Supporting youth work
Without guidance and help from leaders, mentors and peers, our youth work can go badly awry in the long term. Experienced youth work adviser Pete Maidment explores the vital subject of supervision, looking practically at three key areas in which we can allow others to support and speak into our lives and our work with young people.
Supervision. How does that word make you feel? Some of us probably feel that we have far too much supervision - a whole church full of people watching our every move - making sure that we're working with the right young people, behaving ourselves the whole time and checking that we're making a good use of the budget. I've just been out for lunch with a good friend - we're both youth workers, he's on holiday and I've finished work for the week. Turns out the pub we met in was playing host to a vicar's farewell do and so there were several dog collars on view. Both of us had the same thought: I bet they think we're skiving...
Others of us might be desperate for supervision. We might have relished the freedom to get on with what we wanted in the early days, but now we're just desperate to have some guidance from someone! Another friend comments that he is desperate for leadership. He'd rather be lead by someone with whom he disagrees than not be led at all.
Regardless of where you are on that scale, you'll probably realise that good supervision is key to any good youth ministry - any leadership at all really, and that it can sometimes be a difficult activity to pin down.
If we are agreed that we need good supervision in youth ministry, then we need to accept that it is up to us to make sure we are getting it. Too often I hear of youth workers burning out or falling over and blaming it on a lack of support and oversight; the problem is that the worker has never let on that they need any support. Sometimes that might be because we are just so good at giving the impression that we've got it all sorted, that we've convinced everyone that we don't need support. For some of us it's less a case of convincing others that we don't need help and more an issue that we think we don't need any help ourselves. ‘I'm the youth worker; I've got a degree; I really don't need any help thank you!’ Others of us might simply be unaware of who we should ask or even whether we can ask for help.
Supervision comes in all shapes and sizes and I'll suggest various different kinds of supervision in this article, but I think that there are three key areas of supervision that it is imperative that we are getting; formal supervision, informal or peer supervision and spiritual supervision.
This is often the hardest kind for us to get our hands on as churchbased youth workers. Most of us are employed by churches where we may be one of very few members of staff, if not the only one. Many of us are line managed by a vicar or pastor who may have little or no experience of management. It's also likely that you will have been employed by the church as the professional and so even if you have a great management team and an excellent line manager they may still have little or no understanding of youth work.
I would suggest that good formal supervision starts before you even accept a job as a youth worker. You can usually tell as soon as you look at a job description or even an advert for a role whether or not you are going to be part of a good structure and a well managed team. Good managerial supervision means a really good job description, with tightly defined roles and responsibilities and measurable, achievable goals. It means opportunities for regular supervision meetings with a line manager (I would suggest monthly as an absolute minimum) and a good structure to those meetings. What's more, workers should be getting more detailed annual appraisals with their line manager and other stakeholders. Here together you should look through your job description and make sure that it is still relevant, ensure work that you are doing that hasn't been agreed is talked through and justified (or ditched) and examine places where the job description isn't being fulfilled. It's far easier to have a tight job description that you can change than a vague job description that doesn't give you any kind of framework.
Some good questions to discuss at regular supervision meetings with your line manager or supervisor could include:
• Where have you been aware of seeing God at work and what has been an encouragement to you?
• What has God been reminding you of or teaching you this month?
• What has been the most enjoyable aspect of your work and why?
• How do you feel about the balance of work this month (i.e. face-to-face, preparation, personal study/reflection, church, outreach etc)?
• Are there particular issues that you would like to talk through personally?
• Are there particular issues or areas that you perceive have implications for others in the church/project?
(These questions are used by a colleague of mine in his supervision meetings, and are adapted from a form produced by Scripture Union). You might want to type these or similar questions up so that you can scribble some notes before each meeting if that's going to help you talk things through most effectively.
While this level of formality isn’t compulsory, it is important to maintain regular meetings with your line manager and to remember that the relationship is primarily one of supervisor and supervisee. Don’t fall into the trap of allowing the meetings to become simply pastoral or mutual in arrangement; you need a formal management arrangement.
The final thing to note as we think about formal supervision is that it is your responsibility to make sure it happens. If you’re not happy with the level of supervision that you’re getting then you need to put pressure on your employers to make sure it gets done. I have dealt with several instances where an employer has been deeply dissatisfied with a youth worker’s performance, when the youth worker had no idea that they weren’t meeting expectations simply because there was no supervision taking place.
Informal supervision is the act of making space to spend time with other professionals in your own field. It’s unlikely to have any sense of hierarchy, like in the formal supervision structure, but you may voluntarily give someone permission to have some kind of oversight of you.
I regularly hear people comment that youth ministry can be a very isolated place. If you work for a church the likelihood is that you spend most if your time with your employers. You may find that you spend your work time, social time and worship time with the same people, and no matter how well you know them, at some level you have to maintain a degree of professionalism.
One of the simplest ways of overcoming that isolation is to make time to regularly meet up with other youth workers you can speak with openly and honestly about your job, the pressures on you, the celebrations and the passions of your heart. In all likelihood other youth workers will understand how it feels to be in your situation and be able to share advice and encouragement.
Whereas the meetings you have with your line manager will need a certain level of formality your informal supervision will probably take a far more laid back approach.
In the Diocese of Winchester where I work I run regular ‘youth leader coffee mornings’; I invite paid workers and volunteers with some level of management responsibility to meet up for coffee and chat about how things are going on. Each term I try to make time for people from the various regions of the diocese to meet up and I attend to provide a focal point and to lead conversation where it’s needed. I usually place myself in a coffee shop for a couple of hours and people are welcome to turn up for as much of that time as they like. Sometimes I’ll see 10 or more people in that time and other times I’ll see just the one (it is informal after all…)
In the past I have attended more formal meetings. A senior youth worker in an area might arrange a time for others to gather for a couple of hours for worship, prayer and space to chat, and I’ve organised meetings with a certain level of training or input if that’s seemed appropriate.
If you’re new to youth work, or you have particular issues that you know you need to talk through or develop then it might be appropriate for you to add a further level of formality to this arrangement. If you’re new to youth ministry, or you’re fresh out of college you would do well to find a more experienced worker who is willing to spend time mentoring and supporting you as you learn the trade. You might want to use questions similar to the ones above. If you’re unsure who to approach, there are several people you might want to ask for advice. If you’ve trained with one of the colleges then you could ask your course tutor or placement tutor for some guidance. You may well have a denominational youth adviser who could let you know of workers you could approach, or if all else fails look at the churches around you and see who’s in post, or you may simply want to ask your church leader whether they know of anyone locally who has been involved in youth work for some time.
You can do far worse than keep in touch with other workers via social media. It’s no replacement for face-to face meetings but it’s better than nothing. It’s worth joining Twitter simply to follow and get involved with the #ywchat hashtag (if you’re not sure what that means, ask a 14 year old!).
Again the responsibility to get this kind of support rests with you, it’s a commitment and will take some time – but it’s well worth it to get the support.
Continuing in our own discipleship seems like the most obvious thing in the world and I’m sure there isn’t a church worker out there who wouldn’t passionately add their ‘amen’ to that. But the truth is that for so many of us the busyness and stress of an active youth ministry all too easily squeezes out the spiritual. I’d be the first to admit that there have been extended times in my work and ministry where my spiritual life has been totally stagnant.
It should be taken as read that we should all be attempting to spend time with God personally with quiet times, devotionals or daily prayers, but I think that we also need to be making sure that we are allowing others to have some kind of supervision of us in this area. This means taking time out regularly to spend with someone who prays with us and asks us how we are getting on, preferably someone removed from our daily work and ministry. In the past I have visited a retreat centre monthly and spent time with a priest who was trained in spiritual direction; I’ve had various people who I counted as mentors who I met with regularly to talk and pray with. I’m just about to start a new habit, visiting a Franciscan Friary to talk and pray and spend time in quiet. It’s irrelevant what you call it, but having that voice from outside to listen and speak is just so important.
If you’re looking for a structure for these times then you might want to do an internet search for John Wesley’s accountability questions. They’re pretty intense and working your way through all of them might prove rather harrowing, but they’ll give you a good idea of the kinds of things you should be talking about with whoever you have asked to have supervision of your spiritual growth.
If you want to take this a step further then you may want to consider taking time for a regular retreat; the opportunity to completely withdraw from the world to spend time in quiet and reflection. In our diocese we used to run an annual retreat for youth and children’s workers. Just 36 hours away made such a difference to people’s daily walks, and we’re just about to start offering occasional quiet days for much the same purpose.
There are plenty of places to start looking for spiritual direction or spiritual mentoring, have a chat with your church leader or your denominational youth officer for some guidance.
Youth ministry is undoubtedly a draining vocation; we’re expected to give our all, and most of us wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re involved in this wild and exciting adventure because we have a passion for Christ and a passion for young people. Keeping going for the long run means getting the best support we can find, and supervision is such an important part of that process. Like any process of growth, supervision can be time consuming and painful, but if we’re agreed that we can only give out from what we’ve got then we have to agree that looking after ourselves must be of highest importance.
Pete Maidment is the Youth Adviser for the Diocese of Winchester and the author of Reconnecting with Confirmation.