An Open Letter to Vestry Members From a Youth Minister
Dear Vestry Members,
We are all probably familiar with the concept of the bystander effect in the context of an emergency. Essentially, individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present; the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help. In our churches, we often fall into the same trap, standing by and assuming someone else will enter the lives of our young people to help them navigate adolescence.
The prayer for young persons in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer begins: God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world... This is just as true now as it was in 1979, if not more so. Continuing research proves that one of the most positive influences on a child’s life is having one or more caring adult role models. If a child is lucky, they have one positive parent or guardian. It’s easy to think that someone else will be that trusted adult who will have a positive influence on a child. But that’s the bystander effect at play. You need to be that positive and caring adult. Not someone else – you.
Listen, ask questions, talk honestly, show support beyond church
In my work as a youth minister I often encounter adults, mostly when calling potential confirmation mentors, who are intimidated by youth and have no idea how to talk to them. It’s often a fair assessment, as youth are consistently talking about youtubers or vines or using language that I don’t understand — and I work with them regularly. However, I have a solution — talk to them. Rather than nodding idly and tuning out while they discuss a meme you may not understand, stop them when you don’t get it, ask follow-up questions, get them to share that detail from their daily lives. I believe that everyone can be “good with kids,” but it requires that you care about their lives.
Be devoted to them as human beings and the formation of their faith. You do not have to have the answers to all their questions about religion, spirituality and faith. In fact, I encourage you to share your doubts. Lately, I have come to refer to this practice as a spiritual discipline of doubt, bringing things I struggle with to other people to discuss together. We don’t often solve these issues, but we feel safe enough in community to commit a bit of heresy and to recognize the ways the Holy Spirit is working within our doubt. Hold that holy space with our young people.
Be involved in the life of youth and children outside of the church, ask parents or guardians about upcoming events and go to them. The best part of my work is showing up in their lives outside of the church walls. I always meet their friends and learn about some new gift they bring to the world that they may – or may not – share at church. In these spaces they often realize that the church is not just them attending a certain place, but a community, a family, that cares about their successes and supports them in their failures. It would be incredible if it was not just the volunteer or paid person who showed up for them in these events outside of their church lives.
Encourage and support your youth programming
Encourage your youth and children workers or volunteers to be involved in the process of leading families, children and youth in difficult conversations. If our families can’t turn to their church in the face of the changes and chances of this life, where can they turn? Mental health, suicide, healthy sexual relationships, death, LGBTQIA+ issues, illness, and even politics should all be informed by our faith, but how often do we sit together and talk about them? God calls us to be in relationship with God and with each other, and we cannot ignore the hurt and pain in the world around us. Support your children and youth workers in their call to hold their hands on the wounds of the world. Being in honest relationship with young people in our churches can be profoundly and positively transformational both for them and for you.
Finally, I implore you, when you face a budget crisis, when things must be cut back and you all are left with the difficult decision of how to make ends meet, not to cut funding for youth and children. We all are exceedingly aware of the decline in church attendance, waning pledge dollars and church budgets. Children and youth are not only the future of this church, they are its present. If you invest in them and their formation you will raise up well-formed leaders within your congregation, your diocese and our Episcopal Church.
God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Director of Youth Ministries at St. Mark’s Episcopal, San Antonio
Meredith Rogers serves as the Director of Youth Ministries at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas. She is a strong advocate of mental health in ministry and the benefits youth can gain from a summer camping or retreat program.
- Back-To-Church: Youth Outreach, by Annette Buchanan, ECF Vital Practices blog, September 12, 2017
- Hands Off: Letting Teens Take the Lead by Richelle Thompson, ECF Vital Practices blog, September 20, 2016
- Too Young to Lead? by Liz Luna, Vestry Papers, March 2016
- Young People: Not Merely the Church’s Future by Vanessa Riutta, ECF Vital Practices blog, November 15, 2013