"I was hoping to develop a network, more so a group of friends, who will be relation to each other for years to come — and I did."
These sentiments were expressed by one of the 12 full-time youth ministers who came together at the United Church of Christ Church House to discuss their ministry. Held Sept. 24-26, the National Conversation on Youth Ministry's primary purpose was relationship building and networking, says the Rev. Trayce L. Potter, the UCC's minister for youth & young adult engagement.
"Many youth ministers feel as though they are doing their work all alone with little support from others," Potter said. "This gathering formed a cohort who will stay engaged over the next two years to be a support system, share ideas, and work collaboratively to present at the 2020 National Youth Event" at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
The gathering also was a way for the ministers to share their challenges and needs with Potter and each other. "This has helped guide my work and forced me to think creatively about reaching a very specific group of ministers who have similar needs despite the differences between congregations (racial, location, theology)," Potter said.
Ian Carr McPherson, minister for youth and young adult initiatives at United Church of Chapel Hill (N.C.), expressed hope that the two-day conference was just a beginning. "This gathering was an extraordinary (and all too rare) opportunity to meet with youth pastors from across the nation," McPherson said. "The passion and wisdom of this group deepened my own commitment to ministry with the church's youngest leaders, and I only hope there will be more opportunities like this moving forward."
The gathering was just one of the ways Potter is reinvigorating youth ministries in the United Church of Christ. A new "for youth, by youth" online Lenten devotional currently is in the works, targeted for release in early February.
"Too often, we lose sight of the fact that Jesus was still a child when he first stood in the temple and declared God's word," Potter said. "To have youth reflect on Christ's life and mission during Lent just fits with how Jesus lived his life, and is an opportunity to model lifting up the next generation of leaders among us."
Graphic designer Ted Dawson, who is creating the design for the youth's reflections, said the work will require a new approach. "As a designer, it is always challenging to take material that is based on theological or Biblical themes and to give it some added punch. With these new, youthful voices I get to work with, the challenge is a little different: they already have a lot of punch!" Dawson said. "How do I capture and do justice to their honesty and enthusiasm and incredible insights? We'll see. I'm looking forward to it!"
For the youth, the resource will be meaningful — and not boring. "Too often, youth are forced to hear words that [do not] resonate with them," added Potter. "This is a chance for them to make the Bible relevant and real for themselves and their peers."
Potter also plans to keep the young writers involved in future projects. Already, some are on the 2020 NYE planning team, she said, while others have expressed interest in connecting to the wider church.
Larger picture plans include relaunching the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries and pushing the special youth@synod program at next year's General Synod in Milwaukee, Wis. Potter also is working with Roberto Ochoa, UCC program associate for congregations of color, to develop a leadership program for youth of color.
To help youth ministers stay connected, Potter is working with the UCC news and web staff to develop an area in the weekly KYP e-blast that will provide information and resources specific to youth ministers.
"My main goal in working with youth is to create an effective program that provides leadership development, helps youth articulate their faith in a way that is relevant and authentic, and helps retain youth as they transition into … young adulthood," said Potter. For youth ministers, her goal is "providing the tools, support and encouragement so they can continue to carry on that same work in a local setting, where they interact with youth on a regular basis."
McPherson sees the new relationships benefitting both youth ministers and local churches. At the recent gathering, he said, "I benefited deeply from the opportunity to connect, share and collaborate with colleagues in youth ministry, and I know all our congregations will be blessed by what we gained in our time together."