Jenni Osborn believes that the stories we tell ourselves and our children will define the kind of ministry we have

The tradition of storytelling goes back to the dawn of humanity itself whether oral, pictorial, written word, or recorded audio-visual it is a well-known beautiful tradition that captivates and enthrals us. This is the reason why our faith revolves around and so often is shaped by stories, those that Jesus tells, the many other stories we find in the Bible, along with other stories told by so many through the ages.

Not only are stories vital to our faith, but also to our society, our culture. Everyone is a storyteller, not only those who write them down or speak them out loud to groups of people. Our understanding of the way the world works is based in story, ones we learn from a very young age. When young kids with autism or other neurodiversity’s have difficulty understanding about what to do in certain situations, we use a tool called ‘social stories’, which help to clarify social rules and norms that are clear to many but not to all.

Stories are a way of imparting information that uses a different part of the brain than a more factual approach. Telling a story activates an empathy response which means the information has more impact: many a fundraising campaign has been elevated because of the story behind that campaign. Comic Relief, Children in Need and others all know that stories of how lives have been changed by the money raised will prompt more people to give. I’m an avid Radio 2 listener and have just heard the launch of DIY SOS The Big Build for Children in Need this year. They played out the story of last year’s recipients, the Getaway Girls charity in Leeds, and I was in bits!


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The stories that we tell ourselves are amongst the most powerful, they have a significant impact for a few reasons:

  • We repeat them often
  • Our brains are wired to listen or take on board negative information and these are usually the stories that get repeated the most often
  • They are likely to be messages we heard as young people or children from our caregivers so they are familiar and habitual.

This obviously has implications for our own mental health but it also impacts our work if the stories we’re telling ourselves relate to previous failures and our role in them. I know how damaging this can be, because I’ve been in this position. Fortunately, we can reframe these experiences by giving ourselves grace and forgiveness for our part.

Stories help us make sense of the world around us. This is one reason why representation matters across the spectrum of human experience: gender, race, ability, success and failure. There’s much that I could say about this but not much of it is my story to tell! However, I will say, it is essential to tell stories of failure as much as it is to talk about success. Everyone, from business leaders like Steven Bartlett (Dragon’s Den), top athletes like Michael Jordan, to authors such as Agatha Christie agree, you can’t have one without the other. The film Inside Out did a great job of showing us how joy and sadness occur together and how important it is for us to hold the two seemingly opposing

emotions or labels in tension. Paradox, it turns out, is central to the human experience and can be held very well through storytelling.


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Challenges for youth workers and youth work

Story-telling in youth work is used in a variety of different ways, depending on the setting: face-to-face work with young people; in staff training, supervision and observation; in teaching and assessing those studying youth and community qualification; and for evaluating projects.

For youth workers in various contexts, it can be challenging to validate our work, sometimes over many years, with young people without telling stories. And yet collecting stories which demonstrate ‘success’ can be difficult. Not least because our measurements of success might be unclear or too one-dimensional. If our success meter is the number of young people attending a group, that’s easy to measure, but how effective is that as a measure of success? If it’s about young people coming to faith, well that’s much harder to measure for a variety of reasons including: how do we know; if the young person leaves our church or group at a later date (but maybe whilst still a teenager), does that affect our ‘success’ rate? What about if they seem to have committed to church but you discover they are still involved in other behaviours you cannot condone? What about if they leave faith altogether as an adult? Our input into teenage lives can have a long lasting amazingly positive impact but it might be one we will never see. As an example, I was employed as a youth worker in a secondary school around 20 years ago. I was there for seven years, trained to be a teacher and then left. In those seven years I came into contact with well over 1000 students, some more intensively than others and most of whom I completely lost contact with when I left. Then more recently, I was in a restaurant with my husband and the waiter seemed very familiar. When I eventually asked him about it, he said that I had worked with him during his time in secondary school. This had impacted him so much that he had gone on to do a degree in Youth and Community Work. I had honestly had no idea that my work with him had that kind of impact. And despite his degree, here he was working in a restaurant. Did that constitute a success? I like to think so, but I wonder at times.

Another young person I worked with over 25 years ago, yes I really am that old, has gone on to have her own family who are currently going through the chaos and heartache of mental health issues and neurodiversity that is undiagnosed but having a big impact on the whole family. They are a church going family and the church have been good in supporting them, but both teenagers in that family are struggling, significantly. Is this success?

My point here is that success is not an easy thing to pin down and should not be reduced to tick boxes or one-dimensional thinking.

Maybe, we need to look at this differently. What would happen if we applied an exploratory attitude towards the stories we tell as youth workers? So that an evaluation of a specific event, say a weekend residential, in which a youth worker might relate how the young people chose the venue, raised funds, organised the schedule including getting all the clearing up done. That they had made these decisions based on what the majority wanted, which had meant that one or two were not keen on coming. And that one young person had come along, not really engaged in anything very well, but on returning home had asked when the next one was going to be. The youth worker says they were surprised by this enthusiasm and remarked that they had not realised the young person had enjoyed themselves. And the young person’s response was that they had been incredibly anxious about being away from home, and stressed about eating food they had not prepared but that as they had reflected themselves, realised it had been a significant highlight of their year.

If we apply an exploratory approach, we might ask, how had the conflict been handled by the youth worker and other young people? How do we seek to fully understand the young person who had not engaged well, due to anxiety and stress? Not just to ‘do it differently next time’ although this reflective approach is certainly likely to help with that. But also, to try and put the young people right at the heart of our reflections.

This strikes me as a similar approach to youth work to the Jewish practice of Midrash, in biblical study: seeking to explore elements of the story which aren’t available to us directly. Usually, to make sense of something which seems contradictory or missing. One example, very well known in the Jewish tradition, is the story of Abraham smashing idols in his father’s shop which explains why God chose Abraham in particular to be a father of a new nation. The author Tanya Marlow uses a midrash approach for her book Those Who Wait: Finding God in disappointment, doubt and delay.

Success and failure are two sides of the same experience. What could happen if we stopped trying to measure our stories using this binary thinking? What if we allowed the story just to be?

Jesus does not teach us to be ‘successful’, he teaches us to be humble, to care for those under oppression and hardship, to love ourselves and our neighbour, among other things. My view is that the importance of stories in our work is not to laud success or commiserate over failure, but to bear witness to the humble, loving, caring experiences of youth workers and young people.


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Who I am

I am Jenni Osborn, long term supporter of young people and youth workers. I am a story keeper for many people of all ages, always privileged and sometimes surprised when people want to tell me their stories. Having spent 20+ years working with young people, the last few years have seen me concentrating more on supporting those who work with young people, through training, practice supervision and also writing. In 2021 I published a book ‘From Isolation to Community’ which told the stories of the pandemic from a variety of diverse youth work perspectives. I tried to demonstrate the good and the difficult work being done by youth workers from different parts of the UK; as we go through this series, I will be revisiting some of these organisations to find out how they are doing.

I am also married with two teenage boys, the youngest of whom I am home educating currently. I live on the sunny south coast, just one kilometre from the sea and I am a member of Gather Collective, a church which runs a community garden project.

I am passionate about writing as therapy, as information imparting and as storytelling. I hope that this will be a helpful series for you!

In the Afterword of Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz Weber tells the story of her friendship with Rachel and she finishes it by saying “Jesus invites us into a story bigger than ourselves and our imaginations, yet we all get to tell that story with the scandalous particularity of this moment and this place. We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God. May we never neglect that gift. May we never lose our love for telling the story.”