Post Author: Shannon E. Sullivan
An eleven-year-old stood behind a rough wooden podium on the side of a mountain at Henderson Settlement, a United Methodist mission site in Kentucky. Her back was straight, her face calm and fierce, and she called us to our morning devotion first with a song. She looked to an adult who was with her to help lead the songs, but she did not invite him to stand with her. She didn’t need him to: she filled the space with a powerful presence all alone. After singing, she opened her Bible and began to read from the sixth chapter of Isaiah.
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’”
She opened her journal, set it on top of the open Bible, and looked at us before beginning to preach. Because that’s what it was: preaching. She challenged us with the Good News, reminding us why we were there on a mission trip and pointing not to our service, but to God. Her reading was not particularly new, but it was her confidence, her assurance that struck us and inspired us. “Here I am; send me!” she read, closing her devotion by repeating the scripture. Then she closed her journal and looked at us. “Here we are; send us,” she said in benediction.
This summer, there has been an article floating around young clergywomen circles detailing how important it is for young girls to see women in leadership in churches. The article is based on a book by Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin called She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America. They argue that seeing women in leadership in churches has a positive impact on girls and young women in those churches later in life. I wondered who the role models were for the eleven-year-old who led us in our devotion. But I also began to wonder – why don’t I have more eleven-year-olds as my own role models?
I spent most of the summer doing mission work and working with children and youth, and over and over again I would watch adults volunteer to pray, instead of waiting for young people to volunteer. I would watch adults ignore or question youth leaders. These older adults did not deny leadership to young people maliciously, but they seemed to be so keen on modeling discipleship that they forgot that they have much to learn about discipleship themselves. I have spent so much energy in my own ministry proving that I, as a young clergy woman, actually can lead, saying, “Here I am!” I realized that I still need to make a more conscious effort to allow myself to be led by young people, to make space for those eleven-year-old preachers and teachers in my life.
I realized this need to make space post-March for Our Lives, the powerful visual reminder of all the work young people are doing in the wake of incredible violence in our schools. I had cheered Emma González, shared Naomi Wadler’s words on social media, and yet still I was surprised, sitting on the side of the mountain that day, at the way this girl was filled with the Holy Spirit. And so I knew, I had some work to do. And I suspect you do as well.
With the beginning of the school year and the programmatic year at many of our churches, now is the perfect time to make space to be led by young people. It isn’t hard to make that space, either.
In church, ask young people to be more than acolytes! We need to wonder at the gifts of our young people and invite them to serve – even if that means our existing structures and norms might be changed by those gifts. Your church may be more traditional with a lectern too tall for a young person to reach. But if you have a child interested in reading or performing scripture, then stop using the lectern. You may be nervous about giving a microphone to a fifth grader, but when she has expressed a desire to lead the congregation in prayer, let her, even if she sometimes forgets what she is saying at the end of the prayer and closes with, “Well God, you know what I mean.” You know what? God does know what she means!
Find out the hidden talents of youth and young people. Does anyone like to draw? Invite them to design a bulletin cover. Does anyone dance? Have them dance a solo one day. Invite youth and children to be writers for church-wide devotionals.
But most importantly, no matter if you are in church or just in community with young people, ask questions and listen to the responses. Not simple questions about favorite things to do in the summer. Ask them about their favorite stories and why those stories are favorites. Ask them about their dreams and fears. Ask them about refugees and how we can help. Or ask about anything really —bullying, homelessness, immigration, grief. Young people can lead us from conversation into action, if we only engage them or respond to their attempts to get our attention.
The voice of God says to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Some of those people who have responded to God are children. And we have a lot to learn from them.
On our mission trip, we shared our reflections on the week with one another, and someone lifted up the girl who had led us in worship the first day. “These kids,” one man said, “they are the future of the church.”
“No,” I corrected him.“They are our present. We should be listening to them here and now.” So let’s start making space and paying attention.
 Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, “It’s good for girls to have clergywomen, study shows,” 17 July 2018
Rev. Shannon E. Sullivan is a life-long feminist and United Methodist currently serving the community of Frederick, Maryland, as the associate pastor of Calvary. She is a proud graduate of Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey.
She is married to Aaron Harrington, her high school sweetheart, who is a pilot, aerospace engineer, and general aviation geek. They have no living children but have filled their home with cats, a boxer puppy, and chickens in addition to mountains of books and airplane parts. When they are able, they travel and enjoy the beauty of God's creation from National Parks to ancient cathedrals and bustling marketplaces.
Image by: Shannon E. Sullivan
Used with permission