We sat down with graduate residents Erin Hicks and Mitch Toler to talk next steps, time with CYMT, and what they learned during their three years in the program.
How has CYMT helped you and your ministry at your church?
Erin: When I started CYMT, I moved to a new state and a new city where I knew no one. The first few months of a new ministry are especially difficult, I believe, and having my coach Tony Akers along with the support system at CYMT has been incredible. I can brainstorm with my classmates ideas for how to solve a problem, or how to take an idea and develop it.
Mitch: CYMT has helped to develop me in so many ways, which, in turn, helps me develop the youth ministry at Rehoboth UMC. Specifically, I have learned to be better organized and more thoughtful when it comes to planning events and programs. At this very moment, my youth council is thinking through the purpose of Youth Sunday and how we might make it better.
Can you share a story about a class or class experience that you remember being helpful or that challenged you?
Erin: Every class has had some impact on me, and whether or not it was a youth ministry class specifically, I have been able to have conversations with my classmates and professors as to how to tie it into youth ministry. The Mission of the Church class I took was both challenging and helpful. It was challenging because at points I would think, “Why isn’t the church doing this?” and get extremely aggravated, but overall it helped me to realize that I need to trust my youth more and figure out how to equip them to do ministry in the various aspects of their lives.
Mitch: Last spring the youth ministry class I took was Advanced Studies in Youth, Church and Culture, and we learned how to use practical theological methods to think about our ministries and our culture. I constantly think through the different steps when I consider different aspects of my church as a whole.
How has your coach guided you?
Erin: Tony Akers has been a rock for me, encouraging me along the way as well as challenging me. He has been family for me when I needed family. When I felt lost as to what to do next, he helped me to discern what to do next. Tony is someone I look up to and respect on so many levels.
Mitch: Lesleigh Carmichael has been the most incredible coach. I came into the CYMT program a total mess. I was disorganized, prideful, a terrible planner, etc., and Lesleigh has whipped me into shape. I’m not perfect, but I am doing much better in those areas. She has laughed with me and cried with me. She has helped me to see through the fog of frustration and disappointment. For me, though, the best thing she has done is tell me that I’m normal. Any time I felt defeated Lesleigh would look at me and say, “Mitch, it’s normal for people in your shoes to struggle with this. Now let’s work on making it better.” To have someone who knows what she is talking about tell me that I’m not a total failure and to not give up on me has saved me from a lot of bitterness and anger and has kept me from throwing up my hands and walking away from local church ministry.
How has having a cohort of other fellow graduate residents has helped you?
Erin: The CYMT community is amazing, period. My first day of classes my first year at CYMT, I found out that my grandmother had passed away. CYMT was that family and support system that I needed from the get-go, and they have continued to be that for me. There’s always one person (whether a current student or an alum) who’s willing to talk, or to offer a laugh when you need one.
Mitch: We are on a journey together! We are all trying to figure out how to do faithful youth ministry in our respective churches. When one person is having a rough time with something there’s a very good chance that someone in the program has successfully navigated that road and is happy to help you through. The body of Christ is modeled in a very special way at CYMT.
What has your CYMT experience meant to you?
Erin: CYMT has equipped me to go forward to better serve youth, knowing that I will always have this community to turn to.
Mitch: I don’t think I would still be in local church ministry if it hadn’t been for CYMT. I have been challenged intellectually and spiritually, and I have many great friends and mentors to help me along in my journey.
What is next for you after graduation?
Erin: Upon graduation I will stay at my church through mid-July before leaving. It was a difficult decision for me because my youth are my kids, and I love them so much. However, I received an opportunity to complete a Masters of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary, and after much prayer and conversation, I decided that Princeton was to be my next home. Of course, I’ve already started reminding my youth that they’re supposed to always keep in touch with me so that I can see what God is continuing to do in their lives.
Mitch: After graduating I plan to stay at my church and continue to build upon the foundations that have been laid.
Erin Hicks serves at Epworth United Methodist Church in Huntsville, Ala., and Mitch Toler serves at Rehoboth United Methodist Church in Gallatin, Tenn.
CYMT is proud to announce the expansion of our original initiative into Theology Together 2.0. CYMT aims to develop a curriculum to be used in local congregations and ministries. Taking what we have learned about engaging youth in deep theological reflection during missional experiences and embedding those processes into congregational youth ministries.
"I hope students come away from my courses with the ability to think more deeply, richly and theologically about their youth ministry practice. I think a lot of what happens in youth ministry happens unreflectively and can be deforming to young people, and my courses are intended to give students a theological framework for evaluating and reforming their youth ministry practice."
Of course, I want students to drink deeply from the academic readings, lectures and discussions, and I want them to be informed by the academics. But more than that, I want them to see that youth ministry is a calling of God, an important part of God’s mission in the world, one that should give them pride and evoke humility at the same time.