by Mark Davis May 30, 2014 A

We are excited to welcome Mark Davis to concrete. He will be sharing his experience and his reflections from his work with young people in Belfast.

It’s been a while since I bought a Youth Work Magazine. To be honest, I bought it primarily because I felt obligated to as all the other youth workers I knew did. On a few occasions I would use their resources or read their articles. Although I still haven’t read a full magazine I have been left challenged and contemplative after clicking on a link posted by someone I follow on Twitter. The link he had posted was to an article called “Under Pressure” that had been included in the May issue of Youth Work Magazine. When I first saw the title my initial thoughts were that it must be a resource for youth workers to help prepare young people for the stresses that school and exams would bring. Instead what I soon realised was that the article was not talking about young people under stress but about their youth workers.

Church-based urban youth work, it says, has changed dramatically over the past decade and personally I don’t think this change is a bad thing. It has matured and is more focused on its role in the community around it. With more qualified professional youth workers joining the profession, church based youth work should be well placed to confidently support a generation of young people who are suffering from the stresses that their culture is placing on them. So, if the outlook of the urban church has improved and more professionally qualified youth workers are doing the job then what is the problem? The problem, the article suggests, is that the church is ill-equipped as an employer to support it’s youth worker as it doesn’t fully understand the work that they are trying to do. The church is largely focussed on how things appear – the numbers of young people attending, the volume of activities and clubs on offer or even marking success by the numbers of young people who are coming to faith. The youth worker tends to focus on forming relationships and building trust with young people and the community as a whole.

As statistics relating to the UK are hard to come by, the article looks to America as the closest comparison when they point out the health status of youth workers. It reads,

“33 per cent of urban youth workers experience post-traumatic stress, 40 per cent would currently describe themselves as burnt-out and the average worker is in post for just 18 months.”

Obviously lifting statistics from another country is not ideal and could easily be disputed but the issues that I felt could not be disputed were the reasons for the poor health: guilt, poor efficiency and lack of community.  Simply put guilt is the result of carrying the burdens of those we meet without the space and time to reflect and share our work and so always feeling behind. Poor efficiency is because churches are increasingly looking for product focused results from people focused workers. Finally and most importantly lack of community where youth workers don’t feel supported or understood by their organisations and so begin to feel isolated.

The reason why this article challenged me is because I read this article after spending a few days with a second year class of CYM students. These students were fresh and still full of the initial excitement that I once felt towards youth work. They are educated about the challenges they may face but unaware of how painful the job can be some weeks. As I read the article my thoughts lead me to consider what I could do to protect those coming behind me.

The article suggests a solution is building a community of support around you and, where you can, to be honest. Although I agree with this I don’t think it’s always possible especially if your philosophy of youth work is different from those around you which makes it difficult to find a common ground or natural bond.

I have found comfort in the thoughts of Iain Hoskins who wrote a chapter on personal care in the book Youth Ministry: A Multi-Faceted Approach ed. by Sally Nash. In the chapter Iain suggests that youth workers need three things to prevent burn out. These are:

  • to find out who we are rather than who others think we are
  • to find regular patterns of space for either reflection or downtime
  • to trust in our relationship with God.

Perhaps what we can do for the next generation of youth workers is share information with them to help them create good habits while they are still in a period of formation so that they will survive and have longevity. We can talk to them about our experiences so they don’t feel isolated in their situation and when things do get though they can take comfort in the fact that they are not the first to feel this way. I believe if we begin to trust each other more and be trustworthy that will create a culture of honesty which is much needed in our profession. We can seldom be honest about our struggles in our place of work which means we often feel we are failing. Ideally the church would provide the support it’s youth worker needs. But failing that, if we can create support groups with some people around us where we can encourage and help one another, we can go some way to replacing the support that is absent in many churches.