Lessons from the Gareth Southgate School of Youthwork

Becky May, Founding Director

If you were to list the three people least likely to write a blog in response to the football this week, I would fully expect my name to appear. I am not known for a love of the game; I do remember falling asleep during the Euro ’96 quarter finals, which my equally-ambivalent-towards-football Mum had decided we really ‘should’ watch. However, my interest in this year’s tournament was slightly increased, not least because of my son’s interest, but also because there seems to be a culture around this team which is somewhat more appealing than may have been seen in recent history.

This week, a number of posts have been doing the rounds on social media reporting and celebrating the Christian faith of some players. This sits uneasily with me. Once we start to put the latest Christian celebrities on a pedestal, we are setting them up for failure. We should be praying for believers in the public eye, but let’s be careful about the way we use their status and the expectations we may have of them.

I do believe, however, that there are lessons from Gareth Southgate and his squad which are applicable to our own youth ministry, (and perhaps our children’s and family ministry too). You may be relieved (or disappointed) to discover they have little to do with football…

  1. Leadership Matters

Gareth Southgate has shown himself to be an exemplary leader throughout this process, bringing out the best from his team, setting the tempo and the course for others to follow. In the press conferences following Sunday’s match, Southgate demonstrated another leadership quality perfectly; “That it’s down to me. I chose the penalty takers based on what we’ve done in training and nobody is on their own. We’ve won together as a team and it’s absolutely on all of us in terms of not being able to win the game tonight. But in terms of the penalties, that’s my call and totally rests with me.”

President Truman famously owned a desk sign which he referred to from time to time; ‘the buck stops here.’ In the last 18 months or so, we have seen countless examples of those in leadership pointing to others at times, rather than taking responsibility. As leaders we must be those who take responsibility. As Christian leaders, we do so under God’s wing, but we must still know what it is to be accountable and to own the calls we make.

  1. Character Matters

Much has been said over the last 15 years or so lamenting the notion that young boys and girls want to grow up to be footballers, as though the children are somehow to blame for the role models, we have given them. Notwithstanding my earlier warning about who we may choose to put on a pedestal, this squad have demonstrated what it is to be people of good character; to be those who stand up for economic justice, racial justice…

Recent debate has raged around whether it matters what we do in private, so long as we can get the job done. Of course it matters. We cannot be people of integrity part time, we are not a series of personas living out different roles, we are complex, flawed, beautiful human beings and character matters. As we seek to help our young people grow in character, we need to help them grow their whole person.

  1. Risks Matter

Each of us have our own boundaries about how far we are prepared to go outside of our comfort zone. While some of us will happily jump out of aeroplanes, or throw ourselves along zip wires, the rest of us may prefer to take things a bit more slowly.

As the penalty takers stepped up to take their shots, commentators were already questioning whether the right players had been chosen. Had we won, it would have been seen to have been the right decision.

Sometimes we take risks and they work. Sometimes we take risks and they don’t. As we begin to think about what we are going to do next, the one thing we can’t do is go back to what we were doing before. It may feel safe, but it wasn’t working. If we are going to see a generation transformed by Jesus, then we need to be people who are ready to take risks, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Some things that we try will not work and we need to be ok with that. We need to develop a culture where it’s ok for things to go wrong, where we review what we’re doing, evaluate and keep moving forward. We need to be the risk takers.

  1. Age Doesn’t Matter

In the final minutes of the game, a 19-year-old young man stepped up to take the final shot. When it didn’t reach the goal, that young man was consoled, supported and held up by his team and his leader. When was the last time our churches modelled that?

In the wider world, our young people are fighting for Queen and country, playing to represent their nation, researching life-changing innovations, investing in money-making developments, standing up and speaking out about injustice. In the church those same young people are often being made to wait until they’re older before they are allowed to play their part, that is if they are still in our churches at all.

I love reading about Jesus’ disciples, because I love how deeply human they were. Jesus didn’t ask them to complete an induction course or a lengthy theological study, he called them to follow Him, and in their ‘unreadiness’ He worked with them to change the world. What would it take for us to pass the ball to a 19-year-old? What would it take for us to live out 2 Timothy 4:12 in our churches?

What do you think? Are there lessons we can learn here?