The Rise and Rise Of The Youth Ministry Profession
In the seminar “the expectations that killed the youthworker”, I got to thinking about the meteoric rise of youth ministry as a profession. And anything that becomes a profession, is usually accompanied by the various training establishments that develop career pathways, books, conferences and assorted assistance materials.

There is much similarity between youth ministry and starting a business. Success is really the domain of intangible measurements, because in the beginning it’s hard to find language that makes us feel comfortable with numbers. It’s no surprise that business publications like “Good to Great” sit just as easily with entrepreneurial youthworkers, similar to John Maxwell’s “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” sitting well with business leaders.

There is a difference though between the rise of youth ministry professional development and more generic business/secular models. That is, where professional development resources and requirements have grown and expanded, the equal and necessary requirements of professional practice have not necessarily been fulfilled.

The way I see it, professional practices is more than just good employment contracts and well thought out interview & review structures that build healthy employer/employee communication strategies. It’s also creating work environments that support the flow of new ideas, the review and implementation of those new ideas which further support the ongoing mission of the organisation.

Examples of this might look like a corporate reading list and discussion opportunities; a list that includes ideas that both challenge and support the current models of thinking. The context and content of staff meetings being shaped beyond communication of information and entering into the dialogue of ideas. In addition, accepted practices for raising and resolving potential conflict situations, accepted & explicitly communicated, even group developed processes for employee movement, incoming, outgoing, sideways. Most of our churches seem like they could really use some intentional human resources training.

Pastors & church leaders might be really good with people, but not necessarily working for others, employing others or working alongside others. We teach leadership as vision, communication and conflict resolution, but relegate human resources to ‘management’ of paperwork, payroll and holidays.

I guess all this to say, that I’ve been thinking our professional development of individuals has surpassed the development of our practices and process. I think inevitably you then hit a roadblock when the ongoing discussion and development of ideas requires an environment of good practice that doesn’t exist.

In addition to this, I’m thinking that true professional development includes not just gaining qualifications and/or experience but also includes a commitment to developing the thinking muscles. The aspects of the mind that are committed to assessing, engaging with and applying ideas and knowledge that may come from the other side of the fence.

Partly this is just because I love to explore and examine both sides of the argument, but also it’s because part of the transition from milk to meat is learning to think for yourself but with others. The ideas and convictions of those that are different from us should push and stretch us beyond ourselves, not be dismissed as irrelevant without examination.

Part of refining our professional development is learning first to think constructively in an environment of challenging ideas.. delaying our disagreement in order to engage with the issue at hand. In other words, learning the evidential process of reasoning. Disagreement comes after you’ve done the work of assessment and examination. Model that back into staff environments where there is ongoing differing information and ideas being communicated between multiple ministry or staffing areas, different ideas being adhered to, different priorities being reasoned with.. learning to engage with the issues first is really healthy for a staff team that wants to grow, whether you’re leading that team, on that team or volunteering for that leadership team.

Big lesson in my own life, because I process sometimes too fast, and arrive at the conclusion (right or wrong) at such speed that it can be intimidating and ‘unfair’ on others I’m dialoguing and engaging with. So.. slowing down the Conclusion Speed and doing justice to the Data Analysis. Healthy, slow and strong.

NZ Application:
When we only have one national training event (in two locations) each year, how do we take advantage of that premise to introduce new and challenging ideas into the information pool of our youthworkers (fulltime/parttime/training/volunteers)? How do we activate some of our own “best practices” in the professional development area?

If we currently base our training models on the Certificate modules, incorporated into the degree structure of a broader applied theology degree – supplemented by a ‘college of peers’ such as the Youth Pastors Summit, and BYM National Leaders Training .. how can we expand our individuated and collective thinking processes?

For example, this year we engaged Duffy Robbins as keynote speaker. His focus was really 80% functionality / 20% personal development. It was good, solid and really suitable for anyone in their 1 – 3rd years of youthwork at any level. Familiarity with his work outside that context would have provided further insight into the expansion of the ideas. However – mostly those are ideas that are developed or communicated in some way through the training programmes available through YouthTrain and/or Carey.

Should we instead deliberate engaging speakers/seminar/workshop hosts that are more challenging or complex? Should we focus those gatherings that are an opportunity for dialoguing and interaction with our collective “information pool” to be issues-based? Push people to grapple with the broader issues around youth ministry? For example, Steve Gerali’s presentation material around adolescent sexuality would definitely hit the buttons. Perhaps there is something for engaging with the relatively silent and yet steady Catholic youthwork community in NZ.

The deeper question beyond all this, is how can I help youthworkers back home engage and expand both their individual professional development (substitute the word ‘thinking’), the local environment and professional practices they engage with (local church/employer/leaders) and the wider environment they participate in (the collective information pool)?

Some (not exhaustive) levels of training/understanding/engagement.

1. Practical understanding of the purpose of youth ministry.
2. Practical skills/functionality (leading a small group/writing a programme).
3. Foundational philosophies shaping individual youth ministries (your own).
4. Ideas/Challenges shaping broader youth ministries models & philosophies.

What kind of training best happens where? Where do we leave the word training behind and start to use the words dialogue, engagement, thinking, development?

What are the requirements of understanding and engagement at each level?

Who is responsible for execution or opportunity for development at each level?

You’re Not Even A Youthworker Anymore, Why Do You Care?
Firstly, shut your mouth, my-alter-ego-accusing-self. I am a youthworker and it’s an identity I’m so happy to own and admit failing at.

Secondly, I really do care a lot because if you look at the old adage “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” there has to be a way of getting off the hamster wheel.

The acquistion and
understanding of new ideas and information is key to any kind of short or longterm change. Foundational philosophical shifts, fads and trends all follow the same rule. Introduce new information into the cycle “hamster wheel”, and the cycle has to accomodate and shift to allow for new information to take effect, thereby changing the pathway. What I really want, is to find ways of introducing new information and ideas both individually and collectively, that disrupt the hamster wheel altogether.