Involving Youth in Leadership
Has your church ever run a “20 Under 30” campaign? These are efforts to get young people to fill at least 20% of local church ministry leadership positions. The slogan fits well on those DIY buttons from the button maker in that craft room upstairs. And, it isn’t a terrible way to remind the church that youth and young adults have gifts for discerning and leading ministry today. But, if we only pursue youth as leaders to meet an age diversity quota, then maybe we aren’t in it for the right reasons.
Below, let’s look at some ways that local churches and ministries are doubling down on youth and young adult involvement in leadership as a means for nurturing a sense of belonging in young people church-wide.
Guiding at the Grass Roots
In United Methodist Churches all over the United States, young people have connected with their faith communities more deeply by serving as leaders of specific ministries. By helping lead at the grass roots level these young people can see some of the immediate fruitfulness of their leadership.
At Fort Worth First UMC, Juniors and Seniors in High School can participate in the “Middle School Leader” Sunday school option. This puts them into small discussion groups with an adult partner to help lead Middle School students reflecting on the day’s scripture and message. Andrew Mochrie, Director of Youth Ministries at Fort Worth FUMC says that this option for older youth gives them a reason to keep participating in youth ministry even if they think they’ve already “done it all.” It also gives Middle School students inspiration for how they might live as a faithful Christ-followers as they grow older since the High School students tend to have insight into Scripture passages and how they relate to life as a young person.
Along with the active youth worship team at Woodlake UMC in Virginia, Director of Student Ministries Jenna Bush says that youth are invited onto project specific and time-limited leadership teams. Participants on these teams are usually youth who want to “take it to the next level” of engagement. They may gather to plan the annual retreat or discern a Summer mission opportunity. By avoiding asking young people to serve in indefinite leadership roles, Woodlake Student Ministries can match the right youth with leadership of the right project for them. Plus this leaves room for young people to be actively involved with a host of other good causes and commitments in their lives outside of church.
At Embry Hills UMC in Atlanta, GA, student co-presidents of the Youth Leadership Team are encouraged to “lead by action and example.” Even this more traditional youth council model recognizes that leadership has a lot more to it than just sitting in meetings. Leaders are further invited to make a “tangible commitment of presence, gifts, and service” to all the activities of the youth ministry.
These are examples of young people leading at the grass-roots level of local church ministry programs. Calling youth into planning meetings or church committees that are disconnected from the actual practice of ministry might limit their understanding of how their presence directly contributes to God’s work in the world. But, moments of hand-on service offer another vision of what leadership can be, one that encourages young people to pursue further leadership opportunities as a deepening member their faith community.
Mutual Gifts in Churches with Young Leaders
Youth ministry staff are careful to say that having young people in leadership is not just some easy way to get cheap labor. In fact, investing in young people as leaders may take more time and resources than if staff just did it alone. But, the reward of engaging young people as leaders in our ministries can be a kind of multiplying of the kin-dom effect of our congregations.
Motor City Wesley in Detroit, MI was launched, not by any particularly engaging clergy person inviting students to participate, but by energized young adults inviting their friends to build a new mission-focused campus group together. Without that kind of participant leadership, this and many other ministries would never get off the ground. So it was good that the UMC invested funds to create stipends for those student leaders to continue their work.
Another way that a local church has invested in young leaders comes out of Tennessee. First Centenary UMC in Chattanooga celebrates their special retreat for youth in leadership like this:
“As if serving on the Youth Council wasn’t rewarding enough: The Youth Council is also treated to their very own Youth Council Retreat. We stay in luxury cabins in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is both a planning and renewal time for those who serve on the Youth Council.”
For this church the great gifts that young leaders offer are only matched by the great hospitality that the youth ministry staff returns to them. It is a wonderful example of mutual gift giving by student and adult leaders that reveals a deep sense of belonging together in the midst of Christian outreach with young people.
Many churches give back to their student leaders by helping them learn rich practices of effective missional leadership. Faith Community UMC in Ohio describes their Youth Leadership Team as a place where young people can not only practice leadership, but will also explore what it means to be a Christian leader. Investing in time to explore biblical foundations is a great way to connect young leaders both to the historic narratives of the church and to how they might help the church continue it’s work today.
Launching Further Discernment
In all the examples above we’re seeing a pathway for ever-deepening discipleship through ministry leadership opportunities for young people. And it’s good to remember that these pathways don’t just stop at graduation from High School.
The UMYF Scholars program at Hendrix College provides $2,000 - $3,000 scholarships for new students who’ve exemplified leadership through United Methodist connectional ministries like conference councils on youth ministry. At Hendrix, these young people continue in leadership by serving as a core group for the college’s religious life programming. Chaplain J.J. Whitney is pleased to celebrate the 50% of this group who are regularly considering ordained ministry as a possible next step in their vocational calling.
Hendrix’ program and others like it are one way that our church continues to engage young people as catalysts for ministry while providing discernment opportunities for them. Along with the various youth leadership academies, the summer mission and ministry internships and the formal processes of clergy candidacy, we see a direct line between local church leadership and life-long ministries of leadership for young people.
Thanks to all those churches who discern, design and deploy opportunities for you young people to lead. These are the methods by which many youth and young adults will feel a sense of belonging to the church. And, they are the lens through which the church will remember that the ministry of Jesus belongs to those who come forward with the exuberance and creativity of young people.