Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Junior high conference helps youth address change, while keeping a focus on God

Photo by Glenn Riegel

Junior high youth gather at Elizabethtown College in 
Pennsylvania for the 2015 National Junior High Conference.
By Josh Harbeck

An acorn. Small, ordinary, even insignificant. Yet that small seed transforms into a massive, rooted, solid oak tree.

That transformation was the metaphor for change used by the organizers of the 2015 National Junior High Conference held June 19-21 at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College. The message came through clearly.

In total, 325 youth, advisors, and staff attended the conference and participated in workshops, recreation times, and even a carnival while also sharing meals and worship together.

Theme guides youth through change

The worship sessions each built upon the metaphor of transformation. The theme from the weekend was based on Romans 12:1-2, which, in the Message version, states, “Take your everyday, ordinary life--your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life--and place it before God as an offering.” In addition, the youth were charged to not allow themselves to “become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.”

Organizers of the event, including director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry Becky Ullom Naugle, wanted to acknowledge the changes junior high youth go through and remind them to keep their focus on God.

“We were thinking about different images for change, and the acorn starts so small and so insignificant, but it turns in to this mighty oak tree,” she said. “And we thought that could help the kids see long term. It’s not about how you look or what you have. God’s looking at other things.”

Kristen Hoffman, coordinator of National Junior High Conference and a Brethren Volunteer Service worker, said she wanted the students to feel energized. “We wanted to focus on their gifts and talents and have them fueled by that and ready to go back to their junior highs,” she said.

Preachers share personal stories, challenges

That energizing process began with the opening worship service. Lauren Seganos, a seminarian at the Memorial Church of Harvard University and member of Stone Church of the Brethren in Huntingdon, Pa., had the first opportunity to address the attendees, and she shared a personal story about her time in junior and senior high.

She talked about how much she enjoyed singing and performing and how she would audition for parts in musicals and solos in choir. However, another classmate usually earned those leads and solos. Seganos said she became so discouraged, she turned down an opportunity to sing at a coffee house hosted by her high school during her senior year.

She told the crowd that today, she can look back and see her focus was in trying to be the best rather than accepting the talents and strengths she did have. “We are all made in God’s image,” she said during her message, “but sometimes it’s hard to remember that.”

Putting unrealistic expectations on ourselves is a quick way to lose focus. “We’re in a culture where everyone needs to be the best at everything, and it’s worse today than when I was a child,” she said. “I think it’s important to not focus on being the best necessarily, but focus on what brings you joy because when we’re doing something that comes from our heart, that pleases God.”

Seganos said she was excited when contacted by the conference organizers. “They explained to me the vision for the weekend, with the image of the acorn and how it ties in,” she said. “I love the scripture passage; I actually have a poster of that up on my wall, that verse in the Message translation, and I thought it was so neat that that was the verse they asked me to preach on.”

On Saturday morning the transformation metaphor was expanded when Bethany Theological Seminary academic dean Steve Schweitzer talked about filters. He began by showing what different pictures looked like with different filters, such as different color filters, simple back and white, or even a negative filter. He then talked about the filters through which we see ourselves, or how others see us, or how God sees us. His theme was identity, an important topic for junior high youth.

“This is an age in which the answer to the question about knowing who you are can change every day,” he said. “We have to recognize that God sees us as no one else can and to know that God knows who we are and who we will become, so even when we screw up and get it wrong, God is there to call us into being that which God sees in us.”

Amy Gall Ritchie, a former Church of the Brethren pastor who now works with students at Bethany Seminary, also used pictures and images as part of her message during Saturday night’s worship service. She showed pictures of trees that grew in prevailing winds, trees that have grown more horizontally than vertically. She explained how while we should grow vertically, stretching to God, the prevailing winds of peer pressure can cause any of us to change direction.

She related a powerful story about peer pressure, describing how a group of friends organized a trip to the mall and while there, devised a plan to ditch one person in the group. Knowing what she was doing was wrong, she went ahead with her friends. The plan worked.

Acknowledging her guilt in making a bad choice, she had advice for those in worship that night: “We are going to make bad choices,” she said, “but there is always the next choice. We do not have to carry around our bad choices like a chain of punishment.”

Realizing those next-choice opportunities is the key to avoiding bad choices in the future, not to mention the guilt that comes with them. “If we get discouraged and give up, then we’re in that unproductive place of shame and guilt again,” she said. “And honestly, if I’m going to put my energy into something, I want to put it into goodness.”

Pacific Southwest District moderator Eric Bishop gave the message closing the conference on Sunday morning, building on what previous speakers had said. He challenged the youth to keep in mind what they had heard over the weekend, and challenged the adults as well.

“Yours has to be the just generation,” he told the youth. “We are failing and falling. Each generation, we hope the next will be the change we want and need. If we are going to change, we must help show you how.”

He talked about the mistake some people make in their underestimating of junior high youth. “We tell the youth, ‘You're the future, but [you have to] wait.’ But I think they are not the future; they are a part of the church now. We need to bring them in and listen to them,” he said.

Workshops include Charleston discussion

Between worship sessions, youth and advisors alike had opportunities to unwind or get wound up. Saturday afternoon featured opportunities for sports and recreation, utilizing Elizabethtown’s facilities for kickball, volleyball, and Ultimate Frisbee.

Saturday’s schedule also featured two sessions of workshops, where youth could learn about a wide variety of topics including what Brethren volunteers are doing in Nigeria, how pop culture relates to faith, how not to be a jerk, among many others.

Organizers also saw an opportunity for discussion with the tragic shooting in South Carolina. Bishop offered to facilitate a talk specifically about what happened in Charleston, and also more generally about violence and race. He said it was a good chance to discuss some important topics. “It was primarily advisors, but those are the people who help influence the youth,” he said. “It’s interesting because there was a point where I said, ‘OK, we’ve been here an hour, so you’re welcome to come and go as you need,’ but no one moved.”

All of the discussions and activities took place in large part because of the efforts of the steering committee, which included Dave Miller, Michelle Gibbel, Eric Landram, and Jennifer Jensen. “Anytime at conference when something needed to happen they were always the first ones who said they’d do it,” Hoffman said. That included the Saturday night carnival, featuring activity booths from Brethren Volunteer Service, Global Mission and Service, Bethany Seminary, and McPherson College.

Seth Hendricks led the musical portion of worship, including praise songs and an original work based on the conference’s theme.

All of the activities and fellowship made for a positive experience.

“It’s been a good and healthy place for kids to be over the weekend,” Ullom Naugle said.

-- Josh Harbeck is a high school English teacher and member of Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin, Ill., where he serves as a junior high teacher. 

Glenn Riegel, a photographer and member of Little Swatara Church of the Brethren in Bethel, Pa., has posted albums from the National Junior High Conference at

Source: 6/24/2015 Newsline

Lightsabers and communicating with junior highs: An interview with Bethany dean Steve Schweitzer

Photo by Glenn Riegel

Bethany Seminary dean Steve Schweitzer speaks 
at 2015 National Junior High Conference
By Josh Harbeck

When pondering the best tools to use to communicate with junior high youth, lightsabers may not appear on the top of the list. However, according to Bethany Theological Seminary academic dean and professor Steve Schweitzer, they may have their place.

Schweitzer is teaching a new course at Bethany called “Science Fiction and Theology,” and he brought some of the ideas discussed in that class to a workshop at the National Junior High Conference held June 19-21 at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.

Schweitzer showed clips from the Star Wars and Star Trek movie and television franchises, along with clips from various episodes of the BBC television show “Dr. Who.” Each of these clips had to do with faith, humanity, relationships, and concepts of God.

Why bring topics from a college course to a junior high conference? For Schweitzer, the answer is simple. “This is my favorite age group. I love junior high,” he said. “They’re honest, they ask good questions, and they don’t know yet that those aren’t the questions you’re supposed to ask. There’s a blunt honesty about life that makes you smile.”

Junior high is an important time in the life of an adolescent, a time when many changes are happening. One of those changes is independence that manifests itself partly in choices about entertainment. Authority figures must have an idea about what junior high students are consuming.

“We have to be aware about what's going on culturally and be willing to engage it in productive ways” Schweitzer said. “That doesn’t mean we have to agree with it, but we have to communicate about the truth of the gospel and truth of our faith in ways that make sense.”

Schweitzer brought up the example of Paul and how he tried to minister in the New Testament. “He doesn’t go in and pull out references that no one understands. He talks to them in ways they understand culturally and ways that make sense,” he said. “That’s a huge part of what it means to communicate effectively in our culture.”

That means taking an interest in the interests of students. Those who serve as authority figures have to be able to meet the students on their level. “Think about the young adult dystopian phase right now, like the Hunger Games and Divergent [book series and movies], and if your children are into that, for you not to talk about why this is so appealing and what’s the attraction seems to me a big missed opportunity, whether it's a parent or a teacher or a pastor,” Schweitzer said.

In the end, communication is about honesty. A genuine interest in the interest of the students will bring about real conversations about serious topics. That’s how a discussion of Yoda’s philosophies about the Force in “The Empire Strikes Back” can lead to discussions about faith and the Holy Spirit.

“They want someone who is going to respect them and listen to them and is going to, when they have a question, have a real answer,” Schweitzer said. “Saying, ‘I don't know’ is fine, but [we also say,] ‘This is how I am able to make sense of some of this.’ That authenticity and respect is huge.”

-- Josh Harbeck is a high school English teacher and member of Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin, Ill., where he serves as a junior high teacher.

Glenn Riegel, a photographer and member of Little Swatara Church of the Brethren in Bethel, Pa., has posted albums from the National Junior High Conference at

Source: 6/24/2015 Newsline

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

National Junior High Conference worship will be webcast

Logo for National Junior High Conference 2015
Worship services at the National Junior High Conference taking place this weekend at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College will be webcast. The conference is offered by the Church of the Brethren Youth and Young Adult Ministry. Junior high youth from across the denomination will gather the weekend of June 19-21 for a faith formation experience that will include worship, fellowship, workshops, recreation, and more.

Link to the webcasts at

The conference worship schedule and speakers:
  • Friday, June 19, at 7:15 p.m. (Eastern time): Lauren Seganos, a member of Stone Church of the Brethren in Huntingdon, Pa., is a student at Andover Newton Theological School outside of Boston, Mass. As part of her education, she is a seminarian at the Memorial Church of Harvard University.
  • Saturday, June 20, at 9 a.m. (Eastern): Bethany Seminary dean and professor Steve Schweitzer teaches courses in Old Testament, and a new course on Science Fiction and Theology, at the Church of the Brethren seminary in Richmond, Ind.
  • Saturday, June 20, at 7 p.m. (Eastern): Amy Gall Ritchie works with students at Bethany Theological Seminary, and has been a pastor and spiritual director in the Church of the Brethren.
  • Sunday, June 21, at 9 a.m. (Eastern): Eric Bishop is a member of La Verne (Calif.) Church of the Brethren, moderator of the Pacific Southwest District for 2015, and a graduate of the University of La Verne. He is vice president of student services for a community college in southern California.
For more information about the Youth and Young Adult Ministry, go to

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

2016 Western Regional Youth Conference

Dates have been set for the next Western Regional Youth Conference in 2016, to be held over the Martin Luther King Day weekend, Jan. 15-17, on the campus of the University of La Verne in southern California. The theme will be “Becoming the Beloved Community” (Luke 17:20). Registration, fees, details about leadership, and information on special events will be made available later this summer, said an announcement from Pacific Southwest District.

Source: June 10, 2015 Newsline

Youth and Young Adult Ministry Internship

The Church of the Brethren Youth and Young Adult Ministry is publicizing an opportunity for an individual who is interested in volunteer work to serve with the ministry beginning later this year. This Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) assignment is based at the Church of the Brethren General Offices in Elgin, Ill., and will include opportunity for a young adult to work in a professional environment that is spiritually rooted and serves young people in the Anabaptist and Pietist traditions. Additional opportunities include a communal living situation at the BVS Intentional Community House in Elgin, active mentorship by a member of the Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren, spiritual formation support for individual growth, and administrative experience for national ministry programming. To express interest or for more information contact Becky Ullom Naugle, director of the Youth and Young Adult Ministry, at

Source: June 10, 2015 Newsline