In early 2018, Melissa Meiner was sitting outside a coffee shop in Tampa when she had a vision of an oak tree.
“I remember it vividly, because it came at a time when I felt God was being silent with me,” said Meiner, who was then an associate worship leader in the Student Ministry and weekend services at Bay Hope United Methodist Church.
“I immediately thought of the Bible verse in Isaiah 61 where the prophet speaks of oaks of righteousness, and I thought, ‘God is incredibly intentional with each word. Why did He use oaks in this verse?’”
Doing some research, Meiner found oaks “do not grow down and stay to themselves. The roots intertwine with other oaks, making the root structure much stronger. Oak trees grow in community. I felt God calling me to be a leader who was flexible, strategic, and rooted in community.”
A few weeks later, Meiner’s manager asked her to take on more of a discipleship role. Not sure what that meant, Meiner said she sat quietly with “open hands, heart, and journal,” simply asked God what he wanted, and saw the oak tree again.
That March, she formed the OAKS Leadership Development Program.
Under Meiner’s direction, the free program invites young adults, ages 18-25, to apply for either a 6-week non-paid internship or a 12-week paid residency for study and training in a specific ministry that interests them. In the initial summer 2018 session, Meiner expected three to six students; 16 applied.
Meiner started the program as Worship Ministry study, but with the enthusiastic support of church staff it expanded to eight ministries: Kids, Student, Pastoral, Special Needs, Graphic Design, Connectional and Missions.
Students spend between seven and 10 hours per week on campus—two in a class taught by Meiner, learning foundational tools rooted in Scripture and the rest in on-the-job training with ministry directors.
The directors provide each participant with 20-25 focus points that include daily activities or exercises around a strategic vision. The goal is to complete at least 15 before the course ends.
Former OAKS participant Teresa Mancini, 18, leads worship in a ministry at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where she is a sophomore, and is on Bay Hope’s worship team. She’s planning to study dental hygiene.
“I researched internships and mission trips in countries serving those who can’t afford treatment,” she said.
“OAKS has emphasized that desire, as well as the desire to stay connected with the church and serve by leading people in worship. It allowed me to become a more confident and effective leader, to dive deeper into the Bible and into prayer.”
Mancini said OAKS “reinforced that all leaders struggle and that God does not expect us to be perfect. I was able to make so many connections and relationships just from being vulnerable with other leaders and working together.”
Another program graduate, Austin Slade, 19, plans to attend seminary after graduation from Pensacola Christian College and become a pastor.
“OAKS definitely helped confirm my calling,” he said. “[Meiner] was a huge encouragement to me in that she put into practice what she was preaching to us. You can see her true heart for the next generation and reaching the world for Christ.”
|OAKS participants working on a project.|
Ricky Morales, 22, said during his time in OAKS, “I found myself realizing I had a call to ministry. Connecting with other people my age who felt the same way was special for me, too. Having brothers and sisters in Christ is essential to the journey of life as a Christian.”
Morales said he continues receive inspiration from what he learned in OAKS.
“I’m more aware of my actions and words every day,” he said. “I’ve created new routines that allow me to be intentional with how I seek the Lord. OAKS taught me the importance of being conscious about what I can do for others before what I can do for myself. As an OAK, a sense of responsibility is instilled. OAKS are meant to remain firm and act as a role model for others.”
Meiner is excited about the results she’s witnessing in OAKS participants. They’re speaking at Student Ministry nights, leading the congregation in weekend services, teaching baptism classes and, through the Graphic Design Ministry, helping rebrand church projects.
“I am so grateful to watch it happen,” she said. “Already, the fruit from what the interns have learned is tangible and incredibly encouraging to not just this church, but other churches as well. Our desire is for these young adults to take their next step of courageous leadership.”
Reflecting on her own experience as a spiritual learner and leader, Meiner said, “I believe a healthy leadership culture can significantly alter the trajectory of any church and spread into the city and state. God led me to this program, and I believe wholeheartedly that it can help to equip and empower the next generation of leaders in our world.”
Meiner said she plans to continue as the program steward “and trust the outcome.”
So far, seven participants are enrolled in the spring 2019 session. All are from Bay Hope, but Meiner encourages young adults from other churches and communities to apply. She hopes to expand into different ministries and reach as many young adults in Florida as possible.
“Through OAKS, God revealed to me that He is always working even when—and maybe especially when—we can’t see it,” she said. “He has shown me the best way to respond is to be open to Him, no matter how daunting or scary or impossible the future may seem.
“He has reminded me that He takes great delight in His kids dreaming big. I can’t wait to see what He continues to reveal to us as we continue asking.”
—Eileen Spiegler is a freelance writer based in Fort Lauderdale.