What makes an ideal youth worker ideal? What ingredients do you need to add to the mix? What specific traits and skills should we be developing to fill holes in our youth worker template?
This was a brilliant question posed to me in a training session this morning. I’m going to attempt to summarise my answer here.
There are several tiers to an ‘ideal’ youth worker starting with the nonnegotiable and working down to specific specialised skills. All of these should be developing, growing and organic.
We all love diagrams right? Here’s one I made earlier.
There are no ideal youth workers, we all know this, and every youthworker will be different depending on context. However I feel these principles are mostly transferable. They are the basis for what I expect from myself and my teams. They also form the framework of my interview process.
Love For God & Young People
At the top of the pyramid are the most important: a love for God and a love for young people – and a keen flow between these two. If you don’t have these you’re following the wrong trail.
Second we see the key traits of longevity; faithfulness, a commitment to God, people, projects and ministry life; availability, a – within safe boundaries(!) – accessibility to people and projects; and teachability – a proactive willingness to learn and grow that is accountable and open. Full post on this here.
Commitment to …
This tier contains the essential faith-driven lifestyle commitments: An ever growing passion for reading the bible, prayer and worship personally and within community.
Here we see specific skills that will be useful regularly in all kinds of youth work. Listening skills are always valuable, as is the ability to think and problem solve creatively. A growing theological understanding is also important, alongside learning different ways to communicate this understanding. Finally it’s key that every youth leader is trained in best safeguarding practice.
The final tier includes the main areas where a youth leader should think about specialising. Not all of these will be essential to every youth worker.
Relational practice can be developed in many ways, but comes down to forming lasting, impressionable bonds with young people. Activity basis is taking specific gifts, talents and passions that you have and developing them in ministry contexts, for instance sport, music, drama, debate or knitting.
Inclusivity is always important but will rely on your context. This may include working alongside various ages, social and health difficulties, specific cultures or members of the LGBT community. Similar to this is working with those with different learning styles; key if you are doing lots of communication work and schools projects.
Parental support is particularly valuable if you’re doing church-based ministry as family worship is always the end goal. Finally management is vital if you’re overseeing projects and people.
This last tier is always the least important and is always the area that changes most throughout your youth work experience.
How to apply this in team management
These five tiers should form the basis of in house growth and training.
You should have the top two tiers sown solidly into the regular fabric of your projects, ministry and recruitment process.
The third tier is checked up on through community involvement (generally) and through regular individual supervision sessions (specifically). I try to do individual supervision in various ways once every 6 months, and team supervision annually.
The last two tiers should form the basis of group training that you run and attend. The top of these should be three-line-whip sessions for the whole team with regular annual repeats, and training for the last should be made available to those who want it.
Health Caution: Long and boring. If you’re interested in writing a yw strat, don’t know where to start but really don’t want to read though the 2-hour-knocked-out-nonsense below then get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Writing youth project strategy can be flippin hard work! I’ve been involved with writing about a dozen now and they’re all remarkably different. I don’t know what the best, most formal or most recognisable way into it is but I’ll have a stab here.
Remember that you the youth pastor control the flow, but you need input from young people, volunteers, parents, teachers and church leaders to make a strategy viable. Otherwise you’ve got a cool document that hardly anyone will read and even less will follow.
What you’re looking for in a good strategy document is an easy, quotable and motivational top sheet backed up with a larger document that has a smooth flow from data, to values, to the whats and hows and whens. It should always end, though with a sense of openness and accountability.
There tends to be four main stages in bobbing together a strategy for youth work:
1. Research & Observation (with Results)
2. Values, Aims, Mission and Purposes
3. Implementation and Timelines
4. Review, Success Measures and Accountability
Each of these four stages needs to be structured enough so to be able to see clearly what’s happening, make changes and celebrate measurable positive change, but also organic and flexible enough to leave room for the motion of the Holy Spirit and the general messiness of people’s lives. And obviously each stage needs a good soaking in and checking against the Bible.
This works like the classic hourglass… at the top you gather as much information as is possible without prejudice, you then zoom in at the middle by finding a simple communicable structure to process that data. Finally you spread out again at the end by implementation in the real world. A good strategy, like a good hourglass, doesn’t exclude or force change upon anything within it – it just slows things down enough to be viewed and processed properly.
Before digging into this any further, we must remember what the sand in inside the hourglass is: it is real people with real lives living in real rebellion or real relationship with God. As much as we sink into the often analytical world of strategy, we must never make the mistake of processing people as simply objects or numbers.
1. Research and Observation (with Results)
This all starts as you’d expect, by gathering data. I will do (and have already done a really basically here) more posts on how to do this. What we’re basically talking about is lots of interviews, group sessions, community survey projects and opinion gathering and observation noting while looking closely and honestly at what resources you have and what might become available. Good stewardship!
A good basic template is SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Strengths and Weaknesses are what in your internal preexisting project, place or resources are good and need to be kept or bad and need to be rejected/changed. Opportunities and Threats are external – out of your control – things could help or hinder the strengths of weaknesses with some thought or lack of.
It’s important to go broad and deep here, especially talking with lots of different people. This has the very important added benefits of making connections and making sure people feel heard. If they are not at this stage you can guarantee you won’t get them on board later!
It’s important to write up your findings; not in too much indecipherable detail, but in ways that naturally lead you to your values, aims and implementation. It’s far easier to answer the question ‘why didn’t you open a bigger youth group?’ when you’ve got data that says ‘we’ve got no volunteers!’
2. Values, Aims, Mission and Purposes
It’s likely that your data should start to reveal patterns. Maybe you’re in an area with open links with schools and you have able Christian teachers in your church? So developing schools’ mission might be right up your street! Or perhaps you’ve got a youth group that’s already thriving, but growing older and you’ve got no other volunteers stepping up? In which case you’ve probably got a training ground for young leaders and a youth mentoring project.
The big discussion here is what has you data told you that 1. you care about and 2. God is resourcing you for. What keeps coming up, what is available, what are the big needs in your area, what can you uniquely offer? These form your values. Values are what you care about, not what you are going to do about it. Your values are passive ‘we care about this’ or ‘we believe God has called us to that’ statements.
I usually have between 10 – 30 short value statements if that is of any use?
The next step is your aims. Still staying away from the specifics or implementation you start to group values together somewhat and change them to active language. For instance, if you have these three values:
- ‘We care about the increased homelessness of young people on our streets’
- ‘We’re passionate about young people taking a stand against injustice’
- ‘Our heart breaks for the lack of specific community support for poor young people’
Then bringing them together an aim might be:
- ‘We aim to equip our young people to bring support and care to other young people more needy than themselves’
Easy see? You should probably end up with far less aims than values. It’s worth saying that you will feel guilty if certain things don’t come up – don’t! Ephesians 2:10 is very clear that God has prepared good works for each of us to do, without treading on each others toes or suffering burnout. As long as ‘worship Jesus’ and ‘preach the Gospel’ is clearly in there somewhere!
Your aims should then be simplified and run together into a few short paragraphs, or even just one. This is your mission, what you are striving to thrive at! It’s not forsaking all other tasks, but it is an aim driven, value soaked war-song that comes straight from the information you gathered and meeting head on the needs you discovered. It’s specific, it’s personal and it’s powerful.
This is a great midway checkup to see how you’re doing. Purpose is the why to mission’s what. Why is it you believe that you are here to do this? Are you in line with the Bible and with your governing body (church/charity)?
The Rick Warren Purpose Driven stuff says we should derive all we do from 5 areas, namely worship, mission, ministry, prayer and fellowship. It’s a reasonably good check. Purpose for me is where we have dialogue with the Bible and the governing body that brings explicit language in from both. Write a couple of small paragraphs on this too – or work it into your mission statement.
3. Implementation and Timelines
Now for the fun bit! You know your resources and what you do well, you know what to look out for, you’ve got a handle on your values and passions, you know actively what you’re aiming to accomplish, you have a clear mission and purpose – so what are you going to do? Let’s mix the ingredients!
This has always been the easiest, funnest and most creative part. The question is how are you going to do what’s in your mission and aims? What changes are you going to make to your project(s) or what new project(s) are you going to start?
It may be worth looking at a few youth ministry models to get some ideas and see what best fits with where you’re at – and to make sure you’re not falling into any pitfalls like segregating young people away from the rest of the church.
Here’s some good questions to consider when starting new / changing existing projects:
– Are you (or someone you are connecting with) leading young people on a journey that includes ministry, mission, fellowship, prayer and worship?
– Are you developing room for young people to grow as servants and leaders or each other?
– Are you seeking to integrate them into the lives of the church community?
– Are you starting with people or obsessing over places?
– Are you thinking about where young people are or scheming over where you want them to come?
– Are you starting with the faithful core or pandering to the fledgling fringe?
With these in mind, there are no limits to what you could do. I’ve run everything from a quirky sport related alpha courses, to tea drinking clubs, to regular night time walks, to high street youth cafes, to camps, to mentoring programs, to fire building workshops. Go for whatever works with your strategy so far!
Mostly these ideas will come directly from the discussion’s you’ve already had. Try as you might to avoid them, lots of ideas will have already floated around your conversations and obvious things will have surfaced. Other than that I can’t really help you! There are no real rules with this – have fun and come up with something cool.
A good reminder here is that you don’t drop what you’ve learned in the first half of the process. I’ve seen a couple of groups that I’ve walked through these parts come up with ideas completely off kilter from their findings… it was just a pet project they really wanted to do which they tried (and failed) to shoehorn in.
Remember when writing up project ideas to be broad enough so there is room for volunteers to adapt and take ownership, but specific enough to show how they flow from your values and aims and how they are meeting needs and maximising on your strengths while stewarding resources.
At this point – if you so wanted – you could write a neat and tidy ‘Vision Casting Statement’ drawn from the needs, values, aims, mission, purpose and implementation parts so far. This is a great thing to go on a top sheet, communicate to a church and bob in a wee little frame for the youth office!
It’s important to set realistic goals that allow you space and time to gather resources to start things out and build momentum. If you’re planning on starting a funnel model set of projects for instance, then you’ll need tie to build credibility with the crowds you haven’t met yet and you’ll need time to develop something worthwhile for them to come to.
I usually have a three year strategy that gets tweaked in a big way annually and revisited somewhat every 6 months, so all my implementation is healthily spread out within that kind of time-frame.
Remember to leave room not just for implementation, but also for selling the strategy to trustees, congregations, parents and young people – and also for recruiting and training volunteers, and supervising them properly – and finally for collecting and stewarding resources.
4. Review, Success Measures and Accountability
Many in the United States of America Marine Corps have adopted the motto, ‘Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.’ This is at the heart of review and accountability.
For a strategy to still be successful in ten years time it must adapt constantly to overcome problems and changes that culture and the projects will face. A process for accountability and review needs to be in place.
John Losey, who wrote the immensely helpful ‘Experiential Youth Ministry’ handbooks talks about strategy as a praxis in three parts; theory, action and reflection. Reflection he breaks up further into ‘reflect -> re-view -> inform -> apply. I.e. You reflect on the success of a project, you review it and make changes, you communicate this to others then implement them. Then you do it all over again! He calls it “The Amazing Learning Loop of Depth”, which I always misread as the Amazing Loop of Death, but never-mind.
We need to set a time to go over what we’ve decided strategically and tweak and adapt and improvise. Usually I do this every 6 months, then go over the basics of the research values and aims every year.
To do this properly, we need to decide how we’re going to measure success. This is always a trixy little topic in youth-work circles as we’ve all heard that ‘its not about numbers’ so much that we’re even getting afraid of doing headcounts – awkward when you start loosing young people on trips to the zoo!
How you measure success will depend on your aims and mission. If it’s your mission to make connections with a school and establish a Christian Union there then success will depend on whether or not you made significant headway with that in the time allotted. If your mission is to see each of your young people bring a friend to Jesus than success will be based on how you’ve taught, supported and worked with them on that… not on their success at doing so. If your mission is to start a crowd event, then keeping a check on numbers (and particularly returning numbers) will be important.
The main thing to say here is do write down specifically what you want to achieve so that you can check it specifically at review time. Even if it is just ‘seeing young people grow deeper as disciples’ – then you will be able to list the fruit and evidence of this happening.
Not being successful is not a problem necessarily, its just motivation to make some changes and keep moving forward. Improvise, adapt and overcome!
Final section is to make sure this document is accountable and available. It should at least be available to be read by church members, leaders, parents, team and young people. However, to get other objective thoughts, send it to people you trust outside your circles to get their feedback. Other youth leaders, pastors and friends who might have spotted something from being outside the circles and discussions that you all missed by being immersed in them – wood for trees jumps to mind!
I sat down with a couple of books and a bunch of old notes and started writing about two hours ago. It might be that no-one ever reads this and it might be that plenty more (and more accessible) articles and books do a better job. John Losey jumps to mind again!
Maybe though there is some helpful stuff in here – at least it’s come from practice and I’ve seen it work.
If you go this far… well done! And God bless you loads. Also – if you got this far you’re probably thinking about writing a youth strategy yourself (or you just have nothing better to do… sorry!). If so, get in touch. I’m sure I’ll be more use in person and contextual having a chat than trying to squeeze ten years worth of thoughts into a general 2500 word post! I’m always happy to chat with youthworkers and people passionate about young people! email@example.com
Do we really need another youth event? – I know they’re fun (if you’re an extrovert) and they’re cool (if you’re a faux-hipster) and an ego-bump (if you’re a youthworker) and they look like you’re doing something (if you’re a trustee) – but do we really need them?
A big flash-bang-wallop youth crowd event is something like a rite of passage for a youth worker: ‘you just haven’t made it until you’ve done one!’ You haven’t properly broke in your adrenaline-soaked, caffeine-fueled, slightly-demented Youthworker brain until you have. And it needs to be big – with big names and people and broken guitar strings and florescent jackets and lanyards… oooo the lanyards. It needs to have an explosive name, like … explode! Or a cool revitalising, flavored water sounding name like … revitalise (spare no creative expense here).
How Long Can We Keep It Up? – After the dying glow sticks are cleaned away and all the lollipops have been swapped for fake email addresses. After you’ve had three weeks to sleep it off and you’ve had the shouting match with your treasurer about your doctored event-expenses, what do you do then?
How many of those young people do you ever see again? How many ‘seeds’ were really planted? How long can you keep competing with the ‘youthphoria’ nights the local nightclub keeps running? How long can you keep telling people, we really need this event! How long can you keep telling yourself that this is what successful Youth Ministry looks like?
Smelling The Rat – I was brought up in event-driven youthwork culture. My youth group was a youth church with full-on band, lights and comfy chairs. We regularly ran big nights with famous Christian bands and speakers. We got shed loads of young people there and had a whole bunch of leaders too. I eventually became a leader in this setup and carried on the tradition, then furthered this by working with events across London. But somewhere the novelty wore off, and the young people started to smell the cheep, imitation rat.
My Beefs With Crowd Events – Don’t get me wrong – youth events can do things that other programs can’t… with some thought. There is a place for them… sometimes. Some kind of crowd interaction is needed in a successful, healthy youth ministry… somehow, somewhere.
My big beefs though, are these:
1. They are often flat-packed, copies of something else with no evidence of any thought put into the local context at all.
2. They drain things: people, money, resources, time, effort, program shapes. You need to have a godly approach to stewardship but crowd events tend to throw this out of the window.
3. They only cater to part of the young people population and psyche – often the popular-hungry extrovert. Whereas the solitude-seeking introvert is hiding in a corner wanting (understandably) the floor to swallow them up.
4. They often don’t fit into a broader youth work strategy of followup and discipleship.
5. They often steal from from other groups without thought for their own programs or relationships.
6. They tend to present a dishonest view of the Gospel thought a sugar-vibe. That’s lots of crazy, hyped up experiences that model ‘look, this is what Christianity really looks like.’ Which works (kind of)… at least for the duration of the sugar high.
7. They thrive off crowd-driven mentality, but they seek individual responses. Want to guess which overrules the other?
8. They can encourage passive ‘entertain me’ young people, rather than productive, participatory experience seeking young people.
9. They often compete with (and dilute with) secular consumerist culture which simply does it better.
10. They mostly simply don’t work. On their own, with no thought to context or strategy they fumble, burn out and often die (taking people with them).
So is There No Place For Them? – No, of course there is. My problem with events is that most that I’ve seen advertised to my young people, and most that I’ve worked with are cookie cutter and haven’t come out of seeking to fill a real need.
Crowd events can be amazing when they create safe space to develop family, mimic the celebration of heaven and seek to give secular culture a run for its money. The gathering of worshipers is an amazing missional tool – when done right.
So How Do We Do Events Right? – Start by asking the big questions:
1. Do we really need this right now? // Is this where we are in our Youth Ministry Journey?
2. Do we have a core group of developed relationships with young people to build out from?
3. Has God given us the resources needed to create this properly?
4. For what purpose do we want to run this // what need is it fulfilling?
5. Have we talked to local pastors and youth workers about potential harmony with their programs?
6. What else could we do creatively with the resources that we have?
7. How do we intend on doing followup?
8. Do young people here really care who these ‘Christian big names’ are? // What else could we market it on?
9. Are we trying to represent who we are, or repackage who we are?
10. Are there already things in the area that we can partner with?
11. How will the Gospel be presented and how will other elements help or hinder this?
There’s obviously a bunch of other bits n’ pieces to throw in, but I felt a wee bit ranty – so this is all you get! Enjoy
Here’s a helpful primer on factors that shape employment being a good move or a flawed one. This is a great resource for anyone who’s thinking of heading down the youth worker/minister track!
Being a youth minister is more than a full-time job. Lots of time and energy is spent encouraging, engaging with and discipling others in their faith while our own souls are often left malnourished.
Finding space and like-minded people to engage with in critical thinking and theological reflection is sometimes hard, but vitally important to stay fresh and to keep on growing in our ministry.
Pitstop is an opportunity to do just this and it does exactly what the name suggests – provides an opportunity to pull over for a couple of days, have some time to reflect on where you’re up to and receive some input yourself.
This 48 hour event will:
- Offer a space for you to engage with critical thinking.
- Help you think through the unique challenges of longevity in youth leadership.
- Provide an opportunity for individual consultation on particular issues you are facing.
- Feed you well – both spiritually and physically.
- Be kept deliberately small (up to 25 participants) to create a sense of community.
Monday 23 May to Wednesday 25 May 2011
Windmill Farm Conference Centre, Bampton, Oxfordshire
How to book
You can book your place online or calling 01926 458425.
For more information please contact:
T 01926 458416
T 01926 458422