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An interview with Joel Preston – leadership, youth work and discipleship

It was great to catch up with Joel Preston who I met during my training year with South West Youth Ministries. We talked about his heart for young people, leading well and gave some top tips along the way. Thanks for joining us here Joel!


Tell us a bit about you! (your faith journey, background and where you are now…)

I became a Christian around the age of 15 when I had a really powerful and significant encounter with the Holy Spirit which left me in no doubt that there was something more to life than meets the eye. There must be this God who my youth leaders had been talking about – He must be there. I wanted to find out more about Him, give my life to Him and respond to Him.

I ended up taking a gap year in youth work which I am still on (technically!) 14 years later. I started with Youth For Christ (YFC) in a town called Nuneaton. I spent 12 months there serving young people and getting into local schools and local churches helping out there.

I remember my first week in induction hanging out with the team before we’d done any youth work and saying ‘this is brilliant! I don’t know why I have to work with teenagers. Why would we do that? This is great – why don’t we just hang out with the team all the time?’ My instant thought after that was ‘this is going to be a horrible year if I end up just focusing on the team and not focusing on the young people’. So I said ‘God, you’ve got to break my heart for teenagers, otherwise it’s going to be a waste of my time this year, a waste of everyone’s time. So He did that and that meant I couldn’t just do 12 months in youth work, I had to stay for another 12! I ended up staying with Nuneaton YFC for four years before going on to church-based youth work where I ended up applying for the youth work job at my home church that I grew up in and came to faith in. It was amazing and great, but weird as I ended up leading the people who brought me to faith which was great.

I was at the church in Shrewsbury there for three years before moving to Bristol to do church-based youth work where I’ve been for seven years. I’ve learnt more about youth work and leadership with them. As I’ve grown in that, I’ve had opportunities to lead the Bristol Youth Work forum, a group of about 60 youth workers who meet together to support one another and reach out to the city – and also Hope Bristol as part of the leadership team to help make this city-wide event of enabling the church to reach out to its local communities and serve and share the gospel, but also partner with Soul Survivor who bring hundreds of teenagers to come and help at these mission opportunities which happened in April this year which is just amazing. We saw young people come to know Jesus, we saw streets being cleaned, old pensioners teas being run, graffiti being washed – it was just a brilliant time.

You founded in 2012 – can you explain what this is and why you decided to start it?

Lead Anyone came out of some personal frustrations I had about how I was being led and line managed and see how not to do that and I thought I need to develop this skill (leadership) myself if I want any chance of making a difference in people’s lives in youth ministry.

It started with a rather sexy title of ‘’ which is a bit of a mouthful and a bit long to type out every time. It started as a blog for me to process my own thoughts and put that out there and see if people were interested and it turns out that they were. People wanted to get involved in writing for it as well and it quickly became a site and resource that wanted to support those who were young in leadership but wanting to get better and taking that next step up in leadership from maybe leading a small group to leading teams, particularly for those who might be younger leaders leading volunteers that were old enough to be their parents. How do you line manage people? How do you lead volunteers? How do you cast vision? Over the years it has grown steadily to incorporate different people from different points of view in leading and also delivers training as well for young leaders.

You had some experience in leadership at Nuneaton YFC – is this when you first started to lead? 

The very beginning of it was after I’d become a Christian and part of my Christian youth group, my youth leader gave me opportunities to lead a Bible study here or lead worship there. Usually that would go really badly but still he gave the opportunities. It wasn’t until I went to Nuneaton YFC and my director there, my line manager Craig, said to me ‘Joel, I think you’ve got the potential for leadership – a potential gift of leadership and I’d like to help you learn about it’. I’d never really thought about it before because I didn’t get what leadership was at that point. I know you get church leaders and all they do is stand up the front on a Sunday so that’s what leadership is, but as I slowly began to learn more and Craig invested in me more and gave me more opportunities, I began to see that leadership is simply taking people from here to there.

As my passion for Jesus grew and my passion for leadership grew, I could see that there was this merging between the two. I would definitely say it was Craig who was a catalyst for me becoming a leader because I just didn’t see it in myself at first. He had to point it out to me but he also gave me opportunities and supported me as I went forward with it.

Is there any inspiration in the Bible for leadership that has influenced you?

There are two key things that come to mind. One is the book of 1 Timothy and Paul’s advice to Timothy is just amazing in terms of leadership advice which I think is relevant for today as it was back then. Particularly 1 Timothy chapter 3 where Paul talks about the qualifications – if you are looking to appoint volunteers and leaders, these are the things you need to look out for. They are all character traits other than one which is the skill of teaching. Things like that where Paul is highlighting points of character and skill in leadership is brilliant.

The book of Nehemiah as well even though it’s thousands of years old can rival any leadership book. This guy had a passion and a vision given by God, honoured people and managed well and prayed. Those are two key inspirations from the Bible for me where I’ve learnt more about leadership.

What’s your top tip for the leaders of the future?

You are the only one responsible for your leadership development. That’s the advice I would have given myself from several years ago. It’s easy to sit there and think ‘I should be developing as a leader, people should be investing in me, people should be offering to mentor me, I should be getting these opportunities…’. Actually, no one else is responsible for my leadership development – only I am. That’s the advice I would give to my younger self. Take responsibility and read the books, ask for feedback, listen to podcasts, read blogs, ask someone to mentor you and make it happen yourself as much as you possibly can.

You have a passion for working with young people and seeing them become life-long disciples of Jesus. What do you love most about your work? 

What I love is seeing young peoples’ lives changed by Jesus. I think that comes from that prayer I prayed at the very beginning of my youth work career of God breaking my heart for young people and He totally did. Soul Survivor is a nightmare for me because I go and I am in this tent full of thousands of young people worshipping Jesus passionately and I’m a wreck every time. I’m balling my eyes out just because God has broken my heart and just seeing young people passionately expressing a love for Jesus and a desire to say ‘God, take my life and use me’ is just brilliant. That’s what I live my life for really – to see young people become life-long disciples of Jesus because that’s a life-transforming thing.

What are the main challenges in youth ministry for you?

The challenges in youth ministry are around mental health. I wonder if the church is equipping itself well for the oncoming epidemic if it hasn’t already arrived of teenagers and young adults with rising mental health needs.

Another potential barrier for youth ministry is ‘what are the pathways for current teenagers to be tomorrow’s youth ministers?’ I’m not sure what they are or who’s thinking about it or taking responsibility for it. If it’s degree courses as one way to measure them, then over the past three years, several national courses have closed in youth ministry. We have got a number of churches who are advertising for youth ministry posts but not enough people applying for them. How do we ensure that youth ministry is a healthy profession and a profession taken seriously enough so they can really make a difference in the lives of teenagers but also therefore the future of this country?

What are the main challenges facing young people today?

The potential shallow nature brought about by our social media culture and putting a mask on easily and hiding what’s really going on underneath I think is a big danger for young people. We have seen studies that link between that and poor mental health which is on the increase in younger generations.

My personal opinion is I worry that the educational system isn’t set up in a way that will enable young people to be the best they can be in the 21st century. I worry that we are in this age of austerity and this age of cuts, we’re focusing young peoples’ skills in a way that will prepare them well for the marketplace and will help them pay tax, but the marketplace is for the 1970s and not for the 2020s. We are in this digital age and a lot of key business leaders are saying it’s all about interpersonal skills. Even if most of the work is digitised they need people with interpersonal skills. But that seems to be on the decrease in schools. I’m worried that might be a bit of an issue in the future.

What advice would you give to someone who is hesitant to engage with young people e.g. fear, the unknown, stereotypes, generational gap etc.? 

The first thing I’d say is I understand. I can understand why people might be a bit hesitant about it or find it intimidating or scary. I think the second thing I’d say is it’s not as bad as many people think. I think particularly for myself, when I was 18 and fresh into youth work and not too distant in age from the teenagers I was working with, I could understand what they were saying, I knew a lot of the cultural references they were using and some of the language etc. Now that I’m a lot older than that, I don’t know what they’re talking about, I don’t know what’s cool, I don’t know who is number one in the charts and all that sort of stuff. But my youth work is stronger for that because it gives me opportunity to say ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, explain it to me!’ Young people love telling me this is what it means.

I think being distant in age or culture or relatability for young people isn’t actually an issue – I think it’s an opportunity. I would encourage anyone of any age to get stuck in, maybe working with someone who knows what they’re doing a bit more than you at first. Just give it a go and see.

For those who want to engage with young people but don’t know where to start, what would be your advice? Is it to just get stuck in?

I think so. Get stuck in and if that’s too scary, find somebody either in your church or in an organisation you are a part of or even in a different church and say ‘can I just work with you to learn about how you do it so I can then do it myself?’ That’s what the body of Christ is all about – we can work well with each other’s gifts and learn from each other’s experiences.

In your experiences, what three pieces of wisdom can you share about developing a thriving church youth ministry including outreach and evangelism?

  1. Have a growth mindset. Work on yourself. Developing your own faith, developing your gifts and your character, your interpersonal skills, asking for feedback on all of these  things and finding ways to grow these yourself. If you’re not growing in all these ways, then the young people around you aren’t going to be growing. If you’re not growing, then you are less likely to attract in your youth ministry – we want young people to gather around us and be inspired by us as they see how Jesus is working in our own lives. I think it’s really important that we don’t just concentrate on the work and making it happen, but be investing in ourselves and growing in ourselves and improving ourselves and allowing Jesus to work in us.
  2. Be an enabler and not a limiter. For those of us who love youth work and young people, it’s very easy for us to dive in and do everything ourselves and forget that we are meant to equip the saints for works of service in Ephesians 4:11-12. We need to be engaging others and volunteers and be drawn alongside the older teenagers to work with us, investing in other people. Are we just doing it all ourselves because we love it, and in doing that, are we limiting other people’s growth, development and experiences and therefore limiting the beauty of the church and the role of the body of Christ?
  3. Take risks and make mistakes. It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s not nice but it’s OK to make mistakes. Approach schools to offer help, approach people who might be a little bit scared in the congregations to come and get involved in the teams, offer to pray for non-Christian young people or pray for their parents, pray for healing. With little risk there is little growth. Learn from mistakes and take risks. I think God honours us in risks as well. They don’t always turn out how we want them to, but God honours us in risks and His kingdom can grow whether we think they are a success or we think they are a failure.
  4. Soak all of the above in prayer. The ministry you have, yourself, your young people and the church – pray about it and give it all to God and hold it lightly, whatever you are working on in case He has anything different to say.

Joel Preston has been full time in youth ministry since 2004 and is currently Director of Evangelism & Mission at Youth for Christ. Having been a church-based youthworker for a decade he has been involved in leading a variety of local, regional and national initiatives including Hope Bristol, The Bristol youthwork forum and The Mix. He runs, a resource for those in ministry to improve their leadership and management skills. He is married to Emily and is Dad to Nathan and is committed to Wolverhampton Wanderers.

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