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Interview with Julia LeBrell

Julie LebrellBy Thea Mateu

Julia is currently serving on the United Church of Christ Board.  She also serves as the co-chair of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM).  She works with Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and gets paid for being a daycare provider.  In addition to all her responsibilities she is also a returning student.

She shared some of her thoughts on Young Adult ministry at a meeting of the United Church of Christ Board in Cleveland, Ohio.

One of Julia’s observations is that the roles available to young adults were predefined and limited.  She shared some of her experience and her frustration with being boxed into limited roles:

“If you were active in a church as a young adult, they kept asking you if you were going to go to seminary. Which is NOT my calling, at all.  I love it, I’d love to learn more, but that’s not my area of ministry I want to work on.  As I was outspoken about my experience, there was some not negativity, but some criticism that I saw from older members of my conference who were very dismissive of the younger members.  In our attempts to address the issue of youth ministries and outdoor ministries, there were a lot of negative comments about the youth programming and the reoccurring questions was, ‘well what do you want as youth, what do you want as young adults, and we said, we want to keep our camp open.  They said, ‘well, what else do you want?’”  There’s a lot of not active listening.  So I started becoming outspoken in that capacity because I was incredibly frustrated at how dismissive people were.”

Julia shared the example of a young woman who was appointed to be on a budget committee:  “She was really uncomfortable with it but recognized that it was her responsibility to be well informed.  We sat down and reviewed the budget and all the questions and so, when she went in and actually had questions and had comments and was like ‘what about this?’ and ‘how are we doing some of our endowments? Can you clarify what this fund is for?’,  people were completely blown away that someone so “young” could talk about something so serious.  While it was nice to see her be acknowledged for participating, it was deeply frustrating.”

She went on to share her favorite quote, attributed to Albert Einstein:  “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”  She went on to add, “That’s how I feel about a lot of the stuff going on in many aspects of our church which is that they want all this youth participation but aren’t willing to communicate what that means.”

Julia has not been one to stand by and complain, she decided to do something with her frustration:  “After I was nominated to the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries I felt compelled to run a workshop addressing ageism in response to youth and young adults and it was around the idea of ‘how do you minister to youth and young adults?’ And I always open it by asking, how many of you do a youth Sunday, and how many have a youth choir?  And they are like oh we do! And then, how many have a youth on your board of directors?  And usually the hands drop.  How many of you have young adults employed in your church? And it’s usually maybe a couple of people.  And even then, young adult tends to be anyone under 50.”  A year later, Julia was still hearing from people who told her, “we listened to what you said and we hired a young adult to be our young adult minister, and it has been transformative!”

In response to the complaint that churches would like to do more things but haven’t figured out how to bring in youth and young adults, she says, “Don’t bring them in, work with the ones you have!”

One of her passions is working on the, “space and education for youth and young adults to participate in things that they may not have been well-informed of.  If you have a youth position on your board of directors, don’t just throw them in there, you need to mentor them.  The thing is, if you have an outline of how your meetings run, and a general idea of what responsibilities are, and you just have that prepared for the youth, odds are that’s going to address the needs of a lot of other people and it’s just like any other ministry, when you target a need, it will feed a lot more people than just the youth or young adults.”

She argues that the church is missing an opportunity to minister to young adults, “Youth come until they are 18, then don’t come back until they have a family, so we’ll just wait until they have a family and then talk to them about what their needs are and that really misses all those people who either don’t want a nuclear family, that’s not their perception of family, or who are in that gap.  The other is, the fallout once you hit 18 because you can’t participate in the same activities but there’s no bridge until you become like 23-25 and then you can become a youth minister.  If you are not in seminary, maybe you at least want to be a youth minister, which misses all the lay leadership in the church.  It’s one of the things I like about CYYAM is that you don’t drop, you remain in until you reach 30.  Usually, the bottom just drops out.  It’s really hard when you have a support system that is your church and then you lose that and you don’t know where you fit in it but you’re expected to figure it out with no help. “

One of the challenges of being a young adult in the church for her has been that, “you tend to be too progressive, or too focused on activism, and by the nature of the UCC that’s how we draw in a lot of people is by incredible social justice work, but it’s very frustrating when on a local or conference level people are like, ‘well it’s great that you’re sitting here but we don’t want to hear what you have to say.”  And they take it as a challenge.  I’ve been blessed by a small supportive church and I’ve found that when I speak out about certain issues, they are like we are so happy to hear about this, because we’ve been afraid to bring it up because we didn’t want to make waves.’  And the idea that, it’s not just about age, there are needs that need to be met for our young adults, there does need to be a support system when they are not at their home church.”

Julia points to the problem of focus with many churches.  She reports that her least favorite answer to the important question, “why do you want young people?” is, “Because we want their energy.  You’re only asking what we can give, and not what you can give us.”

When asked about where she gets her own sense of spiritual grounding and nourishment, Julia lights up and responds:  “My church is CYYAM and the group that we’ve created, because we have so much respect for each other and understanding of where we come from, but really, the church gives me—when I was away from the church and I was asked to be a delegate, I made a point of saying this is the last big thing I’m going to do for the UCC.  I had been so previously burned by the negativity and being patronized for being a young adult, and being out as gay, and having pushback saying that just being open in a church was too much and a lot of things being asked of me, without giving me a lot, so I made a point of saying, I am going to take full advantage of the stipend I am given, I am going to go to this, do my responsibilities and this is going to be done.  I didn’t feel connected at that point.

Then I got to the national church and realized there was so much social justice work and so many conversations around issues of race and issues of equality and issues of education and equality and I was at this moment as an activist where I felt like I had to save the world, but was overextended and then I realized that the UCC was already trying to save the world, so I didn’t have to try and do it all.”

She shared her reflection on the Ecumenical advocacy day CYYAM participated in around issues of hunger.  “There was some conversation around women’s rights issues regarding like birth control, conversation on abortion, one of the members of the dc office said, it’s really nice when you can go into an office and you don’t have to give economic justification and say look at how much money this saves, and you don’t have to give demographic justification by saying look your constituents are such percentage of this group of people who are protesting something, you don’t have to give any justification except that this is just absolutely wrong.

There’s something about being a faith community where you can, we’re so afraid of making absolute statements but every once in a while we can just say, this is not okay.  That is so powerful because having been an activist since I was a little kid, raging against the system since kindergarten, it’s really nice to just be affirmed and roll with that gut feeling of ‘this is not okay and I don’t need to explain it to you.’  This was reflected at the DC office and reaffirmed that people are doing awesome work everywhere, and even if I’m not physically there with them, they know I am supporting them and vice versa.”

Julia called herself a “UCC junkie” and shared the blessings of her journey with the UCC:  “I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to have my voice reaffirmed when I do speak out at national things, and some other settings, and when I do say things that might be somewhat challenging having people come up to me and say, I don’t know if I agree with you but I love what you’re saying.”

We are fortunate to have Julia’s courageous voice and witness in the United Church of Christ as we live into our commitment to creative and prophetic young adult ministries.

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