Saturday, December 17, 2005

A word from Mars: A man’s perspective on women in youth ministry

By Simon Billenness
I have been involved in youth work for 17 years and have had many wonderful and terrific opportunities to work with a broad range of different people whilst working with young people. It has been my privilege to work alongside some very capable and effective female youth workers. When I think of all those I have worked with I tend not to ponder for a long time on their gender rather on the character and the skills they project to the work. I am not trying to deny that gender is a real issue what I am saying is that it doesn’t have to be what defines a ‘good youth worker’, if such a thing exist! In my experience there are times when gender identities can get in the way and confuse workers roles and responsibilities. An example of this is when I have planned an evening event and the question arises of who will be able to prepare the refreshments, I have automatically looked towards my female colleagues. Of course they are very capable in this area but by making the assumption that they will be best suited to this role is indeed sexist and limits the possibilities for everyone. If I continually ask, cajole and convince my female colleagues to take on a traditional role this will send out a message to the young people, male and female alike. In fact the very idea of a role being given out is laden with power and it requires a more consider process of dialogue and negotiation. Now when I approach the issue of assigning tasks I try to think past my initial reactive thoughts and look further at who will gain something from this task and how will this impact on the young people.
An example of how taking different roles can impact on young people is when I worked in a new centre with a female colleague; in fact she had a slightly senior role to myself. On meeting we began to share interests and the direction that we wanted to take the project. It soon became clear that Chris, my colleague, had a flair for sport and I had more of a leaning towards using art. To be perfectly honest I am not the greatest sportsman and probably never will be. This has never stopped me showing an interest, taking part somewhat badly or encouraging others. Once we had negotiated how we were going to work we set out our programs with the young people. We could both instantly see the impact this was having by taking on these roles. Although the young people didn’t come and say it, you could see that we had confused them by not following the traditional gender role. By Chris taking an active role in developing physical activities and organising football competitions with the young men made them realise that this is not solely a role for a male worker. This also had an influence on the number of young women who were then encouraged to participant more in the sports hall activities. In the same vain I managed to encourage young men to express themselves through art and that this was an acceptable male pursuit. It challenged them to consider that the activity be it sport or art does not have to be dominated by one gender group. The opportunity for learning from this one action was great and allowed us to set out clear expectations from the young people around participation.

Well, you may be thinking, he’s got it so sorted and clearly never puts a foot wrong. That is far from the truth, it is a constant process of thinking first before alienating everyone. However sometimes obvious mistakes can lead to an improved level of awareness and practice. Whilst working on a road show style event with a very good team of youth workers (both male and female) I learnt a valuable lesson from a female colleague. We had been working hard getting everything ready from preparing lighting to folding leaflets. I went to check my computer for a programme list and my computer disk decided to fail. You know what it’s like when your back is up against the wall you have 100 young people coming from far and wide and you hit a snag. Without this list no one would be aware of what was happening and when, panic began to creep in. Jenny stepped up she offered to speedily type the notes and save the day. Being a secretary by day Jenny had no trouble getting the job done and crisis averted. I was very grateful and she had certainly saved my bacon, as it had been my responsibility. I thanked her and then she said that she wanted to get her clothes ready for the evening. At this point my brain switched itself and my mouth took over “Typical woman” I said with a friendly but sarcastic tone. At this she turned and quite justifiably tore strips off me and stated she was not a typical anything. Brain decided to turn on again and I apologised. She did accept this apology and we moved pass this but this incident although brief taught me a valuable lesson. My sexist remark, although intended as a fun jibe, hurt. It hurt because it was disrespectful and undermining. Of course it is possible to laugh and joke about gender but we cannot forget that it is a serious issue. There has been times when I have been at the receiving end of a sexist comment. Working within a female dominated environment I have suffered remarks such as “men can’t do two things at the same” & “typical man”. This does little to improve the situation for either gender group. For this I learnt to at the person female or male and value them and their work without prejudice. This sounds kind of simplistic however difficult it may be it is important not to fall into the trap of assumption. By assigning characteristics and behaviour to people purely based their gender robs that person of their individuality.

Since that turning point I have tried to encourage colleagues to work in areas that they want to develop rather than follow an accepted pattern. Sometimes this is not as easy or welcoming as you might think. I have had to work quite hard to encourage some workers to take a lead or to do something they want to do but are afraid of the reaction of others. I had one female colleague who was quite sophisticated and enjoyed to engage with the young people talking about art, fashion, latest trends and so on. I then encouraged her to accompany me on a kayaking trip. Margaret was keen to come and support the young people but was quite adamant that she was not going to get on or in the water. She says she is happy to come do a little sun bathing and chat to the girls etc…As it happens not all the young people turn up and there was a spare place to go kayaking. I know that some of the girls are little reticent about going in the kayak for the first time so I turn to my colleague to see if she has changed her mind and in the spirit of empowering these young women would go in. It took some persuading but Margaret took up the challenge and set the example that really influenced the rest of the group to participate. I think it was real turning point in terms of her relationship with the group, and they began to see her in a new light. Margaret did have an air sophistication but underneath as I long expected was a real sense of determination. On this trip the group saw this side of her character and the respect for her went up considerably. Needless to say the trip was a success and apart from being a little wet was enjoyed by all including Margaret. But encouraging her out of her assumed role both Margaret and the young people learnt something. Margaret learnt she could kayak and that she could relate to the young people in a different way. The young people learnt that Margaret, a female youth worker, had a lot of skill and determination in an area that had not previously associated her with. We all make judgements, we can’t really help it. What we can help is relying solely on our judgement and being prepared to see what lies beyond it.
Some female youth workers have told me that their main interest is in working with young women and setting up a young women’s group. I feel that this can lead to some feeling of collusion amongst some male colleagues and young men. This could be due to a sense of insecurity and from a concern about what could be said about them. I have had the opportunity to lead a young women’s group and it was a great eye opener. I had to ask the group’s permission for me to be able to work with them as I respected the fact that they may not wish to have a male leader. They agreed that I could work with them with the arrangement I would leave the room should a subject arise that they didn’t feel comfortable discussing in front of me. With this proviso in place I began asking them what they wanted to do, cooking, art, trips out, make up evening. Oh dear, on my first evening I was put in my place as they wanted to make a difference in their community, they wanted to raise some money and they wanted to create better links with the Asian community. I must say that I was really made to work hard with this group but it was incredibly rewarding and successful. They planned a history project with a launch and press release that attracted countywide interest. Again I learnt a valuable lesson about gender stereotyping which although having done several training courses when you are under pressure to deliver targets and get projects working you can slip up. I feel that I contributed to the learning process for this group of young women by engaging in conversations around their expectations of men. By offering a male perspective it challenged their assumptions and made them think about how it might be for young men. The gender issues are moving and it not simply of sticking to one principle and one simple message. Many young men are facing issues of style, fashion and image to a level that was present a decade ago but not to same now fierce status. An example of this is that more people seem to be interested in David Beckham’s hair than his football. So now both male and female share some of the gender issues and it now seems to be our role as youth workers to bridge the gap and face the issues together. So the question of whether male worker can work with young women and female workers with young men is that they can. The interesting question is more about how young people react to workers and how this might impact on the workers. When I joined the young women’s group they made assumptions about what I was interested in and what I wanted from them. I observed the same response when female workers have engaged with young men and had lengthy conversations about sports. When workers decide to challenge young people on stereotypes it can produce very interesting and exciting results. Whilst working as a detached youth worker I worked with a team of female part time youth workers. They were all very different and brought different strengths to the project. One day we were out on an afternoon session meeting and working with groups who had just come out of school. It was a friendly atmosphere and we were making a good connection with a small group. Then they started to walk off one by one, I must say does this little for the confidence of a detached worker, so we began to investigate what was occurring. As soon as we turned the corner of the street we saw what was the source of the distraction, a fight. Two young men had started an argument which had attracted a crowd and this had spurred the two into a fight. I carefully assessed how we should intervene and I turned to my colleague and she had already entered into what was now a chaotic scene. Standing between the two young men she got them to part and told everyone to go home. I remember the shock of the look of the young men, not because of the blood that had been drawn, but that a small but confident woman had told them off. When I look back on this session I often wonder what would have happened if I had been the one to break things up. The risk of being hit comes to mind as well as being seen as a bigger threat to deal with. I have no doubt that in this instance being female helped to defuse and calm the situation. We need to remember that regardless of own sense of identity young people will primarily judge us on what they can see. The sight of a woman to these warring young men may be reminded them of a mother or sister and it stopped them in their tracks.

In terms of ministering to young people I have often been in awe of the capacity of my female youth work colleagues to connect with a situation. Often I have started a session unaware that young person is upset and a female colleague has already dealt with the matter by the time I realise that something is not right. We all have strengths to bring to the work that we do with young people and there should not exist a hierarchy of youth work skills. If we only value leadership this could end in disaster with many needs going unmet. The same can be said for listening, sometimes it is only through action that our message and compassion can be understood. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, women played an important and respectful role often at the most poignant times. He often used gender to challenge others and reinforce his message of God’s all embracing love. As a man I am often made to think of how the women in my life personally and professionally who have influenced and informed my decisions and challenge my perspective. In some respects some of the learning I have received from female youth work colleagues made a greater impact because of their female perspective. By listening and respecting the experience of female colleagues has enabled me to deepen and expand my ability to relate to others.

If as a worker we remain entrenched in our gender stereotypes we are then placing a limit on future possibilities for ourselves and for young people. By endorsing the gender identities i.e. male workers in the sports hall and female workers in the kitchen sends a closed message to young people about gender. If we actively encourage and challenge the gender roles and identity it starts a dialogue with young people and an openness to explore the world without prejudice.

From Mars: Practical advice for female youth workers

I believe in discussing issues openly and fairly however contentious they might be. Sometimes this can be uncomfortable for all sides, however by tackling this ‘uncomfortableness’ we can begin to get at what people are thinking and feeling. By exploring what others think about gender can open up some opportunities to delve into other areas such relationships. The gender issue is not going to go away and if we choose the option of sticking our heads in the sand it is only bring about deeper anxiety and ambiguity.

Where do you begin? you might ask. Well, there is no place better to start than with yourself. What is the baggage you are carrying and what prejudices do you hold onto? Give yourself some time to think about where you stand and how you feel. Next, you could start with your colleagues by, perhaps gently at first, raising this as a discussion can begin the process of reviewing how it affects them and the work you do. It is then important to involve young people in this dialogue, as they will bring a further perspective to the process. Don’t start expecting that you will end up with a definitive answer and a group of totally enlightened individuals. Rather look at valuing the process of developing the dialogue and seeing where it takes you.

When you are at the stage of setting out your youth work programme think carefully about how gender roles might affect this process. A programme full of sports such as rugby, football and wrestling it may send a gender bias to the young people. Of course the programme will need to be negotiated with your young members but don’t forget about those who do not attend but might like to. If your group is dominated by young men, for example, do explore alternative activities. This will enable them to try something different and discover a new interest it may also attract others who may be drawn by these opportunities. I am not saying that an action packed programme is out of the question, perhaps it is more about how you promote it to the young people. We may want all our young men to do cooking and our young women to be out playing football but we have to go at a reasonable pace and not push people too far out of their comfort zones. Sure after you have worked with a group and pushed the boundaries I am confident they will start asking, or may be demanding, more of the same.

Effective challenges
Shouting through a megaphone at a male colleague about how they have been sexist would not be my advice. I know some male colleagues who although trained youth workers still struggle with challenges from women. This is an issue they need to resolve but any help they can be given can only be a good thing. It is also about challenging young people’s views on gender as they can perpetuate the traditional roles of youth workers. If young women only approach female workers to start up a cookery group and young men always turn to the male workers to set basketball tournaments then the workers might feel obliged to fulfil these roles. By building positive relationships can give us all a chance to challenge more effectively. If you know the person you will know how they will respond and how far you can push them towards change. Negative experiences of challenges that leave individuals feeling guilty and exposed in my experience rarely affect change in behaviour or attitudes. A calm word over a coffee can make the world of difference. The processes of sharing how being female/male can be a very powerful one, so think carefully about how and where you do it.

Get support
Beginning this process of dialogue and challenge can leave you feeling vulnerable and possibly isolated. Find a friend or colleague who will help you and encourage you. Speaking as a man it is very easy to become complacent about my gender. When someone, anyone, begins to challenge me I do sometimes react defensively and see the process as an attack rather than as positive change. It is often difficult to deal with this sort of irrational, emotional response and you will need to be ready for it. It isn’t personal although it may feel like it. Be patient and prepared for questions to follow. It is often easy to allow others to own the issue and sharing goes out the window. It is important to encourage others that the gender issue is something that we all own and to not walk away from it.

Many projects have some sort of policy around equal opportunity and ground rules on acceptable behaviour. If you haven’t got one then this can be your starting point. These are valuable but all too often are left as merely posters or in filing cabinets. Get your management committee to begin thinking about how this might be linked to some positive action. I am not suggesting marches but may be something more small scale like a gender awareness programme. Once you encourage them to make this link they will certainly think carefully about what the policy says and may be what it doesn’t say.

Friday, December 09, 2005

It's your move...

I've had a few interesting conversations about this recently and been asked for some advice so I thought I'd put it out here for other suggestions:

If a young male teenager starts flirting with you or making inappropriate suggestions, what is your response?

  • Flat clear refusal
  • Sarcastic rejection
  • Angry accusation
  • Quiet word away from everyone else
  • Ban him from youth group for a week

Friday, October 21, 2005

One of the Lads: effective work with teenage boys - Summary

This first post reflects on the way men work with lads in youth ministry and whether or not women should work in the same way.

It explores ways that women have worked in a similar model and also suggests ways that women can work in a different way.

It also explores possible advantages for women in youth ministry over their male counterparts.

The post also looks at issues of teenage crushes, youth culture and body image.

One of the Lads: effective work with teenage boys

by Sarah Hamilton

When I first started as a youth worker, I looked around for a model to follow. My only experience of full time youth workers as a young person and as a volunteer youth leader had been that of male youth workers. A quick glance at any shelf of books on youth ministry will show you that there are not many examples of women writing on youth ministry. Jenny Baker and Kenda Creasey Dean stand out for me as notable and most excellent exceptions.

If most of the books on youth ministry are written by men, how far is it appropriate for us as female practitioners to follow the models of ministry which they present?

What models of ministry are there for women working with young people and especially in their work with teenage boys?

What can we learn from male youth ministers and what can male youth ministers learn from us?

Well I hope this post will answer those questions in part.

I began full time youth work at the beginning of 2003. As a twenty eight year old former medieval historian and Latin teacher with little inclination to sport, I wondered how I would relate to some of the teenagers, especially some of the lads. I've never had problems relating to anyone and I have been working as a volunteer with teenagers since I myself was a teenager However my worry was; would the teenage boys feel the same?

Well, against all logic and sense, I feel the young men I work with do accept me. Indeed one of the teenage girls I work with told me recently that she thinks I relate well to teenage boys. This is a good thing in my local situation as the boys outnumber the girls two to one. This is not purely the result of my succeeding a male youth minister in the job but it just happens that the families in our church have more sons than daughters and those sons have introduced their friends to our work and so on. So with such a large number of boys, how does an aging academic fit in? In fact I do often seem to be accepted as one of the lads and sometimes more often than I’m accepted as one of the girls. This may result from my lack of inclination to make-up, boy bands and reading Cosmo but I think it also stems from my conscious effort to meet them where they are. I'll give you an example.

Our Sunday fellowship group has been running for many years with new young people joining each year as they move from junior to secondary school and yet despite this continuous change and growth the boys have always sat on the left hand side as you walk in and the girls have always sat on the right. Being someone who was described recently as “feisty in character” – thanks chum! – I saw this phenomenon the first week I joined the group and went to sit with the lads. Since then I have run activities which mix them up and make them move around the room and yet, given the choice, they return to their original positions. I endeavour to encourage the young people to mix but if they prefer to spend time in gender divided groups, then that is their choice. We may not want to admit that there are gender issues in youth work but, as this story shows, gender is an issue for young people. This means that we have to work in a way which is aware of these issues.

Several youth ministers, both male and female, have commented to me how easy it is for some male youth ministers to relate to young people because all the lads want to be them and all the girls adore them. Of course this may not be the official model for relational youth work or one which male youth ministers consciously choose but it seems to have been the common experience of some. To translate this model of hero worship to female youth ministers smacks too much of the Mrs Robinson phenomenon for most of us although we are certainly aware of some idolisation of women in youth work.

In my experience of working with some male youth ministers and male youth leaders, I’ve noticed that when working with teenage boys some of them follow a similar model. They tend to hang around in a group with the male youth leader at the centre. It’s what we've come to call the "stag mentality". Teenage boys will hang around a male youth leader in a pack and the adult may well act as the senior stag in the pack, taking the lead and showing how much bigger his antlers are. This is a kind of stereotyping which is very much at home in feminist writing but I am not and never have claimed or wished to be a feminist. On the contrary, I think this is a model which female youth ministers could apply to their work if they wanted to. Indeed I myself have entered the realm of the "stag" and acted in just the same way as I have seen some male youth ministers acting.

At a diocesan residential, I was taking part in a fencing session run by Adventure Plus. There was a group of thirteen young people and myself, on a hot July day, trussed up in all the white gear and waving our foils around like experts – well not really that expert, but we loved it! At the end of the session, the woman running the activity suggested a tag style challenge whereby two teams set forth a series of champions and challengers and whichever team’s champion remained undefeated would win “the treasure”. It was a very hot day which was great most of the time but dressed up in the padded gear made this less than pleasant so I was taking a backseat and letting the young people battle it out. That was until the other team’s champion had beaten three of our challengers and no-one else on our team wanted to enter because of the heat. We still had another twenty minutes left of our session and so, being the youth worker, I stepped forward to challenge the champion. He was very good but it transpired that I was just a little bit better. It was amazing the effect that the youth leader stepping up to the challenge had on the group. Almost every boy in the room volunteered to challenge me, even the ones on my own team in the end! Now I know that an adult winning on these occasions is not the best thing in the world but I don’t believe in not being yourself, in doing less than your best and in losing on purpose as, arguably, this is far more patronising than any other action in that situation. So, what happened? Well after some eight bouts in a row I was still the champion and without a challenger. I was extremely pleased to find something I was good at and in fact have since promised myself to take up fencing when I have more time, a shockingly active new hobby for this former couch potato!

So what did I learn? I learnt that actually "showing off your antlers" works very well. Guys, I see why you do it! The lads found something they could talk to me about. Indeed I got to know some of them much better as a result and I was greeted with mock fencing salutes from some of them for the rest of the weekend! (and even a couple of years on!!) This grew relationships with some of the boys but I don't think this was the only factor in that. I also got to know many of the other teenage boys there that weekend by simply listening and talking to them.

Now I think this kind of posturing is probably a very vital part of male bonding and maturing but I have seen other male leaders who do not take this kind of approach. Perhaps like me they also think that this stag model can build bonds but an also put up barriers between male youth ministers and the teenage boys they are working with. If their relationship thrives on competition, what happens when the young man feels weak?

As a female youth minister who only occasionally becomes competitive and normally with little effect – rejoicing over the one goal in unihoc to our team compared to the eleven the other team has scored really shouldn’t count! – I have found that young men are able to talk to me about issues where they feel weak or distressed. They might feel more able to talk to me than perhaps they might have with a male youth minister with whom they may act more like those stags in a pack of deer.

So as a woman I might be someone that the teenage boys find easier to approach but what can I help them with? Unlike my male counterparts, I’ve never been a teenage boy, so how can I empathise? I was chatting to a friend and fellow youth minister recently about dealing with some incidents we've both been involved with of talking to young people about growing up and all the puberty related issues teenagers face, some specific to girls and others specific to boys. An incident he described was such that it was only appropriate for a male leader to deal with it and I have certainly had situations where it was only appropriate for a female leader to be involved. I'm not talking about these kinds of instances though, more about general relationship building. I think it is important to maintain a gender balance in our ministry teams but this does not mean that female youth ministers should work only with girls and male youth ministers work only with boys. The idea is unnatural to me.

As a youth minister, I feel it is my place to come alongside young people, to enter their lives in a way other adults like teachers and parents do not and would not and to share with them in their experiences and growth. You do not have to be the same gender to do this just as, to understand youth culture, a person doesn’t have to be young or pretend to be so – indeed that can be the most disastrous approach, as I have learnt. However you do have to be open to hear about it from young people.

My first lesson in youth culture centres on music. I am someone who naturally listens to Radio 2 and sometimes to Radio 4 for the Archers or I’m sorry I haven’t a clue and, having been an impoverished student for many years, when I started as a full timer my music collection was extremely minimal and much of it on tape. At our monthly youth club there is a stereo and young people are encouraged to bring in CDs but often no young people bring music and so there are no CDs to play. I decided that I would buy some compilations of the latest hits and then buy one chart album every fortnight to build up a collection. So it was that I ventured in to my local music store and purchased Badly Drawn Boy’s Have you Fed the Fish?This was greeted with much less enthusiasm than I had hoped but I persisted and (against my own better judgement) next bought Sophie Ellis Bextor. At the next youth event this was greeted with groans by some young people and with relatively approving nods by some of the others. I then went on to buy Coldplay, Avril Lavigne, Aaliyah, David Grey and others with similar results. At best, a number of the young people would hate it and others would love it. So it was that I gave up and announced to our Sunday fellowship that instead of choosing something to try to please them I was going to buy an album that I really wanted to buy. They asked me what it was and when I said it was Tom Jones’ Greatest Hits a large number of them grinned and said, “Cool!” So in trying to enter youth culture myself I failed, for the most part, but by being myself with the young people, just as I was asking the young people to be with me, I gained their respect. Some of them still think I have horrendous taste in music but they accept it and some even share their music with me not expecting me to like it necessarily but just because they think I should hear it. Indeed sharing our musical tastes – and they are all very different – was a main feature at our summer residential this year and was once the focus of our fellowship group for several weeks revealing that the divides are not purely gender based but pretty much individual.

I read recently that we need to be careful in youth work to avoid “cloning” or “controlling” young people [1] and equally we need to avoid treating ourselves in the same way. So, although I may sometimes be treated like one of the lads, that must not be my aim. In youth work we should not clone young people to be like us but neither should we go to the other extreme and clone ourselves to be like them or like the concept of the perfect youth minister. Am I sporty and go-getting? Can I shout the loudest? Have I got some great sub-woofers? Do I have a groovy car?? No to all of those but do you honestly believe that the young people you work with would really be impressed by any of that? Do the lads all idolise me and want to be like me?? .I think not and indeed I would hope not either. Not simply because I’m female and they’re male or because I think I’m a bad role model – in fact I hope I am a good role model – but because this is not what youth work is about. Kenda Creasey Dean speaks wisely of the mimetic desire which is common among young people.

‘Adolescents, especially, are prone to identify with any “self” nearby who seems halfway appealing, whether or not that self is an integrated one, whether or not it is a product of any number of virtual worlds. As the young person patterns himself after the model, he begins to love whatever the model loves, to desire whatever the model desires, in order to acquire a similar fullness of being.’ p. 49

They seek someone to be like and in our work with young people we need to ensure that the person they desire to be like, the person they follow is not the youth minister but the person that youth minister is following, namely Christ.

‘The imitation of Christ offers young people a route to formation in Christ, as they identify with Jesus in the historic practices of Christian community. But it also invites their transformation by Christ, as Jesus envelops adolescents in his Body, the Church,.’ p. 51

When I was in Taizé a few years ago, I was reminded of an idea I heard from a dear friend years before and I’m only sorry that I don’t know the originator so that I could give them the credit for it. When you think about your purpose in life, where you are going and the person God wants you to be, imagine that God keeps an icon of you, of the perfect you. God knows all that you can achieve and all that you can be. Our purpose in life is to work towards being as much like that icon as we can be. As youth ministers, our purpose is also to enable young people to be as much like their icons as they can be. We’re not working with young people to churn out endless beautiful copies of our own icon but to do our best to help them make their own icon both as individual as possible and as Christ like as possible.

So often in life the problems we all face are not about being male or female but in fact just about being human. So how do I think I am qualified to work with teenage boys? I feel I can work with teenage boys because I am prepared to listen, prepared to be there for them and pray for them.

I think I’ve presented a reasonably good case for saying that being a woman in no way precludes me from working well with male teenagers but in fact I want to suggest that in some ways and in some instances, female youth ministers are more able to work with teenage boys than male youth ministers are (only in some ways guys don’t get too het up!) But first a little background…

In a world where the gender roles have been increasingly blurred, I think young men are having a hard time of it. Young women are being told that they can achieve anything a young man can and they are going ahead and doing it. As a result, men feel increasingly that they are now the object of sexual discrimination and a friend of mine has accused me of being sexist for suggesting “that's such a bloke thing” and of course he’s right! It’s as sexist as accusing someone of “running like a girl” but can you honestly say that this prejudice against men shocks you as much as prejudice against women? I think it is an increasing problem. It is apparent in television advertising and even in programming. I once saw an episode of the daytime show Loose Women which featured a phone-in slot on “Why do we need men?” and the shocking revelation for me was that not only the panel of women but all the callers who were allowed to comment on the show, could find little more than sexual intercourse as a justification for men’s existence. This reflects an incredible feminisation of our culture. Imagine the reaction there would be, and indeed that there was in the 1920s or 1960s, if it was suggested that women were portrayed as decorative or mother figures and nothing more. OK we may have redressed the balance in part but has that pendulum of sexual discrimination swung too far? I think in many ways it has and I think in working with young people this is far more apparent.

During teenage years, I think boys have an even harder time of it. Girls are developing more quickly and maturing at a younger age than boys both in emotional and intellectual terms. It is no wonder that boys can feel that the only way they can justify themselves is to take the macho role and be really sporty or just plain tough or be negative about everything. Yet this must come with insecurities because their role in the future has been brought into question.

No longer do boys grow up thinking that they will be the father figure and the provider in a family. As the increasing number of single parent families in society has taught us many of them will have little role in the upbringing of their children. They may not have a stable family home or indeed a steady long-term job. This is surely an unnerving level of disempowerment. In contrast women have been empowered by the changes. Women have taken on the roles of men so effectively in some cases that there are no roles for men to aspire to.

In this increasingly female dominated society, perhaps the role of female youth ministers could be to help young men identify their role in life; be that traditional male or even perhaps a role which has been seen as traditionally female. It could also be our place to be a female who isn’t trying to succeed at all costs or to out do the men but to live with them accepting the differences and indeed rejoicing in them.

As a colleague of mine pointed out recently, an increasingly important issue in working with young men is one which has in fact been an issue for women for many years. The issue of body image has been one that has plagued women and girls for centuries and, throughout the twentieth century, the rise of the media presented women with idealised images of perfection in films and in magazines. In the twenty first century things have gone a step further. By using modern technologies to modify images, the media have moved the goal posts to such an extent that the women portrayed are not only idealised but in fact unachievably perfect as every flaw can be removed through the use of photo technology. For years, this has been a very big issue for women who are faced with idols of body image that they cannot achieve, a problem especially painful for young teenage women whose bodies are changing and whose hormones make them acutely aware of differences between themselves and the women they see in magazines.

As a Christian I am very much aware that our justification and self do not come from our physical selves but from the Holy Spirit working within us. I may have reasons to have problems with my own body image but I do not. A wise monk taught me a few years ago that my self is not about the things of the body nor of the world, even when that world is a job I love and by which I justify myself. He said, “these things are important and they matter but they are not you.”[2] However I am not naïve enough to believe that the young women I work with have the same self confidence just because I do. In fact I am more and more aware that it is not only young women who have issues of poor self image but increasingly it is an issue facing the young male teenagers I work with.

In a recent session of our Sunday fellowship group, as a spur of the moment activity I asked each of the people there if there was anything about themselves that they wanted to change and if so what one thing they would change about themselves if they could. Every single person in the room talked about some physical attribute. It was all about being taller or shorter, thinner or having slightly less “abnormally wide feet”. None of them wanted to be gentler, kinder, wiser or bolder. I know some of the teenage boys I work with worry about "being fat" and at least one told me he was dieting when in fat he should be eating well to help him grow. We cannot underestimate how much of an impact the cult of image has on our society.

Just as women have been faced with images of perfect female bodies, it is now the case that perfect male bodies are also on display in magazines and that men too are faced with unachievable role models. I work with young men who are obsessed or embarrassed about their weight, who talk about the exercises they do for their pecks, who hate the spots thrown up by their madly rushing hormones. As a woman who has had to come to terms with facing unachievable idols, I think I can empathise more effectively than some of the confident adult males I have met in youth work who do not yet seem to be so affected by these portrayals. I might be accused of being wrong her (in fact I’m pretty sure I will be!) but my point is that it is my perception that men are not affected by these images so young people may also perceive them as unaffected by these portrayals.

There is yet another area where, being a woman in youth work, I feel I have an advantage over male youth ministers. I am indebted to three of my male friends who sat eating fajitas in my dining room and reassured me that they know one thing for certain: whenever you have a problem with a relationship, “ask a woman”. I find that girls will talk to me about their relationship – or lack of relationship – problems because I’ll understand how they feel. Boys talk to me about the same issues because they feel I might understand how they’re feeling but also how the girl involved is feeling and maybe explain some of her actions or reactions. I’m not sure that the guys are right. I’m pretty much certain that I am not the expert in relationships – goodness me no! – but it is sometimes in our brokenness that we are truly Christ like. I think the reason my friends thought women were the source of wisdom in relationships is that we are prepared to talk about them, perhaps too much, whereas men are often more likely to avoid such discussions either about their own or about other people’s relationships.

As I’m on the subject of relationships, there is an issue which must be discussed with reference to women working with male teenagers. If you are someone who works with young people you must accept that at some point at least one young person – male or female – will have inappropriate feelings for you. They may seriously hate you for some reason or, let’s be honest here, they may think of you in romantic terms, much as they do adult pop stars, models or actors. Now you may not look like Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston – though if you do, never mind! – but being fancied by a young person is still an eventuality you have to be prepared for. How many of us, either during our teenage years or, more embarrassingly, later in life, have found ourselves feeling inappropriate affection for someone who has been there for us and listened to our troubles and joys? Surely this is far more logical than them falling for a famous person they don’t actually know? If it’s just me, I’ll resign myself to that now but I’d be very surprised if I’m alone in that one. I can certainly remember how I felt about the curate who ran our youth work when I was 13. In my eyes he was the most exciting, caring person I’d ever met. Sure I was besotted with Harrison Ford and Pierce Brosnan (and others which are FAR more embarrassing!) but that was nothing compared to how I felt about our curate who was there in the flesh. Now I’m the youth minister and, difficult as I find it to believe, I must face the possibility that some young person could one day feel about me as I did but about our curate.

So how do we deal with it? Well if we follow all those guidelines which we are so keen to uphold and teach our youth leaders, we protect ourselves from any really nasty shocks. I know there are many people who believe we have too many restrictions on what we do but avoiding any sexually charged or overly affectionate language reduces the possibilities of problems. I know that many teenage boys go through a stage when every word in the English language – and no doubt in several others too! – has a dubious meaning. This was evidenced strongly by a conversation with three young leaders in which we could find only ONE sentence that DIDN'T have the potential for a double-entendre! However, it is still best to be as careful as you can. As well as watching our language we need to think about our behaviour. Make sure that you do not find yourself alone with one young person and certainly not with the same young person on several occasions (believe me, if a young person really has a passion for you they will try all kinds of things to get that time with you). If you don’t have a good child protection policy you open yourself up to allegations and if you feel you need to work on this there are many places that can help [3]. Yet, with or without a good policy, if the worst does happen and you find yourself facing allegations you may need the support of people who have dealt with this kind of thing before such as Amaze.

A lot of this sounds like we're focussing on the youth minister more than on the young person but if we maintain best practice in our youth work then I think our concern can be focussed on the young person involved rather than on ourselves. We can think about how the young person might be feeling and how we can make that easier. A sensible idea would be to make sure that you’re not the one who always deals with the young person’s worries. Encourage your team to support this person as well. Good youth work is about a group not about the cult of individuals. As always, be yourself. There may be nothing you can do about this young person’s feelings. Emotions are not something we can turn on and off like a tap. Emotions are more like a river and the course of a river changes but only over time. For my part, it took me a long time to work through my teenage crush but I did get through it and so will the young person who has a crush on you. A wise friend of mine once said, unrequited love burns itself up when it is not fuelled. If you are clear in the way that you work, that your role is one of a companion on life’s journey, a role model, a listening ear or whatever you consider yourself, as long as you maintain your boundaries clearly, any flame burning for you in a young person’s heart should burn out in the end without fuel from you.

When I was talking to a friend about this topic, he raised an issue that I really hadn't considered. What about those times when a youth minister has a crush on a young person? As someone much older than the young people I work with, I have never found this an issue personally but I do understand that a 21 year old working with a 17 year old might well find themselves in such a situation. My advice is quite harsh, I'm afraid. You're the professional. Be professional. It would be against our church's child protection policy for a youth leader and a young person to have a relationship and I would stand by that. How do you deal with those feelings, though? Well I think, for a start, the same goes as it does for what you do when a young person has a crush on you; keep contact with them to a minimum. Yet more than that, I think you need to talk to someone about those feelings. Find someone you trust who will listen. Work out ways to get through it and get over it.

With all this things in mind, I want to say to any youth minister, male or female, working with young people, male or female, that the most important thing to do is to be yourself. If that is someone who shares interests with the young people that’s great but if you’re completely different from the young people you work with then so much the better; you can learn a great deal from each other.

So these are some of the issues surrounding working with lads if you’re a woman but what about some practical ideas? Well here you go but my practical ideas come with a warning: they are very practical and somewhat blunt.

Practical Tips

Ok girls some practical tips. Boys you may want to look away now! Yes, above all, be yourself with young people but be careful and be smart. Think about your wardrobe. Avoid anything too provocative and when you’re playing sports with young people make sure you’re wearing a good sports bra – black preferably if there’s any water around! Similarly, invest in a respectable, demure swimsuit and a decent pair of pyjamas. This is not only practical, it’s also sensible. Picture yourself endeavouring to command respect when dealing with some dangerous poolside monkey business while wearing an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-yellow-polka-dot bikini!

And finally… as a youth worker I feel I should have a go at whatever activities my young people are involved in but, ladies, consider carefully before you try limbo!

NOTES: One of the Lads

[1] [The church and youth ministry ed. Pete Ward chapter 8.
[2] [Brother John of Taizé, Persevering in trust: a reading of the letter to the Philippians July 2003]
[3] Useful agencies with information about Child Protection:
Methodist Church
Baptist Church
Church of Scotland
Moravian Church
Roman Catholic Church
Catholi Youth Services
Antiochian Orthodox Church

Discussion: One of the Lads

There's an awful lot in each of our posts so we're going to try to draw out some suggested discussion points from eah topic. Please feel free to add more.

If most of the books on youth ministry are written by men, is it appropriate for us as female practitioners to follow the models of ministry which they present?

What models of ministry are there for women working with young people and especially in their work with teenage boys?

What can we learn from male youth ministers and what can male youth ministers learn from us?

Are there specific times when it is better for a youth minister of a different gender to work with a young person?

How much do we have to have in common with the young people we minister to?

Can female youth ministers empathise with teenage boys?

How has the change in gender roles affected the way we minister to young people?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

This blog in a nutshell...

It is a well established fact that men are from Mars, and women are from an entirely different galaxy/milky way/ chocolate confectionery based universe. Or is it? If we have trouble understanding and communicating across gender gaps at the best of times, how does this impact on our youth work and youth ministry?

This is a blog which acknowledges that gender has a massive impact on how we relate to the world and is not afraid to ask questions about the implications for our ministry.

Does being a woman mean you work in a different way with boys than the way you work with girls?

In a society where men are no longer relied upon as breadwinners and father figures, how can a female youthworker help the boys in her group to find a godly, male identity?

Does our female gender change our theology of youth ministry?

Does feminism have any relevance to how we practice youth ministry?

Is sexism absent or present in youth ministry?

How does our gender affect and colour our models of youth ministry?

These are just some the questions we will be posing. We can't promise definitive answers, but we hope to stimulate some debate. We can promise, a blog filled with stories, hopes, reflections, and encouragements of those engaged in youth ministry to inspire and encourage others (yes, even you guys!) as we journey towards Christ with our young people.

Proposed posts

Each chapter consists of two sections. The first explores the subject in terms of experience, theory and proposals of good practice. The second section summarises some practical tips.

Feminist theology and the theology of youth work
  • Feminist theology as women talking about God and the theology of youth work and ministry as communicating with young people about God.
  • Christ in weakness as our model
  • Emotional vs rational?
  • Is youth work shaped by men and a patriarchal structure or part of the feminisation of culture?

One of the Girls: Appropriate work with teenage girls

  • Boundaries
  • Establishing authority
  • Role models
  • Girls group
  • Culture issues
  • Big sister? Mother?
One of the Lads: effective work with teenage boys
  • What can male youth workers and teach us
  • What can female youth workers teach male youth workers
  • Not being a bloke
  • Easier to talk to?
  • 'Feminist' issues such as body image
  • Crushes – including girls’ crushes
  • Liberating young men to be what they are not on the basis of gender
Young, female and single
  • Authority – how it is perceived by older volunteers and young people.
  • Work/life balance with no family
  • Relationships and boundaries especially as someone close in age to the young people.
Changing Role when feeling like a large roll: motherhood and youth work
  • Maternity leave when working for a charity – the related issue of paternity leave?
  • Child care issues in a caring profession
  • Taking your child to youth events as crowd control
  • Work life balance

Help my children are in my youth group!

  • Experience based reflection on
  • Boundaries
  • Discipline
  • Growth/space for yourself and your children
  • Your relationship with their friends
  • Motivation to serve – age of your own children/personal mission?
Guys and Dolls: Using the arts in youth ministry
  • Breaking down gender barriers through dance?
  • Exploding the concepts of women being good at drama and men at sport
Kicking against the stereotypes: Using sports in youth ministry
  • Breaking down gender barriers through sports?
  • Exploding the concepts of women being good at drama and men at sport
Breaking away from the kitchen sink: Women in community youth work
  • Safety
  • Support
  • Debriefs
  • Male female Partnership: Working as a couple in youth work
  • Issues of working as a couple
  • Modelling a relationship to young people
  • Schools work
Woofers and Tweeters: Women as worship leaders
  • Predominance of male worship leaders
  • Alternative worship
  • Feminine worship?
A word from Mars: A man’s perspective on women in youth ministry
  • Experience of working alongside women
  • Lessons learnt from female colleagues
  • Advice to female youth workers


  • To help young/new female youth workers realise they are not on their own and that others are facing the same issues.
  • To raise the issue of gender in youth work.
  • To discuss the issues facing women in youth ministry.
  • To encourage female youth workers that issues can be resolved.
  • To show that there are solutions.
  • To offer various models of ministry.
  • To act as an information point.
  • To redress the balance of youth work literature which is predominantly written from a male perspective.


This is a collaborative work with postings by Christian youth workers (most but not all of them female) from various denominations. It addresses the issues facing women working in a field which, although increasingly peopled quite equally by men and women, remains dominated by men at higher levels. It draws on the wide experience of these youth workers and proposes advice and models of ministry for other women in this field. This is a blog for the most part written by female youth workers and youth ministers from a female perspective. It’s not a specifically feminist blog but as women we can only write from a female perspective. We hope that this blog, drawn from the experience of a large number of women working in the field of youth work and youth ministry, will shed some light on how some of us have dealt with the issues which face the female youth worker or youth minister including gender prejudice, the work/life balance and good models of ministry. Drawn from our own reflections on our ministry then backed up with research from the experience and writings of others, this blog has a practical outlook which is reflected in the inclusion of practical advice at the end of every post.

What is Fem in YM

Feminym is a site where we will be blog-posting some things we had planned on publishing in a book.

Instead of publishing a static book we decided on a more organic growing publication for women in youth ministry.

Over the next few weeks and months we will be posting some articles and reflections on what it is like for women in youth ministry.

Because this is a blog and not a book we look forward to receive comments from anybody interested in the subject.

If anyone is interested in contributing something more substantial do get in touch with us.

We would especially welcome contributions from women in youth ministry but we will not be restricting contributions to female youth workers.