Building Young Adults Networks

By Mary Cat Young, part of the Vestry Papers issue on Cultivating Leaders (March 2013)

At 18 I left home, embarking on the adventure of my life as a new adult. Over the next 10 years, I lived in five states, finished degrees at three different institutions of higher education, moved to a different dorm room or apartment every one to two years, dated a few different people, held at least five jobs, met and married my husband, and became a responsible pet owner. Like many young adults, my path has been filled with departures, transitions, new beginnings, and uncertainty about where I would land next.

The Episcopal Church was a grounding place for me before I went off into the world and at each stop along the way. Before heading off to seminary, I tried to find an Episcopal Church home to companion with me on the journey. Sadly, what I experienced repeatedly was momentary surprise at my presence, welcome, and a guilty admission of lacking anything in particular to meet the needs of someone “my age.” Exasperated by this experience, and still claiming the Episcopal Church, I committed myself to help congregations recognize what they do have to offer young adults, and how they might become a church where all feel welcome, regardless of age or stage of life.

Every day young adults walk into Episcopal churches. Some, coming from a strong Episcopal tradition, know this is where they come from, and where they belong. Others, raised in different faith traditions, find themselves in Episcopal settings by accident or on purpose – wandering into a nearby church, seeking a common-ground place with a prospective partner/spouse, or choosing a church that seems to stand up for things they care about. Whatever the reason, the person walking in the door is seeking something they hope you may have for them: a place to connect with the Holy, and a place to connect with others.

While a young adult’s consistency of attendance may vary and the level of commitment may be a challenge, the act of arriving has value.

In the New York Metro area, an informal, lay-led initiative had been tracking young adult engagement with our churches: Some attend weekday services, seeking a moment of quiet. Some attend parish-organized gatherings for groups of young adults, such as Sunday brunches, movie nights, and service projects. A few area churches offer weekly Bible study where Episcopalians in their 20s and 30s can carve out a commitment to be in community with one another, in conversation about God’s presence to them in scripture and in their daily lives.

Following a St. Nicholas Party organized by young adult leaders from Episcopal churches around the city, one of the participants wondered, “If 75 young adults from 12 congregations showed up for an evening of fun and fundraising, what would happen if they showed up with a commitment to serve, shoulder to shoulder? What might Episcopal young adults accomplish when taking on a real problem in the world?”

From that question, and the informal network that already existed, a new conversation began.

In April 2012, 50 mission-minded young adults from congregations around the diocese gathered with the idea of improving networking and creating more opportunities to do things together. They started by asking two questions: What is something you deeply care about? Where do you seek and see God’s presence in your life and in the world around you?

Breaking into small conversation groups, a variety of passions for the needs in the world were revealed. Coming back together, the many different ideas were grouped into four larger conversation groups: respond to hunger and homelessness, care for children and youth, engage in spiritual life and the arts, and build the network of communication. The think tank format allowed a new peer community to see what they had in common, and imagine what they could be capable of together.

The Episcopal Diocese of New York Young Adult Network was born. 

Since that first conversation, the Network has been busy: compiling both a comprehensive list of young adults and participating congregations as well as sharing information about prayer practice and servant ministry offerings, and the launch of a new way of doing service together: a month-long Epiphany season of service, held in January 2013.

How might New York’s experience with young adult ministry inform others in our church?

Rather than starting with the question of where are young adults, consider the young adults who are showing up – even if it is only occasionally. How can you introduce these people to one another? And how might you work with other churches in your area to create opportunities for young adults from neighboring congregations to meet each other? Here are the five steps I recommend for building a young adult network in your area:

Start with relationships – where are there already leaders engaging with one another and interested in building on those relationships and partnership opportunities?
Create a gathering point – provide an opportunity for young adults to gather for a conversation about what they care about, what they would like to do or see changed in the world, where are their hearts and minds and time already invested? Where would they like to invest it with companions?
Map resources – what gifts and skills are already in the room that can contribute to building an avenue of communication, organizing events people are passionate about, providing needed spiritual resources to accompany work, and social projects?
Cut out competitiveness – a multi-parish peer group is not a threat to the church home where an individual worships.
Commit resources – networking, communication and volunteer organizing takes time and energy. A side project it is easy to be set aside. If this is a valued community, a valued commitment, then resource it appropriately. The harvest is plentiful, the workers are few, but the number is growing, and there are companions in different parts of the field.

The Rev. Mary Catherine Young has served as the Episcopal Chaplain at NYU since 2011 and is the Diocesan Liaison for Young Adults in the Diocese of New York.


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