Ministry TO or WITH Young Adults?

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Let’s imagine a church situation that is increasingly common: a predominantly white congregation in the midst of a growing ethnic community. The congregation has taken the bold step of identifying the ethnic community as their mission field. They have two different choices:

  1. The church can be in ministry TO the ethnic community through outreach, programs, vacation Bible school, community gardens, different language worship services, and offering their sanctuary as a safe haven against deportation initiatives.
  2. Or the church can be in ministry WITH the ethnic community...by doing all of the things above but also including the community on the committees, worship teams, social justice teams, hiring an ethnic associate pastor, etc.

If a church runs all the committees and make all the decisions, then they are in ministry TO a community. The community has no voice or vote on their objectives. The better version is a ministry where the community is invited to be part of the discussion, to shape the ministry, to reflect and given opportunity to lead. Then they are in ministry "with" the community.

This would be an easily transferable scenario, whether the church defines as its mission field an ethnic community, a worker population, a women’s prison, a college town. As long as the mission field’s demographic is included in, shapes, and is given the opportunity to lead with the tools to succeed, then the church is in ministry WITH that population.

Given this scenario, then a question becomes clear when we look at one mission field in particular: In the United Methodist Church today, are we more interested in ministry TO young adults or ministry WITH them?

I ask this because one of the recommendations from the Call to Action movement is the re-distribution of funds to young adults (those under 35 years old): Five million dollars of the first amount of money saved to go to them. That’s a great gesture and will certainly be put to good use.

In the context of the imagined scenario above, though, it makes me wonder if the Call To Action values ministry to young adults rather than ministry with young adults. As a young clergyperson, are we included in the conversation or are we just being “ministered to?”

Young Adults in the Call to Action by the Numbers

Young adult delegate Rachel Birkhahn-Rommelfanger from Northern Illinois and I took a look at the Call to Action process and here are the disturbing numbers that we found about how involved young adults were in the biggest re-organization of the Church in 40 years.

The Connectional Table, which populated the Call to Action teams, has three young adult members on the team. That’s awesome and I’m glad they are involved in the highest perpetual body in the church alongside the Council of Bishops. So, excluding staff, three out of 49 members would make the Young Adult percentage on the Connectional Table as 6.12%. We’ll set that as a baseline.

So the Call to Action committee, which did the primary work of the Call to Action movement, has one young adult member on the team (Ben B.) with 15 other members. That’s pretty good, not representative of the actual number of young adults, but still respectable under the small size of the team. That would make the Young Adult percentage on the Call to Action steering team at 6.25%.

Now for the bad news. The Interim Operations Team, which crafted the majority of the Call to Action legislation, has zero young adult members out of 12. So for the actual crafting of the legislation, putting all the vision into play, the young adult input and decision-making ability is exactly zero.

So Young Adults are seen, heard, but not involved in the writing of the actual legislation for the Call to Action. Bummer. Indeed, by a commenter’s account that I’ve seen elsewhere, the Division on Ministries with Young People (the global UMC ministry focused on young people) was completely left off the original Call to Action schematic for general church structure. It was not until after this error was caught (by the young people serving on the CT) that $5 million was set aside for young adults.

Young Adults at General Conference by the Numbers

It may or may not matter how involved the young adults have been in the Call to Action. From the most current list of delegates I could find, there ar only 41 young adult (under 35) voting delegates for this General Conference. There are another 42 young reserve delegates. That’s a tiny less-than-5% proportion of General Conference.

Furthermore, from our research and head-counting, there is only ONE young adult on the General Administration committee at General Conference, which is the committee that handles the bulk of the CTA legislation. Out of 54 members, that’s 1.85%, which is far less than the representation on either the Connectional Table or the Call to Action committee. So while young adult delegates will get to participate on the floor, in the back-and-forth consideration of the two proposals in this very important committee, their involvement will be limited.

While I recognize this tiny percentage can be due to self-selection (both of the young adults from my own annual conference delegation chose other committees), young adults are usually lower on the list and thus the General Administration committee likely would have been taken by other delegates beforehand. As for the solo young adult on General Administration, that one young adult is my co-writer Rachel, and she’ll be louder and more articulate than ten young adults, so it may even out just having her on there. Ha!

Now we can go down the line and point out how many people are ethnic on each team, how many women, how many Central Conference delegates, how many hipster Mac users, and that would cause some back-and-forth between which team is more representative of that particular group. But if the voices of young adults are most important to you, be aware that the Call to Action legislation has a lower percentage of young adult voices at the theory and organizing levels, and minimal input into the actual writing of the legislation.

The Impact of Young Adult Voices in the Alternative Plans

Now the good news: General Conference has a choice! The response to the Call to Action put together by the Methodist Federation for Social Action Alternative (MFSA) Alternative Structure team has four young-adult co-signers to the legislation, out of 13. Thus, 30% of the MFSA Structure co-signers are Young Adults. Even when you include the extended team that co-wrote it but didn’t co-sign the legislation, you gain one young adult and make it five out of 32, or 15.62%.

I think there’s little wonder then that the Alternative Structure appeals to me as a young adult:

  • It has a cautionary approach to authority by removing the Board of Directors
  • It includes a diversity of voices by reducing the number of boards but still including at least 30 people on them.
  • It keep the Methodist values of accountability in our strong connectional structure

All of which (a suspicion of authority, an appreciation of diversity, and enforcement of accountability…not to mention rebelliousness to bad ideas) are certainly United Methodist values in general but are also hallmarks of my generation of young adults in particular. The Alternative Proposal includes young adults at every level of theory to organizing to writing and it shows in the values reflected in the proposal. And perusing the only other alternative to the Call to Action (Plan B), from looking at the leadership of the Plan B proposal, there are ZERO young adults on their team. And the MFSA alternative plan requires 10% more young adult voices on the highest executive team. Hmm.

Signs of Hope at the grassroots of the UMC

In conclusion, there’s a difference between being in ministry TO and being in ministry WITH young people (youth and young adults). Regardless of what happens at General Conference, there are signs of hope. Through one of the general boards, a couple of young clergy have started Spark12, which is an amazing project that has young adults evaluate other young adults’ projects that seek to accomplish social justice goals in their contexts. There are story after story of local churches that are in ministry WITH young adults and do terrific work. These are all elements from the middle and the local church level of involvement by young adults in the future of the church.

But what I hope is that when we read the rosters of who is in the highest executive committees and who is in the discussions about how to reach young people, that there are actual breathing young adults in on those discussions, in voices that are of significance. Because if you ask me, the leaders who have presided over the UMC’s decline in status with young adults are probably NOT the best people to lead it into restored relationships with young adults. May the future be bright for the United Methodist Church’s relationship with young adults, global and local.

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