Talk by Dr Conrad Gempf. Part of the Youthwork Summit 'Inspire'...
Resident-hell: How God can redeem weekends filled with our worst youth work mistakes
We’ve all heard stories from young people about a youth weekend or week away that changed their life. For some, it was an integral first step on their journey to find God; for other, it marked the definitive moment they accepted Jesus into their life; for many, it was a significant time of refreshment, recommitment and an opportunity to let God speak into their lives.
For completely unchurched teenagers, a weekend away with a load of strange Christians can be terrifying, but once the initial fear and awkwardness has dissipated, these young people often experience community and relationship in a way that isn’t always possible in a normal youth group setting. For youth group members on the fringe as well as the always-at-the-front-of-church types, time away from their normal context can be an incredibly powerful thing for both their relationship with God and with those around them.
Residential centres are integral to facilitating the brilliant things that happen on these trips away – their muddy activities, filling food, helpful advice and health and safety expertise add to the young people’s experiences and make our lives as youth workers so much easier!
But what about our disaster trips away? What about the times we want to crawl under a rock and pretend it’s not happening; where we vow we’ll never plan another trip again and we’re quitting youth ministry for good? What about those horrendous mistakes we make? How about the times when all the centre’s good work is undermined by our own failings? Can these catastrophic experiences ever be redeemed? Youth workers across the country got in touch to share their experiences.
‘We didn’t take any young people away!’
Our youth weekend was such a disaster that it didn’t even end up happening! Cardiff has quite a few youth workers who grew up together and now find themselves living back here, having stayed in touch over the years. The majority of us attend two churches in the city – both are fairly small and have limited numbers of teenagers so we got together and decided to run a joint youth ministry which God has taken from strength to strength.
At the end of the first year, we had big ambitions for a weekend away but were hampered by various things, the main one being a lack of teenagers! One of the leaders had already booked the location and we couldn’t get the deposit back so the decision was made for the leaders to go away for the weekend instead. Because most of them knew each other already, it was a real time of fellowship with old friends and an opportunity to make new ones.
This has now become an annual trip and it’s one of the highlights of my year. It’s been such a blessing to develop friendships with people from another church in the city. Some of the leaders bring their kids along to the weekend away and these young people have begun to form their own friendships with each other which has developed into a younger girls group. I was already running a group for older teenagers at my church but, having got to know some of the kids of leaders at these weekends, in September I started a girls group for younger girls between the two churches. God moves in wonderful but surprising ways!
Ceryn, volunteer youth worker, Cardiff
‘A young person broke their leg’
A few years ago we took some of our teenagers on a week-long youth residential, joining other young people from across the country. Everyone had a great time… until it all went horribly wrong on the last day.
The last session of the week encouraged the young people to cement everything that God had been saying to them over the week. We, as leaders, wanted to help prepare them for what can sometimes be a difficult transition back into normal life. We decided to incorporate an activity which involved walking up to a small circular trampoline and jumping off it, symbolising the group jumping back into their normal lives with renewed excitement and a passion to share their faith with friends and family.
The activity was going brilliantly until a boy (from a different group) jumped on the trampoline and landed badly. I heard a horrific snap as he crumpled to the floor in agony. An ambulance was immediately called and he was rushed off to hospital. We left the centre a few hours later and I had no way of knowing what had happened to the poor guy.
The next year, we took another group of young people to the same week away and to my utter horror, I spotted the boy who’d had the accident, leaning heavily on a cane. I immediately went over to apologise for last year and to see what the damage was. He had undergone consistent operations throughout the year and there was still more work to be done. I was mortified and it clearly showed on my face because the boy graciously took it upon himself to share a wonderful encouragement. When in hospital for his numerous operations, various non-Christian friends had been to visit him and they had had some great conversations. These bedside visits turned into church visits and this young boy ended up leading some of those friends to faith.
Phil, volunteer youth worker, Swansea
‘I kept sneaking girls into my room’
Thirteen years ago, I was the young person responsible for a disastrous week away. As a child, I loved church but at ten, I started smoking, fighting and generally being a terror. My behaviour was awful and I was forced by my school to take anger management classes.
A year or so later, I was thrown out of our church youth group. The youth leader, Jon, had the patience of a saint and tried everything to engage with me but I was disrupting every session and unsettling all of the other young people. He couldn’t manage with me in the group anymore so, for the sake of the rest of the flock, he decided to sacrifice the black sheep.
When I was 14, my older brother, who continued to attend the church youth group, invited me on their youth week away. Excited at the idea of a week away from my parents - where I could get away without being caught - I agreed to come along. I was most excited about misbehaving with lots of girls!
Jon graciously agreed to me coming, but I know now that he was dreading what I would do. He was worried I would disrupt everything and distract my peers from engaging with God. Many of the youth group didn’t want me to be there either; they thought I was annoying and disliked the fact that I was such a trouble maker. The two guys who had to share a room with me were livid!
Much to Jon’s distress, I refused to go to any of the main sessions, opting to sit outside smoking and chatting up girls. The week got worse for Jon and the young people around me as my behaviour escalated. I missed curfew two nights in a row, returning to my room both times with girls. Jon caught me with the girls in my room and gave me a final warning. If I made one more false move, I would have to leave immediately.
The next day, I was smoking outside when a youth worker gently persuaded me to join them in the main meeting. I was determined to ignore everything that was happening but thankfully, God had another idea and in the middle of a worship song, before anyone had even started speaking, I encountered God in a dramatic way and gave my life to him. The two guys I shared a room with were the best men at my wedding.
Will, youth worker, London
‘We had to call the police’
I had just started as the new lead youth worker, and was still green around the ears. One of my first tasks was to run an older youth residential and we took our young people to a plush residential centre where they would lay on a bunch of activities for us.
We had a great first evening and sent the young people to bed. Later that evening, I heard noises in the corridor so went to the dorm next door and a third of the young people were missing. They’d pushed open a nearby fire door and were all sat outside smoking. I duly told them off and sent them back to bed.
I was about to fall asleep when I heard young people in the room next door talking about drinking the booze they’d brought with them. I got up to speak to them, but before I got there, one of the centre staff came to tell me that another youth leader with another youth group at the centre had accused one of our young people of assaulting one of her young people.
The police turned up and brought every member of our youth group out. The young person couldn’t decide between two of our young people, so both were taken to the local police station (about 15 miles away) with one of our youth leaders. Meanwhile, another police officer spoke to the rest of the young people in their dorms, pointing out that the room stank of weed, and were it not 3am she’d search every person. The young people all denied this, but she was right.
The police left, we sent the young people to bed again, and the centre manager called me over. While the police were interviewing our young people, the centre manager had walked around the outside of the dorms and discovered that the young people had dumped a bunch of cannabis out of their window. I promised him we’d take them home after breakfast and apologised.
The centre manager then said one of the most helpful things anyone could say to me at that fledgling point of my youth work career: ‘Don’t worry, it’s good that people work with kids like these’. His comment was genuinely encouraging and gave me a way of thinking about our work that kept me going when we had similar complaints about ‘our young people’s terrible behaviour’. I don’t want to minimise how sinful the behaviour of the young people was or take away their responsibility, but part of the reason it went so badly was because I had been complacent in my planning and I hadn’t realised the particular challenges of this group. It was important for me at the time to learn those lessons, and it gave us confidence to change how we worked with those young people for the better and it meant future weekends away were much better planned!
Mark, volunteer youth worker, London
‘I dislocated my shoulder’
Two years ago I took our youth group on a residential to the Peak District where the teenagers spent most of their time recoiling in horror at the lack of phone signal and Wi-Fi. As part of their entertainment, we created a photo treasure hunt around the local town. One of the items on their list was a photo of the team hanging upside down.
I have a rare medical condition where my joints dislocate or partially dislocate up to five times a day and yet, when one of the young people suggested hanging upside down from metal railings on the pathway, I thought it was a great idea! I insisted on going first to see how sturdy it was and promptly fell off and dislocated my shoulder. Usually my condition allows me to shove my joints back into place but this time it wouldn’t go back. (I was still able to destroy two of the lads at air hockey later that night though, even with a dislocated shoulder!)
That evening after worship, I turned around to one of the other leaders who runs Scouts and is first aid qualified, asking him to reset my shoulder; a task he’d never done before. Although reluctant to, the young people all watched out of curiosity and then let out blood-curdling screams and vague heaving noises while I breathed a sigh of relief as they heard my shoulder crunch back in.
I don’t hide my disability from the young people but they’d never seen it in action like this before. In my mind it proved that God has a sense of humour in allowing me free will – I chose to do something so ridiculous that even now the young people say, ‘Remember when Kate dislocated her shoulder?’ ‘Urgh! Yeah, that was so gross.’
Kate, youth and community worker, Nottinghamshire
When taking young people away, we obviously need to ensure we plan properly and build in important health and safety measures. But, there are certain disasters that we cannot anticipate or plan for. Terrible residentials do not make us terrible youth workers!
Perhaps, as with Mark’s experience, there are things that we can learn and put into place for next time.
Perhaps, God will use our disasterous weekend and turn it for good (a modern Genesis 50:20), bonding the group together, birthing new projects and bringing more young people to faith.
Some bad experiences however, just need to be written off so that we can move on. Life is messy, stuff goes wrong and, even if we’re not learning anything or watching tragedies being redeemed in front of our eyes, God can still be with us in those awful situations, holding us as we despair, and strengthening us in ways we never thought possible.
Residential weekends and weeks away will continue to be some of the most important experiences for both young people and youth workers – and for every terrible experience, there are hundreds more life-changing, wonderful ones.