It’s all about the kids

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SDC invests in youth with new district youth minister

By Myra Holmes

Youth are a big deal in the Southern District Conference (SDC), the branch of the U.S. Mennonite Brethren family tree that includes Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Colorado. The district-run camps and youth conferences are not only the most extensive in the USMB family but also represent some of the largest USMB gatherings, bar none.

Now the district has upped their investment in youth by hiring a half-time district youth minister, Russ Claassen. In his new role, Claassen will provide plan youth events and serve as pastor to youth workers.

A district youth minister (DYM) is not a new idea in the SDC. Wendell Loewen served in that role for nearly 10 years in a quarter-time capacity until he resigned in summer of 2009 to expand his responsibilities at Tabor College, the MB school in Hillsboro, Kan. With a shift to a half-time DYM, the district is clearly communicating that youth are still a priority.

“Anything we can do to connect kids to Christ will make a difference for the future of our churches,” says Christy Goentzel, chair of the district’s Youth Commission. She points out that the SDC has seen the dividends of their investment as youth events have grown exponentially and local youth programs have been strengthened. As the district youth ministry has grown, so has the need for a resource for youth workers—a key reason the district has increased the position from quarter to half time. In a unique arrangement, Claassen will serve half-time as DYM and half time as youth pastor at Koerner Heights Church, the MB congregation in Newton, Kan.

Claassen is no stranger to youth ministry or to district youth ministry. Before embarking on this new adventure Jan. 1, he served as youth pastor at Corn (Okla.) MB Church for almost 12 years and on the district youth commission for about six years.

“It was just obvious he was the right guy,” says Goentzel. She lists his demonstrated commitment to the district youth as one of many reasons he ended up on the Youth Commission’s short list.

Claassen’s passion for youth is quickly evident as he talks about the opportunities for genuine, life-changing ministry during these critical years. “There’s a huge opportunity to give direction and meaning to their passion and energy, and there’s an openness to exploring God,” he says. His personal highlights in youth ministry involve relationships in which he’s walked alongside teens that have made God their passion and directed their energy toward serving him. It doesn’t get sweeter than that, he says, not even at SDC’s summer camps or at the hugely popular district youth conventions.

Claassen and Goentzel hope that the increased DYM hours will allow Claassen to invest more deeply in the youth workers, both paid and unpaid, throughout the district. Claassen says that when he was youth pastor at Corn MB, the DYM was a resource and encouragement to him. “I always felt like I could call (Wendell Loewen),” he says, whether for expertise in youth trends or for advice on personal and ministry matters. Claassen hopes to become that kind of accessible resource and encouragement for youth pastors and to expand opportunities for face-to-face relationship building.

Those relationships are one of the strengths of SDC’s youth ministry, whether between youth workers, between adults and youth or between the youth themselves. Youth workers network at learning opportunities such as the youth worker intensive, students build relationships over years of attending camps together, and congregations use district youth events as ways to invest in and support their young people. Each of those relationships provides companions, guides and encouragers for students along their spiritual journey.

“Those connections are vital,” Claassen says.

He says that, although each young person’s journey is unique, he hopes that through involvement in district youth ministry, each student will have a foundation for a lifetime of “falling in love with Jesus more and more every day.” He notes that youth ministry, whether at a congregational or district level, is not a sprint with quick results but a marathon, a lifelong journey. His hope is that involvement in SDC youth ministry will be “a part of the journey that inspires the remainder of the journey” for youth.

It’s not a journey without obstacles, Claassen points out. Since youth tend to be on the leading edge of cultural changes in thinking and attitude, youth ministry must stay current. It’s a challenge Claassen recognizes as one of the biggest for himself as DYM and for youth ministry in general. “We want to be sure that we continue to be relevant in proclaiming the eternal truth of God’s Word and the message of Jesus in a real way, an effective and efficient way, to the youth of today and tomorrow,” he says.

To address that challenge, Claassen will read, keep in touch with key people at the MB schools and stay connected with those involved in youth ministry. And here, the dual nature of Claassen’s new position will be an asset: as he works as youth pastor at Koerner Heights, he’ll stay “in the trenches,” as Goentzel says. Far from youth ministry being theoretical, he’ll be living it.

“I get to stay on the front lines, in the middle of the lives of youth,” Claassen says. Clearly, there’s no place he’d rather be.

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