Loyd Harp reflects on his time in the UK and the move back to his home nation
In 2008, we heard the call to move to England to a village I had been previously unaware of, to continue my journey in youth ministry and to share Jesus with young people in a new land. So, my wife and I sold almost everything we owned (granted, it wasn’t much) and packed up our two children (aged five and four) to relocate to Rudgwick in West Sussex. We initially committed to three years, which at the time, seemed like a very long time.
However, a year into it, we realised we were just getting started. We were working hard to build relationships in the village with teen and adult alike and we were starting to see some momentum building in our youth work – both in our parish church and also in the youth centre we ran just a mile down the road. The thought of leaving that all behind at the end of three years was just too much. So what started out as a three-year commitment turned into a 13-year adventure of a lifetime! While we arrived in September of 2008 as a family of four, we left in 2021 as a family of five, our youngest nearly twelve when we returned to the United States just as COVID restrictions were beginning to loosen.
It’s not overstating it to say that we enjoyed every minute. Before arriving in the UK, I’d worked for a megachurch in a large city, done schools’ work in a suburban Christian school, done inner-city work with university students and served as a youth pastor in a small university town. Each of these settings were remarkably different, helping to set the stage for the next phase of ministry with young people.
Megachurch to village church
Our own journey to a new country, I believe, helped to prepare us for the much-needed contextualisation in ministry. Not only were we having to adapt to new ways of life, driving on a different side of the road and living in a village where neighbours knew everything about you before you even had a chance to tell them, we also had to adapt to new ways of doing youth ministry. My previous post had been in a megachurch, with a decided focus on big events to draw young people.
That kind of approach wouldn’t work in a rural village. I had to start smaller…much smaller. Our ministry in Sussex gained more traction by talking with parents at the school gate, inviting young people in for cups of tea or hot chocolate or initiating snowball fights at the local park. It might sound like a glorious overstatement, but ministry in rural Sussex had to be centred on relationships. Getting to know the people – their hopes, fears, needs, and dreams – might give me a little insight on how to do youth ministry.
Fast forward a few years and I’m now back in an urban setting, this time at a mid-sized community church in a poor neighbourhood. However, the emphasis on relationships is still incredibly relevant. I work for a church and a non-profit charity that has an incredible amount of diversity, both racially, ethnically and socio-economically.
In a word, our church is in ‘the hood’. What would a white guy that lived the last 13 years in a posh village have to say that would contribute to their lives in any meaningful way? My new supervisor gave me a wonderful piece of advice: “Loyd, don’t make these kids any promises you can’t keep. Just be real with them. Take your time and get to know them.” Almost two years later and I’m still trying to live by those words.
Getting into the context
In Rudgwick, I remember planning an event that no one came to. It was supposed to be a Mexican dinner fiesta. We made food. We waited. No one turned up. We learned a lot that night. No one is going to come to your event if they don’t know you, or want to get to know you. Back up and start over.
Fortunately, we were able to build off the work of the previous youth worker. So when we opened the doors of the youth club, we had around a dozen teens on the very first night. I was astounded! Why did they come to the youth club when they wouldn’t come to the Mexican dinner party? They remembered Brett, the previous youth worker. They had trusted him. Even though he’d been gone for months, he was ‘lending his trust’ to me so that we could build our youth work and in a way carry on that legacy.
While the need for localised contextualisation was obvious to us as outsiders, I feel that it often gets left out of a lot of ministry planning. We knew that moving from a large city in the United States to a small village in the south of England would require massive shifts in our ministry approach.
I had to assume that I knew nothing about youth ministry, and I was right! But what about those who move to a village or town ten miles down the road? Do they still need to contextualise? I give a resounding yes! Exegete the scriptures; exegete the culture. Even when the culture is remarkably similar to where you’ve come from, you still need to do the hard work of getting to know the area, the people, the stories, and so forth.
Policies and procedures
In addition to the merits of contextualisation on the micro-level, and the strength of relationships, I also (somewhat strangely) developed an appreciation for policies and procedures. I remember the first time I was asked to create a risk assessment. I’d never heard of the term! When it was explained to me, I was flabbergasted. You mean you want me to think of everything that could possibly go wrong and develop a plan for it?! I mean, theoretically, lightning could strike a tent while we’re camping or a horse could break out of its stable and trample a few Year-7s to death.
After I got over the initial shock, I attempted my first risk assessment. Fortunately, I was able to pattern mine after someone else’s. And then I patterned each successive one after the previous one, each time changing relevant details, updating bits of information that I’d learned the time before. Over time I learned the beauty of a well-written risk assessment.
Before this process, I’d never stopped to think about where the nearest hospital was, should we ever need to take a young person (clue: we did need to take that trip when a young person cracked a rib at the bottom of a well-intentioned bundle). I hadn’t thought thoroughly through how to talk to young people about stranger danger (our youth centre was in a public area with lots of green space all around it, often used by the general public).
It wasn’t just risk assessments that I learned to appreciate, but the general English fondness for policies – particularly those around safeguarding, and health and safety. We had policies about when and how I could give lifts to young people in my car, who could communicate with me by phone or text, how and when it was appropriate to use social media in youth work, and of course, always involving parents in these scenarios and more.
I learned the beauty of seeing a mentor regularly, who ministered outside my local context. I drove 20 miles each way a couple of times a month to chat, pray and process what was going on in my ministry, and more importantly in my heart. I learned that what some people call ‘bureaucracy’ was actually just good sense. And accountability.
We’ve been in Indianapolis just 20 months now, and sadly have gone through a very painful leadership change in our church. Our former pastor had been engaging in an inappropriate relationship for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the totality of the dysfunction.
I remember asking him, not long after I started work here: “Where does a church employee go if they have a problem, or need to talk to someone, or if they have any kind of grievance?” To my English friends, this probably sounds like a very common-sense question. My former pastor replied: “That’s a really good question, and I could understand why you would ask that…but you need to understand that our culture here is very safe.” I was puzzled.
He clearly didn’t have an answer. There was no policy. No ‘safe person’ we could speak to if needed. I wondered if I was hypersensitive, having come from a land that loved policies and safeguarding. I didn’t press the issue. Just a year later our church family is distraught at the betrayal we were undergoing.
On another occasion I remember gently challenging him as a friend: “Brother, you’re working seven days a week. When are you taking time off?” Again, I got a muttered, half-answer. As we continue to reflect on our time with a man that we loved, but who hurt us deeply, we reflect on the leadership culture that was in place in the church: one in which there was a distinct lack of anything resembling policy.
We could delve deeper into workaholism, blurred lines and a general lack of accountability, but I don’t want to labour the point. I never thought I’d come to a place in my life where I’d say I want more policies, but here we are. Well-written policies serve to protect, not to hinder.
What have I learned?
I was asked to reflect on my journey from serving 13 years in England and then returning to the United States. What lessons would I like to bring with me, and what would I want to leave behind? What I learned is that there is much I would like to bring with me, and not much I’d like to forget. Our time in the UK was immensely fruitful, and thoroughly enjoyable. I want to remember it exactly like that.