News about faith involvement in America is often grim. Religious and mainstream media have recently reported on the decline of Christianity in America. Churches that averaged 400 to 500 members each Sunday are seeing more and more empty pews, according to a number of denominations. Church leaders say their membership is aging with fewer young people to fill in the gaps.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is looking to its younger members to build the next generation of leaders in hopes of slowing the decline and reversing those trends. Over the years, PC (USA) leaders have committed resources and personnel for its Young Adult Volunteers (YAV) program and other ministries impacting youth.
For several years now, the Office of Public Witness (OPW) has been working to engage young Christian women and men with opportunities in public and social witness advocacy on one of the largest public stages in the world, Washington, D.C.
“Three years ago, we identified two significant challenges for our office. The first aimed to show that the OPW seeks to serve the whole church, not just a self-selected affinity group,” said the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of OPW. “The second was how to balance the richness of our past with the promise of our future. It is clear to me that outreach to, and service with, young adults is essential in meeting both challenges.”
The OPW began offering two programs aimed at engaging future leaders: Summer Fellowship and Internship. Summer Fellows take part in public witness ministry through an assigned issue or portfolio of issues. During the program, Summer Fellows serve full-time for a set period of 10 weeks. Undergraduates or seminary students seeking academic credit for their service may serve as a Summer Fellow or as Interns during the fall, spring or full academic year, but no less than 10 weeks. The OPW has relationships with a number of seminary field education programs.
“The service learning opportunities we offer seek to provide substantive, formative work and guidance for persons seeking experiential learning and vocational discernment where the church meets the public square,” said Leslie Woods, representative for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues and coordinator of the young adult service learning programs for the OPW. “Each Intern and Fellow receives a broad experience of the ministry of Public Witness and has the opportunity to explore the connections between their work and their own faith journey.”
Working with partner organizations, OPW welcomes young adults into service learning situations through programs such as the PC (USA) Young Adult Volunteer Program in D.C., National Capital Presbytery D.C. site, the Congressional Hunger Center’s Bill Emerson Hunger Fellowship, the American Studies Program of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities and other higher education institutions.
“A significant challenge has been recruitment. We are experiencing a notable lack of diversity in applications – racial/ethnic, gender and socioeconomic diversity,” added Woods. “Despite having increased the Summer Fellowship living expense stipend, we have not seen the increase in diversity that we hoped.”
Woods said the challenge is now a part of new recruitment efforts, seeking to meet students and other young adults from a variety of backgrounds. The OPW is also calling on churches to identify future leaders, inviting young adults of color and those who are or have experienced poverty to consider the programs as opportunities for professional development.
Ginna Bairby works with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and is managing editor of Unbound, the church’s online social justice journal. She served as a Summer Fellow for International Issues at the OPW in 2011.
“My work at OPW advocating for justice and human rights introduced me to a new type of ministry that really resonated with the broader understanding of God I gained while working in Peru as a Young Adult Volunteer,” she said. “The ministry of public witness, of raising your voice for those who cannot be heard, of speaking the truth of God’s love and liberation to those who might otherwise oppress, was exactly what I needed.”
Bairby said she returned to seminary after her OPW Summer Fellowship with a newly invigorated call to ministry and a broader understanding of what ministry is. She credits the fellowship at the OPW for redefining her understanding of ministry and showing how to engage her experience and passion for service to the church.
Bairby is one of many young church leaders who have participated as an Intern or Fellow with the OPW. Debbie Dyslin served as a Summer Fellow in 2012 and credits her time with the OPW for shaping her spiritually and vocationally.
“Faith and social justice are two of the most important things to me,” Dyslin said. “This fellowship helped me to explore how those two passions can be lived out vocationally in faith-based advocacy.”
After completing a summer fellowship in 2012, Daniel Williams returned to his home state of New Mexico, where he worked to re-elect President Obama and focus on other social issues.
“My work with the Office of Public Witness gave me real skills and a new vocabulary to integrate justice-centered advocacy into my life of faith,” he said. “It confirmed for me what my heart had known: that advocacy – whether in the form of speaking truth to power on Capitol Hill or grassroots organizing in our communities – offers fresh opportunities to joyfully live into renewed discipleship to Christ.”
AmyBeth Willis is currently serving her second Young Adult Volunteer year in the Office of Public Witness.
“After a year of providing ‘direct services’ to people with immediate needs, I wanted an opportunity to engage in policy work and understand how policy impacts the day-to-day lives of people,” she said. “How do we move from mercy to justice ministries? Here, I have learned about the amazing work of this office and our ecumenical partners. The voice of justice and righteousness on the Hill would be so much smaller without people of faith. I have learned that his work is an uphill battle but is worth the climb.”
Since 2012, as many as 18 young adults have served in the Office of Public Witness as Summer Fellows, Interns, Emerson Hunger Fellows or Young Adult Volunteers. OPW staff report the group has worked more than 8,600 hours during this time. Of the 18 participants, eight have received academic credit for their service.
For more information about Internships and Fellowships through the OPW, please visit: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/washington/internship/.
To view the OPW’s new Young Adult Engagement Report, 2012-2015, visit their blog at http://officeofpublicwitness.blogspot.com/2015/04/young-adult-engagement-report.html.