Jenni Osborn believes that acknowledging when a ministry is no longer fulfilling its God-given aim is an important part of Christian service
If you’ve done any youth work training, or indeed any training aimed at those working with people, you’ll have come across Belbin’s Team Roles. Meredith Belbin’s research shows that the most successful teams are made up of a mix of diverse skills and behaviours. There are nine different team roles which are required for a team to function well. These are Resource Investigator, Teamworker and Co-ordinator (the Social roles); Plant, Monitor Evaluator and Specialist (the Thinking roles), and Shaper, Implementer and Completer Finisher (the Action or Task roles). You can find out more about these online, there is a plethora of material available. For this article I want to consider the role of Completer Finisher, Belbin marks it as an action or task role, which suggests it is specifically task orientated. The role is most effectively used at the end of tasks to polish and scrutinise the work for errors, subjecting it to the highest standards of quality control. There are Strengths: Painstaking, conscientious, anxious. Searches out errors. Polishes and perfects. Alongside allowable weaknesses: Can be inclined to worry unduly, and reluctant to delegate. However, I also think that it’s a particular skill, or even a gifting, to understand how and when to finish a ministry that has been going for a long time, or even one that is fairly new.
There are many longstanding youth ministries all over the UK who are still going strong, both nationally and locally. There are also those which have to come to an end, for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. The best way to do it is to be strategic about it: plan for the wrapping up of contracts, and projects; plan for the distribution of materials and resources that have been accumulated; plan the communication with all the agencies involved, including signposting other organisations who may be able to assist. The worst way to end a project or organisation is by ignoring the problems which may be signalling a time to close and assuming that things will turn out alright in the end. There’s a significant difference between trusting God for future and assuming that this means success for your organisation! Of course, there are times when God does ask us to hold on through lean times and trust Him, there are other times when He asks us to have the courage to close down a beloved institution or indeed rethink a new idea.
When the Longstanding Ministry isn’t Working
I was working for a local schools work organisation about 15 years ago, which had been funded by local churches and affiliated with Scripture Union for over 20 years at the time. It was a much loved organisation, by schools and the local church, which had undergone several changes of staff and volunteers over the years. I had been there 3 years when a significant shift in the trustee base happened and it was becoming clear that more change was on its way: fewer schools were inviting us in for lunchtime clubs or lessons; we had a dwindling number of volunteers to keep these projects going; and the gap year programme, which had been successful previously, had proved impossible to recruit for. When I began working there was 4 of us on the staff team, this had reduced to 2 and we were both sure that radical change was needed. The trustees eventually agreed with us and began the process of closing down the charity. It was painful, but thankfully we were given a year to wrap things up so it didn’t feel like a shock.
For me personally it was the beginning of some radical thinking about the need for endings as well as beginnings. I felt then, and still feel similarly, that we tend to place a lot of emphasis on beginning something new, without necessarily thinking about the ending. The assumption is often that the project will continue going, which is not always the case.
When the New Thing Doesn’t Work
I asked a friend of mine about a project he had worked on recently which had not worked out the way he and his team had envisaged. John has worked for Bridgenorth Youth and Schools Project which is a project based in Telford. They run schools work projects as well as a youth centre known as The Bridge and in 2021 they decided that they would do some research to find out what else young people in the area wanted, with a view to providing it. The aim was to hear from those they didn’t already know, and to ensure they made the young people’s ideas absolutely central. It was a decision backed by the Trust (known as The Bridgenorth Dry Bar Trust) and put into action by John and his team.
This initially involved talking to young people who were out and about after the last lockdown in the spring of 2021, and then again in the autumn of that same year. A picture began to emerge of a space that young people wanted, where they could go and hang out and not be told that they were a nuisance. At the time they were tending to hang about between the chip shop and a kebab shop in town, no matter what the weather. This was during the time period when meeting outdoors was about all that could be done, and after a long time of not being able to meet up, young people were really keen to hang out. However, they were not keen on having any adults around. What they were describing was a grown up hangout café style space, where they wouldn’t be badgered by younger kids, in reality, John tells me, they were describing The Bridge building, without him or his team in it.
Some of them did casually use The Bridge, but in the main the young people the team spoke to were those who didn’t want the uniform clubs, or any real structured space. They didn’t want to be asked about what was going on in their lives, they just wanted to hang out. So, armed with this feedback from a whole new demographic of young people to those who the team had regular contact with, they went into their usual secondary schools to find out whether these young people agreed. And they did. The young people in schools were really keen for a space that felt safe and secure, somewhere that really supported their journey with mental health.
Having this confirmation from young people who knew the team felt like the springboard to begin. So they applied for funding from their county council, and began the work. They were aiming to create a café space within their existing centre; they employed a coordinator and a mentor; they ran a competition in the schools to name the café and to decide which quotes should go up on the walls. There was an award ceremony in the schools and an unveiling of the name: The Calm Café. It would be a Saturday café, with a library, no youth workers, cheap food, feel like a coffee shop – Costa or Starbucks – and no young kids.
The research and conversations with young people had begun in spring 2021, by winter 2021-22 the work was underway and they opened in the spring of 2022.
They had gone to talk to those young people they wanted to reach; they had listened carefully to what they said; they had tested it with other groups; they had put together funding bids and thought carefully about how to put the plan into action. In many ways it was textbook youth work project creation.
John and the team at The Bridgnorth Dry Bar Trust are good at tracking the statistics which drive the various projects they run. Which meant that he was able to tell me that in the year which the café was open for they had only 25 customers. It was a complete dud.
As the year progressed the team leafleted the schools; they employed teenagers to work there along with the café manager; and decided at one point to invite families in too as the café was open and running but hadn’t been attracting the teenagers but the numbers didn’t go up.
It’s important to make it clear that while this was happening, The Bridge itself was thriving. In the same period of time they had 159 individual young people attending their Tuesday and Friday groups, with 49 of those attending both sessions. It was the café itself which failed to pull young people in, not the centre itself. Early in 2023 the plug was pulled. The mentor they had employed had gone on Maternity leave and not been replaced, the café manager had become thoroughly demoralised after a year of making sure there was plenty of food available each Saturday, only to have to give it away for free in the week that followed to stop it being thrown away.
So, what had happened?
It’s always valuable to reflect on the work we do and this is never as important as when things haven’t gone the way we envisaged, particularly when that involves failure. In considering where things went wrong here, John and I talked about a number of issues:
In timeframe when the research was being carried out, the post-pandemic restrictions were lifting and changing almost week by week. This could have had an influence on the young people’s perceptions of wanting a space that was consistently theirs. Once The Calm Café was actually open, more-or-less all the restrictions had been lifted so perhaps the need was not there any longer.
Then there was also the timing from the first conversations to the opening of the café, maybe had the team decided to get a café style space open quickly, using the resources they already had it might have seen more people engaging. When you’ve been in youth work for a while you begin to notice that there is a natural ebb and flow of young people and their needs and desires shift quickly. A year can feel like a long time in these circumstances.
The team from Bridgnorth Youth and Schools Project are obviously well known in schools and across the town, with good connections in many spaces. Extending this out to young people who they were not already working with was a risk.
Sometimes a well-researched project is a hit, and sometimes it’s a miss! John reflects too that although he led the research and the conversations with young people, it was someone else, the Café Manager who actually had the task of delivering the project. This is likely to have impacted the dynamic, even if only subtly.
What is the outcome and what might be learned?
The final outcome, for now, is that The Bridge centre has a newly refurbed café space which the trustees have decided will be open everyday after school, providing food and drink to young people coming out of school. The vision has extended from opening once a week on a Saturday to be open 5 days a week.
It’s good to accept that while the initial vision might be for a specific group of young people, it maybe that it’s future young people who will benefit. That while we might get it wrong in the short term, we can recognise that even amidst seeming failure no experience is ever wasted. There are always things to be learned about ourselves, about the measures we use for success and also, often, about processes and transferable skills which can help us at some other point.
Ultimately, as human beings we don’t really like change, or deviation from our own plans. When we put our faith in something bigger than us, we have to let go of any illusion of control and trust that change will lead to something different. Sometimes, like in the example of The Calm Café, we get to see the new thing that God is doing. Other times, like the schools work organisation closing down, we don’t see it, but we hold onto the bigger promise that God is making all things new!