Trained for youth work, but now pseudo-clerics

by
23 May 2007

Youth workers have all the secular qualifications, but few of them have been selected or taught to lead worship, warns Pete Ward

ON THE face of it, the dispute between John Reaney and the diocese of Hereford, in a case (News, 5 and 20 April) that awaits an employment tribunal’s ruling, is a minor skirmish in the ongoing Anglican civil war on sexuality. This is how the press has covered it. But I believe that another issue is at stake.

The fact is easy overlooked, but the case concerns the status of those whom the Church pays to work with young people. So, together with all the obvious issues, it raises the question of the position of full-time youth workers employed by parishes — not so much their employment rights as the underlying theological issue.

Youth workers who are employed by parishes share in the ministry of the church. They are, therefore, in some theological sense, ministers. So there must be some relationship between their ministry and the ordained ministry. And a relationship between ordained ministry and youth ministry should have implications for the selection, training, and appointment of youth workers.

Largely unnoticed, there has been a huge revolution in the way in which the Church ministers to young people. Twenty or 30 years ago, few parishes employed youth workers. The diocese would have a youth officer, and there might be the occasional Church Army officer in a youth centre, but that was about it. At the parish level, youth work, if it happened at all, was done by volunteers. Occasionally, they might be assisted by a keen young curate.

Today, parishes routinely employ youth workers. Indeed, the Church of England’s national youth strategy suggests that churches have overtaken local authorities in the number of youth workers that they employ.

This is a staggering achievement, and should be celebrated. But the amazing growth in the employment of church-based youth workers does raise difficult questions; for, despite the national strategy’s seeming endorsement of these developments, the Church as a whole has been slow even to acknowledge the shift towards the widespread employment of youth workers by parishes, let alone respond to it.

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There’s a reason for this. The move has been almost entirely driven by individual parishes, and so has developed with no reference to diocesan or national ministry structures. By placing youth workers in a different category from that of ordained ministers, it has been possible for parishes to by-pass the regular processes that order the way in which we select those who engage in ministry in the Church.

Powerful lobbies in the Church have pushed the notion that youth work is a different discipline and profession from ministry. It has been something of an ideological commitment for key figures in Christian youth work, including the National Youth Office and some diocesan youth workers, that Christian youth workers should be positioned as part of a wider youth-work profession. They have been supported in this conviction by people such as Bishop Roger Sainsbury, who chairs the National Youth Agency (NYA), and those who are involved in delivering NYA-validated training courses.

As a result, churches have been told that it is “best practice” to demand that their youth workers are professionally qualified through NYA-validated training courses. At the same time, church youth workers have been encouraged to think of themselves as part of this wider professional world. Indeed, they have enjoyed something of a revolving door between “secular” employment by local authorities and employment in the Church.

ADOPTING a professional model of youth work has led to an increasing appreciation of the need to offer youth

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