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An Heroic Ministry
Verse of the day
YWI - working with...
YWI is pleased to work in association with
Fuller Youth Institute, US
Sophia Network, UK
Picture the scene: a busy coffee shop with a young woman sitting opposite you, nervously sipping her coffee. You start with general chit-chat about school, friends, and family, before she launches into the real reasons for this meeting. Within minutes you’ve discovered what she’s facing, how she’s feeling, how she’s responding, and how desperate she is for advice and support. Within minutes you have entered a little more deeply into the teenage world. And it is not just any teenage world. This is teenage life as it impacts the young people in your city, your town, your village, even your street. Working one-to-one with young people takes us way beyond anything that a textbook, news headline or stereotype could suggest. One-to-ones enable us to encounter the reality of the issues as our young people see them.
Sitting one-to-one with young people is the greatest privilege of my work. Taking time to listen as they share their concerns, and offering ongoing support and advice, speaks volumes about how we, and God, value them as individuals. Indeed, many judgements about faith are made as young people see the way we respond and react to them. Yet with this greatest privilege comes the greatest responsibility. Procedures, guidelines and accountability structures are all a necessary part of one-to-one working in today’s climate. These should not be regarded as constraints, but rather, I firmly believe that, handled appropriately, these guidelines can free us to experience healthy, productive, and safe one-to-ones.
Central to one-to-one work is the art of conversation. While one-to-ones will demand that workers adopt a variety of roles, a basic ability to communicate with and listen to young people is paramount. Every youth worker undertaking one-to-ones will need good basic listening skills, as it is upon this foundation that good practice, and therefore safe and productive one-to-one work can be built. But while listening skills are a minimum requirement, they alone are not sufficient to ensure successful work. If we wish to see one-to-ones incorporated into our youth work, we have to be intentional in their development, and this operates at a number of levels. Workers must demonstrate availability to, and genuine interest in individuals, and must have grasped the fundamentals of knowing their group members’ names and something of their circumstances. A simple offer to pray for a young person’s exam, and then a call later in the week to see how it went, for example, is exactly the foundation upon which a one-to-one might be built. Young people have to be convinced that we care before they consider spending time with us individually.
Good practice: Safety first?
In essence, one-to-ones provide the opportunity for those we know as members of our youth groups to become individuals who are seeking to examine, meet with and follow Christ. Putting it another way, they provide the place where programme becomes personal. It is this personal dimension that can act as such a dynamic catalyst for growth and development. Young people are, without a doubt, searching for authentic Christian adults they can relate to. It is imperative that such work is safe: safe for both the young people concerned, and those of us who seek to work with them.
A few years ago I latched on to a simple phrase which has since informed my team’s approach to one-to-ones: ‘public and appropriate’. Any contact we have with young people, whether following youth group sessions, or elsewhere, should be ‘public and appropriate’. That is, workers should not meet young people alone, out of sight of another adult, and the content and context of any meetings should be within expected parameters. ‘Public and appropriate’ gives our workers a memorable guideline, and one against which to easily measure their actions. Hence, a one-to-one following a main session can occur within the main meeting room, rather than taking young people into side rooms, and mid-week one-to-ones are held in public places.
Another issue facing many Christians is coming alongside young people when there are only one or two in the church. I have known small youth group settings where two adults meet with two or three young people in a house, using the front room for the meeting aspect, and the kitchen for more in-depth one-to-one conversations.‘Public and appropriate’ applies as much in this setting as any other.
My preferred location for one-to-ones is our vast array of local coffee shops, which easily fulfil the ‘public’ requirement, and ensure that workers are not alone with young people. Much of my work is with VI Form students, so we generally meet during their ‘free’ periods. Those younger than VI Form are normally seen after school. Different communities might call for different approaches – a fast-food outlet, cinema café, bowling alley or sports centre foyer – and it may be challenging for those in some localities to find a suitable place to meet. Some ingenuity may be called for. I do not underestimate the restrictions of operating in rural settings, and these challenges may make financial and practical demands of the church or organisation involved. Organisations wishing to undertake one-to-ones must be set up to do so.
Whenever and wherever workers meet with young people, travel home and the personal safety of the young person after the meeting also need to be taken into consideration. For example, do bus timetables allow for one-to-ones to take place after school? If the young people are to be collected by their parents, are they happy that they know about these meetings?
Good practice: Memorable policies
These issues may seem complex, but the more we operate to these standards, the more they become the norm. To aid this, a few years ago I came up with another simple phrase which is memorable and easily applied if in any doubt. Adding ‘Your Honour’ as if speaking to a Judge, to the end of a statement about any intended action, means that its appropriateness quickly becomes clear. For example, ‘I met with Jane in the broom cupboard, Your Honour’ is immediately deemed inappropriate, while ‘I met with Jane in a crowded Starbucks, Your Honour’ makes much more sense.
All churches or organisations should have their own Safeguarding or Child Protection Policy. Adhering to these should ensure the protection of workers as well as young people and seek to meet the needs of both. Policies should ideally include guidelines for one-to-one work and the policy’s named Child Protection Advisor should be clear as to the procedures which workers are using in one-to-ones. In many cases, an external advisor may also be available should a third party be required.
Workers wishing to undertake one-to-ones should ensure that their policy covers this adequately and in detail. If not, the policy may need updating. It is also vital that young people know the parameters in which one-to-ones operate. These should be informally but clearly stated from the outset. Lines like, ‘I thought I’d just tell you a bit about how we do one-to-ones at St Hilda’s’ can facilitate this.
Good practice: Gender?
In terms of good practice, one of the first questions likely to arise is whether one-to-ones should uphold strict male-to-male and female-to-female guidelines. Different churches and organisations will approach this issue differently, but interestingly my research suggests that most local authorities do not regard this as a major concern. Many churches have developed a general principle that members of the same sex should handle issue-based work together, whether in a counselling or small group context. Ideally, I would love to uphold that males should only work with males, and females with females. Whilst this is preferable and should be adhered to wherever possible, I believe that sticking to this religiously can reduce the progress workers are able to make one-to-one with young people.
Take the following scenario: a young woman approaches the male youth worker at the end of the session. She wishes to speak with him about something, and wonders if they can meet up. For this young woman, the decision to approach him has not been easy. This particular issue has bothered her for many years, unbeknown to anyone else. Now, and only after months of internal debate, she has summoned up the courage to approach the worker. At this point, he could well refer her to his female colleague, but actually it is not the female worker that the young woman trusts enough to open up to. Rather, it seems likely that her decision to approach this particular worker is based on a growing confidence in him. Therefore, it may be extremely important that the male worker follows this up rather than referring her to a female colleague. Any decision to undertake mixed sex one-to-ones will at the very least impact on how and where such meetings can occur. It will also directly affect the judgements which will have to be made. The appropriateness of the location, frequency and topics addressed, will need to be constantly reviewed. The level of accountability required also naturally increases and this might be outworked in a number of ways, as indeed it should be for any one-to-one work:
· Keeping records of which worker is seeing which young people gives opportunity for others to raise any concerns about individuals and their allegiance to a particular worker;
· Supervision of workers can be used to monitor frequency of appointments as well as content;
· Workers may find it helpful to have someone of the opposite sex to whom they can refer things as necessary;
· Meetings need clear boundaries.
In my experience, when they are approached thoughtfully and appropriately, I have little hesitation in recommending mixed sex one-to-ones. In any case, it is naïve to presume that same sex working will exclude the risk of the young person having inappropriate feelings towards the worker, and vice versa. Again, the need to monitor all one-to-ones is clear, as is the need to be open with other workers and line managers to reduce potential risks.
Good practice: Space to process
Whatever the context, when meeting with a young person I will often begin by asking certain questions to clarify expectations, and roughly determine how long I should allocate to our one-to-one. Past experiences of young people opening up in the last few minutes of a defined time have encouraged me to be specific here! After some initial small talk, I tend to say something like, ‘It’s great to see you today. Was there anything particular you wanted to talk about?’ This helps ensure any important topic is covered, whilst allowing for general chit-chat. It also enables me to gauge the young person’s intent and openness.
We need to be aware of non-verbal communication. Our body language communicates much about our interest in the young person and the conversation. We need to ensure we remain alert and actively engaged with the discussion as it develops. It is worth recognising that one-to-ones can be physically and mentally taxing given their inherent intensity, so it is wise to space them accordingly if we wish to approach each meeting fresh.
We also need to consider the style of questioning we might employ. It is particularly important not to ask leading questions, but rather hear what young people really wish to say. Open questions are vital to constructive one-to-ones as they encourage broader answers. An open question might be, ‘How do you feel about this?’ rather than a closed question such as ‘And you feel alright about this, do you?’ which can only lead to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. We have to ensure that we do not lead young people down a particular route simply by our questioning style, and we need to ask questions that encourage openness.
Giving young people space to process their responses is vital, and goes someway towards ensuring progress is made. Therefore, the constructive use of silence in one-to-ones can be a powerful tool. Workers may find it challenging not to fill silences, but I have trained myself to ask a question of the young person and then sip my coffee until they speak up! This ‘thinking time’ can be extremely beneficial to both parties.
Good practice: Look after yourself!
This type of work, while a great privilege, can also be very demanding. Sometimes the weight of the world will rest on our shoulders. It can be painful to watch young people struggling to work things through. Additionally, helping a young person confront certain issues, may well raise personal issues for us which need addressing, and it is important that we recognise this and respond appropriately. Certainly, if we wish to help those who are drowning we have to ensure that we are not sinking ourselves. It is interesting to note that those working in services such as mental health and counselling are obliged to have a designated support worker – whether a manager or a peer – to whom they regularly report. Furthermore, Jesus himself sent out his disciples in pairs (Luke 10:1-12), and the Scriptures clearly suggest that while we might work alone, we are not to operate alone. From a biblical, professional, and practical point of view, we must recognise that we need the support of others to be effective in our work.
In addition to talking with others, keeping recordings, or notes, of one-to-one meetings helps constructive reflection. A simple log sheet recording who, where and when we have met, together with a summary of what was discussed, and any recommendations made, gives an excellent foundation for reflection. Taking time out to look back over individuals’ journeys can encourage us to see the bigger picture, as well as learn valuable lessons.
Whenever and wherever we find ourselves sitting one-to-one with young people, we owe it to them and ourselves, to ensure good guidelines and practice are in place. Once we are familiar with, and comfortable operating within these guidelines, a real sense of openness is obtainable and our conversations can really take off.
Jon Langford is the Youth Worker at St. Paul's Church, Salisbury, UK