How can churches attract more teenagers? Three Methodist congregations in San Jose, Calif., succeeded by banding together and creating the Joint Youth Ministry (JYM). Each offers its own Sunday school and church service, but they unite on programs for teens.
Lisa Nasby Jacobs ’02 has run JYM since she graduated with a degree in religious studies. “It was new, and I was straight out of college,” she says. “The first few years were tough. Teens test you and push you, and it was like pulling teeth to get them to help me build something. Eventually I earned their trust by investing time in them.”
Deborah St. Julien ’77, one of the parishioners who helped launch JYM, became Lisa’s mentor and a faithful volunteer leader. “Lisa is like a bulldog,” Deb says. “Once she gets a hold of something, she doesn’t let go.”
Starting with only 24 junior high students and 10 high schoolers, Lisa developed a dynamic program that serves more than 150 teens today. A third of the students come from families who don’t attend church. “Our youth invite more guests to church than our adults do,” Deb says.
Flexible and adaptable, Lisa split up the junior and senior high groups. “I thought I was called to high school ministry, but the first few years the junior high group exploded with growth,” she says. “We focused on the junior highers, who then became the most active and integral part of our high school group.”
Lisa pays attention to what teenagers need, and she’ll quit programs that don’t work or address their needs. “You can’t be faithful to cookie-cutter programs,” she says. “You have to be faithful to the needs of kids. We keep a consistent schedule, but when the need or desire of a certain group arises, we quickly begin to do something to meet it even if it wasn’t in our plan.
“Being a youth pastor feeds my soul,” she adds. “I can feel it in my bones.”
Lisa and Deb agree that youth ministry should be relational and help teens grow spiritually and express their faith through service. “We build service projects into everything,” Deb says. “It’s been transformational for these teens.”
JYM organizes all the typical fun youth group activities. But there’s a serious side as well. “We have kids struggling with drugs, depression, cutting, eating disorders and abuse,” Lisa says. “We let them know God loves them and they can talk about what is really happening in their lives.”
“The culture is hard on teens,” Deb says. “Kids know they need something, and they’re not too proud to come and ask for help.”
Deb and Lisa describe themselves as wounded healers. Deb struggled to find a safe place from her dysfunctional, abusive family as a teen, and Westmont helped her recover. A certified nurse practitioner, she wants to heal both body and soul. Lisa overcame a teenage eating disorder with support from her youth group leader. At 15, she committed herself to a career in youth ministry and had to talk her way into Westmont to overcome shaky high school grades. She succeeded and met her husband, Landon Jacobs’02 at Westmont. He teaches high school history, coaches baseball and serves as athletic director.
Deb and her husband, Gary Coffrin, a business consultant, have two adult daughters who participated in JYM. “This ministry is blessed, dynamic and miraculous,” Deb says. “It meets kids where they are. It’s like watching a miracle unfold right in front of you as God touches teens and transforms their lives.”