I was taken a bit by surprise recently when a younger colleague asked me if I had intended to make youth work a long term career when I first started out it. I had to stop and think ( it was a long time ago after all). The point was in the context of a discussion about how many church-based youth workers do not stay around for long and move on to other things. The suggestion was that young youth workers do not expect to be doing youth work for long, it is a short term project. I was obviously something of an anomaly to him and his youth worker peers but I wasn’t when I started, I well remember many youth work colleagues who were much older than I am now who were ‘career youth workers’.
I found myself wondering why this has changed.
Maybe it’s part of a changing perspective on work characteristic of Gen Y, no longer do people generally expect to stay in the same job for life but expect to have several jobs.
Maybe it’s to do with burnout – youth ministry is often high energy, activity-based and perhaps it appears to be unsustainable for the long-term?
Maybe it’s to do with the notion that youth work and ministry should always be done by young adults who are ‘in touch’ with the latest cultural trends and so there comes a point when you’re too old (I lost count many years ago of how many times people ask whether I’m getting too old for this!)
Maybe it’s to do with the perception in the church (at least the Anglican church) that youth ministry is a preparation and training ground for being a vicar, once you’re old enough (more mature?) to work with the older folks!
Maybe the sight of councils cutting youth services and other resources for young people suggests there’s no future for youth work and the hope that churches might step in and commit to youth work and ministry also seems to be dwindling as youth workers seem to be first to go when finances are tight.
Maybe it’s all or even none of the above and I’m missing something important (suggestions welcome) but I suspect all are true in part and the sad thing is that each is based on a false belief or myth.
First, we’re talking here about vocation and calling not just a job for a few years. If our culture is telling young adults that this is reality then surely we should be challenging that view and helping young people to discern and recognise what God is calling them to do, for now and the longer term. This doesn’t mean that it won’t change of course but helping young people to discover life’s purpose and their specific part in God’s plans for the world is an important task.
Then we can easily discount the myth that there’s only one way to do youth work and that involves racing around muddy football pitches or jumping off abseil towers. We need workers who can apply a range of methods and models of work, who can train others and delegate, who can build teams and lead by example but also those who can listen to and understand young people.
But of course we all know youth workers have to be young! NO, that’s a myth too. In fact I believe more than ever that young people need and deserve the wisdom, maturity and understanding that comes with age. Young adults make great youth workers but so do older people; we can each bring something unique to the work and we do our young people a disservice by not sharing the benefit of life experience. Furthermore we are at risk of putting too much pressure on our youth workers when we expect them to handle the difficult and complex issues facing our teenagers now.
Then there’s the big one – youth ministry as the training ground, the place to try out your ideas, to prove yourself and practice before you can be trusted to lead the whole church. It’s being the junior doctor before you qualify to take on responsibility or specialise in a particular area.
Connected with this is the emphasis on ordained ministry in certain denominations. The only way for youth workers to progress in salary or in formal recognition of their value in the church is to become an ordained minister. Sadly this usually means letting go of their youth work expertise and specialism and becoming a general practitioner. As the demographic of the church dictates the work, so their ministry becomes focused on older members. I’ve no doubt that the wider church benefits greatly and I hope that they never lose a sense of the priority of youth work but I’m not so sure that this ever compensates for the loss to youth ministry.
It’s a well attested fact that youth ministry and youth ministers are the innovators of the church, that it is here that new life is birthed and what happened in youth ministry yesterday is happening in the wider church today and tomorrow. At the same time young people are under more pressure than ever, facing more challenges than ever and finding it harder than ever to be disciples of Jesus in their culture. They need, no, deserve specialists and experienced professionals who can respond well to their needs and facilitate a positive interaction with the rest of the church, developing new forms of ministry that will grow the kingdom of God and secure the future of the church.
This is why it is a tragedy that youth work is not growing as it should – with posts under threat and youth ministry being low on the list of priorities. Without long term investment, how will we benefit from the wisdom of experience and how will youth ministry ‘come of age’ – it’s not just the young people who lose out by workers not staying but also the profession as a whole – we need those who understand, who can reflect and bring insight to help us grow new models, build on the past and avoid constantly reinventing or merely repeating past mistakes.
So was it my intention to stay in youth work for the long-term? Yes it was, this was and is my calling; I was open to a change of vocation (and have considered other paths) but that call has never left me. I know that’s not true for others but I believe we need to do more to recognise youth ministry as a life-long calling, to make it possible to develop and grow in the role and to acknowledge the importance of youth ministers and youth ministry within the body of Christ.