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Tagged: youthwork

Feb 19

Supporting LGBT Young People with Faith

In January my wife Sara and I had the great privilege of leading a training session for chaplains working in Further Education (FE) Colleges across the Bath and Wells Diocese. The question they asked us to cover was a great question – how can we better support LGBT young people who have a faith? A few people have asked for the content of our session, so this is a very condensed version of our ten recommendations for chaplains.

Listening is the role of any chaplain, but it is particularly important when it comes to LGBT young people. Let them tell their story. Listen without agenda, bias or judgement. Ask them what they need from you – don’t assume you know even if you’ve worked with LGBT young people before. We are all different, and what this young person needs from you may be completely unique. Being heard is often a healing act in itself for LGBT people, who are often made to listen to the views of others on their sexuality and identity.

It’s important not to use what is often referred to as ‘heteronormative’ language (defined in the Oxford dictionary as ‘denoting or relating to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation’). For example, if you’re working with a female young person don’t assume they’ll have a male partner. It’s also really important to challenge homophobic behaviour and language, even what may be seen as harmless joking or ‘banter’ by others. Challenging this educates the young people you are with, but it also communicates you are a safe person to speak to about gender and sexuality issues. Ensure you educate yourself about pronouns and correct terminology, particularly when working with transgender young people. Ask them what pronouns they prefer – he/she/they.

In most faith communities there’s an understanding that we all land in slightly different places when it comes to theological issues, particularly secondary as opposed to primary issues. In youth work, a key principle has always been to journey with and walk alongside young people as they find their way and discover things for themselves, rather than indoctrinating them or creating copies of ourselves! We may give our opinions when asked but we don’t enforce our worldview onto someone, or indeed any viewpoint about a specific theological issue. It’s exactly the same when working with LGBT young people. Walk with them, equip them, resource them, but don’t assume they’ll end up in the same place as you theologically – whatever viewpoint you currently hold on this issue.

One of the many gifts the LGBT community has to give to the church, and in fact this is true of any minority group, is the unique perspective and experience they have on the world and the church. They look at things through a unique lens, and give us the opportunity to see things in a new way. For example, with some of our straight married friends, we love the way our same sex relationship allows them to reflect on aspects of their relationship, that they normally wouldn’t reflect on. We often give the example of how in our early married life we were free from assigning household tasks in accordance with gender stereotypes. Instead we assigned them based on gifting and availablity, and in doing this we enabled some of our straight friends to see they could do the same! This is a trivial example but there are much larger ones – we have so much to learn from every minority group and if you are truly listening and in relationship with LGBT young people you will learn lots of exciting and life changing things!

Whilst being hurt by church is not an experience that’s exclusive to the LGBT community, it is a common one. For LGBT people, church can often feel like a very unsafe, non-affirming and even hostile place where you are vulnerable to prejudice and at risk of being on the receiving end of discrimination and judgement. Don’t push a young person to be part of a faith community if that’s not what they want or are ready for, or unless you can guarantee their safety and protection. Have a wide definition of church – know that a young person can experience church in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of places. It’s worth saying too that church can be a positive place and there are some amazing churches that are fully inclusive and fully affirming. You might need to help a young person to do their research if they’re looking for an affirming faith community.

When I was about 15 I had some amazing youth leaders who recognised some of where my gifts were starting to show themselves. They took risks with me and let me preach, teach, lead small groups and be involved in lots of exciting ways. The chances they gave me helped me learn more about myself, more about the person God had made me to be and the things he was calling me to do. However if I’d have been known at that time as gay, I wouldn’t have been given those opportunities. Lots of churches at the moment seem to find it acceptable to ‘welcome’ LGBT people, but to restrict and limit their involvement and participation. This is very damaging to LGBT people as they are held back from being all they are called to be, but it also damages the church as needed gifts and talents are withheld from the church and wider community. They are welcomed as guests, rather than included and involved as family members. This isn’t going to change quickly! Things are moving, but whilst that happens there is an army of young, gifted LGBT people who are called to all kinds of spiritual gifts – worship leaders, small group hosts, youth workers, preachers etc, who are simply stopped from exercising these gifts if they are in non-affirming churches. Therefore if you have any opportunity as an FE chaplain to empower and enable a young LGBT person to try something out, to be involved, to lead, let them do it!

Speak out where you can on behalf of LGBT young people. Better still, take their voices with you. LGBT people are often restricted from leadership meetings or any structure or system which has the power to effect change, especially young LGBT people. Think about ways in which you can help their voice to be heard and listened to. The times my wife and I have felt the most loved by those around us, is when they have stood up for us, spoken out on our behalf, challenged prejudice and discrimination, risked their own relationships and hurt with us as we have felt hurt.

Sexuality and gender are complex issues. They involve long and often difficult journeys. It may take time for a young person to find an identity they feel comfortable with, to settle or decide on language or pronouns. Give them time, be prepared for the long term as well as the short term. Understand that young people will shift and change in their views, understanding and expression as they grow older.

 

What does it look like to be a holy, LGBT Christian? To be set apart, purified and counter cultural? This is an exciting question, and it’s a question the church isn’t often prepared to help LGBT people answer, as they’re only just starting to figure out you can be fully gay and fully Christian! Don’t feel you can’t challenge a young person about their behaviour – there are ways to explore sexuality that honour God and please him, and there are ways to explore sexuality that are destructive and unhelpful. When I’d come to the resolution that I was gay and that God was ok with it, I remember desperately searching for books, internet articles, anything that would tell me ‘what the rules are’! Sexually yes, but in other ways too. Until there are more books written, until we talk about this in church, until churches actually teach and guide people and provide LGBT role models in leadership positions who can help young people figure this stuff out, it will always be tricky and new ground for young people to explore. Don’t be afraid to ask the awkward questions and have the difficult conversations, you’ll find LGBT young people are actually yearning for someone they can speak to about the tough stuff.

Being LGBT, young and Christian can be difficult, but it can also be amazing. Don’t assume it’s a problem for a young person, or something they see as negative or difficult, they might be fine with it! Show them that their sexuality is a strength, that it’s part of who God made them to be. With it they can go places others cannot go, reach people others cannot reach, and see things in a unique way unlike anyone else.

 

(These recommendations come with a few disclaimers! I am no expert – I’m drawing on my own experience as a gay, married Christian with over fifteen years of youth work experience. Therefore these are opinions, and you’re welcome to disagree with them. I’m aware that issues transgender young people face have not been covered in detail here, nor issues young Muslim or Jewish young people face. For that I highly recommend www.keshetonline.org and www.imaan.org.uk)

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Dec 28

New Year

The-Future-Is-Exciting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I always get super excited about New Year. I’m not a huge fan of the overpriced drinks, overcrowded nightclubs and unrealistic resolutions people set for themselves, but there is one reason for my excitement that has been the same now for ten years.

Nine years ago, a brilliant friend and I got together one new years eve, to eat nice dinner and hang out. We started talking about our year, reflecting on the things that had gone badly and the things that had gone well. We started talking about the things we wanted to achieve over the coming year, and we decided we would write ten of those things down on a piece of paper, put them in envelopes and give them to each other to keep safe until the next year, when we would open them and see how many we had managed. We thought it would be cool to include a message to ourselves, something we thought we’d need to tell ourselves a year on, perhaps something we might forget that we’d need to be reminded of. That’s exactly what we did, and we’ve done it every year since.

photoThis year I found all the old envelopes and it was amazing to look back at ten years of me – all my hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Every year it is such a profound and moving experience, and is one that I can’t recommend highly enough. So I thought I’d tell you about it.

One of the most fascinating things has been seeing how the targets I set for myself have changed. The first few years I set myself such stupid, unrealistic goals. My targets were vague, generic, non-specific and I’d need to be a superhero to get close to achieving most of them! As I’ve got a little older I set goals that are more realistic – or to quote to the well-known goal setting acronym ‘SMART’, my goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time sensitive. Sometimes I set goals that I know I will achieve. For example a couple of years ago I set the goal that I would have an MA in Applied Theology. I didn’t plan on failing my MA, but there were no guarantees – I had to work hard to finish it and it was still a massive achievement worth marking and celebrating. Some targets are things I’m pretty sure will happen, others are things I have no clue about, and some are targets I know may be on there for a few years yet.

becomingThere has also been a switch in priority for me. The first few years were all about the outcomes, the numbers, how many goals I could tick off and what number out of ten I had achieved. This year I didn’t even count the ones I had managed to do, but I reflected a lot around the person I had become, how I had grown and changed whilst trying to achieve those things. I don’t measure success now by my achievements, but in whether I am becoming more like the person I believe God wants me to be.

My favourite part is definitely the message I write to myself. It sounds like a slightly weird thing to do, a bit like talking to yourself, but it’s actually a bit clever. If you think about it, apart from God, there isn’t a person in the world who knows you better than yourself. You know what you struggle with, what you can be a bit lazy with, the things you forget and need to be reminded of, and what refocuses your heart and mind. So who better to be challenged and encouraged by, than yourself? It’s often a tool used in therapeutic situations, for example where someone might be encouraged to write a letter as an adult to themselves as children. It helps them reflect on what they might have needed to hear at that point in their lives, who they were and who they are now in comparison. You’ll see athletes psyching themselves up before the big game and even in the psalms we see David telling his soul to wake up! (Psalm 57:8)

It’s also fascinating that despite being adamant at the time that you will remember what you’ve written down, a year later I guarantee you will have forgotten nearly all of it. I can sometimes remember one or two of my targets, or maybe a sentence in my message to myself, but there are always surprises.

Finally the most important thing it does, is to help me remember how faithful God is, and how He has never ever failed me. Last year when I wrote my targets I was in a bit of a weird place, recovering from a painful year and making some big decisions about where I should be and what I should be doing. To open the envelope this week left me stunned, as I could see the place I was at, the things I was thinking when I’d written it all and how God has used every inch of it to bring me to where I am today. I can see His genius plan throughout all ten years of those hopes, dreams and questions, even when it’s been tough or hard to understand. Those pieces of paper are my markers, my evidence of God at work in my life and I will keep and treasure them forever.

So whatever you are doing this new year, I would really encourage you to find someone who knows you really well, and give this a go. Even my hairdresser and her sister are trying it out this year! If you don’t feel comfortable doing it with one other person why not do it with a group of young people you work with, your small group, a team at work or your family? I guarantee it will be a worthy use of your time, and maybe even like me, you will find it quickly becomes your favourite Christmas/New Year tradition.

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Nov 29

Making Mistakes

This article was originally written for and published in the July 2012 edition of Youthwork Magazine.

Ouch.

Whoops. It’s a word I must have used thousands of times in the ten years I have been doing youth work. In the early days I used it probably on a daily basis, with the hope that as I grew in experience and got my youth work degree, I would say whoops, a lot less. Perhaps I make less of the more obvious mistakes now, but I still make mistakes. Whether I like it or not, whoops is still a regular part of my vocabulary.

The mistakes I have made have varied from small organisational errors and badly handled conflict, to deep-seated bad attitudes and reactions to unhealed hurts. Some of these mistakes are funny to look back on and would feature comfortably in an episode of ‘You’ve Been Framed’. Some of them have been painful and costly and are really not very funny at all. But as I look back I realise that whatever those mistakes were, they have shaped me as a youth worker and made me the person that I am. They have helped me to realise not only the importance of making mistakes, but the deeper importance of learning from those mistakes.

Mistakes are always messages. At a youth project I worked in a few years ago, I had faced months of difficult conflict with a group of young people. I had been insulted, threatened, spat on, pushed, had bags of dog excrement thrown at me…for months and as I was the senior worker I always had to deal with any kind of trouble. One night despite every effort on my part to engage these young people and build a positive relationship with them, they went beyond what I was able to cope with, and as my staff and the young people were in danger I was forced to call the police. When they arrived 45 minutes later, one police officer spoke to me very badly, saying I should have dealt with the situation myself and was wasting his time. I lost it. The people that were supposed to be helping and protecting me were now angry with me for asking for their help. The conversation developed into a nasty argument and in full view of young people and staff I lost my temper, shouted and swore at the policeman, who threatened to arrest me. Thankfully a colleague took over and forced me to go back inside. As I sat on the floor in the staff toilet with tears streaming down my face hoping I wouldn’t be spending the night in a police cell, I realised what I had done and I wished I could erase the last ten minutes. But I couldn’t.

Whoops.

Later that week as my amazingly supportive line manager and I sat down to talk about what had happened, we realised some problems that we just hadn’t seen before. I was doing too much, the problems with these young people were not being resolved in any way, I was the worker dealing with it on a weekly basis without any support and I was completely exhausted. I had acted unprofessionally and should not have said what I said, but the mistake told us things, pointed towards areas that needed attention, helped us improve the situation. The mistake had a message and thankfully we heard it.

A simple reflective practice strategy can help us make sense of a mistake. Kolb (1984) developed a cycle that can be useful in helping us reflect and learn from an experience. I include my mistake to show you how it might work;

A mistake nearly always forces you to look at the determining factors that led to the mistake. In my example I acted badly and I needed to be disciplined for that, but there was also some responsibility that needed to be taken by my co-workers for not supporting me, my line manager who hadn’t spotted I was doing too much and of course the policeman who perhaps didn’t handle the situation in the best possible way! When someone makes a mistake it can be because they’re too tired, perhaps they are juggling too many things or don’t have the adequate training to deal with a certain situation. If someone you are managing makes a mistake what can you take responsibility for? What can you improve on and what can be changed to ensure the mistake won’t happen again?

When I was 15 I attended a house group that was always the highlight of my week. It was a safe space for me to ask questions, share difficulties and explore God with other people my age, as well as with incredible youth leaders. One night, one youth leader shocked me to my core as she honestly and humbly told us about a mistake she had made in her teenage years. It was something that had deeply affected her, and her marriage.

Whoops.

I couldn’t believe she had done it! I thought she was perfect, holy, a youth worker…not someone who made a huge mistake like that. I didn’t know what to say and as I walked home I felt disappointed that the youth leader I had looked up to so much, was actually just a normal person like me who made stupid mistakes. What a brilliant lesson for me to learn! As I continued to navigate my way through adolescence, I realized that messing up was normal and that I didn’t have to keep it a secret. I no longer saw my youth leader as some perfect role model who I could never be like, but someone just like me, who messed up and needed God. Tell your young people about the mistakes you’ve made, and the mistakes you still make. Obviously respect boundaries, be appropriate and don’t glamorize or belittle sin, but don’t let them think you are something you are not. Young people need to know that people screw up and make it, young people need to know that they are not expected to be perfect and that leaders are not to be put on pedestals, because they have a habit of falling off quite spectacularly. It’s not just young people that need to know this – it’s people in your church, your best friends, your staff and your volunteers. Sharing your mistakes stops people from thinking you are something you are not, relieves you of impossible pressure or expectations and may even prevent someone else from making the very same mistake you did!

It is a myth that Christians never make mistakes. The bible is full of not good enough people who screwed up all the time, that God used and empowered. Peter is often famous for his mistakes – losing faith whilst walking on water, cutting off a soldier’s ear, that whole denying Jesus three times thing.

Whoops.

But after all that, who did Jesus use to build his church? Was it the disciples who got it all right, the ones who gave all the right answers, didn’t ask as many questions and kept their sword in it’s sheath? No, it was Peter he chose. Peter the mistake maker. Peter might have made mistakes but at least he tried. He tried to defend Jesus, he was actually present at the crucifixion, he got out of the boat! He did things, he acted, his beliefs led to him doing. I would rather be someone who makes hundreds of mistakes trying to do something than someone who makes no mistakes doing nothing.

Pioneer ministry is a fairly new term within youth ministry but it’s important to mention it here because mistakes are inevitable in pioneering. Pioneer youth ministry is doing stuff that hasn’t been done before, carving out a new path that has never been walked. There is something essentially pioneering about all youth work, because every relationship you form is a new path, every individual you meet and work with will have totally different needs and responses compared to another. You are constantly pioneering, constantly guessing what will work and not work, what to say and not say, how this person will react to that. There are no maps, no senior workers to advise you or tell you about their mistakes so you don’t make the same ones. If it’s truly pioneering then trying it with a bit of guess work is the only way. Mistakes will be made, because they are the only way you can be lead to something that works, a path that’s walkable that others can follow. In his development of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison famously said, ‘If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward’. It is the destiny of a pioneer to find thousands of ways that don’t work, all so that they can be lead to the one way that will work. Your mistakes will always be the paving slabs the path leading to your successes is made from.

Sometimes it’s hard trying to imitate a sinless savior who in just thirty three years changed the course of human history and enabled a way for broken people to restore their relationship with God. I often feel like I’ll never get it, I’ll never be good enough, and how can Jesus ever understand that? He was perfect, he doesn’t know what it’s like to make mistakes. Or does he?

In Luke 2 we read an interesting story about Jesus as a young person, temporarily separated from his parents only to be found in the temple, listening to the scriptures, asking questions and amazing people with his knowledge. In verse 52 we’re told that ‘Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men’.

Really? Jesus grew in wisdom? Jesus could grow in something? Jesus wasn’t born with total and complete wisdom?

Then there is Hebrews 5: 8 – 9; ‘Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect…’ Jesus learned things, Jesus was ‘made perfect’. So he wasn’t before?

I’m not trying to argue that Jesus wasn’t perfect or sinless, I believe he was both. But perhaps this is sometimes the problem in our thinking when we see making a mistake as a sin, rather than just a mistake, inevitable in the process as we learn and grow into the person God is shaping us to be. Making mistakes isn’t failing, it isn’t sinning, it can’t be if Jesus did it.

Jesus was fully human. He wasn’t born potty trained. He had to learn how to walk, to talk, to feed himself, to read, to write. He was a carpenter (or general handyman for the theologians amongst us). I have never trained to be a carpenter, but I did do GCSE Resistant Materials, which is almost the same thing and I was awful at it. It took me months to learn how to saw properly, make joints and hammer nails in the right places. Jesus would have been the same. He probably made some really dodgy tables, the ones where you need a couple of napkins under a leg to stop your dinner from flying off the table with every movement of your leg.

Whoops.

Although perhaps not entirely theologically accurate, I love the scene in ‘The Passion’, where a flashback shows Jesus inventing a high table, different to the others around at the time. It shows the side of Jesus we never see, the one who played and learned and grew, the Jesus who made mistakes and who therefore gives us permission to do the same.

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