Archives For Youth

Jason Ciarlante

by Jason Ciarlante

I am a 40-year-old Sicilian Methodist born, raised, and residing in Staten Island, New York. Being Sicilian I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, but was saved and called to serve in the United Methodist Church.

So I left behind aspirations of law school, supported my wife’s medical career, and became a stay-at-home father for our two boys, Jason and Joshua. I have recently earned my master of divinity degree from Drew Theological School and am seeking to become a certified candidate within the New York Annual Conference toward deacon’s orders.

I have served as a youth pastor for a year at Vincent United Methodist Church in Nutley, New Jersey, and am currently enrolled in a yearlong clinical pastoral education residency at Eger Rehabilitation and Nursing Home, Staten Island, earning my last three credits toward board certification as a chaplain.

It was in these last two years of chaplaincy that I came to the realization that the deacon track reflected a genuine response to my calling. My growing theology of grace and mission in the world are fully actualized for me in the coupling of the diaconal walk and my work as chaplain. One of the revelations that helped bring this surety to fruition was my love of something very dear to Wesleyan methodology: small groups.

Young Adults: For Us—By Us

My time as a youth pastor at Vincent helped me see this more clearly. As the first youth pastor this church I wanted to build on the group’s already solid foundation. They were eight to ten youth, ages thirteen to sixteen, who attended every Sunday with their parents. I wanted to understand the spiritual and emotional context of this group. I began with a series of questions to get honest answers for how they felt about church: what they liked and disliked, what they would change and why. This gave me a better understanding of where these youths “were” within their own spiritual walks.

Three things were blazingly clear by their answers. First, they found it hard to relate to anything in what they referred to as “their parents’” church. Second, the church itself wasn’t really speaking to them, or at least not speaking their language. Last, if they could change anything, it would be the music and the atmosphere.

I found an empty room in the building that we cleaned and painted. We took old couches we found around the church and created a lounge-type ambiance. Here I invited the youth to create their own space for worship and devotion. The name For Us—By Us was inspired by the popular FuBu clothing line.

At a For Us—By Us gathering, one youth brings in a Bible passage and another brings in a song that they connect with. The only requirement was they had to really feel that song; other than that, they could bring ANY song. The group would each read the biblical passage one at a time and then say what they heard, what they felt, and what they found interesting. Then, the youth who brought a song would briefly explain why they picked it and how they felt about it. Then we all would listen to it. Again, we would each talk about what we heard and how we felt. In this way we heard the scripture and music communally, but each of us was then able to say how it affected them individually as well. This is important because it gave each of them a chance to express themselves and be heard.

This created genuine opportunities for them to identify with each other on a deeper, peer-to-peer level. It offered me the chance to more practically apply the scripture to the context of their lives, thus connecting the practical reality they face every day with our scared text. Many of them would often say later that it was in that connection that they found meaning, hope, and a way to express their faith in a more genuine way. Working with these young adults is something that I will never forget.

Men’s Cigar-Shop Ministry

While serving as a youth pastor I became increasingly aware that I was always seeing and talking with mothers. Where are the fathers, I wondered?

I began by telephoning the fathers. Many replied that they were simply too busy on Sunday mornings with work, leisure activities, or other things. All of them, when pressed, admitted that Sunday worship just wasn’t for them: they did not feel at home there and preferred other ways to find fellowship and connect with the Spirit. Most of these other ways were secular activities that had potential for a deeper, more spiritual atmosphere. Yet rarely did anyone see it that way. In fact, many of them get more spiritual nourishment from the comradery and companionship that comes with activities like meeting at a local cigar shop to have a smoke with good friends.

This gave me the idea to start a men’s group Bible study at a nearby cigar shop. For these meetings I carefully selected Bible passages that would directly relate to and tease out many of the issues men face. Issues of love, sex, and violence, such as found in stories of the rape of Dinah, the Tamar and Judah story, Abraham in Egypt, as well as other scripture portions that are rarely discussed in congregational and other communal settings, as Prof. Danna Nolan Fewell noted in the syllabus for her course “Love, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Bible” at Drew Theological School. I envisioned a circle of comfortable chairs, a smoke-filled room, open Bibles and deep discussions about marital stresses, masculinity, and how men relate to their wives, children, each other, and God.

Many of our conversations at the cigar-shop Bible studies addressed the difficult topics that so many of our religious and political leaders keep pushing folks to have.

They talked about privilege, race, sex, and masculinity, all prompted by the Bible passages we read. The comfortable, masculine atmosphere of the location offset the usual discomfort that often accompany these sacred conversations. The collective trust and comfortable setting allowed the men to tolerate a lot of shared unease about such hard topics.

The men gathered twice monthly for the better part of year. Once we incorporated some locals from the shop, one of whom then came to church one Sunday.

Sinatra & Cannoli

Harbor House, the assisted-living facility related to Eger Nursing Home, asked me to begin a group for the male residents. After talking with many of the men I learned that a majority shy away from the usual bingo or craft activities. These just did not seem “manly” enough for them. I also discovered that a large Italian population resides here. Being Italian myself, I knew that two things are always beloved and never balked at by older Italian men: cannoli and Frank Sinatra.

I decided that the medium would be music, and specifically for this audience and context, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra songs have powerful narratives that touch on many of life’s practical issues. “I Did It My Way,” “That’s Life,” and “You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You” stir up questions and musings about life, faith, and meaning.

Usually, it would have been an uphill battle to get a group like this to discuss such topics. Here the music made space for them to acknowledge some of the 500-pound gorillas in the room. For example, “I Did It My Way” sparked confessions like “my divorce was probably my fault because I did things my way, the [man’s way], and that’s how I lost my wife.” This led to conversation on emotions, patriarchy, marriage, and compromise. “That’s Life,” which in its own way addresses theodicy and the reality of accepting life on life’s terms. The context was made more intimate and more comfortable by the cannoli I brought. This beloved Italian treat evoked a living-room, after-dinner atmosphere that many of them fondly missed.

In our second year we have moved onto other music they’ve suggested: songs that connect them to their wives, who have passed, or their childhood homes and the love they remember there. Some of these songs are from the 1920s and ’30s. When I find them on YouTube and play them, the emotional connection is so strong that many times we all simply just listen in silence or at times we weep together for the days that have gone by. Here, the spiritual awareness has comes in an appreciation of where they are within this life instead of being resentful and ashamed. Many of them have remarked that this group has given them perspective and on where they have come from, where they are going, and perhaps most importantly, where they are today.

The Power of Small Groups

The sense of community in each of these fellowships has shown me the power of small groups. The feeling of belonging and making genuine connections are miraculous. Here it’s OK to cry, laugh, and feel all the feelings that one might otherwise suppress. While in such a group, participants are free to be their genuinely broken but beautiful selves. Brene Brown says in her book on shame, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) (Avery, 2007), “Where gratitude and appreciation live, shame cannot exist.” Furthermore, I believe that with a grateful and appreciative heart, anyone anywhere can open up to find a connection with God.

As a chaplain on the diaconal walk, I am called more and more to create sacred spaces outside the church walls for this very reason. In these moments in those shared sacred spaces I have witnessed endless possibilities to nudge the everyday stories of people’s lives into a deeper connection with God and our scripture.

Jason Ciarlante is pursuing certified candidacy toward deacon’s orders in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Mission to vs. mission with

Deacons —  September 16, 2014

By Erica Koser

In ministry, I am passionate about two things: social justice and youth ministry. As I journey toward commissioning as a deacon, I find that these two passions continue to define my call to ministry and have pushed me to ask some important questions about how we serve others and how we attempt to be in mission with others. What is our driving motivation? Are we offering compassion but forgetting to continue on toward justice? Are our acts of compassion firmly rooted in a life of discipleship?

Erica Koser cropped

Erica Koser

In my ministry as youth director, one of the cornerstones is the short-term mission trip. I start receiving glossy fliers in my mailbox about this time of year, encouraging me to gather my youth and jet off to a tropical locale to serve others while having the adventure of a lifetime. The brochures are full of pictures of happy teens beaming at the camera and holding paint brushes, next to headlines that proclaim that these youth are changing the world.

Oh, were it that simple! What the brochures don’t show is the impact that our invasion may be having on the local community.

An old proverb says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” An issue with many short-term mission trips is that we spend most of our time handing out fish. Week after week a new group brings fish—sometimes brightly colored fish, sometimes fish presented with a song and dance—but it’s always fish. The people receiving the fish smile and thank the givers of the fish only to turn and throw the fish in to the trash because nobody took the time to discover that the community can’t use fish. Robert Lupton, in his book Toxic Charity (HarperOne, 2012), lists these misperceptions of many mission trips:

“Contrary to popular belief, most mission trips and service projects do not:

  • Empower those being served
  • Engender healthy cross cultural relationships
  • Improve local quality of life
  • Relieve poverty
  • Change the lives of participants
  • Increase support for long-term mission work

Contrary to popular belief, most mission trips and service projects do:

  • Weaken those being served
  • Foster dishonest relationships
  • Erode recipients work ethic
  • Deepen dependency”
A short-term memory

Handing out fish can challenge us in the moment, but later, after we have washed the fishy smell from our hands, it is too easy to resume life as we know it, and the time, the money, and the effort we have spent on our short-term mission trip doesn’t have the effect on the community or on the youth that we desired.

As deacons called to a ministry of word and service, I think we are uniquely equipped to shift this paradigm and find ways that we ground our acts of compassion in a life of true discipleship.

I studied this issue intently as I wrote my graduate thesis. How do we engage in mission in such a way that we go out and make disciples in the world while also deepening our own discipleship? How do we live out John Wesley’s three General Rules to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God (as Bishop Rueben Job words it)? I have found that if we shift to an attitude of accompaniment and ground it firmly in the cornerstones of covenant discipleship, we can facilitate and nurture the kind of discipleship we are called to in the great commission.

This past year I began using the cornerstones of covenant discipleship with our confirmation class. As the youth became more comfortable with working their way around the Jerusalem cross each week, sharing their acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion, they began to see how each strand wove together to deepen their understanding of discipleship. Compassion could not happen without also looking towards justice and understanding how mission and service were thin without practices of worship and devotion. They began to see that as they accompanied each other, they learned from one another as well as challenged each other. The seeds that were planted in the youth room were ready to be harvested and re-sown on the short-term mission trip.

Working alongside

For the past three summers, our youth group has traveled to Harvest Farm in Colorado. Harvest Farm is an addiction recovery farm on the plains of Northern Colorado. They serve a population of men who have been homeless or incarcerated and have lived a life of addiction. The men come to the farm to work the land, learn about the unconditional love of God, and begin to see a different way to live. And while it may seem an odd place to bring a group of youth for a mission experience, it has been a place that has changed us all for the better. This year, the youth arrived with a clearer picture of mission. They were not there to simply hand out fish. They were there to stand in the water with the other and to fish together. The water we stood in took the shape of dairy barns and pastures, corn fields and goat pens. The youth worked alongside the men, listening to their stories and sharing some of their own. Issues of homelessness and addiction began to take on names and faces—and acts of compassion led to ways to address injustices.

As we have returned home, we have continued to accompany the men from the farm. We have exchanged letters, held each other in prayer, and shared the ways in which we saw God at work during our week together. Our trip certainly wouldn’t have made a glossy brochure but God’s work often isn’t glamorous.

As deacons we are called to take the church out into the world, and in so doing we are called to ask the hard questions. Who are we serving? How are we serving? Is the work we are doing weaving together the threads of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion? There is a rich tapestry waiting to be woven as we accompany the other as Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.

Erica Koser is a certified candidate for ordained ministry (deacon track) in the Minnesota Annual Conference. She is director of children, youth, and family ministry at Centenary United Methodist Church in Mankato, Minnesota.

By Rev. Donnie Shumate Mitchem

I am an ordained deacon in the Western North Carolina Conference. I am in primary appointment as a psychologist who works with adolescents with mental health diagnoses in a Title One middle school (over 75 percent of the children in the school receive free or reduced- price lunch).

What place do I have in ordained ministry?

This was the question that I struggled with for years. I felt a call into the ministry; I would spend hours looking

Donnie Mitchem (third from right) joined other deacons on the 2014 Wesley Pilgrimage in England, led by the General Board of Discipleship.

Donnie Mitchem (third from right) joined other deacons on the 2014 Wesley Pilgrimage in England, led by the General Board of Discipleship.

at seminaries on line and then delete my viewing history because I did not want anyone else seeing this! But I did not feel that my call was to lead a church and to preach every week. Because of this I spent many years just thinking I was crazy and that there was no way that God was calingl me into the ordained ministry. Then through a series of unfortunate events, job loss, worries and lots of prayer I found myself in the office of Kathleen Kilbourne at Pfeiffer University reading paragraph 328 in the Book of Discipline: “Deacons fulfill servant ministry in the world and lead the Church in relating the gathered life of Christian to their ministries in the world . . .and lead the congregations in interpreting the needs, concerns and hopes of the world.” Ministry does not just have to happen in the church! My heart soared!

But wait—is this really ministry?

I went to seminary, I studied, I went to district committees on ministry and Boards of Ordained Ministry and passed tests and exams. But for a part of that time I think I felt like I “wasn’t a real minister.” I wasn’t working in the church like many of my colleagues and I wanted to defend my status or try to make myself legitimate to others in the ministry. Through prayer and reading and seeking God’s direction, I am now able to see my work ALL my work as ministry. A pivotal turning point was hearing Adam Hamilton speak about Church of the Resurrection and how they write letters and pray for teachers in their area. I felt a little spark inside me. This is something I could make happen in my community. Could it be that my call is to connect the church to the school? Is this even possible in this day and age?

And so it began

Today, I still get up five days a week and go to school and do individual therapy, group therapy, and family therapy. But I go to a school where every teacher receives cards from church members saying they are praying for them; this has been happening for three years. I go to a school where every sixth grader gets a book bag filled with school supplies that church members have packed and prayed over. I go to a school where we church members have cleaned the desks in the classrooms and prayed for the teacher and students who meet in those rooms.

Donnie Michem and children 2014 croppped

Donnie with children served by the church.

I now know that my distinct call is to connect the church that I worship in to this school that is less than a mile from our church. My church states that it wants to be a beacon for Christ in our community. To do this the church must go out into that community and find the needs in that community.

One story of transformation

One of the many things that I lead the church in doing is showing faith-related movies on Friday nights throughout the school year. We provide dinner, a movie and discussion. While I was cleaning up after we showed the film Unconditional, a parent came up to me and said, “Thank you so much for this movie.” “You’re welcome; glad you came,” I responded. But then she said “No, you don’t understand. God drew me here to hear this message. My husband died last year. This year my son died. I did not have any hope in the world and God drew me here to hear this message.” God uses this ministry in the cafeteria of a local school to draw people back to him.

Yes, this really is ministry

God calls the deacon out into the world to do ministry in ways that others are maybe confused about. But God calls us still. God calls us to use distinct gifts to lead the world to a Christ that heals, loves, and provides hope. Deacons who are called to do ministry beyond the walls of the church may struggle for a bit to try and see how they fit into the picture. You will have to stop and explain your ministry a few thousand times. But I believe that there is a place for us in the picture. It may require us taking a step back and looking at things a little differently but when we are faithful to God’s call GREAT things for the Kingdom happen.

Donnie’s secondary appointment is to Christ United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C.