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Leadership academy nurtures African-American youth

Students at the first Thomas Shockley Youth Theological Academy review digital photos following a presentation on church communications. Thirteen African Americans between ages 11 and 15 attended the two-week academy in Nashville, Tenn., to learn about church ministry and leadership in The United Methodist Church. UMNS photos by Linda Green.

By Linda Green*
Aug. 10, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Nia Holston

For 35 years, four different mentoring and networking programs for primarily African-American young people laid the foundation that helped to develop many of today's clergy and lay leaders in The United Methodist Church.

Until 2004, however, the leaders of those four groups – the Pembroke Institute in Chicago, the East Ohio Institute, the West Ohio Institute and the Thomas Shockley Institute in Atlanta – had never come together to share their knowledge and resources.

When they finally did meet in Nashville, the institutes joined together to launch a new network to more intentionally recruit youth for development into future leaders for local churches, educational institutions and outreach ministries.

The first fruits of that new networking system arrived in Nashville in July when 13 African Americans between the ages of 11 and 15 attended the first Thomas Shockley Youth Theological Academy. The academy is named in honor of Bishop James S. Thomas and the late Rev. Grant Shockley, a noted Christian educator, who began conversations on how to work with young people in the church.

Held July 1-15, the two-week program explored the value of ministry and the church's work through a focused, rigorous curriculum. It was developed based on the premise that identifying and cultivating strong United Methodist leaders for the future should begin before a child is in high school or college, according to the Rev. Luther Felder, director of campus ministry for the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

A top priority

Building strong leadership is one of the four mission initiatives identified by The United Methodist Church as a priority at the dawn of a new century.

In the United States, the church has only 850 commissioned and ordained clergy ages 35 or younger. This is only 4.69 percent of current elders and reflects a decline from 15.05 percent of the elders serving in 1985, according to research conducted in 2005 by the Rev. Lovett Weems.

The Rev. Luther Felder and student Kevin Walls work on a presentation to the academy.

"This (annual) academy is an attempt to move back the recruitment process so that persons have an opportunity to test their skills in theological discernment in Bible study, in growing and understanding of the church and its mission and addressing that mission with their own sense of what are the creative edges that might help it be a greater church," said Felder, noting that the model can be used for any racial ethnic group.

"We recognize the importance of young people as being viable to the interest of the church," he said.

Academy consultant Marilyn Magee Talbert called the recruitment program and leadership academy a gift to The United Methodist Church. "This has been an intentional process of exposing young people to the best we have in The United Methodist Church," she said.

Nia Holston, 15, a member of St. Matthews United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, attended at her father's urging and found the experience "filled with life-changing affirmations of faith." She cited opportunities to meet people in the church and learn more about Methodism, particularly the history of African Americans in the church, as being vitally important to her future.

DeRon Young, 11, is interested in a career as an ordained minister. A member of Union Memorial United Methodist Church in Davidsonville, Md., he attended the academy "to be a better leader" and because "I want to be a preacher."

"I want to lead more people to Christ and lead more people closer to Him," said DeRon.

Beyond the classroom

Organizers are quick to point out that the academy is more than a two-week classroom experience. "It is not a one-time deal," said Talbert. "It is mentoring in letting young people know that when there are moments of discouragement or moments of wondering what they should do, that they have somebody that they can pick up the phone and call or e-mail or whatever."

DeRon Young

Felder said the academy will involve parents, local pastors and teachers in a long-term support system.

"This is about how do we help enable a cadre of young people to be exposed to what it means to be theologian, clergy, church, church family and have those young people supported by other persons in their churches, in their homes, in their schools and various other walks of their personal lives," he said.

The academy also will attempt to be a feeder program into United Methodist-related academic institutions, particularly those that focus on African Americans. "It is an opportunity for the historically black colleges and universities to be a launching pad for these young people as they consider their future as servants to the larger community," Felder said.

In addition, the Office of Loans and Scholarships and the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry will track the academy students "because we want to know what happens to these 13 young people," he said. "We want to know what age and station and what issues and conditions they confront as they go through life. And we also want to help them understand the importance of education and continue that support for them."

Many opportunities

Participants received insight and instruction from numerous African-American leaders in the church, including bishops, staff of churchwide boards and agencies, clergy and lay leaders.

"We wanted them to understand theology in broader context than ordained ministry," Talbert said. "When you do that, then these young people will be able to think for themselves and they will become viable leaders in our congregations to strengthening The United Methodist Church."

"This has been an intentional process of exposing young people to the best we have in The United Methodist Church."
-Marilyn Magee Talbert

The academy also provided opportunity to look spiritually into many areas of the students' lives. "We want the youth to think theologically about public policy, the music they hear, the clothing they wear," said Talbert. "… And we want young people to be very serious in considering what it means to be a child of God, what it means to be in the image of God, what is seemly or not seemly for a person of Christian character and Christian integrity."

While The United Methodist Church acknowledges a churchwide leadership crisis, Felder also cites a declining pool of African-American clergy in annual conferences to fill vacancies in African-American churches.

"Here is an attempt to develop pastors for our churches at an early age so that they can then begin to see the value of ministry, the value of the work of the church, and also identify their own special gifts for the future of the church," he said.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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