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Vital Congregations host Zoom conversation on empowering servant leadership


Young Adult Volunteers and alum speak out on opportunities, people and service projects

By Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

(Left) Destini Hodges is the associate for recruitment and relationships with the Young Adult Volunteer Program. (Second from left) Langley Hoyt, a Young Adult Volunteer in the 2019–2020 class, serves with the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. (Second from right) Sierra Mink served with other YAVs at the Boston Food Justice YAV site in the 2019–2020 class. (Right) As a Young Adult Volunteer with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Ministry at the United Nations in New York City, Simon Doong attended the 2018 Winter Youth Assembly. Doong also served a year as a YAV in South Korea. He now works as a mission specialist in the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.

LOUISVILLE — Destini Hodges, associate for recruitment and relationships with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) Program, can see how, early on, her congregation provided opportunities for her to grow as a leader.

“What has empowered me to be a servant leader is being engaged in my local congregation at an early age,” Hodges said. “At age 5, they were teaching me how to take up offering; at 10, incorporating me in services beyond Youth Sunday.” As an 18-year-old high school student, she served as a deacon, and at 21, she became an elder. Now, through her role in the Presbyterian World Mission’s ecumenical YAV Program, she is helping other young adults, ages 19–30, discern if a year of faith-based service is a next step for them.

Hodges joined current YAVs Langley Hoyt and Sierra Mink, along with YAV alum Simon Doong, in a panel discussion on the topic of Empowering Servant Leadership, one of the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations.

This week’s discussion, held via Zoom and Facebook Live, was hosted by Vital Congregations coordinator the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill and the Rev. Carlton Johnson, ministry associate in the Office of Vital Congregations, a part of the PC(USA)’s Theology, Formation & Evangelism ministry.  

“It’s important to know that young adults are doing some extraordinary things during this time, as they have been in the past, and will continue to do in the future,” Hodges said. Watch a recording of the full presentation here.

Langley Hoyt, of Pittsburgh and Greenville, South Carolina, is a recent graduate of Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. She is currently serving as a YAV in the Office of Public Witness, the justice and advocacy branch of the PC(USA), in Washington, D.C., working remotely from her home in North Carolina. She also works part-time in youth programming for Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church.

“I think sometimes the Church struggles to let young adults lead because it’s not willing to give them real power within the institution and doesn’t listen to their voices when decisions are being made,” Hoyt said. “Most young adult Presbyterians I know are also people who are deeply committed to social justice. In my experience, discovering for myself how God calls us all to partake in justice work is what revitalized my faith in college. It’s what kept me involved in Church and is what is driving me to consider attending divinity school.”

What makes Hoyt question her involvement in the institution of the Church is when it isn’t willing to give power to the voices of its young adults, and also when there is a pattern of ignoring and disrespecting the leadership of people of color.

“We as a Church are incredibly blessed by the leadership of our Black, Indigenous and people of color leaders, and I think that leadership is a gift that is often taken for granted.” 

Sierra Mink, of the San Francisco Bay area, is serving as a Boston Food Justice YAV, working alongside Eliot Presbyterian Church in ministry at Living Waters Center of Hope, a day shelter for people who are unhoused.

“My biggest influence was definitely growing up in a church that empowered me as a student leader,” Mink said. “I had the opportunity to be a youth elder while I was in high school. I served on the Mission Committee, as well as being on session. Early college years, I was a Young Adult Advisory Delegate (YAAD) during the 222nd General Assembly in Portland.

“As a YAV in Boston I have the privilege and opportunity to work alongside the pastor here. She has just been so wonderful, empowering me to have an idea and go for it. I was able to lead a mission project that had two congregations coming to the building to package 10,000 meals that went directly back into the local community.

“Without young leaders, there is no future of the Church. It’s pretty simple,” she said, referring to a statistic she heard at the 222nd General Assembly (2016) stating that at that time the average age in the Presbyterian Church was 62. “So, it’s not only a good idea to empower your young adults, it’s an existential imperative. We need folks who are young and excited about Church leadership to show us what the future of the Church is going to be like.”

Mink commended the YAV Program for doing just that through its core tenets, particularly vocational discernment and leadership development through faith in action. “As statistics and numbers go, 79% of YAVs regularly attend worship, 63% are more deeply involved in their congregation and 32% of all YAV alums pursue a vocation in ordination or pastoral leadership.” So, she said, congregations looking to invest in young leaders should consider investing in the YAV Program, since it’s clear that doing so is investing in the future of the Church.

Graduating with a philosophy degree and feeling like she needed vocational discernment drew Mink to the YAV Program initially. Serving as a Boston Food Justice YAV interested her because Boston YAVs divide their service equally between a church and a nonprofit, which has given Mink the vocational discernment she needed, she said.

“I’m happy to say that — today actually — I accepted a job with a nonprofit in the Boston area. I’m going to school for nonprofit management. It’s just been such a wonderful year.” Mink is excited about the Church, watching it grow through the YAV Program and in other ways.

YAV alum Simon Doong of Beltsville, Maryland, currently lives in New York City and works as a mission specialist with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. He served as a YAV in South Korea in 2016–17, where he worked with children in a welfare community center and learned about Korean history and culture and U.S. involvement in the Korean War. Doong served a second YAV year in the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations in New York City in 2017–18. He is a graduate of the College of Wooster with a major in international relations and minors in Spanish and Latin American studies.

“In my very first week there [at the U.N.], the director, Ryan Smith, said, ‘We have all these various issues around the world that we are trying to address and keep tabs on. What are you interested in?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m really interested in sustainable development.’ He said, ‘OK, give me a minute to think about what we can set up for you.’”

The next day, Smith asked Doong if he could work on creating a guide on the sustainable development goals of the U.N., such as goals related to gender justice, poverty alleviation and climate change, to connect these goals to the work of the Church.

“So, I got to create and assemble this Study and Devotional Guide, which you can still download today, and which they are still working on,” Doong said. “It was through the creation of that resource that I met other denominational colleagues, and it’s why I am where I am today, still working for the denomination. It all started because Ryan trusted me, believed in me and empowered me to take the lead on that particular project.”

The YAV Program is an ecumenical, faith-based year of service for people ages 19–30 at sites across the United States and around the world. YAVs accompany local agencies working to address root causes of poverty and reconciliation. Alongside this work, volunteers explore the meaning of their Christian faith and accountability to their neighbors and community with peers and mentors.

The YAV year usually takes place August to August, but in the midst of a COVID-19 travel ban, the 2020–21 YAV year will begin with virtual programming from September through December, based on the bold invitation and vision of Matthew 25 to build congregational vitality, dismantle structural racism and eradicate systemic poverty, along with core tenets of the YAV Program: intentional Christian community, simple living, cross-cultural mission, vocational discernment and leadership development through faith in action.

There’s still time to apply to serve as a YAV, Hodges said. Application dates have been extended to Sept. 15 (international sites) and Sept. 30 (national sites). Learn more.

“Wednesday’s Vital Conversation was an amazing opportunity to engage with young adults with such great faith,” Threadgill said. “It was an honest conversation about how we are all encouraged to empower young adults to serve in leadership in the body of Christ. It was incredible to hear young adults with such conviction and call to social justice and to the kingdom work of God. I was grateful for their participation and look forward to more conversations together in the future.”

Vital Conversations are held via Zoom and Facebook Live each Wednesday at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. On June 15, the Rev. Shanea Leonard, associate for gender and racial justice, Racial Equity and Women’s Intercultural Ministries, and Melonee “Mel” Tubb, a Presbyterian Mission Agency specialist for student loan repayment assistance, will have a Vital Conversation on the topic of racism.

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