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‘Long shadow’ cast by pandemic on youth ministry – Church challenged to step up by CIYD

There has been a dramatic shift in youth ministry, in young people themselves, in their culture, and in the Church, National Youth Officer, Simon Henry told members of General Synod this afternoon (Wednesday May 4).

Proposing the report of the Church of Ireland Youth Department, he wondered if ‘crisis’ was too strong a word to describe the post–pandemic situation.

“I’ve been pondering this for a while as I speak with many other youth ministry key agencies and workers across the island,” he said. “I firmly believe the church finds itself at a crossroads – the long shadow of the past few years impacted youth ministry greatly with youth workers being furloughed, paid off or volunteers completely disappearing in some cases. There is a large scale volunteer crisis across the entire youth sector, in the UK and Ireland – secular, uniformed, church, all of it. The church and its leaders must respond to this – as well as us as individual followers of Jesus, as members of our local parish, and wider as members of the Church of Ireland. Our job is to pass on the faith we have – are we really doing that as a church?”

Mr Henry said that youth ministry is not and should not be a side show of the church but stated that statistics said otherwise. He highlighted recent research carried out across the island by Christ in Youth which revealed that in Ulster there is one youth worker for every 2,821 young people. In Leinster there is one youth worker for every, 22,662 young people; in Connaught it is one for every 15,577 young people and in Munster one for every 21,120 young people.

“Sobering stats here. CIYD as a department employs 2.5 people – now I’m not on this stage to beg for money, and neither should I, but I am saying as a church nationally, as dioceses, we need much much more financial investment in youth ministry and youth workers. We would love our budget to increase to do more, and maybe that is a challenge I present to the church body today, but we would also love to see more local investment in youth ministry too,” he said.

Simon also highlighted the launch of CIYD’s strategic plan 2022–2025. The plan strives to facilitate and encourage growth in youth ministry to equip, engage and empower, and resource youth ministry.

He also spoke about the Youth Forum which took place at the beginning of April. It was attended by young people and youth leaders from almost every diocese and was opened by Bishop Andrew Forster. He reminded the young people of the story of Zacchaeus and how Jesus drew alongside him in his isolation & encouraged everyone to see themselves as valued and love by God.

During the day the facilitator from the Diocese of Manchester, Susie Mapledoram, encouraged the young people and their leaders to think about the highs and lows of the last couple of years, to reflect on the life of Elijah (1 Kings 19) and the need for rest, food, friendship  and being in the presence of God.

“Young people and children are often not taken seriously either in society generally or in Church. In the community young people are often perceived as a problem to be dealt with, or resented, and in church they may only be valued as “the Church of the future” rather than the church of the present. It is always worth considering how young people can gain a higher profile both in church and in the wider community. It must be remembered that Christian young people are of equal value to adult Christians. The church has much to gain from all they have to offer,” Simon concluded.

Seconding the report, CIYD President, Bishop Pat Storey, said that most Church of Ireland parochial and diocesan youth staff knuckled down and were incredibly inventive in the face of the pandemic challenges.

“They learnt new skills, embraced new possibilities, and, on the plus side, realised they could wear their jammies all day and nobody would know! Engagement with the young people in their care became entirely virtual, and it was a long time before youth groups would meet again. I want to say a huge thank you to all who worked so hard to keep the youth train going. Firstly, our national staff: Simon, Steve and Barbara, born extroverts, who had to sit behind a computer screen and work out how they were going to do this. They were responsible for motivating everyone else, and they were just brilliant. Secondly, every salaried diocesan youth officer, parish youth worker, and volunteer did their utmost to protect, pastor, and provide for the needs of the young people in their charge. They were genuinely awesome,” she stated.

But she said it took its toll on those in charge and there were times when staff were discouraged and frustrated. Virtual caring for others was hard on their mental health. Post pandemic they have all needed time, recalibration and reinvigoration to once again deliver excellent youth work. She paid tribute to all who had paid the price of leadership.

“I truly believe that we can now see new, hopeful things happen, as we rise to the challenge of the post pandemic world of church. It looks different. It will be demanding and it’s unknown territory, but in God’s strength, we will do it, and young people can once again be resourced, pastored, trained, and ultimately, led to deepen their faith in a God who promises that He will never let us down. We don’t know what the future for the church, and for our young people, is – but that is not our vocation, and I keep having to remind myself of this. Our vocation, those of us who are involved in the lives of our Church of Ireland young people, is to lead them to ‘the Rock that is Higher than I’. That’s pretty much it,” Bishop Storey said.

Speaking to the report, Andrew Watson (Down and Dromore), a full time youth worker, affirmed what was said in the CIYD report and commend them for the resources they produce and the support they give to youth workers.

June Butler (Down and Dromore) commended the youth department and all they do. Before the pandemic she said there were discussions with Simon Henry about how Mothers’ Union could connect more with the youth department. She said Simon’s reference to loneliness struck a chord as Mothers’ Union has produced a resource to help people who are lonely and they had been distributed to parishes.

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