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Theological therapy: Why youth workers should make time for reflective writing

Paul Beautyman

19 Feb, 2020

 

Youth leader Paul Beautyman explains how reflective journaling – a rich theological tradition – provided stillness and solace in the midst of crisis.

 

Instinctively, I wrote.

It was 2002 and I had started my new job as a youth worker. Well, more a church-planter than a youth worker – although I was really employed as an ordained minister. In this confusion I began writing a journal of all I had done, who I had met and planning next week’s work.

Starting up a church-plant for young people and their families I was living in the tension between church and community. After 4 years in post on the church side, I was creating a core group to be the resource base and welcoming Christian community to fuel the outreach, which was based around a Sunday worship event. This drew on my background and training as a minister. On the community side I was working in local high schools, developing volunteers and young leaders to run clubs and camps. This work drew on my background as a youth worker. The work was demanding, and each side attracted different supporters with very few people living in both worlds. My self-identity was also strained as I connected with a wide range of people but felt increasingly isolated.

 

Life-giving writing

Out of that crisis a life-giving rhythm of writing developed, and my journaling deepened, weaving together my experience, Scripture and inherited Christian values and traditions that I am increasingly uncomfortable with. It helps me discover what is unknown in my life, makes me a partner in my own life and learning, creates a therapeutic space for God to act and where I can honestly express myself to God. I write through my anguish and joys and explore my professional practice as it affects my values. Sometimes writing comes first which then shapes my life, and sometimes a life experience comes first which then shapes my writing. I still find it difficult to face tough truths and hold time to 'waste' on writing in a busy life, but these stumbling words have brought a deep thinking that has helped me stay and flourish as a Christian youth worker.

 

My writing has also been helped by starting a part-time PhD in 2017 while continuing as a youth worker. Reflective writing for me is a place of deep honesty. Based on Ignatian practices I hold together Scripture, experience and the silent whisper of God’s Spirit. This raises new questions that challenge my practice, my faith and my own self-understanding.

“Journaling…helps me discover what is unknown in my life, makes me a partner in my own life and learning, creates a therapeutic space for God to act and where I can honestly express myself to God.”

 

And these challenges become questions that I want to research and test against the experience of other youth workers, against Christian tradition and my own identity. In ‘Introducing Practical Theology’, Pete Ward writes that “Practical theology is meant to produce something”, not just an academic paper, “…it is about changed lives” (p.167). This understanding of theology echoes my approach to reflective practice in Christian youth work and is shared by others as well.

A rich tradition

Heather Walton, my PhD tutor, affirms journaling in a rich tradition of theological writing from the Psalms through Protestant devotional writing and Ignatian spirituality to current developments in theological reflection. Jennifer Moon in ‘Reflection and Learning in Professional development’ refers to the work of Christensen (1981) who urges a slowerpace of learning against increasing the volume of learning as a key to developing wisdom and good practice, to greater value intuition in our inner lives. Below are some other quotes that I’ve enjoyed in my reading.

“Reflective practice is...as complex, fascinating and un-straightforward as life and practice itself.”

(Gillie Bolton in ‘Writing and Professional Development')

“I write to find my way through things …I write to explore the meaning and to scratch what itches.”

(Michael Paterson ‘Discipled by praxis: soul and role in context’, Practical Theology, Published online 11 January 2019)

I affirm journaling as having great value for youth workers, but there are challenges. Some workers will struggle to develop an honest dialogue that values their own experience as much as their Christian tradition, while some youth workers and denominations are characterised by frantic busyness and do not easily create time for stillness. These are genuine challenges that we should help youth workers, management committees and church leaders respond to.

To close, I offer you a piece of my writing and hope it inspires you to write…

 

Shut Up!

“Those ahead of Jesus told the blind man to shut up, but he only yelled all the louder” (Luke 18:39)

I really hate these crowds.

There is always
So much noise
Around you,

Too much noise.

For once
Could there not just be
A moment with no problems,
A moment for us to be with you,
A moment for us to be seen with you.
We follow you
All the time
And

There is always so much noise.

So many people
Pleading and
Calling and
Ridiculing and
Shouting and
Gossiping and
Asking

And anyway,

What if I had seen him?
That blind man,
The latest pleading loser
To claim you
As his own.

You can’t prove that I looked away,
You can’t prove that I ignored him,
You can’t prove my guilt,

You can’t prove
It was me who first shouted
‘Shut up!’

You can’t.

You don’t need to
Prove it though
Do you?

For I know you know me.

You know my selfishness.
You know my need for acceptance.
You know my hidden addiction
To power and control.

And that is why
I cry
When you hold me close
In that all-consuming crowd.

You hold me for one fleeting
Peace-filled moment

Before

Your God-goodness
Flows again to the wretched of the earth,
Before you yet again
Welcome the outcast.

Before
You reach out

You hold me in my brokenness
And
You love me.

Paul Beautyman is an experienced youth leader currently working at a high school in Dunoon, Scotland. He is also conducting PhD research in Theology at the University of Glasgow.

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