Sanctuary, Justice and the Practice of Sabbath

On Friday I was at the ‘God in the Concrete’ gathering of Think Tanks, this was a gathering of many people who are passionate about changing the world, “with coffee and cake” as one of the presentations put it, for our young people. We were challenged to recognise our power and privilege as mainly white middle class youth workers, not to stop reaching out and fighting injustice but also not to be blind to our own circumstances. We were encouraged to see ourselves as on-the-road theologians: those living, breathing, walking and talking theology right at the coal-face of all the church does and is doing, to fight injustice by loving our young people and really listening to them before being prepared to act with them. We were all stunned to hear theologian Sam Wells articulate so clearly and plainly something many of us have known without giving full credence to ourselves: ‘Being with’ is an important way of working that is gospel orientated. Or in other words, hanging out is modelling salvation. When Christians who work with young people do so by investing time and themselves, that’s where the gold is, that’s where we see lasting fruit, lasting relationships, lasting faith.

Another big encouragement for me was the way that the theme of Sanctuary was embraced and responded to so readily by many of those at the event.

This is the text I read out in our Young People and Mental Health Think Tank presentation:

Historically, places of sanctuary were those where a person could find refuge, acceptance and care for any number of different reasons. They were cities of refuge, and then later, often Monasteries. Still today you can turn up a monastery (there were more of them then than now) and ask for shelter & sanctuary and they will give you what you need. They were used by those in trouble, those with difficult decisions to make, those for whom decisions were being taken that they didn’t want to be a part of. They were places of community, protection and wisdom. Once you had entered the church/monastery building, you were under God’s protection and no one could drag you out until the matter was settled.

In today’s context we want to see the concept of sanctuary being brought back where it has been lost; sanctuary as a temporary place/time where a person takes time out, seeking the wisdom and protection of others, in order to find a solution or way forward from their present position. Young people need the church to be these places and times or even people. Young people who are struggling to find where they fit, to make decisions about their future, to get space to think about the multiple problems they are carrying, to find love and care for them in their anxiety or depression, need rest, refreshing, care, wisdom and protection; they need sanctuary.

Let’s end the loneliness epidemic that is rife amongst many people in our communities both young and old, let’s be active in drawing people in who need sanctuary.

Sanctuary means: A temporary refuge; someone who will speak on your behalf; a physical space or person; to be encircled or cocooned; a place of safety; somewhere calm and peaceful; a shelter from the storm.

It is time to bring the concept of Sanctuary back into our communities, our churches, to our work with young people. In creating Sanctuary space, either in our buildings or in our daily/weekly routines we create time to listen, time to love and support young people. We will discover injustices, we will hear about both low level struggles with mental health issues like loneliness, sadness, anger, or fluctuating self-worth as well as more complex mental health illnesses that are often triggered by trauma or neglect, the latter of which need more than most of us are qualified to deal with. This doesn’t mean we turn these people away, nor do we ask them to leave because they’ve caused too much disruption. Sanctuary, for all its connotations of calm, peace, holiness and solitude, is going to be messy, shouty, sweary and probably very painful but, Jesus was not above washing the dirtiest, messiest of disciples’ feet, why should we expect anything different?

In all this I am not advocating ‘burning out for Jesus’. One delegate at the event brought up the practice of Sabbath and it was as if he was talking directly to me! We cannot operate well, cannot offer true sanctuary without rest, without professional and personal boundaries, without our own sanctuary and Sabbath practices. Operating from a place of rest is something I’m still very much learning how to do, but it is vital to our mental/emotional/spiritual health and well-being.

We need to re-learn how to offer sanctuary, re-embrace the practice of Sabbath and discover how to fight injustice by loving and listening to our young people.


10 Tips for creating a Healthy Youth Ministry

James and I have collaborated on this post about how to create a healthy church-based youth ministry… If you haven’t come across James’ stuff before do go and take a look, he writes all sorts of interesting stuff!

Detached Youthwork - Learning from the Street by James Ballantyne

For a moment, stop and think about what it is like for a young person in the present day. If reports are to go by, then incidents and reporting of anxiety amongst young people are on the increase, as a result, young people may just have their self protection antenna switched to a firm on. But then again thats the same for most of us adults, for it is usually in our own self protection to avoid situations that are unhealthy, or damaging, if we can help it. In the recent report from the Fuller institute, 1400 churches were interviewed who had kept young people from the age of 14. One of the key findings was that young people stayed when church was a healthy place

Healthy churches are the subject of Peter Scazzeros books, it was also what Rob Bell was talking about on a recent Nomad podcast –…

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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’.

Managing Busy-ness in 3 Steps

I’ve been busy. Not just ‘normal’ busy but the kind of busy when you’re not too sure how you’re going to get from one end of the week to the other and still be standing upright. The kind of busy when everything seems to need your urgent attention RIGHT NOW; the kind of busy that turns you into a seething mass of cold/flu symptoms as soon as you stop (no? Just me then?!); the kind of busy I really hate because it’s so draining.

After the first busy week when I could barely lift myself out of bed on the Saturday, when I knew I had another two weeks of this level of busy-ness, I decided I would need A Plan. You see, I’ve been here before and that time it went on for weeks and weeks and weeks before I collapsed under the strain and had to stop altogether. I don’t want to go back to that; I like to think I’ve moved away from that ‘I can do EVERYTHING for EVERYONE that wants me to’ mentality, I’m not quite there yet, but this time I caught myself before I really fell off that cliff. The Plan helped. As did a bit of brutal honesty from friends and a timely reminder of what really is important to me.

The Plan was pretty simple, I stepped away from the ‘whole family’ calendar that was freaking me out because every day looked so busy and made my own ‘week to view’ pages, with just my stuff on it. Then I colour coded the stuff I was doing so I could see which ‘hat’ I was wearing and when, and I deliberately wrote OFF in big letters across the empty sessions. Aaaaahhhhh, that was better. Now, although I still had lots in my diary, I could clearly see that I also had significant periods of ‘down’ time.

The next stage was to give myself permission to sleep in those blocks of time. Some of the stuff I have been busy with was pretty heavy duty, I was struggling to sleep and the times when I did sleep my dreams would be of disaster scenarios: it wasn’t really what you’d call restful! So daytime napping became a requirement, and it was good.

The last stage was letting go of anything that wasn’t essential, I really hate backing out of something I’ve agreed to and this was part of the trouble when I had that first brush with exhaustion. Now I’m learning that it is a requirement for managing particularly busy times. Anything you can get out of/move/cancel, do! This includes things like housework, or cooking dinner or extra meetings at church. My church family know me well and are great at flexibility and understanding for when you just can’t do the thing you really wanted to do. And, it doesn’t have to be forever – just while everything else is too much!

One other thing I’ve been pondering on is my tendency to over-commit, not just physically (I waiver between wanting someone to work out how to be in two places at once and being glad it’ll never be possible!) but also emotionally. I need to be cautious about how connected I become to different situations and events and people. It’s good to be able to empathise with others and to want to invest in others, it’s not so helpful when I end up carrying the emotional burdens of people I’ve only met once and will probably never meet again.

I’m on the other side of those really busy few weeks now and have holiday time looming, plus hubby and I have booked to go away for the Easter Weekend, so I’m getting back onto my more normal even keel. Today has been the first day in a month that I’ve had nothing in my diary, and, boy, does that feel good!

It might be helpful for you to think about how to manage your own busy times, how do you see the space you need, what helps you to not fall off the cliff?

A Few of My Favourite Things…

This week in March is always a strange one, well, since 2010 is has been. 15th March 2010 was the day I was diagnosed with bowel cancer and my world crashed down around me. Now, 7 years later, I am always grateful for the NHS staff who helped me, looked after me, gave me space, listened to me and ultimately removed the cancer! I am grateful for friends and family who rallied round to support me and my family – I’ll write some more about that in another post. Here I want to create a new ritual, one that gives this day a far more positive feeling, something I might even look forward to next year!

I’m in the process of planning to deliver some training around stress management and one of the major tips I’m going to give these guys is to practice gratitude. Re-frame the events of your day, week, month, year, life around being thankful for what happens. And I can’t really believe it’s taken me 7 years to decide to do this because I do a daily thankfulness practice on social media, but I’m going to list 7 things I’m thankful for today. So here are a few of my favourite things that I’m especially thankful for today:

  1. Living by the sea on such a glorious Spring day
  2. Our home. It needs a good clean and tidy up but for now I am just grateful to have a home I can enjoy
  3. My amazing husband and boys. These guys make me smile every day and I love them more than I ever thought would be possible
  4. Beautiful flowers
  5. Turquoise hair! I always have a moment of ‘What are you doing?! People will hate it!’ when I dye my hair crazy colours but I’m always glad I don’t listen to that voice
  6. My faith which sustains me and helps me to make sense of the world around me.
  7. The opportunity to make a difference for others – whether that is a simple smile at a stranger or listening to a young person who is struggling – it is a privilege that I don’t want to take for granted.

How about you? Could you list 7 things you’re grateful for today? Big or small, it’s good to be thankful!

Six things to do if someone tells you they are struggling with self harm #SelfHarmAwarenessDay2017

Today, 1st March, is Self Harm Awareness Day. This is a critical issue that touches the lives of many people who struggle with mental health crises and, according to some statistics, is the biggest killer of those who are struggling. It may be the hardest thing you’ll hear someone talk about but it’s important that we do encourage people to disclose because talking itself is a form of therapy and because being honest with ourselves and those who love us is the first step to recovery. Here are some important things to do if someone tells you they are hurting themselves.

  1. Listen to their story. Give them time and space to tell you about themselves: no judgements; no advice; no interruptions (aside from maybe ‘You were telling me about…’); no reactions.
  2. Ask them: when did they last injure themselves and how? You’ll need to make an assessment about whether they need to go to A&E or not.
  3. Don’t make them promise to stop. Until they have some other way to cope with the emotions that trigger the harming they won’t be able to stop and you’ll be setting them up to fail.
  4. Encourage them to tell someone else if you’re the first person they’ve told. You might be able to offer to go with them to tell a parent or other family member. You could point them towards a pro-recovery website like where they can disclose anonymously.
  5. If it’s appropriate in your relationship with this person, encourage them to get professional help. Unless you are a professional counsellor or psychiatric nurse, the likelihood is you don’t have the skills to help them begin to unpick the reasons why they do this. And this is a crucial part of recovery.
  6. Follow up. Next time you see them – or the next day if more appropriate – ask them how they are doing and be gentle but firm in not accepting ‘I’m fine’.


I am a freelance trainer for SelfharmUK. If you’re interested in training for your organisation around the issue of self harm then please contact Laura on

What would you do if you knew you could not fail?

Q: What would you do if you knew you could not fail?

A: Learn to fly – not in a plane or anything but me by myself. Let me explain: for as long as I can remember the answer to that icebreaker question ‘If you could be any animal what would you be?’ has been an eagle. Not because of the sharp beak and talons, not because of the amazing eyesight or huge wingspan of these magnificent beasts but because they can fly! And boy do they fly! High above everything and everyone else, in a seemingly effortless dance of air vs feathers (that’s that huge wingspan for you), with only one thing really in mind, not having to juggle the very human demands of other people. For me it’s a symbol of strength and steadfastness in the face of adversity and harsh conditions. Of course the entertainment value of being able to fly like an eagle but still be a human being is pretty high – imagine being able to just take off into the air! Imagine finding a way to loosen the effect of gravity on your own body and float away, the wind in your hair, and eyes, and mouth and clothing….OK that’s not sounding all that brilliant…

So how about the answer to that icebreaker question ‘If you were a cartoon character, who would you be?’ Spiderman, every time. Not because of the radio-active spider thing, but because he can swing! Someone recently said to me, but Superman flies so why Spiderman? Perhaps it’s the more down-to-earth nature of how Spidey gets around – not by flying through the air with a cape streaming out behind him, but swinging around buildings with his trusty web-ropes that take him anywhere. Well, anywhere where the buildings are tall enough so a city like NYC or Shanghai maybe… And then of course there *is* that whole thing about the radio-active spider and Uncle Ben with his ‘With great power…’ speech. OK so maybe not that either…

Learning to fail is an important part of life. How we deal with failure shows whether we are weak or strong. We asked a bunch of 12-13 year olds whether they knew anyone who was strong and 4 of the 8 of them told us stories about people they knew who had gone through a huge amount of ‘failure’ and come out the other side, stronger.

Learning from how we ‘fail’ or make a mistake is such a crucial skill in life that I think we all need to fail or rather we all need to notice when we fail, admit our mistake and make changes to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again, in order to learn how to be strong, how to be wiser, how to lift others up, how to live well.