If there is any expression Tracey Herzer cannot stand it is: “Teen-agers are the church of tomorrow.”
“It makes my skin crawl,” says the executive director of Leader Resources, the decade-old organization that has put a new and wildly successful youth program in place in 1,200 parishes across the country.
Journey to Adulthood, better known as J2A, trains adults to appreciate youth. It is a program and rite of passage for junior high and high school students – sending 3,000 on pilgrimage each year and providing a curriculum focused on their gifts and a set of skills we all need — yet it sometimes has its greatest effect on adult parishioners.
J2A enriches whole congregations by reinserting the oomph that only adolescents can bring. That’s why Herzer’s voice takes on an edge when she refers to the annoying church-of-tomorrow cliché. “Teen-agers are the church of today,” she says emphatically. “We need them just as they are today, not because they’ll make great vestry members in 2035. We need their energy and their enthusiasm and their laughter and their questions and their ideas ... and we need them now.”
So, with the help of 4,000-plus leaders, nearly 1,000 pilgrimage chaperones/mentors and carefully written, pedagogically age-appropriate rituals and lesson plans that she helped create with the Rev. Linda Grenz, founder and CEO, and consulting authors and educators, Herzer is revitalizing the church from the Sunday school rooms out.
Teens report their lives changed. Congregations watch their pews fill and their median age drop. Mentors sigh and wish they’d had such discussions and experiences at age 15, 16, 17. And whole dioceses sign on. Twenty-two have made J2A the official program for youth ministry for their congregations.
Based in Leeds, Mass., Leader Resources hopes to sign up another dozen dioceses in the next year or so for the three-part program. It begins with “Rite 13” -- two years focused on gifts from God that starts with a rite-of-passage ritual conducted amidst the congregation. It concludes with YAC, or Young Adults in Church -- two final years when high school juniors and seniors accept more adult roles in church and explore their personal pilgrimages of faith.
J2A, the middle two years of the journey, is when the bulk of the learning takes place. In church school classes and evening gatherings and on excursions, the teens learn what Herzer calls six “basic skills of adulthood”: active listening, negotiation, assertion, research and information management, partnership and leadership.
Through all six years of Journey to Adulthood, the youths travel with the same small group of peers. The bonds they form grow strong and support them. They say it; their leaders witness it.
A break from school stress
“It helped me grow up a lot,” says Terrell Fuller, 18, from Christ Church, Georgetown, in the Diocese of Washington. “In high school, you are kind of a lost soul, just wandering around. … This gives you a whole different thing to focus on. … I loved the program. It is such a nice break from the high-stress, Washington way of living. … You don’t compete with other people when you are in church.”
Ellen Tillotson, rector of Trinity Church, Torrington, Conn., says she hears from teens who are bullied in their high schools that “[J2A] is about the only place in their life where they feel free to be themselves. … They really love and trust each other. We have a bunch of really cool kids and we have funny, misfit kids and we have geeky, really smart kids … and they have learned to care about each other.”
Liz Ring, J2A coordinator in Maine, says she believes the program is so successful because students make many of the decisions about it themselves. They have “ownership,” she says. “I have seen young people just sort of blossom. … They clearly, clearly feel that they are members of a community, a part of doing things – the way adults would be part of doing things – to make a community work.”
To Caitlin Marquis, the quality of the friendships is most important.
“You make a whole new, different kind of friend, a friend that you are connected to through God and through religion, not through … school,” says the 15-year-old from St. John’s Church, Northampton, Mass. “I think these bonds are a lot tighter.”
They pray for each other
Last fall, Emily Gowdy Canady, the 29-year-old youth minister at St. Columba’s in Washington, D.C., witnessed the bonds Marquis describes. The mother of a young woman in the J2A group died on a Saturday. Next morning, the only place the girl wanted to be was with her J2A friends.
“They all prayed for her individually,” Canady says. “That’s something that has grown out of this. … These kids know how to pray out loud. That made a huge difference. In 10 years, when she thinks about the few days and weeks after her mother died, the memory she’s going to have is of those friends here at church who were her community of support and love.”
J2A’s impact goes well beyond the youth enrolled. Herzer credits the program with teaching her, a former Southern Baptist, “that not only is it okay to question, but it is important to question.” She can’t forget a question from one of her J2A youths -- Ronnie Gosselin at St. Anne’s Church, Atlanta.
“She changed my life forever when she asked me if I thought fatherhood had softened God,” says Herzer, who worked in youth ministry and as a J2A trainer before accepting her present position. The group had noticed how judgmental the Old Testament God was, “and then the New Testament God was compassionate … loving. We ended up ditching the lesson plan and talking about ‘What if God can change?’ It had a huge impact on my personal [spirituality].”
In Maine, Ring recognizes changes in the mentors and adult leaders. “It can be very hard work … but I consistently meet adults who say it changes their lives. ... It doesn’t diminish the work of spirituality. This isn’t just happy-clappy. It’s powerful, important stuff.”
Tillotson of Connecticut tells potential leaders, “You are partnering with people at a wonderful, inquisitive, brutally honest and incredibly open stage of their lives. … These young people will make a difference for you. Being with them will make your faith more truthful, will help it come alive, will make it more joyful.”
It will change the parish
When Susan Mallinson of St. Clement’s Church, St. Paul, Minn., first presented the J2A program to the leaders of her parish, one volunteered immediately, but with a caveat.
“‘I am willing to be the Rite 13 leader,’” she quotes him saying, “’but I am not willing to do it if you start and then stop it. … We have to see this through. And, secondly, I have to know that this is really going to change the parish to have done this.’”
“I quote this all the time,” says Mallinson, “because the program has so, so changed our parish.”
The congregation did stick with it, and those 14 original 12- and 13-year-olds graduated from high school last spring.
The parish is “a much more vibrant place,” Mallinson says. “We have kids who are ushers … lectors. … They bring their ideas.” “One of the most significant things is that the adults know the kids. … They have taken seriously the commitment of Rite 13 that ‘We are going to walk with you.’”
A pilgrimage is forever
Perhaps the most memorable part of J2A is the pilgrimage that culminates the first four years.
“[It] was probably one of the most influential events of my life,” says John Mark Capers of Augusta, Ga., about his group’s pilgrimage to Scotland. “I felt different when I came home. … All my life I told everybody that I am a Christian, but it wasn’t a big deal to me. When I came back, I felt like, ‘This is who I am, this is what I believe, and I am proud of that.’
“My whole life is going to be a pilgrimage,” says Capers, 19. Amanda Holloway, 18, describes that same pilgrimage this way: “It was beautiful. It was hard. It was muddy and rainy, but it was the greatest experience of my life.”
What Terrell Fuller of Christ Church, Georgetown, remembers of her pilgrimage to Mexico is what she was able to give. “I worked on this house for this family that had no running water and who were in this tiny, tiny little tin shack,” she says. “We built this house for them. It was kind of an amazing thing. I really felt like I was doing something I was so proud of. Coming back from it, it was just impossible for me to explain it to people. … Ever since then, I have kind of had this great obsession with community service.”
Susan Mallinson, J2A coordinator at St. Clement’s in St. Paul, Minn., believes pilgrimage leaves a mark.
“Once you’ve been a pilgrim, you are a pilgrim forever,” she says. “Whatever happens, you’ve done this. These kids have this now in their bones, this experience. And they will go on with their lives, and, whatever happens, these seeds have been planted.”
The youth from Trinity Church in Torrington, Conn., found their pilgrimage provocative for an entirely different reason. They went to a retreat center in South Dakota from which they made long excursions into the mountains. On a three-hour hike up the highest peak in the state, one of their leaders, physically ailing, was unable to proceed.
“We, like, joined together, like the whole group came together and helped her out, says 16-year-old Ryan Perry. “We stuck with her the whole time and made sure she was able to do it, … and she was able to get to the top.frames.ioMain. It was cool just to see her do this. “To see her struggle and finally make it to the top, I think that, that’s where I could [see God].”
Tillotson, rector of Perry’s church, calls working with J2A the best part of her ministry. “I love seeing this succeed … watching people get the Christian faith, really get what it is to be a community with one another … work out the hard parts, the knotty parts of our relationships, and find in the support and care of that community the chance to really be themselves. As I watch that happen for them, what I am really seeing is my vision of the church come alive.”