The leadership stalemate

When young people don’t volunteer and nobody asks them, what will happen to our church leadership?

June 22, 2011 | Young Voices
Emily Loewen | Young Voices Editor

The week after becoming a member in a new church, the calls start coming—“Would you be interested in teaching Sunday school?” “How would you like to lead music?”—the typical starter positions offered to young adults.

While they are valuable learning positions, shouldn’t young people also use their skills in new roles like board member or mediator? Many young people don’t fit the child-teaching, song-leading mould. But when they don’t see other opportunities, and no one asks them to participate, many feel left out by church leadership, and wonder, “When it’s my time, how will I know what to do?”

Reece Retzlaff, youth pastor at Nutana Park Mennonite Church, Saskatoon, Sask., says there are some congregations that are doing well, but developing young leaders needs to be taken seriously. “If we want future generations to actually lead,” she says, “we need to teach them how.”

Melanie Kampen, 21, of Springfield Heights Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Man., would agree. Putting young people in leadership roles might feel risky, she says, “but if we are going to equip our youth and young adults to be leaders for tomorrow, we need to trust them with responsibilities.” And if they aren’t included, there is a chance young people will just leave.

Fears of young adults abandoning the church aren’t unique to this generation. The Mennonite Young People’s Conference, which held meetings in the United States from 1919-23, sparked fears of a youth exodus. There was similar distress over Concern, a pamphlet-issuing group, at its height in the 1960s.

A resurgence of those fears wouldn’t surprise someone like Jana Lepp. “I think I would lose interest in the church if I wasn’t involved,” she says, adding, though, that she would likely still come to church but feel less a part of the community.

Fortunately, Toronto United Mennonite Church, Ont., approached Lepp, now 31, to be board chair, an unusual role for someone her age. She finds that young people are usually asked to do certain jobs, and says it is “refreshing to believe that the chair of the board is not one of those positions you need a wealth of knowledge for.” She sees facilitator skills as important for the job, rather than deep technical knowledge.

Lepp didn’t imagine taking on the job until a discernment committee approached her, and she suggests the best way to bolster the ranks of young leaders is simply to ask them, because they won’t often volunteer. She also speculates that more positions that allow introductory time would ease young people’s fears; in this case, her church’s chair position includes one year as incoming chair with few responsibilities.

Michael Turman, who finishes his time as youth pastor at First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ont., at the end of June, also believes the way the church focuses on committees, instead of gifts, “doesn’t resonate with many young people.” He says this is problematic because leaders need to be identified today in order to learn from people in those positions now. Young voices are also important, Turman says, because, like the early Anabaptist reformers, they often feel free to be bolder in their vision for the church, something challenging for those already working within the structure.

Having young adults in the wider church is something that Willard Metzger, Mennonite Church Canada general secretary, wants to increase. Although the General Board is not considering adding a young adult to its numbers, a program to mentor students at Mennonite schools is in the early stages of development. Metzger also stresses that if young people are interested in joining committees, they should speak up.

For now, it appears things are at an impasse. If, like Lepp says, the best way to involve young people is to ask them, but the people in charge assume that young adults who don’t volunteer aren’t interested, we’re moving nowhere fast.

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