When Leah Romanelli arrived at Christ Church, Winnetka, in 2014, it seemed that, other than the youth choir, young people existed on the periphery of church life.
“Before I got there, nobody was really paying attention to the kids,” says Romanelli, who was hired as the church’s first formal youth minister. “People kept saying to me, ‘Good luck getting the kids here!’ I looked around at the congregation, and they were there, sitting in the pews, but it’s just that nobody noticed them. A large part of my job has been shining a big spotlight on the congregation and saying, ‘They are here! Notice them! Engage with them!’”
And boy, have they. The youth ministry program, which includes students in seventh through twelfth grades, has grown from about 18 to 60 participants in less than three years, far surpassing the church’s five-year goal. Romanelli credits Christ Church’s rector, the Rev. Christopher Powell, a supportive congregation, and the 2008 booklet, “Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why most youth ministry doesn’t last and what your church can do about it.”
The book describes “a small business model that a church can use to start a youth ministry,” Romanelli says. “We put together a group of adults for a youth ministry team and included a young person as a team member. We basically just followed the plan step-by-step. Some other congregations have used it, but I think they would pick and choose which steps to use. We usedallthe steps, and I think that’s why things took off so quickly.”
“One of the very basic goals was that active youth numbers should be about 10 percent of the worshipping congregation. For us, our parishioner attendance is about 350 a Sunday, so that would be 35 kids, and now we are at 60. Sustainable Youth Ministry says that with really good volunteers or a second staff person (we have the former), you can get the numbers up to 20% of the congregation.”
Nineteen-year-old Kenzie Walker, a rising sophomore at the University of Minnesota, was the first youth on the youth ministry team. She and her family joined Christ Church in 2011 when Kenzie was in eighth grade. She was minimally involved in the church youth group, but in 2014, during her sophomore year in high school, she signed up for a mission trip to McDowell County, West Virginia, and was hooked.
“It was awesome,” she says. “That was the first domestic mission trip for the church, and that’s what drew me in. We played with the kids, ran a daycare there, built friendships. After the mission trip, I started getting more involved in the church, and I became the first youth delegate to the youth ministry board that had been all adults. I was there to explain what was working and what wasn’t. And I developed a great relationship with Leah.”
Walker went on the following year’s mission trip to Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and helped plan last year’s return trip to Rosebud.
“Just being involved more with church activities made me want to go to church more,” she says. “I was a high school athlete. I played volleyball, and the volleyball tournaments were on Sundays. After my senior year, I didn’t play club volleyball, and just being able to go to church was nice. I wanted to put as much into the church as I could since it was my last year at home.”
Another big draw for Walker was the Wednesday breakfast gatherings—called CCD for Coffee, Christ and Donuts—hosted by a parishioner who lives near the high school and attended by most of the youth in the parish.
“It was like six people, a little more or a little less,” Walker says. “I think through that, I also made connections with those kids. I was a senior, and I’d make friends with freshmen. You could see how they really enjoyed it, too. When you’re a freshman, you’re trying to be really cool and trying not be involved in the church, and yet there they are.”
Adult members of Christ Church have ramped up their involvement with young people, Romanelli says, which is vitally important to the program.
“We have so many adults who are in the baby boomer generation, and they sign up to chaperone events,” Romanelli says. “It’s wonderful to see because the congregation buys into the idea that these kids are everybody’s kids. I don’t have a set list of volunteers, but the numbers have grown immensely. And I feel confident that I could call on anyone in the church and they would help out.”
While she’s thrilled with the progress of the youth ministry program, Romanelli has bigger plans. She says the church’s goal is to have at least five adults in the congregation involved in every youth’s life. This fall Christ Church is launching a distributive leadership model in which adults, youth leaders and the youth themselves become more involved in the planning and execution of youth ministry programs and events. The model is the product of a retreat the youth ministry team held in the spring facilitated by Shay Craig, a member of the parish who serves as the diocese’s associate for resource development.
Romanelli called Craig because, although their youth program had experienced tremendous growth, she was worried about a dip in enthusiasm and wanted to create a shared model of leadership. “One of the tenets of sustainable youth ministry is everybody in the congregation has to be involved, whether they know it or not,” she says. “We were falling short of our goals.”
Craig says she was impressed with the creativity and leadership shown by the youth ministry team.
“We met for a day, and I began by teaching them a model of how super high-functioning groups work,” Craig says. “It had been our intention to spend the afternoon exploring what the youth and adults would want out of it. Instead, this team created a much more structured and advanced plan, including their goals for themselves and youth. We used skills taught by the College for Congregational Development to create an environment where the people most invested were able to create a plan that was entirely organic.”
The College for Congregational Development is a two-year comprehensive training program, recently adopted by the diocese, that nurtures congregational development practitioners among the laity and clergy.
Romanelli used this organic leadership model last Christmas with great success as young people and adults in the parish assumed responsibility for a project that included wrapping presents for the homeless, singing Christmas carols and preparing a meal.
“The teenagers and parents together made decisions as to what they wanted to do for the party,” Romanelli says. “The teenagers did all the advertising, planned the event, got the materials and invited the congregation. The youth were the leaders and the parents were the worker bees. Since we’ve done that the participation in the event has grown from about 20 to about 80. Previously kids would go if their parents were there or because they enjoyed singing. Now they go because they enjoy the entire event, and this is intergenerational.
“I can’t say enough about how ready the church was for youth ministry,” Romanelli says. “They were fully invested from day one. They hadn’t had youth ministry before, so people didn’t know what to expect. Building this youth ministry has been the absolute most joy in my life.”