Before this week started, I was asked several times about what the European Youth Ministry Network is, who are there and what they do. These are excellent questions to answer quickly and easily. Still, I take a little more time for an answer to reflect on the Dutch situation at the same time.
The European Network of Youth Workers organized this 3rd conference to meet, encourage, share experiences and discover together what is happening in Europe. Well there were earlier European meetings and the EYMN is not the only network, that’s how it goes in a complex world. Yet it is remarkable to see how youth workers from Europe have managed to find each other and have worked together effectively through the years. In this conference there are about 45 ‘leaders in Youth ministry’ from 16 different European countries. What is special is that since 5 – 10 years Europe has been better represented and it has not only remained a Western European meeting.
The participants are very diverse in view of the functions in Youth Ministry. There are local youth workers, developers of materials, directors of organizations, regional networkers and everything in between. And the ‘years of service’ are also very diverse, but the largest group has between 10 and 20 years of experience with a number of outliers to more than 30 years of youth ministry. Fortunately, there is no ‘best before’ date for youth workers, so that experience and knowledge can be retained and transferred. This is not obvious because in the Netherlands I sometimes experience a shortage of experienced youth workers. It is possible that we in the Netherlands have too little appreciation for people who have been walking for some years and that we forget to be grateful for all their commitment to new generations. All the more because it gives us a clear signal to our young people; we consider you important and therefore appreciate the people who invest in you. This is also essential for recruiting and guiding a new generation of leaders. It is striking that the attendees have become leaders at a young age.
What I noticed further from the survey prior to this conference is that about 35% have a ‘volunteer ministry’ (unpaid). With my Dutch glasses that is a sign that the domain of youth work is still immature. From the idea that ‘money follows vision’ I worry if there is apparently so little budget to invest in good youth work. At the same time I realize that the context in Eastern Europe is very different than in the Netherlands. Yet I was surprised by a colleague from Bulgaria who said that ‘paid ministry’ is a bit suspicious because the idea is that young people do not enter into a relationship with people who are paid to move with these young people. This of course raises all kinds of questions about what a youth worker is. More and more I believe in second line youth workers and first line youth leaders. Direct contact with young people, sharing life requires a relationship and continuity. In my opinion, this is by definition a youth leader, a volunteer from the church or community. At the same time, youth work calls for professionals who train youth leaders, who develop good material, develop vision and that is really a profession. For this you need an appropriate education and flying hours.
One of the oldest participants calls himself an ‘alongsider’, a great term for someone who is near, involved in certain life phases. The principle of mentoring, coaching is also used by most people present. Being mentor for others and having a mentor applies to most attendees. And that applies to all ages and remarkably enough especially to those who are older than 40. Apparently, despite or perhaps because of many years of experience, you need a ‘alongsider’. I think we can learn a lot from this as Dutch ‘do-it-yourselfers’. Dare to make yourself vulnerable and continue to grow as a youth worker. Hopefully this will also be encouraged and facilitated by employers such as churches and organizations.