The Yale Divinity School joined forces with the Yale Youth Ministry Institute last week, creating a partnership that seeks to educate communities about faith ministry that focuses on adolescents.
In an April 8 email, YMI — a campus program that hosts lunches and lectures about how to reach high school students through the Christian faith — announced it is officially integrating into the Divinity School. While the school previously hosted YMI events, the new partnership expands the resources available to Divinity School students. According to divinity students interviewed, YMI helps connect Yale with religious communities across New England, emphasizing the importance of caring for youth in the church.
“[YMI] creates ongoing community of sharing and learning and support I think a lot of us have come to rely on,” said Taylor Bolton DIV ’16, who works with YMI. “It creates these relationships across what would otherwise seem to be barriers, but we have been brought together through this shared mission of helping our youth.”
According to YMI Founding Director Rev. Harold Masback, YMI’s monthly events connect Divinity School students with acclaimed theologians and provide resources to community members from in and around New Haven who might not otherwise be able to learn about youth ministry. While collaboration between the Divinity School and YMI began through a series of lectures in 2012, YMI was never officially part of the larger institution. Then, in 2015, after a philanthropic organization gave a $4.2 million grant to the Divinity School’s Yale Center for Faith and Culture, Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling decided to formally bring YMI under the school’s wing.
Around $1.3 million of the total grant — which sponsors a three-year research project into a “theological account of joy and the good life” — is set aside for research specifically focused on the flourishing of adolescents, which overlaps with YMI’s mission. Through the grant, YMI will now be training youth-group leaders through a series of summer conferences that address concerns like suicide or eating disorders using faith.
Masback founded YMI — formerly known as the Youth Ministry Initiative — after his experience with leading a youth group in New Canaan, Connecticut where he said he witnessed “suffering” among adolescents and fewer young people involved in church communities.
“We are not caring for our kids well enough,” Masback said. “They aren’t participating in our churches, they are not being brought up in the faith because we are not presenting the faith with passion and creativity, so our numbers are going down. As our numbers are going down and the young people are not in our church, they are out there in these highly competitive places where they are evaluated and appreciated based on their performance … And the answer is, bring this back together.”
Masback said adolescent members of his youth group told him in 2001, “We are dying.” Students and faculty involved with YMI consistently listed suicide, depression and eating disorders among the most pressing issues teenagers face.
According to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control report, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in young adults between the ages of 10 and 24 in 2012. In a recent essay on the plight of young people in the U.S., Masback stated that college students have a 50 percent chance of becoming depressed, and 10 percent will consider suicide — rates that have doubled and tripled, respectively, since the late 1980s.
The statistics confirm what Masback and others said they have observed through their work with YMI and beyond — that adolescents are suffering. Masback said he believes there is a correlation between the increased adolescent suffering and fewer millennials attending church. He also cited a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center showing that 35 percent of adult millennials are unaffiliated from a specific religion.
“I absolutely do think that there is a correlation between the health and stability of youth and their attendance in a youth group or a church standing,” Bolton said. “I don’t know that there is a negative correlation between not going to church and being depressed, but I can say that there is a positive correlation between going to church and being healed in certain ways.”
Issues of depression and suicide impact adolescents from both impoverished and affluent communities, said Sarah Farmer, an associate research scholar at YCFC. She said the church can bring joy into the lives of struggling youth. However, Farmer said the church often has difficulties connecting to young adults, and many adolescents do not seek help by themselves.
Youth ministry sets up a community of “unconditional love,” Bolton said. Though other student groups and activities in high school can provide important support, they often create performance-based environments in which student are valued on their achievements, Masback said. He added that youth ministry provides a way for young people to find joy and resilience amid the struggles they are facing.
Students in YMI can learn how to lead the types of youth ministry Masback described.
Divinity School students who participate in YMI are paired with local churches, Jason Land DIV ’17 said. Students integrate themselves into church communities, not only leading conversations about faith but also attending community events and leading service projects to become “around-the-clock mentors” for young adults.
Land, a former member of Masback’s youth group in New Canaan, said he joined YMI because he wanted to continue the work he had done as a social worker in Philadelphia.
“I am not trying to come to these places and say, ‘I am from Yale, so I have a plan that I want to institute that is only considering my goals and what I want to accomplish rather than the community and culture that already exists,’” Land said. “Some people can graduate and never really engage the local community, but YMI, the way that it is set up, forces us to get to know people if not in the New Haven area, in surrounding towns and cities. It has been beneficial for me that way.”
Though the program started as a way to help divinity students develop youth ministry, it has evolved into a way to train lay ministers, youth-group leaders and volunteers who might not otherwise receive professional education, Masback said.
Rev. Aracelis Vazquez Haye DIV ’12, a chaplain at Connecticut College and practicum instructor in YMI, spoke to her experience working in Latino churches where the church leadership is often untrained and working there only part-time. Through YMI, these kinds of leaders have the opportunity to learn from scholars and receive further training, she said, calling the relationship between YMI and church communities a “fruitful partnership.”
“At Yale, it is really hard sometimes to bridge the gap between the city on the hill and the community that surrounds us,” Bolton said. “We as an organization try to bridge that gap as much as we can.”