After starting my new position as associate conference minister for youth and young adult ministries in the Iowa Conference UCC about nine months ago, I quickly realized that people have a variety of ideas about what it is that I can/should do in this position. I, along with Rich Pleva, our conference minister, have repeatedly stated that although we are open to imagining just what it is that I DO; we are also clear that I am NOT the youth minister to the entire state of Iowa.
Most people hear that last part and chuckle. Of course I can’t be the youth minister to every young person throughout the 179 churches of the Iowa Conference! But, the reality is that these kinds of positions in other conferences and in the national setting of the church have often been structured this way. Often these folks have themselves built relationships with youth and young adult leaders (despite the overwhelming nature of this task) and planned conference-wide and national events and retreats. Many young people have been nurtured in these settings and have gone on to serve as energetic pastors and lay leaders in the church.
However, many more young people are lost. Nearly every conversation I have with local churches starts with something like, “We just don’t have that many children/teens/young adults in our church.” All kinds of statistics support this anecdotal evidence – young people have steadily departed from mainline Protestant churches for decades.
When I go to local congregations I also meet lots of adults who love young people and who want them to have a vibrant faith life. These adult leaders feel like they have few resources, inadequate knowledge and a lack of leadership and relationship-building skills to undertake the task. Worse yet, many of them are discouraged because they’ve tried so many events and programs only to have young people continue to leave anyway. They often feel like they are the only ones who care about young people in their church and become burned out and leave these ministries.
So, what am I doing about all this, you might ask? One of the things I HAVE done in the nine months is design a series of workshops that help people discern God’s call to youth ministry. Although this is a pretty untested theory, I believe that if you know WHY you do youth ministry, you can more easily and more strategically choose HOW you do youth ministry – hopefully to greater effect in local churches. Already two churches have been brave enough to join me in this discernment process. Based on my perceptions of their results, these leadership teams have ended up in wildly different places than they originally imagined. That’s what happens when you listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit!
This work is also labor intensive and logistically difficult given the vast territory that I cover. However, I believe that investing in teams of leaders will strengthen church leadership in the long-term. They will affect the lives of young people and transform the cultures of their own congregations for generations to come.
If you’re a church in the Iowa Conference UCC, please let me know if you want to embark on one of these discernment processes with me or if you just need me to be a sounding board for a new idea that you want to try out. I’m here to help!