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/ 24 April 2017

What if it goes well?

Irritated young woman standing with arms folded

I recently heard of a conversation between a children’s worker and their vicar that didn’t go as the children’s worker expected. The church had just launched a new midweek service for children and their carers to come to after school. At the first meeting they had over 50 people attend and, as the church would normally get around 30 on a Sunday, it seemed like a significant win. They had just in effect more than doubled the size of their church!

After the group was over and everyone went home, the children’s worker bounded over to the vicar all full of smiles and enthusiasm. When they said: “Wow that was amazing!”, the vicar replied with: “I’m really worried that this is more than we can support, I’m not sure we should do this again.” And with that they walked off leaving the children’s worker feeling deflated and wondering why they bothered!

Now we don’t have time to unpick all of this! There are clearly better ways of communicating stuff like this than utterly devaluing your worker in their moment of triumph. However as I chatted with the children’s worker a little later, we realised that there was some important stuff we needed to respond to, that the vicar kind of had a point and that in the enthusiasm to launch something some important, work hadn’t been done to secure it a long-term future. This had bubbled up in the vicar’s rather depressing comment but there was a great deal of truth in it, it just hadn’t been worded well!

These problems are quite normal in the world of Fresh Expressions that involve young people, they require a reliable supply of finance and volunteers to keep running and are unlikely to be self-supporting for the foreseeable future. For larger churches with more resources, this still requires decisions to be made to support it that mean that other potential initiatives will miss out, but in a congregation of 30 it’s easy to see why the priest would be as fearful as he was pleased. In situations like this, we need buy-in from the wider church and cannot just think that our success is a blank cheque for continued support.

So what can be done to mitigate against this? The key thing we learnt here (something I think a lot of children’s and youth workers learn along the way) is that there is a BIG difference between acquiescence and actual support. When we bound in and say we have big plans for the future and that we’re going to do loads of stuff that will result in loads of children hearing about Jesus, it’s very hard for people to say that they don’t think that’s a good idea. People tend to smile along and just hope it will be OK, but when you need them, they tend to step away from the idea and you’re left wondering why they didn’t say this to start with.

The only way to avoid this is to go a little bit slower and listen hard to what people are really saying. Work hard to involve people and take them with you, be honest about what people are volunteering for and let them speak openly about how they feel, affirming them even if you don’t want to hear what they are saying. Spending time on this groundwork is never wasted, we tend to hope that once the group is up and running everyone will want to join in but this isn’t always the case. So before you launch, think: do I have enough committed volunteers? Who are the key stakeholders and are they on board? If so, what’s my evidence? If you’ve got positive answers you’re ready to launch and you’re in a much stronger place.

About Sam Donoghue

Sam Donoghue is Head of Children and Youth for the Diocese of London, a keen cyclist and a supporter of Everton FC.

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