How one Florida UMC cultivates young adult leaders

Getting to the source: what has worked at First Winter Park

As a young adult and staff member at First United Methodist of Winter Park, I have the opportunity to see the ongoing push for young adult leadership in the church as both a staff member and a member of the congregation.  I can think of specific examples here and there that may help shed light on what has worked for us with young adults in leadership, as well as what hasn’t.  However, those individual examples would be largely missing the point if I didn’t start at the source of what allows these successes, and sometimes failures, to exist in the first place.  That source is leadership:  strong, visionary, intentional leadership from our senior pastor.

Without a proactive, and at times aggressive, approach from senior leadership towards creating a culture that gives young adults, as well as youth, leadership roles in the church, it simply would not happen.  In our church, the senior pastor often reminds us that kids/youth/young adults are not only the future leaders of the church, but also are a significant part of the current leadership as well. We are part of what makes this church body tick, right here and right now.  That’s empowering and invigorating.  That vision isn’t described just once.  It is an intentional reminder to our congregation that these are our values.  This is what we believe.  This is how we operate.  And it is said over, and over, and over again. 

Leadership Snapshots
Jon Rowe (30) is on our finance committee and is an active member of the contemporary worship band. He and his wife Tricia (30) are also highly involved in our Bicycle Blessings ministry, which provides bicycles to those who can’t afford them in the Orlando area.

Heather Godwin (25) and Meghan Killingsworth (25), also active members of the contemporary worship band, played a large part in organizing this year’s women’s retreat and leading the music.  This retreat was for women of all ages, and young adults were encouraged to be in key leadership roles.

Jeff Licona (23) is in leadership with our traditional choirs and helps with youth and children’s choirs.  Jeff is a recent graduate of the Rollins College music program and is using his gifts and passions in tangible ways to help our congregation draw closer to God through music.

Phillip and Taylor Stokes (25 and 26) lived in Kenya for 4 months this summer helping launch and develop a brand new ministry of ours called Panua, which is aimed at empowering orphans and vulnerable children in Naivasha towards long-term sustainability.  They are back and are educating our community on the details of the ministry and our need to engage.

Alex Confer (17) pushes our community creatively with all types of media and technology. He is a high school student, but is valued and trusted and given opportunities to provide extensive input on ways we can be more creative and efficient with our use of technology and media.

I was hired at age 22 to lead our Contemporary Worship Service.  I have been given a tremendous amount of freedom to explore and try new things and push us musically and creatively.  My predecessor, Jeff Shephard, was hired aged 19.  He provided strong leadership that helped the service become what it is today.

A Day of Hope
This was an event put on by our young adult ministry with the goal of engaging the broader Orlando community around the issue of ministry to orphan and vulnerable children in our own community and around the world.  Though it wasn’t the success we wanted, we were given free reign to act on our passions, and because of it, we learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work.  Though it wasn’t a blowout success, we have been given plenty of opportunities since to engage, lead and be creative.

Cultivating Leaders
In virtually every aspect of ministry at our church, young adults are given opportunities to lead. In our experience, it serves to energize our congregation. All of us, especially young adults, feel empowered.  And older, wiser, more experienced members of the congregation flock in droves to support us in many ways.  What’s really exciting to see is the willingness and strong desire for young adults to seek out those more experienced mentors.  It gives the opportunity for cross-generational work to be done.  And, frankly, it’s often quite fun.  They pour experience and wisdom into us, and we do our best to throw out our most creative and passionate ideas as well.

Back to the point about leadership:  without strong, senior leadership, it simply does not happen.  I don’t think our church would have a growing young adult population, otherwise.  I don’t think the cross-generational culture we experience on a daily basis would be happening. 

Churches wondering how to get their congregations more vibrant should try tapping into their young adults and giving them opportunities to lead.  And, if young adults are not coming to your church and you want them to, take a good, long time to ask why they aren’t.  Be honest with yourself.

Getting more trendy and gimmicky are not the answers.  We don’t need to hear John Mayer in worship.  Everything does not have to be “cool.” We want authentic, raw, honest forums in which to share our ideas, to be challenged, and to be allowed to push and question, and push and question some more.  If we don’t feel that authenticity quickly, we will not be worshipping in a church for long.

If and when young adult leaders emerge in your church, existing church leaders will have to let go of the reins a little and let young adults lead.  In my experience, we are looking for guidance-- we want your input. We need lay and clergy leaders to guide us and help clear the way for older and wiser members of the congregation to collaborate with us, sharing their insights on how to be effective.

Vibrant young adult leadership starts with church pastors and senior leaders.  If your church truly values it, existing leaders will have to take the first steps and lay some initial groundwork. I promise—and, I’m echoing the thoughts of a lot of people--it is well worth it, and it’s a lot of fun!

John King is the contemporary worship leader at First UMC Winter Park.



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