Story Magazine

Second Quarter, 2006

Drawing the Young to the Congregation’s Heart: A revamped Children, Youth and Family Ministry meets growing demand

by Marc Hequet

Members of the Children, Youth and Family Team: first row, from left: Vicky Goplin and Paul Hill; second row: Mary Hess and Kristen Venne; third row: Krista Lind and Rollie Martinson.

Remember the boy who fell out the window? Apostle Paul spoke far into the night at Troas. The lad, sitting in the window, dozed off --and fell out.

Some feared he was dead. Paul rushed to the street, pronounced him alive-- and hurried back to his meeting on the third floor.

If that resembles your church's youth ministry, get with the program-- Luther's updated Children, Youth and Family Ministry (CYF) program. Churches now work hard to draw young people to the midst of the congregation. From 2003 to 2005,ELCA congregations created more than 1,300 new jobs in children, youth and family ministry.

Meanwhile, Luther Seminary expanded its youth ministry program--launched in the 1970s, one of the first--to broaden and deepen training for church workers and to provide training for congregations as well.

The need for new knowledge and skills was clear. "We see greater and greater complexity in what it means to be a person growing in faith across the first third of life," says Roland Martinson, '68, Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Children, Youth and Family Ministry.

The CYF revamp draws upon youth ministry best practices that Martinson identified in a study of 131 congregations from seven denominations.

Interest in the new CYF was immediate. Thirty residential learners and 32 distributive learners (who take online and week-long intensive courses) across the country enrolled for the first year of the new program in 2005. This autumn CYF expects around 50 residential students and 42 distributive learners. By 2007 the program expects to have nearly 100 residential students with steady growth in distributive learners.

Luther made CYF available online so church workers could enroll and keep their jobs. Moreover, after years of partnering with outside resources, the program now is fully in-house to assure long-term continuity and stability.

The updated CYF extends beyond youth and family to include children and young adults. Classroom work grounds students in theology, youth culture, practical leadership and more.

Instructors help incoming students assess their strengths and identify growth areas. "The old program was kind of one-size-fits-all," says Terri Elton, CYF's Ministry Leadership Coordinator. "The new program doesn't assume everyone is at the same point."

On-campus students take jobs in churches and other ministries for up to 20 hours per week and receive coaching and mentoring at both job and seminary. Distributive learners with church jobs establish a support group at the church. "Those people become, in fact, co-learners with the student," says Martinson.

Students eagerly inject their real-life church challenges into class discussions,lending "a kind of urgency to the task of learning," says Mary Hess, associate professor of educational leadership.

Bedrock Christian theology, however, is the starting point--"anchoring youth and family ministry in a theology of baptism," says Paul Hill, an affiliated faculty member and mentor coordinator. "How do we tend the baptismal journey of those living in the first third of life?"

Adds Andrew Root, assistant professor of youth and family ministry: "We are trying to help students become discerners. I want them to be able to discern what is happening in people's lives."

Not least important, the CYF program reaches beyond the seminary with learning events for congregations. On a May Sunday afternoon, for example, 40 members of University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis met with Martinson, Elton and Audrey Keller, the CYF student working there. The church wants to extend its existing youth program to reach young adults at the nearby University of Minnesota.

Seminary involvement in such church planning helps the CYF student worker, says Elton--and can "move the congregation to a place they wouldn't have gotten before. What we're trying to do is listen deeply."

By training church professionals and volunteers to conduct more such events, Luther hopes to multiply the impact of its new CYF ministry coast to coast. Says Elton: "We hope to blur the line between Luther, the church and the world."

Traditional youth ministry has been important--but may inadvertently isolate youth from the rest of the congregation. At worst, says Hess, "you put them in the basement with comfortable couches and forget about them."

Far better to draw those young people and their families out of their youth room and into the congregation's midst--lest we drone on as they fall asleep. Or out the window.

Carole Joyce


Carole Joyce is a valuable asset. She entered Luther's CYF program with 22 years' experience in church work. "It was time for growth and change," says the mother of three from Rochester, Minn. "I knew that God was calling me to do something different."

She wants deeper roots in theology for her ministry with children, youth and adults--and to learn more about research and issues.

Joyce finds classroom discussion a persistent adventure--and she is always happy to contribute her own experience. "It's not just academic," she says. "What we talk about in class is real life."

Placing the young at the heart of the church is her personal mission. Where a favorite passage in Ephesians 4 discusses spiritual gifts, she notes,"no age limits are listed. I've been waiting for years to lift up the role of children and youth as central in the life of a congregation."

Amber Hager


Coming from 2,000-member Ascension Lutheran Church in Thousand Oaks, Calif., to a small Presbyterian congregation in White Bear Lake, Minn. has been "a little bit of a growing experience," says a still-adjusting Amber Hager.

CYF student Hager is part-time youth director for about 15 sixth- through 12th-graders--though "it's never part time," she quickly points out.

Setting up events and getting kids to attend, she says, can be "like pulling teeth" even with the "tremendous help" of her advisory board from the congregation.

So Hager, a four-year M.Div. student,is grateful for the support from CYF. Terri Elton, CYF Ministry Leadership Coordinator, is "just awesome," says Hager, age 23. "I almost feel bad for some of the youth directors out there doing this on their own."

She knows that at CYF she's helping to build something important: A program that includes field experience, theological rigor, leadership skills and support and ideas from faculty and other students. "This," Hager says,"is going to be huge for future students."

Matthew Maas


Matthew Maas joyfully witnessed one of his church's teens baptized last April--a 15-year-old girl. "It was just a great moment seeing God's spirit come over her in that way," says Maas, director of children, youth and family ministries at Holy Cross Lutheran in Minneapolis.

As a CYF student at Luther, Maas can share his joy. Students and faculty readily relate "intimate moments in their ministry and lives and how God has really drawn them into relationship," says Maas.

Likewise, he values the academic rigor. "This is not Ultimate Frisbee 101," says Maas. "We're really pressing up against some of the deep theological questions that those in the first third of life have. 'Who is God? Who am I in this whole God story?'"

So how do you explain baptism to a 15-year-old? Maas is ready for that one. "It's sort of like an embrace," he says. "God is embracing you forever."

Meghan Olsen


She worried about being entirely on her own if she took a church job-- but that didn't happen. "I have this connection," says Meghan Olsen,"with a lot of other people in the same situation."

The CYF student gets support, coaching, mentoring and ideas from faculty and from other students facing the same kinds of challenges at their church jobs. "You never get the feeling that you're alone," says Olsen, age 22.

She grew up on Long Island and helped at church-sponsored wilderness camps for New York City children after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

That strong experience notwithstanding, Olsen knows she has her work cut out for her in her new job at Como Park Lutheran in St. Paul. Kids are the same everywhere--but they're also different. "I'm learning what it's like to be a 15-year-old girl in St. Paul," says Olsen. "I just got to St. Paul myself."