SPOTLIGHT: Milton Church's Search and Call Process Helped Benefit The Youth of the Community
In order for young people to develop into healthy, compassionate, engaged adults, they need spaces where they can be welcomed.
When the pastor of First Congregational Church of Milton decided to retire after his 22 years of service to the Milton church, the members embarked upon the search and call process. With the help of the outgoing pastor, the members had several discussions regarding strategic planning and needs assessments. Consultants were brought in to talk about the changing priorities and needs of the congregation. The interim leadership validated the findings, a church profile was developed, and the findings were sent to Associate Conference Minister the Rev. Wendy Vander Hart for her suggestions.
"Wendy is very wise and very experienced, and she had good suggestions that we implemented," said Steve Paxhia, head of the Deacons at First Congregational. "However we hesitated at one recommendation. Wendy strongly suggested we go out into the community and ask a wide variety of leaders about ways they believed the church could help. We should find out who were the people who were not being served as well as they could be."
"The new UCC Local Church profile asks a pointed question - Who is our neighbor? - as a way to provoke our churches to engage the community around them," explained Vander Hart. "The purpose is not just to identify people to serve but also to forge partnerships in meeting community needs. Too many churches I have worked with who have done strategic planning or purpose work neglect this question as part of their process. When they ignore the neighbor question they are, in effect, just talking to themselves. It's really hard to expand the church's vision if we only talk to ourselves."
The members of the committee thought they already knew their community quite well and didn't need outside opinions, but they dutifully went out and met with town leaders, school administrators, police chiefs and elected officials.
"To our surprise, everybody pointed to a real crisis with our youth," said Paxhia.
The community leaders explained that there is no dedicated facility, nor staff, to coordinate and conduct programs for youth. There are sports and libraries and schools in town, but the different groups do not work together, and the programs didn't appeal to all youth, so many were getting lost.
As a result, many of the middle schoolers could be found just roaming the streets with groups of friends after school. For the high school kids, the problem can be even worse. Milton has an issue with teenage drinking in particular and to a lesser extent, teenage marijuana use. The youth habitually hold gatherings and bonfires at one wooded park, a cover for alcohol and drug use as well as sexual encounters.
The church has a very young congregation and most people have children of various ages, so this issue was something that resonated with the entire congregation. It made sense to dedicate efforts in this direction.
Future of Youth is a Priority
The new pastor, John Allen, has the future of youth as a priority in the church and is working with community leaders to coordinate the resources needed to staff and house a youth program, although as with any such coordinated effort, it is taking time. The church is considering creating an after school program to serve middle schoolers in the afternoons in conjunction with the library. If that youth center comes to pass, it could become a coffee house or something else for the older kids as well. A lot of ideas are still in discussion, but there is now a focus on the youth and how the church can affect their lives.
"Each afternoon from my office I watch large groups of students from our nearby middle and high schools walking, some are headed home, others to the library, others are simply walking around," said Allen. "This past Christmas season, I was reminded of how powerful the simple act of making room can be. Like that family in Bethlehem who found space in their barn, we looked at our building and found possibility in an un-obvious place. Now we are making room. We are trusting that God will make something holy and beautiful happen in the space we prepare."
In the meantime, a new half-time Minister of Christian Education, Katherine Pater, has been hired to work with the youth. The church has already seen growth in both the middle school and high school youth groups. Over 100 children are involved in the Sunday School program, and many of the children join the groups because their friends are involved - even though their parents are not members of the church.
"Recent research has shown, and my own experience confirms, that the youth of this generation are feeling more stressed and anxious than any generation before them," explained Pater. "In order for the young people of our community to develop into healthy, compassionate, engaged adults, they need spaces where they can be welcomed with unconditional acceptance and reminded that their value as a human being has nothing to do with their academic or athletic accomplishments. I hope that our church can be one such space."
"It was because of Wendy's suggestion that we brought the issue and possibly some solutions to the community. These discussions had not happened before we raised the issue with the town. And if an issue is not raised, no attention is paid to it, so no resources will be developed," said Paxhia. "We've had a hunger for these programs in the church and in the town, but they were just not getting done. Now the priorities have been raised significantly."
Photo caption: Left to Right: Garrett Stefanick, Steve Paxhia, Julia Wright, Anna Fahy, Gaby Festa, Rev. Katherine Pater, Rev. John Allen
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