Over the last month, I have looked on with awe at the way in which our community – the Christian youth leaders of the UK – has so creatively and innovatively responded to the colossal challenge of Covid-19. We have collectively done an amazing job of rapidly figuring out the immediate answers to the immediate question: ‘What on earth do we do now?’
We didn’t have long to prepare. Some of us had a few days, others who read the signs maybe had but a couple of weeks. But what we did with these precious moments was phenomenal. Overnight, while the rest of the world essentially started to close down, we demonstrated whole-heartedly that youth ministry is definitely NOT cancelled.
In the first days and weeks, I was so inspired, in so many ways! Not wanting to overlook or downplay the hugely challenging threats we face because of this virus, I also had a real sense that in this moment of incredible challenge, God might be providing us with an opportunity to discover a new model of ministry. There was hope, a sense of anticipation, that through this period of intense and essential innovation, a whole new digital model of youth ministry might emerge.
And so, like many others, my team jumped feet-first into this new approach, which for us at least felt untried and untested. It was a real sink-or-swim moment. At Youthscape we launched what I felt was a really exceptional programme for our local work, combining digital mentoring with a virtual drop-in programme. I wrote more policies and procedures, parent information packs, consent forms, and step-by-step guides for leaders in that first week than in the last year put together. And once I had sewn it up, and put every last part in place, there was nothing else I could do but sit back and watch what was about to unfold. I was so proud; so full of anticipation and excitement about the success that lay ahead.
Well… here is a very brief overview of our team’s conversations in the subsequent weeks:
Week One - Anticipation
“We’re going to go for it with a big launch!” We’d developed a brand new online sign-up form, and we got ready to push it out with loads of social media, contacting all our regulars and expecting new referrals in from local schools.
Week Two - Confusion
“Ok team, well that wasn't quite the launch we had planned, it looks like it’s going to be more of a slow build…” The immediate uptake hadn’t arrived, but we thought, if we kept on chipping away, ringing parents and so on, it would happen, as soon as people have just adjusted to this ‘new normal’.
Week Three - Deflation
“Oh goodness, we’ve still only got seven signed up! Gulp. (We normally have over 70 per week)” I kept telling the team that we could still make a success of our Big Idea (although everyone else had that ‘are you sure about that?’ expression on their faces). We moved into another phase of promotion, texting all the parents on our system, giving out care packs including loads of information about how to sign up. And we had a slightly ominous sense that if this didn’t work, we didn’t really know what to do.
Week Four – Crushed confidence… and comparison
“OK team, how many people turned up to the session last night? Only three, again!? I guess at least we have a 100% retention rate from last week…” Deep down we already knew that this wasn't working, and wasn’t going to get better. And all the while we were looking on at everyone else programmes, and thinking, ‘I’m so pleased their online youth work is thriving… but what are we doing wrong?’
Week Five - Vocalising disappointment
“We’re crushed; not a single young person logged in to our younger youth drop-in this week.” For the first time, we vocalised to each other, and to friends in this brilliant youth work community, that this sucks; that it’s not working; that we don’t know how to fix it.
Six weeks on and almost every ounce of our initial excitement has faded away. It’s like someone pulled the plug out without me noticing. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen young people we’ve worked with for years, actively choosing not to take part in the new programmes we’re running online. And so I’ve sat in Zoom meetings with my team where it's felt like we’ve admitted defeat, held our hands up, and made the hard decision to scale back our digital programmes.
Not only did I feel deflated because our digital projects weren’t working, but I’m also ashamed to admit that I compared myself to all those who were running what seemed like hugely successful digital programmes with their groups – straight off the bat, with as long to prepare as we had – and I definitely didn’t measure up.
But then I spoke to my friends. I decided to be really honest with other members of this youth work tribe… and I realised… maybe there are more of us experiencing this pain and deflation than the social media bubble lets on?
For me, freedom came in relinquishing some of our hopes for digital work. We looked at our community, spoke with our young people, and discovered simply that they didn’t want to engage with us online. But that didn’t mean they didn’t want to engage with us. Pretty much overnight, we launched a new project, ‘cook with Youthscape’, which provides young people with weekly food packs that include all the ingredients they need to cook their families a healthy and delicious evening meal. This already seems to be much more effective.
For the first time, I really experienced for myself the failure that is part of the process of innovation. And to be honest, it was pretty tough. I also learned that when something doesn't work, sometimes it’s ok to stop it and scrap it (or shelve it if you can’t quite let go!) and try something completely new.
I also realised that social isolation lied to me. It’s funny how at the start of this crisis, I looked out and could see this incredible community of youth workers around me, running the race alongside me, but when I hit the first hurdle, I felt completely alone. But I wasn't in this alone. None of us are.
So, here I am, putting my hand up, and daring to say that this period of trying to respond to a totally changed world has been really difficult – to the point that we tried something, and it failed. I’m doing it because I hope it will give others permission to do the same. I waited for that someone else to hold their hands up, but all I see when I look at my social media feeds is glossy, exciting success stories. We need those of course, but we also need to honestly embrace the pain of trying new things.
Because – we are all innovators right now, which means for lots of people, failure will be a part of the story. So let’s embrace the journey, share with humility and dignity our failures as well as our exciting successes, and learn to support each other (but not always on Zoom!) through the highs and lows that this new journey will inevitably bring.
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We want to hear from YOU - our youth worker community. Please get in touch with your stories about how youth work is going: the good, bad and ugly. You could email us or send videos/voice clips. We'd love to share some of them, so all of us feel less alone and can support each other! Get in touch here.