Oregon-Idaho Conference youth ministry heads in new direction


youth ministry As local churches have changed shape and size over the years – shifting demographics, changing locations, less staff – so has the shape and size of youth ministry in the Oregon-Idaho Conference.

As these changes have unfolded, one thing has become increasingly clear: Youth ministry in this Conference cannot be done with a top-down approach.

“It’s not that churches don’t care. It’s just that they don’t have the resources,” said Christy Dirren, local pastor at West Portland UMC and new youth coordinator for Columbia and Cascadia districts.

This year, the Oregon-Idaho Conference shifted to a district-coordinated youth ministry after years of being without a conference youth director. The new structure is based off the successes created by the Rev. Anna Eckelbarger Salas and others in the Crater Lake District. Dirren is working for the next year in her youth ministry role, while the Sage District is in the midst of searching for its youth ministry coordinator.

These are part-time positions created through the Oregon-Idaho Conference’s budget with additional youth ministry funding from the Direct Program Support (previously known as the "askings"). This ministry is made possible through the generosity of churches that designate their “askings” as a part of Youth Ministry. Other Direct Program Support programs include: Campus Ministry, Hispanic Ministry, and the Vital Church Project.

“The intention came out of a request from youth leaders across the conference,” Eckelbarger Salas said. “It was clear we didn’t want a top-down approach anymore."

Rev. Lowell Greathouse, director of mission and ministry for the Oregon-Idaho Conference, said it was time to revitalize youth ministry efforts in the districts after the Conference youth coordinator position went away almost a decade ago.

“Through the district youth coordinator positions, we are increasing our capacity to support, expand, and implement youth ministry throughout the annual conference,” Greathouse said.

For the last four years, Eckelbarger Salas has been coordinating youth ministry around the Crater Lake District with increasing success as relationships have been built with lay-led, part-time youth leaders across the area.

youth doing volunteer work“We’ve seen a lot of youth workers go on to clergy orders,” Eckelbarger Salas said. “It’s just the nature of being in community.”

As the district youth ministries coordinator she does everything from helping with curriculum to providing support to youth leaders in their interactions with church officials to assisting with budget development. On top of that, the district has youth gatherings throughout the year.
But one thing is clear: What works in Portland doesn’t necessarily work in Boise or Eugene.

“(Local leaders) get to decide what it looks like on the ground,” Eckelbarger Salas said. “What happens in Christy’s districts is different than what happens in mine and that’s fine.”

While Eckelbarger Salas has been doing this job for years, Dirren just started her new part-time position – in addition to her local pastor duties – in October and is in the first stages of learning what the churches in the Columbia and Cascadia districts already have going on and what their dreams are for youth ministry.

“The results of what we do will come from what we hear,” Dirren said. “What we want to avoid is throwing programming at youth leaders.”
Many of the churches now have part-time or volunteer lay youth leaders. Dirren said you can’t throw program ideas at some churches because they may not have the resources to meet those program needs.

“We’re doing more of meeting people where they’re at,” Dirren said. “We need to equip, empower and encourage those who are already in the trenches.”

youth receive communionBoth Dirren and Eckelbarger Salas said this new model for youth ministry isn’t a sign the Conference has given up on youth ministry. They see it as the exact opposite. In addition to providing a once-a-year training workshop for local youth leaders, the Oregon-Idaho Conference is providing the opportunity for creative, new concepts for youth ministry.

“It’s not telling everyone what to do,” Eckelbarger Salas said. “Our Conference is really wanting to do something outside of the box.”

Dirren echoed that in these days of “screenagers” (teenagers who were born in the digital age and are connected through electronic devices) it’s important to develop authentic relationships – in whatever ways draw young people closer to God.

“Here’s why we’re not giving up: God has seen all the changes in humanity,” she said. “We are charged with trying to meet people where they are at. How do we bring Christ to them?”