Resource and research support youth workers to succeed

The Presbyterian Youth Ministry is working to help churches better support youth workers.

In February an online survey was sent out to youth workers asking them two simple things: on a scale of one to ten how well they feel supported by their ministers, and what suggestions they would make to help their churches support them more effectively.

The idea for the survey came about after national Youth Director Matt Chamberlin ran a training session for intern ministers and found they were interested in knowing how to support youth workers in their charge. He figured the best way to find out would be to ask the workers themselves. “

The survey response was significant, showing that youth workers were keen to have their voices heard,” says Matt. “There was a huge range of results. Some respondents said they were finding their churches amazingly supportive, others said they were finding things incredibly hard.”

When it came to suggestions for how their churches could better support them, the range of ideas was also diverse. “We couldn’t create a cookie cutter because each worker’s needs were different,” says Matt. “So the research encouraged church leaders to get to know their youth worker and how to support them personally. For example, some workers wanted more involvement from their minister, while others wanted more freedom.”

Four things stood out from the results which Matt summarised as ‘easy as ABCD’.

  • Advocacy. Youth workers depend on ministers to get their voices heard. Where the minister is on board with the youth ministry he or she can inspire the church elders to be more involved.
  • Be thankful. Youth workers need reminding that what they do is valuable. Saying thanks alone isn’t effective. The thanks must be tailored to the person.
  • Connecting. Helping youth workers connect young people into the congregation.
  • Discipleship. Ministers should nurture and educate youth workers in skill and faith.

“The training ministers found it enlightening that the approach couldn’t be the same for all youth workers,” says Matt. “And interest in the findings spread. Many other ministers emailed to say they were interested in what we’d discovered. And I heard encouraging stories. For example, a minister in Wellington told me about a congregation member who’d read the research and said ‘let’s incorporate this into our church’. People took the research on board and saw its importance.”

Another crucial piece of work the Presbyterian Youth Ministry has undertaken, along with leaders of other national denominations, is to develop an index of sustainable practices which help with youth leader vitality. It’s a practical resource for churches to use and can be viewed and downloaded at the new website

“We started the work early last year,” says national Youth Manager Gordon Fitch. “We were in contact with Chris Curtis in the UK, one of the people behind the ‘We Love Our Youth Worker’ resource, and that’s what we’ve pinned our work on.”

However, there were substantial changes needed for the New Zealand context and Gordon and Amber Livermore of the Wesleyan Methodist Church were tasked with creating a uniquely Kiwi resource. First, they made the index open for any church to use rather than having an accreditation process as in the UK and the US. Second, they made another version of the resource for churches with volunteer youth leaders rather than paid workers.

“There are 200 Presbyterian churches engaged in youth ministry in New Zealand and only 70 of those have a paid youth worker,” says Gordon. “So it was important to provide for the majority of churches who have voluntary youth leaders.”

It was also necessary to recognise New Zealand’s bicultural nature. So Michael Tamihere from the Anglican Church translated the documents into Te Reo Māori. The resource was then designed and loaded onto the website just before Easter. “It’s early days but we’ve had excellent feedback from youth workers who’ve said it’s really helpful,” says Gordon.

There has been praise from overseas too, from Kenda Creasy Dean, a Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. “The resource is about longevity,” adds Gordon.

“It takes time to make a difference in young people’s lives. The practices in the resource should encourage people to hang around longer. Churches just want to know what’s best practice and support youth workers as best they can.”

Kate Davidson SPANZ