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  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.” 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 . 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.
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!