Clearly I don’t know who you are or how you’ve got into this line of work. Maybe you’ve been a volunteer for decades and have just decided to make it into a career. Maybe you’re one of the six people left in the country who are doing a youth ministry degree. Maybe you happened to mention to a priest that you led a Scripture Union camp once, and now you’ve found yourself running a youth group. Whatever you’re doing, if you’re just starting out as a youth minister, here’s some praise, and a warning.
The praise is obvious. You know why you’re doing this. You’ve chosen a job that doesn’t pay well and means you have to work unsociable hours because you care about young people, and presumably, if the word minister is in your job title, you have some hope that the gospel has something to offer them. That’s cool, and exciting. You’re lucky to be doing a job that you believe in, and that won’t feel like work a lot of the time.
I’ve been in this biz for 15 years, which by youth work standards, makes me decrepit. In most walks of life, 33 is still considered to be young, but in youth work, I may as well be shuffling my way into retirement, bemoaning the kids these days and their yo-yos. But with old age also comes some perspective, and as I have a platform for it, I’ll share a warning before I disappear into complete irrelevance. Here it is: Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate. That’s Latin for: Get used to people not understanding what you do.
Practice smiling politely when people make jokes about getting a proper job or playing video games for a living, or when people ask what your career progression is (priest or teacher – those are the options), because that’s part of your life now, and you’re not allowed to respond the way you really want to.
There’s an insidious belief system in our culture which tells us that unless you’re miserable, you’re not really working hard enough. And if you’re not working hard enough, you have no value. So sitting at a computer screen, blinking at Outlook, gives you value. Going to committee meetings gives you value. Filling in grant applications gives you value. But going to Pizza Hut with a 15 year old? Come on. Time to grow up and become a priest or a teacher.
The key to survival is to be clear with yourself about what you’re doing. If you’re not sure what you’re doing or why, there’s a risk that you’ll start to believe the Protestant Work Ethic and will start wasting your time with emails, committee meetings and grant applications.
As an example: on Tuesday afternoon, someone I share my office with brought her nine-year-old daughter into work for half an hour in between things. I asked her if she’d ever watched a TV show called Adventure Time, and when she said no, I told her that she was missing out on the best cartoon, and I found a couple of episodes online for us to watch together while her mum finished up what she was doing.
There are two possible headlines to this story. The bad one (from a bad paper like The Daily Mail) says YOUTH MINISTER WASTING TIME WATCHING CARTOONS INSTEAD OF WORKING. The headline I’d write (for The Guardian, obvs) would say NINE YEAR OLD IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO THE CHURCH FOR STAFF TO STOP WHAT THEY’RE DOING AND WATCH CARTOONS WITH HER.
The point is: I have no problem justifying that moment. If it made a young person feel valuable for half an hour, then it was a better use of my time than whatever I was doing before. In fact, it was exactly what I’m paid to do.
Be clear with yourself about your motivations, and remind yourself of your vocation every now and again. I find it helpful to write a reflective journal, noticing the moments in which I was doing my real job, and the moments in which I was trying hard to impress somebody else by doing what they think a real job is, and also the moments in which I was just being lazy. I try to do it prayerfully, having faith that God gets what I’m about, and that I’m trying to get what God’s about.
Oh, and one more thing: be cool to administrators. Don’t set yourself up in opposition to the people who want you to be places on time, have the correct references, and account for your spending. They have a tough job: imagine having to manage somebody like you. Buy them a coffee now and again.
So, go: play video games and eat pizza boldly. Be at peace with people not understanding it. And have some compassion for the people who have to hold an organisation together around you.
It’s nearly lunchtime, so I’d better go and stand in the queue at the Post Office and talk loudly about how things were better in the 70s when our passports were blue.