Three (not-so) novel truths about youth work

I’m a youth worker. Seriously, check my LinkedIn. In addition to multiple summers of camp counseling, and going on my second year of urban youth ministry, I have experience both “in the trenches” and also at the fancy-schamncy level of organizational leadership. Even the final projects for both of my non-youth-work internships were directly youth related.

This was completely unintentional. Despite an interdisciplinary major, I didn’t have a single undergrad course in education or youth ministry or something even remotely related. “The youth guy” was never part of my identity, because in college your identity is what you study, and at North Park University everyone and their cousin worked at summer camp, so the fact I worked with kids sometimes was not something worth mentioning.

It has slowly begun to hit me, however, that being “the youth guy” is a prominent part of who I am despite no conscious decision on my part. Which has led to some reflection: what is it, exactly, that I am doing? And what it is, exactly, about this work that fuels me and my volunteers? 

The typical answer is valid, despite tinges of self-righteousness. Youth work is about providing stability, a positive environment, attention, unconditional love, and mentorship. In short, we youth workers help make human flourishing happen amongst teenagers.

This should be enough to convince you that the work is worthwhile.

This, however, is not the full answer.

What follows are three truths I have learned about youth work, as someone not formally educated in youth work but rather with my own academic lens (global studies and conflict transformation, ha!) and a particular set of youth work experiences. They might strike you as novel at first, but upon reflection you might see how they have always been there. These not-so novel truths aren’t exclusive only to youth ministry, but I would argue have some resonance for the whole gamut of youth work: from teaching to coaching, from social services to student activism.

Youth are subversive.

We all know the stereotype: the rebellious teenager standing defiant against all authority. Whether they do it for attention, as a vent for adolescent hormones, or maybe even because they have the seedlings of a particular political consciousness, we know who these particular kids are.

The rebels aren’t who I am talking about. Not specifically, at least.

All youth are, by definition, subversive. They represent a certain threat to our authority, structures and institutions, simply because they have not yet learned how to fit into our categories. Youth have, so to speak, fresh eyes for the world.

This may sound overly political. But if you have ever known a choir room used for a hide-and-seek game, or a sanctuary balcony used as a place to sneak a kiss, or a church building that has a freakin’ gymnasium in it, I guarantee you that somewhere along the way youth were involved. And, truth be told, I am not quite sure what can be considered more political than redefining spaces according to how one sees fit.

Youth subversiveness is not limited to spaces. Youth challenge relationships, customs, hopes, prejudices, ideas, and plans. This is part of what we call “not knowing any better.”

So we try and teach our youth how to fit in. We help them behave properly and speak correctly. We give them the skills they need to survive in the world (specifically, our vision of the world), because we know the machine will grind against them if they do not know how to be a part of it, and we know the machine’s parts (that is, us) are always wearing out and in need of constant replacement.

This is the starting point for much of what we consider to be youth work, as it should be. But it overlooks the fact that the whole exchange is a two-way street.

When the adults engage with the youth in order to promote conformity, the return deal is that the adults might find their own structures lacking. Youth have the fresh eyes to call out the contradictions, cracks and collusions that we have grown blind to by way of seeing them too many times. We want them to ask the questions that we have answers to; we are much less comfortable when they ask the questions that we never knew were questions. Youth have the right to reform the machine that they are destined to be a part of, and we would be foolish to wait until they grow up to fix the mistakes that they can see now.

So while we need to figure out what to do with the rebellious teenager, we can be thankful that youth are inherently subversive. The challenge of the youth worker, in this case, is to figure out how to properly channel that subversiveness into something constructive for all of us.

You don’t get too old to work with youth.

Just like how the subversiveness of youth can refresh our institutions, the energy of youth can refresh us as individuals.

To borrow logic from “Dipsea Demon” Jack Kirk, you don’t stop working with youth because you get old, you get old because you stop working with youth.

I have to speak carefully because as a twenty-something youth worker I am far from knowing what “old age” feels like. That said, I count it a great blessing to have a game of dodgeball built into my weekly work schedule, when many of my peers are taking office jobs spent almost entirely behind desks. Although I may not be too proud of the fact I can recite the names of the One Direction singers by memory, I find something particularly exciting about being able to speak the language (which is less a language and more a particular set of communication practices) of the generation after mine.

Yet again, it runs both ways. Youth can refresh the elders, while elders can inspire the youth.

When recruiting volunteers, I keep my eyes open on two particular age groups. The first isn’t surprising: those in their 20’s and 30’s. We are old enough to command the respect (and occasionally, awe) of teenagers, but still young enough to not resemble their parents. The second age group, however, are the “empty nesters”: roughly those in their mid-50’s and 60’s.

Why 50-somethings?

1) Because youth are always subconsciously looking for the role models that their immediate family can’t provide. The same reason those in their 20’s and 30’s inspire awe in teenagers isn’t that much different from why those in their 50’s do as well. Youth are looking for role models, not just for the next stage of life, but all stages of life.

2) Because, assuming they have had kids of their own, they are veterans of the teenage drama, and sometimes your average twenty-something youth leader needs a little extra wisdom on the leadership team.

For those of us “professional” youth workers, our work is sometimes seen as a way of getting one’s foot in the door, before the adult world finally accepts us for bigger and better things. Kind of like a glorified internship. That may be true, but more and more I realize that when (if?) the day comes that I have to leave youth work, I’ll resist like the dickens, unless the next job has an office-wide dodgeball tournament built into the schedule.

Youth work is timeless.

I work in youth ministry, a particular form of youth work that has been around for about two centuries, although it has looked radically different from generation to generation. While it seems that every youth minister — and most youth workers — are constantly on the cutting edge of culture, the work we do has been around as long as civilization itself.

I’ll make my case with Ancient Greece, because Ancient Greece seems to be where everyone wants to make “as long as civilization” arguments. Exhibit A — Socrates hung out with a bunch of youth teaching them the Socratic method and other counter-cultural things, one of those youth being Plato, Plato being Aristotle’s mentor, and Aristotle in turn being Alexander the Great’s youth worker (aka “tutor”). Exhibit B — the Spartans, despite implementing a number of strange practices, nevertheless developed an intricate system of youth work, from which they built their legendary militaristic society.

The principle is simple: as long as there have been youth, there has been a need for youth work.

The next generation is not going to “get it” through osmosis, or “flourish” in passivity. It’s amazing what kids can learn from the Internet, but the Internet cannot teach kids everything. The next generation needs people who understand them, who pursue them, who help and care for them.

If we fail at identifying the right people for this task — and equipping them properly — the future of our communities, churches and societies all of a sudden looks rather bleak.

Despite all of its importance, there is a certain intangibility to youth work. leading to a certain angst among youth workers. We rarely get to see the finished product of our labors. We are artists molding with a clay that has a mind of its own, trying to make beautiful something (someone) that already has dignity on its (their) own.

From this intangibility arises frustration, and therefore youth workers have a tendency to “burn out.” Not before the task is finished, because the task is constant, but before the time is right for them to properly retire or move on to the next phase of life.

So, if not in the elusive sense of accomplishment, where then should youth workers find their perseverance? Their endurance? Their strength?

The answer is simple:

Our perseverance is in the past — this is a work as old as time.

Our endurance is in the future — the youth before us have so much potential to flourish.

Our strength is in the present — there is a game of dodgeball to be played.

I don’t usually dedicate blog posts, but I thought I’d take some space at the end of this post to recognize a certain someone. Someone who perhaps modeled these “three truths about youth work” before I could ever articulate them. I speak of a volunteer youth worker I had as a teenager, Margaret Legardwhose abrupt passing from this life provoked me to develop these thoughts I had been sitting on for a while. Peace to your memory, Mother Margaret, and thanks for all your years of sacrifice, care and wisdom. You will be sorely missed.

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Three (not-so) novel truths about youth work

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