Recently I returned to the working world in a healthcare setting, doing needs assessment and organising support services for carers. It has been an amazing experience exploring what God is doing in the world beyond youth ministry, and recognising how the skills I learnt as a youth worker are useful in a multitude of contexts.
I admit that initially I found it tough to see what job I could do after 13 years of youth ministry and five years as a stay-at-home mum. So I have written these two articles about life after youth work for two reasons. Firstly because I figure this is not a unique experience and there may be some help I can offer to others looking into life after youth work. And secondly, as I have reflected on my experience and talked with others now in different roles, I think there are insights that are valuable for you as you work with young people, churches and communities just as we all once did.
My first article focused on who we are as youth ministers and the importance of investing in ourselves – our relationship with God, our character, our well-being – because young people will follow our example. This second article is about our pursuit of best practice in youth ministry, doing the best job we can by listening to the advice of those who have gone before us.
Joel Ward: I’m a Baptist minister at Bentley Baptist Church in Doncaster, a husband and father to four kids with 20 years’ experience in youth ministry.
Andy Campbell: I am a life coach, trainer in first aid for mental health, school governor and an advisor for a local Youth for Christ branch.
Simon Hall: I used to be a youth worker, teach other youth workers and write for this very magazine. I’m a Baptist minister and practical theology PhD candidate.
Robin Smith: I am the Director of Academic Studies at the Institute for Children, Youth and Mission (CYM).
Pete Davies: I started as a volunteer in youth ministry, then went to theological college and spent eleven years on staff with my wife as youth and children’s work coordinators in a largish church. Since then I have worked in a warehouse, in elderly care in the NHS and now I’m in construction.
Pete Telfer: I work for Reign Ministries as the degree campus leader.
Steve Fearns: I am a counsellor to adults, specialising in addiction.
John Hawksworth: I have worked as a church-based youth worker, in various roles in Youth for Christ and currently work in the local ministries team supporting our centres across Britain. I also lecture at Cliff College and am involved with Spring Harvest as a youth programme team leader.
Dan Waspe: Together with my wife and four children (one of whom we’re currently long-term fostering), I have been living in South Africa working with African leaders and local communities where the most vulnerable children live.
Alice Nunn: I’m married and have three children. I trained on the Oasis youth work and ministry course before working in different areas of the UK, in different contexts. Now we are officers in the Salvation Army leading the work in Jersey.
Nem Palmer: I grew up in south-west Wales and trained as a youth worker in London. I then spent eight years working as a youth worker both in church and for the local council youth service. For the last seven years I’ve been living and working in Italy with the mission organisation, Operation Mobilisation.
I asked my contributors these four questions:
- Tell me a story from your time as a youth worker that has shaped the way you approach your role now.
- From the position you are now in, what one piece of advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
- If you had your time as a youth worker again, is there anything you would do in a radically different way? For instance, in terms of how you did evangelism, pastoral care or the way you used the Bible?
- What do you still love about youth work?
Advising your 20-year-old self
Pete Telfer encourages us with these words: “Love Jesus, define and live by your values and make disciples who do the same.” In church youth work, Jesus leads us. In life after youth work, Jesus leads us, and we must give priority to knowing him and learning his way of love so we can love everyone around us, whatever work we do.
It’s not easy being a church youth worker at any age, but being a young youth worker has its own challenges. Nem Palmer reflects: “I think as younger people we have the tendency to compare ourselves with others doing the same role. While it’s great to be able to learn from others and share experiences, we all work depending on our gifting and ability. I think I would tell myself to be more confident in my own skills and abilities and focus on developing those.” And alongside our professional development Dan Waspe encourages us to focus on our integrity: “Prioritise your character! Do the hard work of making sure there isn’t a big gap between the ‘you’ that your young people see, and the real ‘you’.” As a young youth worker myself, I needed to hear this advice and to understand that, in the words of Simon Hall: “it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it” (see Galatians 5:22-23).
Experience can give perspective and Steve Fearns advises: “Faith in Jesus is not as binary and as narrow as you think – keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to get things wrong.” I know God has surprised me several times with his work in the world. There is a risk that our confidence in Jesus becomes arrogance in our own understanding of the gospel, which may in turn undermine our witness and our work.
Great work with young people, with volunteer teams and on strategy is not a one-person task and John Hawkesworth suggests that we “gather a great team, invest in leaders. Don’t try to do everything yourself – recognise your own gifts and strengths and be realistic about your areas of weakness, then gather people who can complement your weaker areas”. And while faithfully serving God in youth ministry, let us not create an idol of this work, but note Pete Davies’ advice: “Don’t be afraid to change career from the ‘pinnacle’ of full-time Christian work. It doesn’t have to be a retrograde step. It doesn’t mean you have failed. It doesn’t mean what you are doing is any less worthy.”
If you had your time again…
John Hawksworth wrote: “I would seek to be more intentional with a mentoring system. I would also seek to establish regular social action projects to help young people care, own and be aware of issues in their community.” I feel the same, I would also have sought to practise youth ministry with a trauma-informed approach. Pastoral care is a powerful witness to the world as Jesus says in John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” If I were to have my time again I would seek to do a better job at this.
I can also relate to Steve Fearns’ reflection: “I would never be so preachy or judgemental. I cringe at some memories I have of conversations I had with young people.” Constructive critique can make us better youth workers and better witnesses. While uncomfortable, we know this process is worthwhile.
Alice Nunn recognises this in her reflection: “When I started out as a youth worker within a church I was quite young. My theological understanding was developing and at the time I felt so young in my faith. I wish I’d had the confidence back then to stand up for what I believed and pushed away those ideas of inferiority due to age. An important issue that particularly stood out for me was around the importance of inclusion within the church. If I had my time again, I would do more to voice my opinions and beliefs more confidently. Genuine inclusion is a subject we all need to engage with, and we must keep striving for a safe environment where people of all ages feel able to share their beliefs and opinions. There are many more mistakes I have made but they are also the things that I have learnt the most from.”
Courageous critique is a skill I want to develop in order to pursue my full potential in partnership with God – to learn the most I can and to serve the best I can – but it’s not comfortable. These words from Joel Ward and Pete Davies may be challenging for us as we reflect on how to do youth ministry well: “I think that I spent too long focused on attractional ministry – ‘big event’ stuff that was high quality and attracted loads of young people, but resulted in a minority becoming lifelong disciples, even if we did see a lot of ‘hands in the air’ at response time! They might have been saved, but that didn’t mean they were transformed. I learnt the hard way when some of them walked away. We developed strategies to do better, but I wish it hadn’t taken so long.” says Joel.
Pete Davies reflects: “In my opinion, much of the church evangelism I was involved in was based around deception. We would create projects, initiatives and events, pretend we were doing something really cool or that we really cared about young people and then hit the kids with the gospel, sometimes to the point of making them hate the good news they had been beaten with again and again and again. Then we’d get all upset that our hard work, money and effort hadn’t been gratefully embraced or that kids didn’t come to Christ in their droves. I think some of the best work we did with older teens was when we simply encouraged people to love, care and pray for the people who were already their friends and not see them as a project.”
How do we play the long game in youth ministry and play it well? How are we helping young people discover and follow Jesus now and for every stage of their lives? And how are we doing this with integrity, ensuring that our work is not spiritually abusive? When youth ministry, like church, is done well it’s incredibly beautiful – awesome even – but when it’s done badly it can be very damaging to everyone involved.
While pursuing best practice I hold tightly to the words of God to the apostle Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). I remember that the God who loves me gave me a great youth worker, and continues to inspire me as I discover more of his work in the world.
What do you still love?
I still love how God works through youth work and ministry, and I hope you do too. I leave you with some responses to my last question: “What do you still love about youth work?”
“Young people – their honesty, openness and fun.” Dan Waspe
“I love the creativity of young people when they are given the chance to lead.” Simon Hall
“There is nothing greater than seeing a young person start to believe in their own potential and recognise the place they have in the world.” Andy Campbell
“It’s always evolving.” John Hawksworth
“Walking alongside young people during the challenging years as they question, grow and have the opportunity to develop positive habits that can see them through into the years to come.” Nem Palmer
“There is nothing like watching the love, power, presence and purpose of Jesus bringing new life and hope to a young person! I particularly love it when young people respond to God’s love, help and healing by becoming his agents for change, bringing hope and transformation to the world as his gifted disciples.” Joel Ward
“Young people challenge us as a Church, with our place in the world. They live life to the full and stretch my faith every time I speak with them.” Robin Smith
“I don’t love youth work as I don’t do it anymore, but I still love the idea of people doing it! And I do appreciate what I learnt when I was doing it.” Steve Fearns
I know it’s a few years old, but I love the 24-7 prayer film, The Vision. I love it because, as Steve’s comment suggests, it reminds me that the vision is not youth ministry, it’s Jesus. Whatever I do, I will do for him and with him, and wherever I go, he is already there and at work.
CLAIRE FARLEY has worked with young people at risk of exclusion from school, young carers and young people with additional learning needs, all from a variety of backgrounds in the UK. She now lives in Perth, Western Australia.