Advocates for greater youth and young adult (YYA) participation in the United Church of Christ live by a long-standing maxim: youth and young adults are more than "the future of the church" — they are the present church as well.
In fact, in the past year alone youth and young adults have led national UCC organizations like the Pacific Islander and Asian American Ministries (PAAM), influenced policy decisions as members of churchwide boards, lobbied for comprehensive sexuality education on Capitol Hill, planned ministry activities in conferences across the church, designed ecumenical college student programming, guided mission and service events as volunteer interns, modeled faithful living as camp counselors and collaborated with youth ministry staff to create a National Youth Event for thousands of UCC youth.
By their leadership, youth and young adults shape the UCC's current and future priorities.
As a young adult, Melissa Woo has full-time commitments earning a living and pursuing her college degree. Nevertheless, Woo is also the recently nominated national moderator of PAAM, an advocacy group within the United Church of Christ. She has been active in national activities since her early teens, but she was surprised to be named PAAM's moderator last year.
Woo feels supported by the organization's members, while recognizing that "this is the first time PAAM elders are looking at someone 20, 30, or 40 years their junior being their leader."
The organization's members placed her as a young adult in senior leadership after talking for a number of years about empowering PAAM's youth and young adults. While the position has challenged Woo's time-management and administrative skills, it also affords her an opportunity to demonstrate leadership for other youth and young adults. "The walls and barriers that suggest they can't get involved get broken down."
Kendra Purscell, another UCC young adult, participates with and chairs a committee for the Wider Church Ministry board of directors. As chair, Purscell regularly addresses the entire board on behalf of her committee.
"While I'm comfortable speaking for myself and representing youth and young adults, Purscell says, "I know I don't speak for all of them." She has nevertheless found participating on the Wider Church Ministry board a rewarding experience, and it has brought to her attention other ways to serve in the church.
Last summer Purscell participated as an intern for Faithful Advocates Serving Together, a joint ministry of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She guided groups participating in service projects to discover the "secret" of mission work — "while they were there to help people, they were mostly there to have their eyes opened and see a new perspective of the world."
Thousands of youth across the country find their first opportunities to lead at church camps and other youth ministry activities within the UCC's 38 conferences. In leading music, teaching activities or directing reflections, youth have the opportunity at camp to guide one another and older adults in listening to new ideas and gaining compassion for God's creation.
Leadership at camp connects youth with other ministry initiatives within and outside of their local church, including those of their conference.
Across the country, teams of youth gather together to plan conference-wide activities — everything from ski trips to weekend-long events. These youth ministry opportunities are further occasions for youth to lead, preparing for events, establishing expectations, and serving as role models for their peers.
As a youth, James Maki became involved in national UCC leadership through just such a conference initiative. He served on the Minnesota Conference's Youth Ministry Team (YMT), designing themes and selecting guest speakers for semi-annual Conference Youth Events.
"The most rewarding part of being on the team was [the] network of people I got to meet," says Maki. While still a high school student, his service on the YMT caught the attention of conference minister Karen Smith Sellers. She soon named Maki the Minnesota Conference representative to the Executive Council for the national church.
Sellers is "deeply committed" to YYA leadership throughout the UCC, perhaps because she herself served in church leadership at an early age, saying, "I believe young people are ready to offer substantive leadership now." Boosted by Sellers' trust, Maki will hold his seat on the Executive Council for six years, determining national priorities of the church and influencing a whole new network of colleagues.
Purscell and Maki also serve on the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM), a group created by the General Synod to minister and advocate both to and for youth and young adults in the UCC.
CYYAM (pronounced "SIGH-yam") is composed of several dozen representatives from the regions, historically underrepresented minority groups and executive boards of the UCC. Meeting twice a year face-to-face and monthly by conference call, CYYAM members work with other church leaders to help make YYA voices heard at General Synod, address issues of justice and peace, and serve as a voice for all UCC youth and young adults.
This leadership has recently taken the form of staffing the UCC's National Youth Event and providing oversight to the church-wide survey on reshaping youth and young adult ministries in the denomination. CYYAM seeks new members every General Synod, and those seeking more information are advised to contact national staff member Kelly Burd at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
As teenage and 20-something leaders throughout the church, youth and young adults continue to influence the ministry and "evolution" of the UCC.
Minnesota Conference Minister for Children and Youth, the Rev.Wade Zick, hopes to see the UCC adopting a broader use of technology in its communication and ministry. "We also need a fresh and younger perspective on how we work toward our shared goals," he says, perhaps looking for alternatives to the current culture of committees and bureaucracy.
Woo is mindful that increased funding and opportunities for youth and young adults are necessary, specifically in the form of leadership training, to help YYAs develop their skills. This might include discernment around seminary scholarships, but Purscell hopes that all youth and young adults recognize that they have gifts to offer throughout the church.
"If we can combine our vision, passion, and energy with others' know-how and experience," says Purscell, "we will be on our way to becoming an even stronger church."
The authors are members of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries. Obadiah Ballinger is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, Kevin Peterson is a piano performance major at St. Olaf College, and Kathryn Frazier is working toward a degree in human services at Western Washington University.