Tag Archives: mentoring

time to stop running Spiritual Formation Boarding Schools

my latest “Mark: My Words” column is out in the new issue of Youthwork Magazine (UK). i got a little ranty this time around (i know: so surprising from me, huh?).

boarding schoolI have a problem with the concept of boarding schools. I realize that there are times – say, when families are missionaries in a context where the options for secondary school are extremely limited, or for a troubled teenager whose needs surpass what a family is able to provide – when boarding school makes sense. But, in general, packing up a child or teenager and sending them off to a place where the education and care and emotional nurture and identity shaping is farmed out to professionals paid for that service? Yeah, as common as this might have been historically (at least for people of financial means), I’m not a fan.

It strikes me as very Baroness Schroeder, the selfish fiancé of Georg von Trapp, in The Sound of Music, who selfishly looks forward to getting the von Trapp children out of the way.

I’m guessing that if I lined up 100 youth workers – people who know and deeply care about teenagers – the vast majority of them would agree with me.

So why is it that so many of us youth workers are willing to run Spiritual Formation Boarding Schools?

In the 1970s, we set off on a grand adventure in the church, creating youth groups for the intentional spiritual nurture of adolescents. All good and well. Sorta.

Our misguided notion was that teenagers, due to their developmental need to differentiate themselves from their parents, and their healthy (at least potentially) search for identity, thrive best in homogeneous groups. That idea might not have flown with our churches, who needed to fund these efforts and create space for them, were it not for the fact that most adults find teenagers to be, in a word, annoying. So it was a lovely little bit of symbiosis that youth workers wanted to retract teenagers from the life of the church and adults in the church, like Baroness Scrhoeder, thought, “Perfect! Then this place can be more about me!”

For decades, we worked to “perfect” this isolating approach, thinking we were just nailing it.


Now we find out an embarrassing little truth: post-teenagers don’t do so well at holding onto their faith when their only experience of formation was in the context of an age-group ghetto. Teenagers often appear to thrive, spiritually speaking, while actively involved in our Spiritual Formation Boarding Schools. But it’s not sticky.

But we’ve created a bit of a monster. Imagine being the sole teacher at a regular educational boarding school, trying to convince the administration and parents that they’ve got it wrong. Right: resistance, even loss of employment.

I don’t want to put the blame at the feet of parents, or our churches; in a sense, they’re only expecting what we’ve promised (“We’ll spiritually develop your teenager. We’re the experts at this. You can go back to your regularly scheduled life.”).

Reintegration of teenagers into the life of a congregation, after decades of isolation, is messy and complex. There aren’t hundreds of success stories to copy; there isn’t a five-step, foolproof plan.

But this truth is clear: teenagers need the church, and the church needs teenagers. We can either take clumsy and courageous steps in this direction, or we can ignore the truth, or we can create new post-youth group pockets of isolation to postpone the problem for another generation (ha! Let the next round of youth workers deal with it!).

I’m not a “throw the baby out with the bathwater” guy. I’m not suggesting a ridiculous (and foolhardy) pendulum swing of shutting down our youth work or youth groups. We don’t need an either/or response; we need a both/and response.

I’ve become keenly aware of my inability to spiritually transform the lives of teenagers. But if my true motivation in youth work is to see teenagers grab hold of a lifelong faith, I simply must adjust my systems of isolation. I simply must be proactive and creative in helping teenagers find meaningful places of belonging in our church, not only in our youth group. The alternative (the way we’ve been doing it) might make me look good, but ultimately, it’s a disservice to the very teenagers I’m called to.