Kentucky tri-presbytery event helps youth connect as the body of Christ
LOUISVILLE – Although 15-year-old Grace Reck usually can’t wait to try new things, when given the chance last year to attend her first churchwide youth conference at Montreat, she dragged her feet.
For a minute.
Ever since then, the first-year high school student has jumped at every opportunity to lean in — including “Belonging Together,” a fall youth retreat held in November 2022 at Camp Loucon in Leitchfield, Kentucky, by the state’s three presbyteries.
“For both Grace and her twin sister, Emma, Montreat last summer was a pivotal experience in their faith journey,” said the Rev. Tara N. Reck, pastor of Anchorage Presbyterian Church, where her husband and daughters are members. “They dreaded going [to Montreat], but after experiencing it, loved it and can't wait to go back this summer. When the Camp Loucon experience was presented to Grace by our associate pastor John Kupar, she did not hesitate to sign up to go along with our youth group.”
“Belonging Together,” which attracted Reck and a diverse group of sixth to 12th graders from across the Commonwealth of Kentucky, was planned and programmed by Leslee Kirkconnell, Terry Hargrave and the Rev. Hannah McIntyre, representing the presbyteries of Western Kentucky, Mid-Kentucky and Transylvania respectively.
Kirkconnell, a certified educator and ruling elder in the Presbytery of Western Kentucky, explained that the 2022 tri-presbytery youth event traces back to a series of meetings held in 2017–18 that resulted in an initial gathering of teaching and ruling elders in 2018. The three presbyteries’ collective vision was to gather Kentucky Presbyterians annually for fellowship, learning and worship, with pastors/elders and youth meeting in alternating years to build relationships.
“All our events have built up the body of Christ in our worship, keynote, small groups and table fellowship,” Kirkconnell said. “This event with its theme of ‘Belonging Together’ emphasized the very real bonds we have as humans, as Christians, as Presbyterians. We learned these bonds must be nurtured and encouraged always — that relationships are so important, but they do take work. Our leader, Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, was excellent at helping the youth connect their lives in middle and high school to belonging and how we can be deliberate in including those who might not feel they belong.”
It was a message that resonated with Grace Reck.
“I really liked Alonzo Johnson, the speaker,” she said. “He was good at connecting with us, and he was fun.”
Not only do gifts to the Pentecost Offering benefit young people like Grace by supporting the Office of Presbyterian Youth and Triennium, but the offering also helps to fund the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Young Adult Volunteer Program and the Educate a Child, Transform the World national initiative.
Forty percent of the Pentecost Offering is retained by individual congregations for local ministries in their communities, while the remaining 60% is used to support children at risk, and youth and young adults through ministries of the Mission Agency.
Although the Pentecost Offering may be taken anytime, most congregations receive it on Pentecost Sunday, which this year falls on May 28.
Offering innovative, creative and collaborative ways to bring Presbyterian youth together in the wake of the Covid pandemic — which led to the cancellation of both the 2022 Presbyterian Youth Triennium (PYT) and a Kentucky tri-presbytery youth event originally planned for 2019 — is a goal of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s office of Presbyterian Youth and Triennium.
“We actively encourage mid councils, churches, caucuses and youth groups to use this post-Covid time to gather, to experience community again with young Presbyterians and those that care about them,” said Gina Yeager-Buckley, associate for Youth and Triennium. “But here is what I know and trust — when young people gather together away from the ‘norm’ and they have space to talk and pray and listen and tell their stories, they build up the body of Christ in a way that is truly special because it is done with youthful pragmatism, energy and a heart that seeks action!”
To support congregations and mid councils in programming their own events such as “Belonging Together,” the office of Presbyterian Youth and Triennium published four free online resource guides with the Matthew 25-inspired theme “When Did We See You?,” so that youth and their leaders can participate in their own way and at their own pace.
For Kirkconnell, the “Belonging Together” event served to lift up the Matthew 25 vision in its mission to seek “to demonstrate as people of God we have a true calling to address division, exclusion and all that goes against the love of Jesus Christ in our world.”
“Alonzo [Johnson] used wonderful and salient stories from his life and how he learned about — and practices — inclusion from his perspective as a Black man, and the challenges that entails,” said Kirkconnell. “He skillfully connected it to what youth deal with daily: feeling left out of activities, being bullied and how we as Christians, as a church, can and should do better.”
Participants also enjoyed games designed to build teamwork, after which they spent some time talking about how those games affected their thinking.
“When the question was asked, ‘How many of you made new friends this weekend?,’ every hand went up, youth and adult,” Kirkconnell said. “The connections we have as the PC(USA) are important, and while youth are just beginning to understand that, the adults were excited for their groups to meet each other as well as form bonds with other adults.”
Among those important connections are the mid council partnerships, which played such a key role in the success of “Belonging Together.” — the three Kentucky presbyteries and the Synod of Living Waters, which contributed funding.
Yeager-Buckley added that the Presbyterian Youth and Triennium office could not do what they do without their excellent, giving and active mid council partners. “They care so much about our young people,” she said. “They are a gift that also builds up the body.”
As does the Pentecost Offering.
“This offering enables young people to be included in some beautiful formation adventures that allow them to shine as well as helps them lead us as a church, encouraging us to let go of our sometimes impacted adult patterns. It also is a way for us to cast our vote and show our dedication to fulfill our baptismal vows because this offering directly funds those who are developing and forming their faith in Jesus Christ.”
That’s something that is already evident in Grace Reck’s young life.
“I liked connecting with the younger people from church and other churches,” she said. “It is important that Presbyterians give money to support programs like the one we had at Loucon so that youth can continue to go on retreats there and have the experience I had.”
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By giving to the Pentecost Offering, your congregation participates in helping our children, youth, and young adults grow up to proclaim with the Psalmist, "O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds."