If you want to meet someone excited about their work, talk to Mervin Gallant. "A ministry with youth has been life-giving. While I get tired," he confesses, "I have not regretted it for a minute."
Mervin's career for the 18 years up to this point had mainly been as the minister in various congregations. With two opportunities before him, he chose the role of youth minister working as part of a team with Ross Smillie at St. Andrew's Church, Lacombe.
A visit one Sunday last year told us St. Andrew's had a thriving contingent of children and teenage youth as part of the congregation. In a time when so many congregations have few children and almost no teenagers, we wanted to find out what made St. Andrew's thrive.
The answer according to Mervin Gallant: "The congregation had a vision. They knew Lacombe was growing. They were not afraid to do what it took to grow along with the community." When he was called, the congregation had just finished renovating the building. The bills were only half paid when they made the decision to hire a second full time person. Rev. Ross Smillie's leadership influenced the willingness to do what was needed to make that happen. Now Mervin spends at least 80% of his time working with children and youth.
The congregation was also willing to put the financial resources behind its youth program. Making a connection with youth not only takes time but also costs money. The church yearly budget now includes $500 for leadership training, both for youth themselves and leadership of youth. There is $700 budgeted for youth programming and $300 for youth pastoral care, taking youth out for lunch or out after school. "Having a relationship with the kids is the big thing," Mervin attests. The results are there. They were up to 40 last year in their Jr. High group, with members bringing friends because of what was happening.
Mervin finds that youth are just as busy as their parents. The upper end of Jr. High and certainly High School students are into dance, skating, piano lessons, not to mention part time jobs. Trying to fit something at the church into their busy schedule is a challenge.
The church's Halloween dance was one indicator. Last year there were 30, but this year quite a few less. The problem ? busy schedules. The answer, schedule more events so that kids can fit the church into their schedule rather than the other way around. This year the Halloween dance was on Friday, the kids were taken to Riverbend on Saturday night, then to a Linea Good concert in Red Deer on Sunday. In total, 20 teenagers were involved, but spread over three nights. That kind of programming takes staff time, and a willingness to work together with other churches in the area. "I can't do all the programming," says Mervin, "but I can help them connect with events elsewhere."
Senior High programming is more of a challenge. The Sr. High group can drop to three or four, but then along comes a new batch of Jr. High graduates and the group goes up to 15. Youth from the congregation participated in Alberta and Northwest Conference and in Red Deer Presbytery events. "At first it was hard to convince the youth," says Mervin. "Now they get quite excited."
Part of Confirmation is done in co-operation with another congregation. Between two study weekends at the church, they do six activities in the broader community. Events included walking a labyrinth and a wilderness experience to echo Jesus' time alone in the wilderness after his baptism. The youth spent a morning at the Bissell Centre in Edmonton, then went on a walking tour of the inner city in the afternoon. Visits included a mosque in Red Deer and a Pentecostal Church in Lacombe. "Now the younger kids have come to expect that, and are looking forward to it. They are getting more and more used to going outside for events and experiences."
Workshop Rotation Children's Ministry
St. Andrew's is becoming well known for its Workshop Rotation Church School. They call it "Son-light City." It features a theatre room with real theatre seats, a computer lab, a drama room, a music room, and an exploration room, among other features.
How is it going? "Workshop Rotation is, in some ways good. The challenge is always finding enough leadership." At St. Andrew's they do six week rotation periods. The first two weeks concentrate on telling the story. Weeks 4, 5, and 6 ask what the story means to you, to the community, and to the world. "Every six weeks we try to find another set of leaders," Mervin confessed, "16 leaders every six weeks." The program is great, with the kids really enjoying it. They come out knowing the stories, because they spend six weeks with each story. For Mervin and Sharon (the Sunday school coordinator), however, it is often several weeks into a rotation before they have a full compliment of volunteer staff.
Youth and Sunday Worship
There is a team of three adults who work with the Sr. Highs on Sunday morning, and another team with the Jr. Highs, with a commitment to be there for the full year. That way, one leader can be away and the other two provide continuity.
The young people want to have their own group every week, and are working at playing a major role in the congregation's worship service once a month. What is coming up is a drama based on a true story that happened to a girl in a nearby town. The girl told her story to the group, and one of the kids wrote it up as a play. It is about a girl walking the lonely road of teenage life who gets into a crowd using crystal meth. Her friends don't know how to help her, and walk on by. Her parents don't want to know anything bad is happening to their little girl, so they walk on by. It is a youth group that gives her the support she needs. The play closes with the young people joining hands with the people in the front row of pews, calling on the whole community for their support.
It was a shocking realization to discover how big the drug problem was in the area. They brought in ADAC to do a general drug-alcohol awareness session. Next they brought in a person who had run a drug house at one point. She had been off drugs for two years, and had been spending her energy telling youth, "Don't do it." Next they heard from a family who were dealing with FAS, foetal alcohol syndrome. What young people do, not only has consequences for them, but for the next generation as well.
Your Best Advice
What would Mervin's advice be to a congregation that wants to thrive. "Don't be afraid to invest in your youth. Some churches may have strong volunteers who can do it, who have the energy for a youth program. But the reality is that volunteers have their own lives." There is no replacement for a staff person who is there full time for the congregation's young people. "Without that time, you can't build the relationships that make the program work. And you need the relationships."
His last word was about self care. "I do a retreat every January or February. This year I'm going to Naramata to focus on soul tending for youth ministry."
Congregational News November 2005 Vol. 11 No. 1
Up to Top
Congregational Life Home Page