Why can’t churches find youth workers? A response to Paul Friend

After a decade of working as a volunteer youth and children’s leader, I felt as if God was calling me into something more. I thought I knew how to do the work, but that I just need the certificate to prove it, so I applied to do a Youth Work degree.  I spent my first year discovering that, despite my experience, there was so much more to learn.  My work in the 15 years since then has been shaped and transformed  transformed by the knowledge, skills and practices I learned on the degree course, which has surely been to the benefit of those I have worked with.  This is why I have remained committed to, and involved in the training of those who work with children, young people and their families ever since.  It’s also why I want to respond to Paul Friend’s article and the questions he poses.

Paul Friend writes of a “massive void” in the availability of well-trained youth workers in the church nationally.  I am seeing the same things he refers to in my work with CYM and with churches within Baptists Together.  Like Paul, I hear from churches looking to recruit someone who is well-trained and equipped to do the all-important work of discipling the upcoming generations of the church, but also to reach out beyond the church to serve the younger people of the communities where God has placed them.  

Paul asks the question “What have we got wrong?”.  He is right that well-trained people require investment in time and money and churches aren’t always willing to recognise this and support it, especially when they can’t see the immediate benefit to themselves.  Is this why churches prefer to run their own intern programmes?  This is true at both professional level with employed workers and with volunteers.  It’s also true that we don’t shape roles to provide long term security.  As Paul notes, churches struggle to recruit someone to meet their job criteria especially when they are only able to offer a part-time role.  A young single worker could be willing to live in a house share with some friends for a couple of years on a low salary, but in the long run they may want to think about a home of their own and maybe a family.  These things require good full-time salaries and permanent contracts; not something that tends to happen in jobs for children’s, youth and families’ workers.  Is that part of the reason why youth workers leave and seek ‘promotion’ to adult ministry?   

Underlying all three points is a concern for me that the church as a whole has not valued children and young people enough to give them the best it can.  Our post-COVID world is much more complex and challenging than anything we have experienced before and if churches are to face up to the task, we need those who work with young people and children to be well-trained, equipped to work with young people whose lives have been shaped in ways that no adult can fully understand.  In the past volunteers could draw on their own experience of growing up to inform their work, so the need for training wasn’t so acute.  I would argue that no adult can share the experience of this COVID generation, those who have come to adulthood in a global pandemic, with schooling disrupted, mental health challenged in ways we cannot imagine and support structures disappearing overnight!   How much more so now do young people and children need workers that really know what they are doing. 

I want to disagree somewhat with Paul’s last point, that “We see adult ministry as promotion and we back that up with words and actions”.  Church cultures are very slow to change, and change needs strong voices advocating for it.  If those who started as youth workers find themselves “promoted” to whole church leadership, I hope that they use their expertise and training to challenge prevailing attitudes about the role of youth and children’s work, and more importantly the place of the child and young person in the church.  If that happens, I hope that churches will then begin to place more value on training, not just for paid professional workers but for volunteers, no matter what their experience.  I hope that job roles will begin to offer long term security so that young people will know that their youth leader will be around for the long haul and workers will be able to work whole-heartedly knowing they are being supported and looked after.  And most of all, I hope that this will mean that youth and children’s ministry will be recognised and valued by the whole church for the important task it is.