By Megan Smith, Special Contributor…
In July, the quadrennial meeting of the Northeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church took place in Charleston, W.Va. Hundreds gathered, representing each of our Jurisdiction’s ten annual conferences, to make decisions that would affect the entire jurisdiction, including the nominations for jurisdictional committees and elections for three open episcopal positions.
There were 246 “inside the bar,” but only 227 of those had a vote. The remaining 19 were youth observers—members of and leaders within their respective conferences—ages 18 and under, who were selected to come and engage in the processes of the Jurisdiction and widen the lens through which they view the structure and systems of the church. These youth had a voice, but not a vote.
The Northeastern Jurisdiction is the only jurisdiction that allows for youth to be present and have a voice, and clearly, this is something for which the Jurisdiction may be proud. Likewise, we can celebrate the fact that numerous youth were elected as voting delegates from their conferences, including Courtney Kunselman (Western Pennsylvania), Paul Sweet (Upper New York), Hannah Smith (Peninsula-Delaware), Samuel Sim (Greater New Jersey), and Weagba Nelson (Greater New Jersey). But perhaps we should not stop there; perhaps there is another step yet to be taken.
The youth of our conferences are leaders in their own right, as chairs, co-chairs and members of our Conference Councils on Youth Ministry, as well as within their own districts and local churches as members of committees and heads of outreach ministries. When, at annual conferences, we select those who will represent us at the Jurisdictional level, perhaps we too easily overlook the youth. Is it possible that in our pursuit to empower the young people of the church, we overlook the power that we have to elect those young people, which in turn enables them to do even greater things?
Why not elect and give vote to youth? Are we afraid that the older generations will be outnumbered and outvoted? Are we afraid to witness the modern-day changes, innovations and revolutions in our church that the youth are bold enough to make? Are we underestimating those who are younger than us, shutting them out with an unspoken expectancy that they cannot possibly be knowledgeable enough or prepared enough to share in the hundreds of others’ voices that get a chance to speak and then make that voice count for something?
“Although I am very thankful that the NEJ allows even a voice for youth, I feel that vote for even a small amount of youth would be a step forward in terms of equal voice,” says Abby Van Vleck, a Conference Council on Youth Ministry member from Upper New York.
During the jurisdictional conference, youth discussed this issue, over late-night pizza deliveries and heart-to-hearts in the hallways of the hotel. The youth showed concern for the growth of our denomination, expressing that merely talking about the importance and empowerment of young people would not change anything without the action that the youth voice necessitates.
Many developed a yearning and heard a call to do more for their churches, their districts, their conferences, and their jurisdiction, and to change their passionate voices into votes that make a difference in the areas about which they are passionate. To sit back and wonder if the youth voices were really heard and represented through other votes was difficult.
“As I sat in on the sessions, I found it hard not to be able to vote,” said Erin Sears, West Virginia Conference Council on Youth Ministries (CCYM) chair. “I had to trust that my voice really was enough to represent the youth.”
Are the voices of youth alone really enough? What if we empowered the youth voice to be heard at the microphone and in the ballots, by electing more youth as voting members of our delegations?
Maybe it is time that we begin an era of youth inclusivity. Maybe the empowerment of youth should not stop on the district or conference level. Maybe it is time we begin learning from youth, our most energetic evangelizers, how to ‘Encounter God’ and ‘Engage the World.’
“While it’s certainly true that equality takes time, [our jurisdiction] took large steps to include as many different voices as it could, while still keeping focus on the over-arching goal of God’s Church,” said Upper New York CCYM Co-Chair, Jefferson Dedrick. “In the future, we’d like to see equality in all areas, from ethnicity to age, but we’re well on our way.”
Contrary to the popular belief that the youth are the church of tomorrow, they are just as much the church of today. Is it not true that the episcopal nominees who were voted on and elected could potentially mentor and one day ordain the youth who are currently discerning a call to ministry? Is it not true that the decisions made regarding the jurisdictional budget, future jurisdictional gatherings, and representation on jurisdictional committees have just as much of an effect on the youth of the church as everyone else? While we as a church place such emphasis on diversity, why is it that we can so easily ignore the less than full inclusion of our most endangered yet determined demographic?
Ms. Smith is part of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference and will be a freshman at Eastern University in the fall.