Beloved No Matter What: Reflections on the ELCA Youth Leadership Summit

Dec 23, 2022

By Tracey Breashears Schultz, Bishop’s Associate for Leadership

Avery Applewhite (left) and Jolie Schwartz with Joe Davis, event chaplain

The ELCA Youth Leadership Summit is an annual gathering for high school youth identified as leaders and an adult representative from each synod. The 2022 Summit was held November 3-6 at Camp Carol Joy Holling in Ashland, Nebraska. Youth gathered under the theme “Beloved,” inspired by Colossians 3:12, and they learned to welcome and include others in all situations, promoting diversity and acceptance.

Our synod’s representatives were Jolie Schwartz and Avery Applewhite. Their adult sponsor was Jolie’s mom, Sharon. They are all members at Christ Lutheran in Brenham, where Sharon also serves on staff as high school youth director. Recently, Sharon and Jolie sat down on Zoom with me and shared about their experiences in Ashland in November.

Each day of the Summit, the schedule included worship, games, peer ministry sessions, and evening devotions. Using colors on their name tags, youth were divided into small groups (of 6-7) and family groups (of 10-12), mixed with those from other synods, giving them opportunities to meet and interact with new people. At the end of the week, the event ended with a youth-led talent show.

Jolie got the most out of peer ministry sessions and was eager to tell me about them. She learned to pay attention to body language and emotions in order to pick up on what peers may or may not need. A couple examples she gave are if someone is fidgeting or slouching while you are addressing them, that tells you they may be uncomfortable or not fully engaged. Another example is if you ask someone a question and they change the subject. This can mean they are not willing or able to talk about what you asked them, and “we should respect each other’s boundaries.”

Besides this training, the youth were given the acronym WHEAT, printed out like a business card, as a means to begin a conversation with someone they do not know but wish to know better.

W – where (they’re from)
H – hobbies
E – experiences
A – acquaintances
T – travel

Jolie keeps this card in her phone case and uses it as a “cheat sheet.” She finds this tool has made it “much easier to communicate with new people” and build relationships.

One of the aspects of Summit that impressed both Jolie and Sharon is the event is planned, programmed, and led by a group of eleven high school youth, supported by just two adult leaders. Jolie has applied to join this team next year!

Now that Jolie is home, empowered by what she learned and experienced at Summit, she is even more engaged in her home church than before her trip. She said it has “led me to open up.” (The evening I spoke with her for this article, she was planning to sing a duet at church, which she had not done before. She saw this as an opportunity for leadership).

At Christ in Brenham, Sharon supports the Youth Council, a team of eight high school youth who come up with ideas for youth fundraisers, activities they want to do, and service opportunities. Their creativity has led them to be deeply engaged in their faith and in loving their neighbors. They started a “Bigs & Littles” program which pairs junior high youth with high school youth. Partners have dinner together, get to know each other, and sit together at worship one Wednesday night each month. The Youth Council also created “Amen & Adrenaline,” for which they gather for things like indoor skydiving or theme park rides. Before or after these adventures, they do devotions together, and they talk about their experiences of Jesus in their daily lives. Before Summit, Jolie and Avery were highly involved in youth group, but since Summit, their commitment to leadership has increased.

As we wrapped up our delightful and engaging conversation, Jolie wanted to tell me about opportunities they had at Summit to express themselves and process some of the hard or deep subjects they’d discussed each day. Youth could try writing/journaling, yoga/exercise, or meditation. Jolie chose the writing option and has found herself using it even since she has returned home. With her permission, I am sharing one of her poems.

Summit is different from anything else
All the problems from reality just melts
You are open to be freely you
And feel open to share what you’ve been through
The whole theme was about being beloved
It was shown and proved
They were always hyping you up
While we still remembered the body and cup
We learned about peer ministry
so now we can use it visually
It was like a break with God and His children
All united in one holy building
It was more than amazing
The Holy Spirit was raising
Raising confessions and new ideas
While greatly connecting with other people