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Young adult summit mirrors Silicon Valley

Young adult summit mirrors Silicon Valley

Church Vitality

Few would confuse methodologies of the Methodist church with Silicon Valley. While Florida Conference leadership working from offices in Lakeland may not quite be ready for a culture of ping pong tables and wifi cafes, a recent young adult summit held Nov. 28 might suggest otherwise.

"We agreed amongst ourselves that we wouldn't be the ones talking," said Sara McKinley, director of the Office of Clergy Excellence. "Every element of the day was designed to be interactive."

Referred to as a "next generations think tank," a summit for young adults under age 35 gathered on Nov. 28 at the Lakeland conference center. In the words of Sara McKinley, director of the Office of Clergy Excellence, "we're at least throwing something at the wall and saying this is a place to start."

The summit, also labeled a next generations think tank, was attended by young clergy and lay leadership, primarily under age 35. They were there to give voice to the idea of re-defining a full-time position within the conference, a slot initially described as an assistant director’s position within McKinley's department.

"We decided, okay, let's just put the job position on the shelf and pretend it doesn't exist and let's get the input from young people," McKinley said. "The energy in the room was high even when they arrived. So you knew at that point we did something right...that they were being heard and that their opinions mattered.”

The focus on involving young adults in the church is no surprise. Breaking down an organization's layers of management and bringing millennials into the decision-making process presented what some would consider a change in venue.

McKinley and others use the words “overinvesting in the young.”

According to a Barna study published in Leaders and Pastors (April 2016), the unchurched segment of millennials has increased in the last decade from 44% to 52%. The study partially attributes this statistic to a “ubiquity and onslaught of information and competing worldviews.”

On the Faith & Leadership website, David Odom, executive director of Leadership Education at Duke University, posted an April 2013 blog stating: "When congregations hear 'overinvest in the young,' they frequently think of stretching the budget to hire a full-time youth minister. Unfortunately, youth ministries are often segregated from the rest of the church," he suggested.

He also labels “overinvesting in the young” as a “growth strategy,” not in terms of adding numbers to the attendance count, but in transforming attitudes.

The interactivity of the summit in Lakeland included guitar music, open collaboration and no lectures in a windowed, sunlit room that had fresh coffee brewing on the side. Those with laptops were already posting links and conversations and completing a SurveyMonkey post on a software app called Basecamp that has enabled a daily conversation among participants weeks later.

In addition to posting ideas on walls, windows and flipcharts, the interactive summit included readings, songs and lively discussions. Feedback from the day is ongoing on a software app called Basecamp.

"Florida Conference is already really good at thinking about how to engage younger people," said Beth Bostrom, a former campus minister at the University of Miami for six years and currently pastor at Roseland UMC in Sebastian. "It's really taking another step," she said. “And I think that stands in deep contrast to other conferences by putting an emphasis on bringing more people to the table."

"I think this is the first time it has happened, at least to my knowledge," said Jason Knott excitedly, as other summit participants moved about the room talking and laughing and placing ideas on walls with colored Post-it notes. Knott is an associate pastor at Ortega UMC in Jacksonville. "It's exciting to be gathered and to hear ideas, push back against one another...challenge one another."

The centerpiece of the summit presented three goals wrapped around what McKinley referred to as helping to design a job description for a "next generations instigator."

These included doubling the number of young adult clergy under age 35, identifying and developing 100 lay leaders who are under 35 and identifying 10 churches across the conference who have what McKinley described as "vibrant, vital ministries to young adults." In theory, these ministries would become success models. She would like to see another 10 percent of conference churches, not currently utilizing youth ministries, to take on similar approaches.

"By setting these goals, we’re at least throwing something at the wall and saying this is a place to start,” McKinley said. There's an awful lot of work to be done."

One of McKinley's goals coming out of the summit was to have participants develop next steps. This is part of the ongoing discussion still ensuing on Basecamp. Otherwise it just becomes "a good lunch and good conversation, and I won't consider the day a success," she said.

"We're trying to give the work back to them. I want them to be part of the solution," said McKinley.

"I really think in terms of our mission, making disciples for the transformation of the world, the most effective people who could do that are the laity of the churches. This is really the direction of the future,” McKinley emphasized. 

"These young adults are smart, and they've got ideas about doing things differently and they're not afraid to buck the system."

In an article published by the Harvard Business Review, "What Makes Silicon Valley Companies So Successful" (April 2016), there is a reference to boldness by itself as a "dime-store commodity.” But it emphasized how top companies are comfortable with "inherent messiness of experimentation” and in making things happen by "investing in an environment that fosters collaboration." Managers are said to act more as enablers and connectors.

Eugene Peterson, the author of "A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society," states: "Too often, we think of religion as a far off, mysteriously run bureaucracy to which we apply for assistance when we feel the need. We go to a local branch office and direct the clerk (pastor) to fill out our order for God. Then we go home and wait for God to be delivered to us," he further stated. "But that's not the way it works."

“There isn’t one single magic bullet,” McKinley observed. “You keep doing the right things and eventually you’ll get there.”

--Doug Long is managing editor of the Florida Conference.

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