Social action

Going Beyond ‘the Project’: why we need to be less professional and more radical – by Anna Hembury

The defining, shaping character of Christian youth and community work is the Incarnation – Jesus’ birth, life death and resurrection. This presumably means we are confident that Jesus had a pretty good grasp of what constitutes “good practice” so the standards by which we might measure “being professional” should first and foremost be from an interpretation of Jesus’ practice in our own context, not the standards set by the National Youth Agency or anyone else.

The cancer of ‘professionalism’

Being professional is a cancer which has reached epidemic proportions in the damage it has caused youth and community work.  It presents symptoms which include prohibitive tumours such as health and safety, equal opportunities and child protection – all of which started as healthy thriving cells and have parasitically grown into unmanageable proportions, inhibiting movement and sucking nutrients, energy and life out of the host.

In its advanced stages it affects the brain’s ability to assess risk, leads to loss of sight of the starkly obvious and reduces the body’s functions to a limited set of paperwork-heavy and gumption-poor activity.

Self-delusion is a commonplace secondary tumour – resulting in a sense of success and achievement over forms filled, activities organised and boxes ticked. 

Another secondary tumour is a need for control, so that satisfaction is achieved with smooth running, good behaviour and the retaining of power to define and deliver measurable outcomes.

Unchecked the cancer invariably proves fatal, tightening its grip on the host bodies major organs so that eventually breathing becomes impossible and the heart’s capacity to love, to trust and to put others needs before it’s own sense of self-preservation is diminished to ultimate arrest.

A deeper healing

The standards which Jesus, the Great Physician, prescribes for restoring health are demanding not least because they have to be ministered over a life time: quality of relationships, depth of care, wholeness of transformation and fullness of life – no short course of a blast of chemo (otherwise known as Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-scaled projects) will bring about the kind of healing He offers.

Sharing God’s vulnerability

One of the hallmarks of the Incarnation, the guts of what “moving into the neighbourhood” (Message, John 1:14) is about, is vulnerability.

Taking on the nature of a servant (Phillipians 2), being bound in swaddling cloths, his death on a cross, are all evidence of God’s call, and Christ’s example, to vulnerability. We show the kingdom, we bring in the kingdom, we are the kingdom of God when we are vulnerable, when we relinquish power so that we are no longer in control.

It allows God, who chose to partner rather than control, the space to shape things, it allows others to find their feet as partners with God so they too have the opportunity to give and to serve and to make decisions and to freely live out their story with God.

Being professional, on the world’s terms, tends to be about limiting or removing vulnerability on the part of the youth / community / family worker as much as possible – keeping us safe from harm , from litigation, from our ability to think for ourselves lest we make a mistake. (Mistakes are always bad, displaying further proof of our vulnerability and therefore unprofessionalism.)

Unprofessional transformation

We are called instead to “be not conformed by the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2), bringing the light of the Gospel rather than the paranoia of the age to bear on all our actions.

In these times, when professionalism is the common currency of all interactions in the “caring” sector it is perhaps even more vital that our expression and outworking of the Kingdom of God be as unprofessional as we can get away with, as a mark of our Christ-guided morality.

Anna Hembury works with young people and families for Hull Youth for Christ – watch a short film about their work on the Church Urban Fund website

3 thoughts on “Going Beyond ‘the Project’: why we need to be less professional and more radical – by Anna Hembury”

  1. I completely agree with Anna – and this is a message to church leaders too. Vulnerability is our core characteristic, but few seem to manage that strength of discipline. As a priest I want to offer myself as a servant to the congregation and the community and part of that is to say to my congregation ‘I would like you to create an environment where I thrive and where I can serve you most faithfully, however if you choose to abuse me, I still must serve’ – it’s hugely risky, never easy, there is always sacrifice (but it’s also hugely liberating)


  2. Yes, I think this is a strong challenge all social action projects need to hear and grapple with.

    The way Anna describes positive processes such as health and safety, equal opportunities and good practice as cells which have become damaging to the body is a vital truth which needs to be confronted. Its not easy or straightforward – my work involves areas where we need to be very tight about risk management due to the people we are working with – but it does not mean we allow these processes to override the very reason why they exist – professionalism is a good servant of care work but a poor master.

    The killer line for me is where she writes that we should be ‘bringing the light of the Gospel rather than the paranoia of the age to bear on all our actions’. We live in an age of anxiety and the church living by the light of the gospel should challenge this rather than add to it.


  3. We love this piece and it speaks to us in many ways, especially as we seek to improve our network of projects around the country. Thank you, Anna.


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