Managing Expectations: Where Do They Come From?

My friend James wrote this post that made me laugh about the expectations on youth workers and clergy in a management context. So a vicar employs a youth worker and then either s/he becomes their line manager or another member of the staff team does… What happens next? Do read James’ piece about it, if you’ve been in this position you’ll chuckle along!

The question that arose from it was ‘Where do these expectations come from? So I thought I’d reflect on some possible answers.

It’s worth noting that I’ve used the terms ‘youth worker’ and ‘clergy’ in their broadest possible meaning, in the first term I include anyone working with young people in a church context who is being managed by another member of the church staff team. Likewise the term ‘clergy’ refers to anyone leading a church who is responsible for managing a staff team in that context (regardless of whether that is a paid position or not).

One possible answer is that it’s a consequence of the ‘Youth Work Industry’: this behemoth which blows its own trumpet as the solution to the problem of ‘Teenagerhood’. If youth workers set themselves up as the answer then of course expectations will be unrealistic. Clergy expectations may well be from the marketing of the ‘Youth Work Industry’. Dealing with unrealistic expectations is a part of growing up and as far as congregational expectations go, the clergy have it far tougher than the youth worker.

My response to this would be: of course, if a youth worker sets themselves up as THE answer to the problem of the lack of young people in the church then they will be setting themselves up for some very unrealistic expectations of their own making under which they will be crushed. That’s quite a big IF though, do you know any youth workers who have suggested that what they are doing is THE answer to discipling young people and keeping them in the church? In fact, do you know any long-term youth workers who say anything other than their part is just a small piece of a much larger picture that includes how the church perceives young people, what their parents’ faith is like among other influential factors?

It’s also true that clergy expectations may stem from the marketing of the youth work industry. But that statement in itself shows us where the problem lies: the word ‘marketing’. Since when has anything actually lived up to the expectations of the advertising? James’ blog post has a graphic which compares the marketing picture of a burger to the reality of what you are served in a fast food restaurant and that’s definitely what’s happening in this statement. My parents (and my business degree!) taught me to analyse adverts, to ask myself whether what they were promising was a) likely b) really desirable! Even now I often shout at the adverts: ‘Oh yes, if you smell like that women will fall at your feet, of course they will’. OK so we might say that it’s the fault of the advertisers for making promises they can’t keep, or we do as my parents did and say let’s manage our own expectations around what wearing a certain fragrance/dress/hair colour etc might actually be able to do for us. Honestly, any clergy who really thinks employing a youth worker will be THE answer to the problem of how to keep young people in the church is fooling himself (he might also be fooling his congregation, which is an even bigger problem!).

Not only have I worked with young people for the past 20 years but I also come from youth worker stock: My Dad was a youth worker in the 70’s & 80’s and the ministers/diaconate who were his line management (such as it was) had crazy expectations around pay, so much so that Dad had to take another job for a while, until this became common knowledge and he was visited by a member of the committee to whom he was expected to explain himself. They gave him a raise.

I do wonder whether we are beginning to realise that it’s more widespread than we had previously thought. Neither is it only a problem in the church, although I do think that the long hours and peculiar working conditions usually undertaken by both clergy and youth workers exacerbates the problem (you work and worship in the same community; you have young people in your group whose parents are on the PCC/diaconate/leadership who have a direct influence on your position, or your friends might be in those positions; you can’t complain about your boss to your life group or prayer triplet; and on it goes). But we also go into marriages, jobs, friendships, churches with a set of expectations, often very unhelpful!

The fact that this isn’t only the preserve of the church I think points to the setting of unrealistic expectations being part of the human condition. You don’t have to look very far to find that much of what makes life the way it is comes down to managing either your own or other people’s expectations. And perhaps it’s that which presents an intriguing angle: we all put expectations on ourselves, and often these are MUCH more unrealistic than anything other people try to place on us!

Of course in our humanity we do tend to see everything centred around ourselves including what we might expect the church to do for me; what we might expect the youth worker to do for me and my family; also the expectations we place on ourselves as youth workers (or clergy, or parents, or human beings!) might cripple us just as much as anything else, but this is not kingdom-minded. As members of the church and followers of Jesus we all need to take responsibility for not placing these expectations on anyone, be they clergy or youth workers or life group leaders, or ourselves.

I’ll leave the last word to my Dad, who knows a thing or two about the life of a youth worker in a church:

Anyone given responsibility for any part of church life needs to develop a relationship with Minister/congregation/parents, this is especially crucial for youth workers, so the problem of ‘teenagerhood’ is seen as a whole church challenge. In supporting our youth workers we need to encourage them and pray for them not hold their feet to the fire because they have missed our expectations of them.

Ultimately, unrealistic expectations can only be countered by the whole church taking responsibility for all its flock, whether young or old, rich or poor.  There needs to be a realisation that we are in this together and not hiving off parts of the church family to ‘professional experts’.


2 thoughts on “Managing Expectations: Where Do They Come From?

  1. Hi Jenni – this is great, and a good response to the questions raised by managing expectations, thanks for the encouragement and good to keep the conversations going


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