No two youth workers are the same, and nor are any two youth ministries. So how do you play to your strengths, and figure out what your unique style is? Ali Campbell outlines five different types of youth worker, and what each can bring to the table.
When you think of yourself as a youth worker, does that title, by itself, explain what you do? Yes, I know it does – as in – you work with young people! What I mean is that ‘youth worker’ is a generic term for everyone who might work with young people. What it doesn’t convey is the unique gifting, skills, specialist knowledge, talent and creative genius that you bring to your youth-worker-ness.
There is so much more to who we are than that title, and the danger is to not think beyond our role (whether we are a volunteer youth worker or a full-time, salaried youth worker) to what we actually bring to youth work: our very selves. Also, we can’t deliver youth work as a lone ranger; we all need a team and should be working with others. What about their skills, gifts and talents? ‘Youth worker’ (volunteer or otherwise) just doesn’t cover it.
In Ephesians, Paul writes: ‘So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’ This list from Paul is sometimes referred to as the ‘five-fold’ ministry – the main areas of ministry which we might be called to and exercise our gifting. There is no expectation that these gifts or ministry ‘types’ are all found in one person. And, let’s not kid ourselves that in youth ministry we need to be some kind of ‘jack-of-all-trades-one-man-band’ and master of none. I don’t know if you ever get time to stop long enough from buying tuck and planning a youth service and writing that letter to an anxious parent and avoiding the eye of the caretaker because yes, again, a soft ball for use inside has managed to smash a window in the church hall . . . but, if you do stop (at least long enough to read this article!) why not consider the following five types of youth worker. I don’t want to mess with Paul’s list but would suggest there is a ‘five-fold ministry’ in youth work too.
1. The Natural
Fourteen years ago an 18 year-old girl started a gap year at the church I was at and joined in with helping at a club. At the time, we split the group into about six smaller groups – and I, in my arrogant pride, thought most of the kids wanted to gravitate to my group (after all, I was the paid youth worker!). What a burk. Within about five minutes of the group starting I had no young people and this girl had a small group of about 20! I sacked her on the spot for upstaging me…no, I didn’t really. She was a natural.
Without breaking a sweat, naturals build rapport, encourage young people, and can play pool with one hand whilst fending off another young person over a table tennis table. In a de-brief scenario, you might want them to give some tips to the others on your team - but they would struggle to do that; youth work for them is a bit like breathing. They just do it, almost unconsciously – if they stopped to think about it or reflect on it, it might all fall apart. These people are gold dust. Hold onto them.
How to spot a Natural: They are relationally at ease with young people, and more likely to go on instinct rather than a programme. They can adapt well when unexpected things happen!
Are you a Natural? Do you need to ‘think’ about your interaction with young people, or do you just strike up conversations naturally? Do you find other people asking ‘how did you calm him down?’ or ‘I couldn’t do what you do?’ and find yourself baffled? Did you need to be asked to join in with the youth work – or was it just an obvious path for you?
2. The Trainer
Trainers are great at equipping others on the team; they have skills - they might be an experienced youth worker - and what they love doing, and take every opportunity to do, is to pass on what they have learnt to others. I have worked with youth leaders who are as excited about what other youth leaders are getting out of youth work as the young people. It matters to them that everyone is growing. They can put into words what it is that the natural youth worker is doing, in such a way that others can learn from it and grow as youth workers. Use your trainers well and wisely!
How to spot a Trainer: They come alive in a de-brief session, sharing astute observations about how the evening has gone. They can be great at recruiting, as they are passionate about working with leaders as well as the young people.
Are you a Trainer? Do you find it easy to explain what youth work is to people who ask you? Do you find yourself sharing hints and tips with new volunteers? Can you spot areas of training or support that others on the team might need? Do you find yourself watching the way the team is working together on a youth club night as much as how the young people are doing?
This person is never without a clipboard (or their iPad mini with a list of tasks). The manager is the person you want in charge when you plan an event. They love planning, and they love a project. You need people like this! Things get done when someone is focusing on the tasks that need to be accomplished. While some get thrown by the immensity of an event – this person also has the ability to break it down into manageable bits and delegate like crazy (as well as do stuff themselves) to make sure it happens.
How to spot a Manager: Likes taking charge of activities (though not necessarily doing up-front stuff). Can get frustrated with people and get caught up in the detail of an event rather than the purpose of an event. They finish things they start.
Are you a Manager? Do you love being given a project or event to plan and organise? Do you think about projects or events you could be organising if anyone thought to ask or suggest it? Do you see things through from start to finish – and does it frustrate you when others don’t?
4. The Resourcer
This person knows which resources are out there – but, more than that, they could (given the encouragement) write the stuff themselves. They have a knack for pulling existing resources apart and making the best of them (even the rubbish ones), and they have a nose for the perfect illustration, film clip, idea, themed evening or mini teaching series. Make sure this person is involved when you plan a term of activities, as they can help you pull it together and would love the ‘hunter-gatherer’ experience of finding the material and equipment that will work well with that is being planned.
How to spot a Resourcer: This person is full of ideas. If you ask for suggestions they will always have them. They come in different forms, some have a particular gift for using film clips; others music; others just know almost every published resource that there is.
Are you a Resourcer? Do you read youth work resource books for fun? Do you find yourself saying in the middle of a film ‘that clip would make a great illustration for Steve’s talk on Habakkuk next week?’ Do you always have about three games up your sleeve just in case there is a lull during a Friday night youth club? Do you love Easter – because, yes, you know it comes around every year but you always have a new idea for sharing the Easter story?
5. The Visionary
This person is both essential and a total nightmare. They ‘see’ the big picture and are not bothered about details. They might have a vision for youth work that is greater than the local church, ecumenical partnerships, or even the town. They love to start new initiatives and get bored easily. They take the long view though, and this is really important. Where will these young people be in a decade? Can we do something that means in three years we will have a youth worship band? How will we work together with others to get into schools in our community? If this person is also strategic it really helps, but their vision drives work forward, and stops things getting into a rut. They are often less bothered about failure and willing to take risks to get to a place with the youth work that it has not been yet. Often, they haven’t been there either! It can be challenging working with a visionary, and not everything will work – but when it comes off, wow!
How to spot a Visionary: They have a glassy-eyed stare. Barely have you begun a programme or a new group and they are talking about the next thing. They may find it hard to commit every week to the same thing!
Are you a Visionary? Do you get bored if you haven’t started a new project in the last five minutes? Do you have half a dozen books on the go at once? Do you get excited at the thought of creating something out of nothing? Can you see opportunities and possibilities when nobody else can? Let’s be honest: you don’t always pay attention to what you are doing now – because what you might be doing looks just way too exciting!
Well, those are my five. You might identify with some of the above, or none of them. The thing is – youth work in a local church context (or any other context) only works if there is team. Not everyone is the same. All of these kinds of people are important if you want to have a well-rounded team, able to work with young people by building great relationships, running superb activities and programmes, creating a sense of excitement, hope and purpose for all of those involved – youth workers and young people alike.
So, which of these five do you most identify with? Do you make it a core part of your job to identify those who are different? Too many times I have seen youth work delivered in a one dimensional way because everyone on the team was ‘the same’ rather than a diverse group of people. It is true that ‘like attracts like’, but it is not true that we should only do stuff with people who are like us! Certainly not if we want to create an open, friendly, anyone is welcome, no cliques here, kind of youth work.
Look at your team. Wonder at their total amazingness, but also make sure each person you have is playing to their strengths. Our team, our volunteers, our dedicated part-timers are not canon fodder to chuck in a room of young people to make up the numbers. Invest in your team, invite them to take a lead in their area of strength, and involve them in your plans and hopes and dreams. And remember: you, the frazzled, running-around-like-a-loony-what-day-is-it youth worker are gifted in particular ways. Find your strengths, and play to them.