Children are a heritage from the Lord.
I love it when I get a really good piece of Scripture when I come for a visit like this. I like the translation in the Message version of the Bible as well:
Don't you see that children are God's best gift?
Oh, how blessed are you parents, with your quivers full of children!
Oh Blessed are you congregations that have children for you will blessed again and again and again for many years to come.
Not surprisingly I'm a big fan of young people in church. I like it because it is wonderful to share the message of the Gospel with young people. They keep me on my toes, they force me to consider and re-consider answers that I thought I had finally nailed. When the Spirit catches fire in them it burns so wonderfully bright. I love it because I know how good it is for the congregation too. That the Spirit of God is lifted up that little extra bit, that the energy of a faith community goes up and that the life of the congregation itself is strengthened.
My calling, my job, my duty as your youth missioner is to help all that happen to the very best of my ability.
Over the last 9 years that's I've served our diocese in this role I've come to realize that there are three basic reports on the youth ministry of the diocese to be made. There's the simple status update of the programs. If you were at Convention a week ago you heard me give exactly that report as I do each year. This many campers, that many at Bishop's Ball. The second kind of report is the one where I ask/tell you how you can support those programs. I've done that one a lot over the years too. I'll probably slide a little of that one in before I'm done but the story I really want to tell you is one we overlook sometimes. In part because it can seem kind of uncomfortable for the church. I call the “What's in it for us?” report. You see what the bottom line comes down to very often for congregations is that while they may agree that diocesan youth ministry is quite probably a very good idea it's not as if you don't have enough on your plates already. In a time of strained resources across much of our church and nation I think the question of what's in it for you is perfectly reasonable. And it deserves a response.
I'll offer my answer in two parts. The benefits for the members of the congregation – youth, parents, folks in the pews, and the benefits for the congregation as a whole.
This generation of young people has two particular, historic distinctions. They are the busiest generation and they just may be the most stressed generation of young people ever in the history of the world. Certainly they are busy. When I talk with them I commonly hear stories of days that start early with chores, practice or homework first thing in the morning, followed by school all day, then more practices, extra curricular activities, outside classes in music or dance or whatever, a quick dinner then sports, rehearsals, tutoring and homework often literally right up to bed time. When I was in high school the idea that I might need a Day Planner would have been laughable. Today many schools hand out personal calendars at the start of every year.
As for stress if that lifestyle wasn't stressful enough our young people worry about the financial situation of their family, possible job loss by their parents, divorce, school related social stress, plus all the stress of just having your body work it's way through all the things that are going on during this time of life – social, physical and mental changes.
Against all that is what your diocesan youth ministry can offer them and their parents. A time away from all of that stuff, a time to be cared for, a time for worship and spiritual reflection appropriate to their age and development, a time of calm, of quiet and of decompression. The word you hear most often these days is Sabbath. Not just our weekly sabbath here in church together but a sabbath that extends beyond this place and time.
During this Sabbath time the young people get the chance to explore faith beyond their Sunday community. This is a faith community that they share with their parents. In my own life the church where I grew up was in fact “my parent's church”. I have seen, even in my own household, the effect of experiencing a faith community that is wholly their own. My daughter attends her church, St. Luke's in Jamestown. Her parents just happen to attend there as well. The difference in her experience of church and mine I believe to be profound. This time away gives young people a chance to explore and develop as leaders. In fact this past summer saw the Senior High Conference we began to improve our ability to offer those leadership roles. During the course of the week young people worked along side members of the staff to help make decisions for the conference community. They worked with me as camp director, recorded the events of the day, worked with the clergy on worship, cared for one another and the place we stayed. Youth Commission plans to expand the leadership training down into the Junior High age group over the next couple years. Our youth are given the chance to extend that leadership through Youth Commission, Happening Board and as delegates to Diocesan Convention where they have both seat and voice. Out of these experiences we can help our younger brothers and sisters in Christ, the young people of this congregation find a deeper relationship with God and help them discover and explore the gifts that God has given them.
For the congregation the benefits flow from all of that. Our goal is to return to this community of faith young people who are a little father along their journey of faith, who are more excited about that journey and who are looking for ways to express that faith life in this the wider community. You receive youth back who are headed now towards greater engagement as members, who bring with them a better feel for taking on roles within the Body, who bring that incredible energy of young people into everything you do with them. And last but certainly not least don't forget that this generation also has a fair handle on discretionary funds either in themselves or through their influence with their parents. Young people invested in their home congregation are far more likely to want to return that investment.
That I believe is the best answer that I can give to the question of “What's in it for us?”. Our programs, Sleep Away camp for elementary age, Junior High, Senior High, Happening, Youth Commission, the Bishop's Ball, plus special events like mission trips and the national Episcopal Youth Event, known as EYE, offer you and your youth a wonderful array of experiences. A quiet time to grow faith. Most especially a time away, a time to re-consider the order of priorities, a time to draw nearer to God. Sabbath time.
I warned you that I would be sneaking in just a little of how you can support those programs. They can not exist without a connection between them and you.
First and foremost I always ask you to to pray for us. Pray for the young people we hope to serve, pray for those of us who answer that call to service, remember us when these events are under way. This coming weekend is Happening weekend number 25, when a team of over 20 youth and adults will gather together to offer a special spiritual retreat for teens led entirely by teens. It will be my great privilege and honor to work for the weekend's rector Matthew Seufert as the Head Pop.
Second, please make sure you youth know that you notice them, that you care about them. Remember that they are not a junior auxiliary of the church but brothers and sisters, baptized members of the Body of Christ. When we do not overtly recognize their place in the body we run a terrible gamble for them and for ourselves.
Speaking of those kids, Third, send us your kids. The best program never gets off the ground if we have no one to participate in it. I've told this story over and over that the very first time we wanted send my daughter Rachel to camp, it would have been Junior High, she absolutely didn't want to go. She wouldn't know anyone, she wouldn't have any fun, she knew they had a dance which she considered to be the most horrible thing imaginable. We sent her anyway. At the end of the week as we drove away from camp she turned to me and said “When does camp start again?”. If you believe that your child, or that the children of this congregation need that sabbath time, that they would benefit from this experience it is vital that you urge them in the strongest terms to go at least once. I will admit that camp isn't for everyone. If they come and don't enjoy themselves we will return them with our blessing. I'm happy to say the number that don't enjoy themselves is very small.
Fourthly I would ask you to consider how you may be able to support the programs in other ways. Our budget is tight just like everyone else's. But amazingly small amounts of money can make a difference. One of the things we do to keep the cost of Happening down for instance is to ask congregations to take a “shopping list” made up of about 15 simple items, cereal, napkins,things like that and donate them to the weekend. That way more of the money can go to the program itself. There are always specific items to be covered – the nurse's golf cart at Junior High. The camp at Dunkirk is quite large and to insure that our nurse can get from one end to the other in an emergency we rent a golf cart. Pizza for the beginning of Senior High, snacks for that pesky dance at junior high. There's an amazing list that starts as low as 25 dollars or so but which can make a real difference. Finally I would note that several groups in the diocese just send us a check to be used as it's needed best.
In the end if you can pray for us and send us some young people it's more than enough. If you can find a way to help us a little more than we will be able to better help you.
There is one final part of the diocesan youth ministry that I have glossed over so far. I will mention it now only quickly. That is the office and person of the diocesan youth missioner. You know, me. I am always available to come out and work with congregations as they work on their home grown youth ministries too. There's no cost, the dioceses covers it all. I enjoy driving and really enjoy working with both young people and adults. I hope that you will free to call upon me as often as you need.
Let us never forget that our children are a gift and heritage of God in our midst. Let us care for that heritage together.
St. Mark's Episcopal Orchard Park NY