is that most of us aren’t able to influence the direction a school is going. We can read, listen to the news and try to keep up to the best of our ability. Still, most of our job in schools’ ministry is simply to remain open and ready to respond to the needs presented to us.
Don’t get me wrong. We have agency enough to say no to anything, but when relationship is king, why wouldn’t we hold our programmes lightly and our hearts open enough to happily respond for the benefit of the staff and the young people we’re there to serve in the first place? Of course, we can always keep our mentoring skills and some creative resources in our back pocket when needed, but these things shouldn’t be all that’s on offer. If this is the case, it’s a poor offering, especially if you’re faced with a school that has to refocus attention suddenly.
A few years ago, my team and I were focused on resources for philosophy and ethics. We’d created a multi-faceted prayer space that gave young people experiences of different forms of prayer. We ran this resource several times for a few years. Then, one September, the RE teacher told us the curriculum now favoured theology and teaching on beliefs. It was quite a shock at the time, but we swallowed our pride and packed down our prayer space model to respond in the classroom.
3. Subvert expectation by being available.
The older I get, the more I’m convinced that all people need is my time. I was trained to run a thousand miles an hour in schools’ ministry when I was younger. I wasn’t actually known for listening well anyway, and it took me a long time to understand that my opinion wasn’t the only one available.
Now I’m well into my 40s, I’ve learnt to listen well, but I’m finding that people expect me to be too busy to give them any meaningful time. Someone will say: “I know you’re a busy man, but…” or “I imagine you’re too busy to talk.” I find it bizarre and so sad that this person in front of me may have found themselves on the rough end of someone else’s busyness.
Of course, there are times when workloads can be challenging to cope with. Still, for those of us called to minister to young people in schools, we must make sure our listening ears are fine-tuned for the staff and the young people, which might require you to slow down a bit.
These precious gatekeepers need us to be available in the quiet spaces between lessons. They need our loving attention in their preparation periods. What I’m saying here is that those human beings need you. They’ll expect you’re not interested or available, but do all you can to subvert that cultural norm and give them the gift of your time. You might be the only person who does.
Finally, let me come back to where we started in this column. I know that our programmes are impressive. I know we’ve got gifts that would astound the world. We’re the best presenters, the most impressive in so many ways. But when all is said and done, your worth as a youth and schools’ worker will be judged by the fruit of your relationships, your ability to respond to others’ needs and your availability for those you’re in post to serve. Believe me, it’ll be obvious if you love your programmes more than you love people.