Betwixt and Between – Christian Professional Youth Work Identity

by Dr Jo Griffiths September 8, 2014 A

It is no surprise that professionally qualifying Christian youth workers experience tensions between what it means to be professional and what it means to be a minister. The debate about youth work and youth ministry has been raging for far too long in Christian youth work and has not been helpful in the formation of an identity for the wider field of Christian youth work/ministry (or whatever you care to call it).

The subsequent polarization between professionalism and ministry has not been helpful for anyone as the understanding of professionalism has been stripped of its Christian roots and ideas about ministry inflated to egotistical proportions.

Professional Christian youth work is an ambiguous profession and is located in an in-between position, betwixt and between the sacred and the secular.

Christian youth workers inhabit a professional space that on one hand identifies with Christian youth ministry as education, mission, pastoral care and practical theology (Shepherd, 2009). On the other hand, they identify with secular youth work as informal education, voluntary participation, empowerment and equality of opportunity (Brierley, 2003). These two identity domains enmesh within each other and the Christian youth worker sits ‘betwixt and between’ (Turner, 1969) them both. Everyday practice on the basis of faith alone would be restricting the practice of professional youth work (as understood here) and limit creative possibilities. Polarity between faith and secular youth work for the understanding of a professional identity for Christian youth workers is futile.

The result is that Christian youth workers are mobilized into identifying with different allegiances that do not account for the multi-faceted and fluid spaces encountered in their every day work.

My research amongst newly graduated youth workers highlighted a particular area of tension, which arose as a direct result of the ministry versus professional debate. I found that youth workers resisted being consumed by a dominant secular-liberal notion of professionalism (as this tended to be the prevailing identity upon graduation) and in doing so a kind of ‘antiprofessionalism’ was exercised. Youth workers began to explore practices alternative to those seen in secular professional youth work in order to construct an expression of credible and authentic identity. They wanted to resist the notion that their work was an empty and sterile idea of how their practice should be. In order to achieve this resistance and therefore achieve their desired authentic identity, youth workers turned to the values and practices of their faith. Prayer and bible study became a fundamental aspect of their identity. Of course, the practice of spiritual disciplines are considered to be fundamental to the spiritual life of any Christian. However, the salient point to make here is that the vigor with which these practices were being approached was a result of sustained reflection on the self within the work and within the understanding of secular youth work. Resistance of a purely secularized professional identity proved to be a personally enriching and releasing aspect of their practice. The faith and secular domains interacted and through resistance, equilibrium was found.

It is vital that professionally trained Christian youth workers are able to identify  with  both the secular notion of Christian youth work  and the faith notion of Christian youth ministry. Interaction between these two domains influences a Christian professional youth worker identity that allows spirituality to flourish and enriches the experience of faith and practice of professionalism.