People of the Diocese of Massachusetts are used to seeing young people at the microphone at Diocesan Convention speaking out on issues that are important to them, such as climate change, gun violence and immigration. But it wasn't always so. It wasn't until 1998 that the convention granted representatives from the Diocesan Youth Council (DYC) the right to a seat, voice and vote, and to mark the 20th anniversary of this milestone, former DYC members and mentors from the recent and distant past will gather at this year's convention in Hyannis for "DYC@20"--a networking lunch, a looking-back-and-looking-ahead presentation to the convention and a celebratory dinner.
In addition to providing youth representation at Diocesan Convention, DYC members plan and run annual diocesan youth events and "work ultimately to make the church a nurturing environment for the spiritual growth of young people in the Christian community,” according to the diocesan youth ministry website. The current diocesan youth missioner, the Rev. H. Mark Smith, sees youth ministry as a way to bring the spirit of young people into the church right now. “I don’t see youth ministry as training those who are going to be leading the church tomorrow. I see it as really challenging the church to be led by young people today and I think that that’s really important if we’re going to regain relevance in culture," Smith said. "I think that the church needs the energy, restlessness, questioning, insistence and the impatience that young people bring and we need those things now.”
Alum Gordon Wong was involved in the DYC from 2005 to 2007 and 13 years later credits the DYC with giving him the skills that helped get him to where he is now. “It was the catalyst for the things I was interested in, public speaking, decision making, how to build coalitions, how to find consensus with people and having organizational skills. It really did start with DYC. Every other opportunity that has come through college and my professional life really loops back to that,” Wong said.
Thalia Etienne, a more recent DYC alum from 2015-2017, similarly spoke of the leadership skills that she gained from her time in the DYC and also of the connections that it helped her make. "Joining the DYC allowed me to see how other churches conduct Mass and how the Episcopal Church manifests in different places, and helped me learn more about the Episcopal faith.” Etienne also expressed the importance of having young people involved in the church. “If you want the church to thrive you have to allow us to be that change that we want to see,” she said.
In interviews, past diocesan youth ministers reflected on the importance of the DYC and engaging young people in the church.
Gennie Callard, now the assistant to the bishop for children, youth and young adult ministry in the Diocese of Western Michigan, was the Massachusetts youth minister in 1998 when DYC members were first granted a seat, voice and vote, and she said that it is important for the adults to hear the powerful voice that comes from young people so that both adults and youth can mutually learn from each other. “We had a big contingent from the Union of Black Episcopalians, we had a number of young people who were refugees from Cambodia who lived in the New Bedford area, and then we also had a number of kids from wealthy white congregations, and they all got to meet each other and learn from each other, and that was amazing” Callard said.
Derby Swanson is currently the worship administrator for Trinity Church in Boston and served as interim youth minister from 2002 to 2003, and, when asked in an interview why it is important both 20 years ago and now for young people to be able to vote in convention, said that it is "just as important now as it was then...maybe even more so in the last two years, where this idea of engagement and of civic engagement and of taking part in processes where you have vote and your opinion is listened to…that is as vital as it ever has been.” She said that her time with the DYC is probably the most meaningful ministry she has ever been a part of. “Youth are not some other thing, they are people at this stage in their life where they’re curious and ask really hard and good questions which, as you get to be an adult, you get tired of asking them or you think you know the answer, or you think you should know the answer so you’re not going to ask it anymore,” she said.
The rector of St. Paul's Church in Lynnfield, the Rev. Robert Bacon, was the diocesan director of youth ministries from 2002 to 2008, said that he understands that the church can seem boring to teenagers and that, rather than being a place that is boring and irrelevant and predictable, "we want to be a place that is dancing on the edge of time and wide open to the movements of the Spirit and trying to live out the love that Jesus showed us.” In searching for ways to make the church more exciting and appealing to young people, it is important to actually include young people, he said. “Teenagers are probably the best personalities on giving us an honest reflection on how the church is doing because they have such an accurate radar for BS, hypocrisy and double standards, and so if teenagers are bored, chances are a lot of adults are going to be bored too,” Bacon said.
After 20 years of youth voting representation at Diocesan Convention, how can the DYC continue to grow and thrive going forward? One of the core goals expressed by both past and present leaders is to make sure that the DYC doesn’t become a youth group or take energy away from local parish youth groups.
Current youth missioner H. Mark Smith explained that the goal is never to replace parish ministry but to supplement it. Those who have been involved in the program unanimously support the continuation and growth of the DYC, citing the importance of having a safe space for young people to talk about their faith and to become engaged with the church and create change.
Smith said that on one hand he would like to see all aspects of diocesan ministry include young people in the future, but maintains that it is important for youth to have their own space as well, “so long as that place is a resting place and launching pad. The hard thing is that so often youth ministry is sort of put off to the side. The youth room is either down in the basement or up in the attic and essentially folks feel like as long as nothing gets broken then whatever happens there we’re not going to worry about. I really think that there are opportunities for a lot of our work across the diocese to be energized by including young people in the leadership and decision-making, not just in moving furniture and washing cars.”
Find the Diocese of Massachusetts youth ministry Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/diomassyouth
Registration for the DYC@20 Celebration at Diocesan Convention is available here.
DYC alums are invited to complete an online survey, available here.
--Bridget K. Wood