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Relaunching face-to-face youth work: 3 reflections from a youth leader

Gemma Milligan

03 Jun, 2021

 

In-person youth work is back, but is it what you expected? Gemma reflects on the challenges and opportunities of restarting work with young people.

 

When the government announced the roadmap out of lockdown and we found out we could finally begin indoor face-to-face youth work again, I could barely contain my excitement. We were actually going to be able to relaunch some of our groups and programmes and spend time with young people in the flesh! We didn’t waste any time relaunching our after-school Drop-in and offering support to local secondary schools through therapeutic groups, and so the past couple of months have been a whirlwind of joyful reconnections, awkward restriction managing, tiring organisation, and heart-breaking conversations about the stresses of the past year.

Transitioning from months of no face-to-face youth work to engaging with young people nearly every day has been a little overwhelming after a year of lockdown. But it has been an eye-opening and vocation-affirming time, and here are a few of my reflections.

 

1. Looking after our own wellbeing is as important now as it was in the height of the pandemic

It can be easy to think that because restrictions are easing and life is beginning to return to more of a sense of ‘normality’, we should automatically be able to handle the relaunch of youth work with ease. You may be incredibly excited to be working with young people again and have no issues with going back to a faster pace of life in order to be able to do so. Or you may be struggling with the reality of doing this and be feeling completely overwhelmed, inadequate, and have no idea how on earth you used to even cope! If that is you, your feelings are totally valid, and I have definitely had moments where I have felt exactly the same.

Even if the past year has been a fairly positive experience for you, it has still been a time of trauma, disappointment and loss, and you may still be processing this. You may be someone who has had to deal with deep personal grief or navigate the complete disengagement of young people and maybe even members of your youth volunteer team. Whatever your experiences, they may still be taking their toll and so it is important that you listen to your body and emotions and try not to overdo things. God has been reminding me that it is impossible to operate in a life-giving way from a place of deficiency, and so we need to look after ourselves.

 

2. Youth work (and Jesus!) is needed more than ever before

The need amongst young people, particularly around their mental and emotional wellbeing, is colossal at the moment. Although this hugely affirming of the importance of youth work it can also be overwhelming, which is another reason why looking after our own wellbeing is so important at this time. I have been working with a number of young people through therapeutic groups in a local secondary school who have opened up about extreme levels of anxiety, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and the feeling of being under immense pressure from schools who don’t want them to fall behind in their education as a result of the past year.

 

"God is at work, and although He has not been doing what I originally wanted or even expected, it is more than I could have imagined."

 

I have never been more convinced of not only the importance of youth work, but also how much young people need to know Jesus. There have been occasions recently where individuals have shared their struggles with me, and I know that He is the only one who can provide the freedom and the answers they need. And so, as Christian youth workers I believe we have a responsibility to not only be an example of Jesus to those we work with, but also to share Him with them. I appreciate that is much more difficult in some contexts than others (it would not be appropriate to do this in some of our school contexts, for example) but there is never anything to stop us from praying for the young people we work with; we are the only barrier in this scenario. I have felt immensely challenged to improve my prayer life over the past year anyway, but now that I have observed the need first-hand, I find that I cannot not pray for the young people I work with.

 

3. God is at work even in the small, hesitant new beginnings

It can be tempting to equate numbers with success, and therefore to want our youth groups and programmes to have so many young people desiring to return to them that we need to be creative in order to ensure we can still adhere to government restrictions. But although the need is great, it may not be that we see all of our young people return to activities immediately or that we have tonnes of new ones show up at the door. Parents in particular may still be a little hesitant about young people attending youth groups, and so if we don’t have huge numbers at first let’s not dwell on disappointment but focus on what God is doing amongst those who are there instead.

I admit that I was originally a little disappointed that we didn’t see our after-school Drop-in full as soon as we reopened (it was also an unrealistic dream as we couldn’t have physically had that many young people in the space anyway!) But once I cast that disappointment aside, I realised that God has been building the most incredible unity amongst those who have been attending, and instead of there being numerous groups of friends dotted about the space, the young people have gelled into one big friendship group. This is something completely new for us and is actually a real answer to prayer as we wanted this period of relaunch to be an opportunity to re-establish the culture we want to develop within the Drop-in space. God is at work, and although He has not been doing what I originally wanted or even expected, it is more than I could have imagined.

So, whatever the relaunch of your youth work currently looks like; whether it is up and running again at full capacity, or whether you are still at the drawing board stage trying to work out what you should even be doing, I pray that you feel encouraged you to keep persevering. Young people need us, and they need Jesus, more than ever.

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