by Kelsey Holm, Communication Specialist
When Julie Hagen accepted her first call as director of children, youth and family ministries at Advent Lutheran in Manhattan, it was a first for the congregation as well. The church didn't have a full-time staff member devoted to that part of its ministry in the past. Hagen, a Master of Arts grad born and raised in the Midwest, was the first one to fill the position.
"In my position working with children and youth, youth are the most challenging. Their lives are so much different than my life growing up," said Hagen, '07. "I know it takes time to build their trust with me. They're not used to a full-time person at the church focusing on them."
Hagen, who has now been at Advent for two years, decided to take her time and learn what would draw the kids in. It's been a challenge, she said, but they're all learning together.
J. Elise Brown, pastor of Advent, said the church has seen growth in families since Hagen came on board. "We continue to see new families come through our doors, and many will comment on the wonderful and committed work Julie does in her position. She loves children and youth, and it shows," said Brown. After receiving hundreds of applications from around the world, Hagen was chosen because "we believed her spirit, faith and professional training at Luther ... were the right match for us," said Brown.
Hagen's steady presence has made an impact on Calvin Wine, a 17-year-old high school senior who has attended Advent for about nine years. "I appreciate how Julie has stuck with us for so long," he said. "To be honest, I almost wanted to leave (the youth group) before Julie came in. I felt like the youth group had been let down too much."
Previous youth leaders, who were serving as volunteers, would get burned out and leave just as Wine felt a trust was being built.
"At first, when Julie came, I thought, 'How much different can she be?'" said Wine. "But after giving her a chance, I appreciate her working with us and the projects she's doing."
Hagen said she gets the most involvement from youth during community service projects. They may play Bingo at a nursing home or help serve community lunch, whatever they can do to be with each other and make a difference.
"They know they're helping other people and they get something from that too," said Hagen.
As a child,Wine watched his older sister, nine years his senior, get involved in the youth group at Advent. To him, it seemed like a family. Since then, he's strived for that feeling, but so far it has escaped him.
He's now one of the oldest in the group, with a wide berth between him and a number of younger kids. But that hasn't stopped him from trying to build up that feeling of family for future generations. He introduced friends to the church who now come on their own.
Wine's actions echo those of a congregation and leadership devoted to families in a city where many churches lack the same focus and some may be dying because of it.
"Advent made a missional commitment to ministry with children, youth and families," said Brown. "The children and youth programs at other Lutheran congregations in Manhattan were either very small or non-existent. We believed this to be an area of ministry that families from both Lutheran and non-Lutheran backgrounds would embrace and support."
Hagen felt the support of the nearly 300-member congregation from day one.
"I've had the opportunity to bring in new ideas and a new set of eyes and say, 'Let's try this. Let's work together on this,'" said Hagen. "It's not just me trying to do this. It's these families and these other young people. It's already been two years, but the energy and the support system are still there."
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