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Youth leader learns ways to address changes in lives of youth

Edie Rice-Sauer has found insights for working with her church’s youth group from her several years of writing grants for the Crosswalk program for street teens as development director at Volunteers of America and from her years of working in youth ministry programs.

Edie Rice-Sauer
Edie Rice-Sauer applies ideas from Crosswalk.

The small group of junior and senior high youth differs from the youth group she grew up in and ones she led in college and seminary, because few are in two-parent, stable families or have funds for common activities.

Seven years ago, when her children—Sophie, now 18 and Josh, now 24—were youth she became youth leader at Covenant Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where her husband, Michael (Redhawk), is pastor.

“I’m probably too old to do youth work, but it feeds my soul, and I think I feed the kids’ hearts,” she said.  “I do it partly because it was done for me and made a difference in my life.”

Edie, however, is experiencing a shift from traditional youth work.  That shift brings a challenge that makes her think the changes may not be unique to youth in her church.

“The shift demands we work with a transformed, creative heart,” said Edie.

“When I was going to Christian Youth Fellowship before I graduated from high school in 1975 in Massillon, Ohio, most of my peers came from fairly stable, economically solid two-parent homes,” she observed.  “Those who didn’t, didn’t come to church, at least not to my middle-class church home in middle America.”

In contrast, many youth coming to Covenant’s youth group have had few healthy group experiences.  Several are from formerly homeless, single-parent families that have participated in the church’s Voiceless Choir.  Some are foster children who move from home to home and still come even if they have to make several transfers on the bus.

“Most haven’t done band, choir or scouts, because their mothers are abuse victims, their families are homeless, or someone at home has a disability.  Group experiences cost more money than they have,” Edie said.

“Basic life skills are often lacking:  Some don’t know how to properly address an envelope.  Passing food around a table doesn’t occur to them unless I suggest it.  Visiting a shut-in is getting into someone’s business.  Interrupting is a way of life.  Starting a fight is an honorable conflict resolution solution in their minds,” she observed.

Among the five to eight youth who attend, “trusting an institution isn’t on their radar,” she said.

Many think church, like school, looks for reasons to find something wrong with them, she noted.

“Some have no money, so activities a youth group might do—ice skating, going to a camp or visiting a theme park—are out of their reach.  It limits who can come,” she said.

Some activities relate readily.

Before the CROP Walk this year, the group set up a tent, a water faucet and a bucket to learn about water use and life in a refugee camp.  For example, she asked how far they would walk for the water they use to drink, and how much water they use to brush their teeth, wash or flush.

At Halloween, their church’s youth prepare a scary house with scary music and smoke machines at Zephyr Camp and Conference Grounds.  They invite other youth groups in the region to come.

Edie has wrung her hands, wishing for the good old days she realizes probably never were. 

How does church respond to new situations, in which it attracts people who crave community and what it has to give?  How does a church make it possible for youth from diverse backgrounds to find church a welcoming place? 

Edie, who graduated in 1979 from Hiram College in Ohio with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and earned a master’s of divinity in 1984 at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., finds youth work today a continual learning process.  She worked in youth ministry at First Christian, her home church in Massillon, and at Hiram Christian Church during college.  In addition, she has led church camps.

Her background also includes work with women in Nashville as an education specialist on peer pressure and decision making at Planned Parenthood and as director of a domestic-violence shelter, followed by 10 years as a county mental health planner after she moved to Spokane in 1993.

At the end of June, she begins as program director at the Women’s Hearth, a drop-in center for women in downtown Spokane, succeeding Mary Rathert, OP, who begins a sabbatical in June.

Edie shared some ideas for youth work.

“Congregations need to budget for youth—for food, camp expenses, bowling and activities,” she said.  “The church can do ministry for youth by helping make things possible for them.  Some youth may disappear, but the fact that the church was in their lives even an instant can change everything.”

The consistent presence from youth group leaders earns trust from youth, when adults in their lives continually change.

“Youth group leadership is not a place for adults to have their needs met.  It’s for youth,” she said, urging adults to avoid playing a savior role or being in control.

For youth who experience inconsistency elsewhere in life, simple, experiential activities provide lessons in life.  For example, Edie often cooks with youth and has them set the table together, sit down and pray before the meal.

“These family-type activities provide training and build community,” she said.

As youth gather and talk, the group needs to be a safe place for them to share about their lives and concerns.  She assures what is said in conversations stays there, unless it’s a danger to self or others, and she discourages gossiping.

“The group needs to be a space where mistakes can happen without leading to a loss of community,” Edie said.  “Youth need space to self-correct without recrimination and space to bow out of things without guilt.  It’s important not to freak out over sexual orientation, tattoos or Goth—black attire, hair and makeup.”

Providing transportation means youth can attend even if they have no car or can’t afford gas.

Edie added that once the way to communicate with youth was to call or mail fliers, but now it’s by texting.

From work at Volunteers of America, she has picked up the idea of being “strength based,” using the Positive Youth Development Philosophy that reminds youth leaders that youth are the experts about their experiences and their varied histories add richness to the church.

The “core competencies of youth development” from that philosophy say that youth gain a positive identity through structure, safety, self worth, mastery, vision, belonging, responsibility, autonomy, self-awareness and spirituality.  They gain abilities by developing physical and mental health to enhance their intellectual, civic, social and cultural abilities, and employability.

“We celebrate successes and accomplishments, especially as they join efforts to give back to the church and community, such as sending cards to shut-ins or participating in community service,” she said. 

“From interacting with youth at Crosswalk, I have learned not to judge youth by their exteriors,” she said, aware that youth who come to church “Goth” may find that style interferes with their ability to relate with adults.

“When I see a youth open up in the group about issues in their lives, I know it’s worth it and I know that creating a safe place—a home—can happen at church and change someone’s life.  It changed mine,” she said.

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