A 6 Year Map for Youth Ministry
Where Are We Going?
To create this ‘map’, let’s begin with the end in mind. What are the ‘qualities’ or ‘assets’ that, in a perfect world, with which young people would graduate from high school after being involved with youth ministry at St Mary’s?
In their relationship with themselves, the desire is for them to have a degree of comfort in solitude, an ability to reflect critically on their actions, a rhythm of personal prayer, and a spiritual understanding of their bodies and their sexuality. The desire is for them to be encouraged to think independently. The desire is for them to have strong and healthy egos, the ability to identify and claim a senses of pride in the expression of the gifts God has given them. The desire is for them to know that God loves them and will never leave them.
In their relationships with the communities that surround them, the desire is for them to have the habit of humility and hospitality toward others. A basic understanding of and appreciation for other religions and cultures is important. Our youth are very privileged, so it would be good to see hearts bent toward service with those less fortunate than themselves, including a generous spirit in sharing their time and treasure. The desire is for them to have tested their leadership skills and have discerned and developed the particular gifts God has given them for the healing of the world. The desire is for them to have the skills to assess situations ethically in order to understand what might be the right thing to do, not just the easiest path or the path that benefits them the most.
In their relationships to church, the desire is for them to feel like they are an active contributing part of St Mary’s community, surrounded by adults who know their names and miss them when they are absent. The desire is for them to be able to articulate the basic Christian story and know their Baptismal Covenant. The desire is not for ‘right’ or ‘black and white’ answers to come from them, but rather a genuine wrestling with scripture and prayer and the mysteries of love and sacrament. The desire is for them to expect ambiguity and complexity within other people, themselves, the church and the world. Lastly, the desire is to see a commitment to life in Christian community that brings them joy and purpose throughout their lives.
Overall, we desire to form and support young adults who are hopeful and joyful, playful and compassionate, grateful and generous.
How Do We Get There?
First, by not assuming that these values and skills aren’t already present. These young people are amazing, filled with talent, intellect and generous loving spirits. We are blessed to know them, and our whole community is richer because of them.
It is the nature of Christian community to ‘call out’ and bless the gifts of each of the members of the body of Christ. With adolescence being such an intense time of identity development, we as the community that surrounds them can help brighten and strengthen their God-given identity as children of God, loved and loving, useful and grateful.
It all boils down to relationship. As is true with all of us, we learn that we are loved by being loved by people on this earth. We are challenged to serve because being in relationship with the poor and hurting challenges us to serve. We are convinced of a personal relationship with a loving God because we have experienced that relationship through prayer. When others respect us, we learn to respect others. When we are shown generosity and forgiveness, we learn to be generous and to forgive.
Technically, this approach is called Relational Ministry. There is a comprehensive theory and theological rationale behind it that the Episcopal Church adopted in the mid 1980s. In practice, it means that all youth ministry at St Mary’s centers on relationships.
So for instance, youth group practices the behaviors we value. From 6pm-6:30pm, those who want to come early to just hang out can do so, which is a welcomed reprieve from their highly scheduled day. At 6:30pm, new faces will be welcomed, and names repeated out loud. A ‘check-in’ happens where we can share what is really going on in daily life. If there is a pressing concern, trouble, or ethical dilemma, whatever the scheduled program was set to be will be put aside in favor of working through the issue at hand as a community. The Covenant is reviewed at each gathering (see attached) so everyone knows the commitment to respect, and the adults in the room will make sure the Covenant is followed. If we don’t have respect, we don’t have relationship, and nothing we say or do will have meaning. The middle part of each youth group varies from week to week. It might be a game or a discussion or a walk to Izzies for ice cream. Once a month or so they leave the church and do a service project somewhere, with opportunity to reflect on that experience. Each week closes with a significant time (5-10 minutes) in meditative and intercessory prayer. Youth Group is mostly about strengthening relationships with each other and God. It is about creating a community that looks something like the Reign of God. And it is about working as a community to bring a bit of healing to a hurting world.
The annual MLK weekend Ski Trip to Michigan functions to strengthen relationships. This is a chance to get away, bond as a group, laugh and pray together. In addition, sometimes there are special outings to places for bowling or rollerskating or wall climbing. And, every 3 years the National Episcopal Church puts on a big event, it would be great to send some as representatives of St Mary’s.
Teens Encounter Christ (TEC) is a weekend retreat for teenagers from around the Twin Cities. Large groups and small groups, peer speakers, music, good food (and enough sleep!) support the collapsed liturgical cycle from Ash Wednesday through Pentecost. A youth attends once, and then serves on subsequent weekends.
But just attending Youth Group and TEC alone will not bring to fruition the ideals set out in this 6 year map. For instance, some things just need to be taught, things like scripture and liturgy and the peculiarities of being an Episcopalian.
Over the years we have tried to have Sunday morning at 9am be when these things were taught. Sadly, it has just not worked well, for a couple of reasons. One is that 9am on a Sunday morning is just about the worst time for a teenager. If they make it there at all, they are (with a few exceptions) sleepy and sluggish, and generally not the best perky primed-for-learning selves. Also, few youth group young people come to Sunday morning.
Another reason why attending Youth Group alone isn’t enough is because Sunday church attendance is so critical. Without singing and praying with the whole Christian community it is hard to see how anyone can develop the sense that they are a part of the church. It is their attendance on Sunday morning, and their contributing to the experience by singing in the choir or acolyting or reading or greeting or working the sound board that strengthens the ties, not just their ties to us but ours to them as well.
Themes Over the 6 Years
Sunday morning worship, Wednesday night youth group, and Sunday afternoon Youth Blasts will provide the overall dependable structure or scaffolding for their 6 years of adolescence. Overall themes will help too.
Every 4-6 weeks our Wednesday night group does some sort of service project of their choosing, such as tree planting or working with
with homeless children at an overflow shelter or packing meals at Feed My Starving Children. The hope is to use these projects as an opportunity to think critically about the social constructs that keep us from living lives of mercy and justice as Jesus taught us to do. This involves looking at the complex economic systems that exacerbate poverty and include reflecting on our own classism and racism.
Service doesn’t just mean activities outside the walls of St Mary’s. The hope is that we build a similar expectation for young people as we do for everyone else in the life of our community. They will not be exempt from setting up tables or mowing the lawn or helping with an event or cleaning up after coffee hour or visiting the sick. They are a part of the community just like everyone else.
Episcopalians believe in the incarnation, that human flesh was created good, good enough even to carry God. St Paul told us our bodies were temples. Yet at almost every turn, our society teaches that some bodies are attractive and some are not, and that having sex outside of the context of loving commitment has no consequence for our spirits or our health. This is just wrong. The desire is that our young people would know that they have been created in the image of God, that they and their bodies are worthy of dignity and respect. They are in charge of the care and stewardship of their own bodies. Sexuality is good, and powerful, and with that power comes an opportunity for great joy or great harm. It is important for them to know the possible negative consequences of sexual activity, including HIV/AIDS, STDs, and unplanned pregnancy, and how to prevent these things. They need to know about the mis-use of power that leads to exploitation of relationships. Sexuality was created by God as an expression of love between two mature people, and within that context it can be beautiful and holy.
This is the attitude St Mary’s holds for whenever issues of sexuality and dating come up, as you might imagine they do from time to time. Every other year we will do a unit on spirituality and sexuality. When that time comes, there will be much advanced communication on it both to parents and to young people.
One idea, (yet to be enacted), is to have each young person choose an older person with whom to be in special relationship. Perhaps they have a godparent close by, but if not they could choose someone they respect, a couple generations older preferably, from the congregation. These pairs would commit to spending an hour or two each month in a sort of spiritual companionship. They could share important events, life experiences, stories, questions, or dilemmas. They would commit to praying for each other on a regular basis. Each month they could talk about a subject such as prayer or scripture or ethics. Maybe one could teach the other skills like woodworking or golf or knitting. Perhaps they can share an interest in theatre or camping. The point is to expand the web of adult relationships for each young person, knowing there is someone they could go to for help or wisdom, someone for whom God has been a sustaining presence.
This idea is waiting for a facilitator who could set up the pairs, check in regularly, give advice, offer topic ideas, and such.
Markers Along the Way
Being lovers of symbol and ritual, we have designed several signposts along this path to maturity.
Youth Recognition Dinner and Liturgy
This happens loosely around the time when a person is in 7th grade or turns 13. Parents, godparents, grandparents, mentors, and youth ministers get all dressed up for an elaborate fancy dinner. Recognition is given for those leaving childhood to begin their walk toward adulthood. There are toasts and gifts and thank-yous. There is a liturgy of blessing on the youth and their parents as they enter this new phase of relationship. The next morning the entire church joins with them in blessing this transition and commits to loving them and respecting them through it.
Teens Engaging Christ (TEC)
This weekend retreat is for those in 10-12 grade. It provides an opportunity to explore more deeply one’s relationship with God through scripture and liturgy and friendship. For those who return for another weekend, it offers training in leadership development and a chance to experiment with and reflect on their own leadership skills.
EYE (Episcopal Youth Event)
Every three years Episcopalian youth from all over the US and parts of Latin America come together for 10 days of worship and workshops and fun. It is our hope that at least one young person from St. Mary’s will be chosen to attend.
This service happens twice a year, usually at St Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, and marks the passage from adolescence to adulthood in the church. Confirmands stand before the Bishop who hears their mature affirmation of faith, and then lays hands on their heads for a special prayer. It is the hope that after six years of Christian education, regular church attendance, youth group, service projects, TEC, EYE, spiritual friendship with an older mentor, and perhaps a pilgrimage or mission trip, some of our young people would choose Confirmation as a sign that they commit their adulthood to the service of God through Christ.
High School Graduation / Send-off to the college, military, or workforce
A few weeks before the graduates head off to their new adventures, we hold a special liturgy for them in church. It is then that they get wrapped in hand-made quilts on which is their name, the Baptismal Covenant, Psalm 23, a prayer from Compline, and signatures of St Mary’s parishioners.
This 6 Year Map is our best attempt to create a structure for youth ministry at St Mary’s. This map is still being charted, and your input would be gratefully accepted. Please speak with MiaLisa McFarland/Millares, email@example.com, or the Rev. LeeAnne Watkins firstname.lastname@example.org.