A lot happens in the first 10 years of building a College. Michelle Haines-Thomas has spoken to some of Youthworks’ earliest ambassadors to uncover a story of God’s gracious provision in fulfilling a dream to bring children and young people into the knowledge of Christ.
It’s March 2000. You are one of 26 people who is about to take part in a great experiment.
You have signed up to be among the very first students of a brand new Sydney ministry training college. You have no idea what to expect, you don’t know anyone, the staff and curriculum are unfamiliar and untested, and you have to travel to an out-of-the-way building in the bush on the outskirts of Sydney.
So what do you find when you finally arrive on the first day ever at Youthworks College?
“When the students turned up they had to roll the carpet out on the floor,” recalls Youthworks College principal the Rev Graham Stanton with a laugh. “The furniture was still wrapped in plastic.”
Inauspicious beginnings? Not at all. For under God even the most humble ventures can have a big impact for the gospel. And this one, while casting an ambitious vision, was pretty humble.
“The first students to arrive were handed brooms,” said The Rev Tim Foster, who was in charge of training for Youthworks at the time and the moving force behind the college’s establishment.
Tania Small, the college’s newly employed office administrator, was also hesitant.
“When Tim offered me this job I had this vision of the college being like Loftus TAFE so when I came down the road into the bush and saw the small building with no office, my first thought was ‘What have I done?’!” said Tania.
But the shared experience of mucking in together turned out to be a major blessing. Working together – with their brains in the lecture room and with their hands on the building – was deeply bonding, for staff and students alike, and an opportunity to live out what they were there to learn.
But as small as the college’s beginnings may have seemed on that first day, they were in fact the result of years of dreaming by a lot of people; people who wanted to see Christians equipped to share the Kingdom of God in a way that reaches children and teenagers.
Tim Foster first recalls having the idea for a youth ministry college in 1996, when he was Assistant Minister at Gymea.
“A number of people were working at Port Hacking (in camping ministry). My sense was they were working hard but not getting the training they needed,” said Tim. He put forward a proposal for a youth ministry training facility to what was then the Anglican Youth Department, but the amalgamation of the AYD with the Anglican Education Commission put the project on the back burner.
Nevertheless, the idea had support from many quarters.
The Archbishop at the time, The Rt Rev Harry Goodhew, said he remembered having discussions about a children’s and youth ministry training facility with The Rev Laurie Davies, CEO of the Anglican Education Commission, in light of the “Growing Up without God Report” in 1997.
“I had always had an interest in youth ministry,” said Bishop Goodhew, whose first ministry job had been with the Church of England Youth Department (as it then was). He had seen people from his generation, such as Clifford Warne and Graham Wade, have a big impact for the gospel on young people, and as Archbishop he was aware that youth and children’s ministers were not highly valued in the way the diocese operated.
“I could see a college was a way of moving youth ministry to a solid base, and to try to lift up those who did it to be seen as significant in the life of the parish.”
Lindsay Stoddart, who had been offered the role of CEO of the new, amalgamated organisation, also remembered the idea having long-term support.
“The AEC had long dreamt of a training institution for children and youth ministry, training that was based on sound educational principles and a robust biblical theology,” he said.
“There were some children’s workers in the diocese (very few) and many of the ministries were based on ‘decisionism’ (children are not necessarily able to make these sorts of decisions) rather than a disciple-based model of children’s ministry where children appropriately are taught the faith and learn to love their Lord Jesus.”
The merge eventually resulted in Anglican Youthworks, and Lindsay Stoddart was installed as CEO. The idea came off the shelf and back into play when Tim Foster was appointed director of the Church Resourcing Unit.
“I made the college a condition of me taking the job,” remembers Tim.
Having discussed the matter with the then head of camping, Andrew Hudson, and the business manager, John Cross, they pointed Tim to the property at Loftus, Camp Wanawong, owned by Church of England Boys Society (CEBS). They suggested he broaden his vision of merely training Youthworks camping staff to include anyone interested in children’s and youth ministry, with a focus on parishes.
“Thanks to CEBS, by April 1999 we had a site. I spoke to Mark Harding at the Australian College of Theology about accreditation. Now all I had to think of was someone who could run it,” said Tim.
Enter The Rev Graham Stanton, then Assistant Minister at St Michael’s, Wollongong.
“I clearly remember sitting in my house in Wollongong in September ’99, and I got a call from Tim,” remembers Graham. “He said that Youthworks was interested in setting up a college, and I was the sort of person they were interested in to run it. So we started talking.”
Youth ministry was close to Graham’s heart, but he was not sure he was the right person as he had no background in education, and no Master’s qualifications. But the idea excited him.
“The job offer, in the end, was ‘if we get approval from Youthworks Council, and if we get funding from the diocese and if we get 10 students, then you can be the dean’. It is contrary to my character to say yes to something so uncertain, and some important people were telling me ‘No, don’t do it’, but when I talked over my future options with a friend, he said the only time I smiled was when I talked about the college,” said Graham.
So the college had a dean, albeit on a contract with an escape clause if the whole thing fell about their ears. Following the advancement of $110,000 in diocesan funding, Graham went shopping for a library, and he and Tim started cleaning, painting and refurbishing the Wanawong site.
But there were still plenty of people with reservations.
One of the ‘important people’ who was telling Graham not to do it was the Bishop of Wollongong, who happened to be his father-in-law.
“When Graham talked to me, my great advice was that I didn’t think this was the way forward,” remembers Bishop Piper with some embarrassed humour.
“I cautioned him. I thought that Moore College would be the right avenue for that. But being young and knowing better... he did know better!”
Bishop Piper was a quick convert to the idea, though, when he saw it shaping up.
“As his father-in-law, I didn’t want to use my episcopal influence to get it off the ground, but I was anxious to support it in a personal sense, and I was amazed at his hard work,” he said.
Graham Stanton remembers are “fairly charged” atmosphere in the diocese concerning the idea of the college.
“I was having two conversations with people. One went, ‘How dare you! We already have a college.’ The other went, ‘This is great. We always needed another college.’ One senior clergyman warned us, ‘If you don’t teach the reformed doctrines of grace, I’ll do everything in my power to destroy you.’”
Principal of Moore College at the time, and now Archbishop of Sydney, The Most Rev Peter Jensen remembers feeling some hesitation about the enterprise.
“Moore College was offering a three-year full-time course, with less specialisation, and attracting somewhat older candidates,” said Archbishop Jensen. “Youthworks had the opportunity of providing a different pathway, while teaching the same Bible and gospel and with the same aims in mind. (But) I was disappointed that we (Moore College) were not able to give training to all youth workers.”
Lindsay Stoddart was anxious to reassure Moore College supporters that the new college was not set up in competition.
“I assured them we would walk with Moore College and in fact I saw the Youthworks College as a feeder to Moore in the longer term,” he said.
And strategically, Mr Stoddart couldn’t think of a better way to reach people with the gospel.
“I always saw, and still do see, the college as one of the most strategic initiatives of Anglican Youthworks. Look at the number of trained chaplains in schools and workers in churches today, and all because of the college,” he said
“Eighty percent of evangelical Christians come to faith by the age of 20 and many from the age of eight. We are so wrong in not investing time and talent in children and the early teens.”
Bishop Goodhew agrees.
“Those (young) years are highly significant. If they don’t make a public commitment then, at least they have a framework in place to come back to,” he said.
He added that the calibre of the people involved in the formation of Youthworks College helped soothe concerns about the enterprise.
“Lindsay Stoddart was very diligent and keen, and negotiated in the diocese, because there was a bit of fear,” he said. “Graham Stanton’s appointment was something that helped – I have great regard for him. In Tim Foster and Graham Stanton they had two very fine people to lead it.”
Mr Stoddart believed the college would meet a need by providing people trained soundly in discipleship, theology and the Bible, but also with practical skills in nurturing young people. It would also appeal to those who did not want to go straight away (or at all) into adult ministry, for whom the full Moore College experience was not necessary.
“I saw an advantage in a full-time 40-hour a week job description which would pay less but not require the rigours of the four year Moore College degree,” said Mr Stoddart.
“But most importantly the Diploma was to be ‘articulated’. This means that if a student did well at the credit level or better she might get credit towards a degree. In the old days those who did the Diocesan Youth Diploma had to start again.”
Articulation – transferring credit earned at Youthworks into a degree at Moore College – has turned out to be crucial to the partnership between the colleges.
Archbishop Jensen sees that partnership as being the way forward.
“I am very pleased at the way in which Youthworks and Moore College are working together. I would like to see an even stronger alliance,” he said.
Graham Stanton said the development of articulation was wrapped up in the changes to ordination in the diocese, which recognised a broader role for the diaconate.
“We didn’t seek to become an ordination college for the diocese. As far as I can tell it came from (Dean of Sydney) Phillip Jensen’s thinking about the need for team ministry and changing the diaconate,” he said.
“We are keen to work with Moore College on this, and keep pressing on in our niche area.”
There is no other higher educational college (that we know of) in Australia, or even overseas, that is specifically focussed on children’s and youth ministry. This puts Youthworks College in a unique position to offer support for other institutions, as is the case with (for example) the Bible College of South Australia, where Youthworks College lecturers have run educational blocks for students. Graham sees future possibilities including teaching youth and children’s subjects, some at Master’s level, at Moore College and elsewhere.
The Timothy Partnership, which sees Youthworks College partnering with Presbyterian Youth to offer online theological training, is another expression of the college’s future direction.
Since that first year of Youthworks College, over 150 students have prepared for ministry, deepened their understanding of God and his grace, and developed bonds of love and fellowship as they live out the gospel before each other.
The college has moved from the margins of the diocese to become a mainstream, highly regarded educational institution. As Tim Foster pointed out, the desire for the college was “driven by the people on the ground”, and it has consistently been supported by them.
Over the years, the leadership of Anglican Youthworks passed to The Rev Al Stewart as CEO, with Tony Willis as Director of Training. During this time the college became its own division within Youthworks. Later – with Zac Veron as CEO – Graham Stanton’s title was changed from Dean to Principal, and he also became Director of Training, integrating all the training aspects of Youthworks with the college.
Another turning point was the introduction of Year 13 in 2006, with The Rev Jodie McNeill at the helm, offering a gap year ministry experience for keen school leavers that has proved enormously beneficial. The continued growth of this program promises to leave the college with the ‘good’ problem of having to find a bigger site, as Year 13 expands to take over the Wanawong location.
One aspect of the college’s success has been something which doesn’t appear on a list of subjects or in the prospectus. The ethos of the place, nurtured by the staff and enhanced by the beauty of God’s creation that surrounds it, is one of the intangible benefits to students.
“Under Graham Stanton’s leadership, the college has assumed its own culture and distinctiveness, which is informal and relationship-based,” said Tim Foster.
“It’s a very attractive place. The staff’s ability to create that culture has been critical.”
Former office administrator Tania Small agrees.
“The staff were the main reason for me being there for eight years,” she said. “I have never worked with such caring and loving people. At times they were my rock.”
The college has been an education for Graham Stanton too.
“I’ve spent half my adult life here,” he said. “Teaching systematic theology has forced me to really think about the Christian life – that we become really human when united with Jesus Christ, by the Spirit, through the gospel. It’s become clearer to me what I’m on about.”
From little things, under God, big things grow. There was a sneaking suspicion, in that first year, that something special was to come, as Graham remembers.
“I remember walking up from the chapel the first day Tim took me down to Wanawong and sensing this thing was a whole lot bigger than I realised. ”