Ministry Collaboratory Works to Center Young Adult Voices - Princeton Theological Seminary

If it’s fair to say that young adults are not only the future but they also represent the present, then prioritizing young adults and centering their voices is essential in today’s society. For Rev. Ruth Perkins Lee, who is the project director for the Ministry Collaboratory, the latter is the basis of her work.

Prior to joining Princeton Theological Seminary, the Columbus State University, and McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University graduate worked with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for nine years in various capacities working with churches and ministers, and was involved in three different Lilly grants. Perkins Lee, who grew up in church and was involved in campus ministry in college, was interested in how other organizations, specifically Princeton Seminary were doing this type of work, which she had experience with in prior roles. Princeton Seminary’s goal of helping to equip churches to engage young adults in their community was also of interest.

The Ministry Collaboratory is a three-month experiment in collaboration and engagement. Churches collaborate with young adults in their congregation to engage young adults in their community. Continuing work on the four-year initiative, which began receiving funding in December 2021 from a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Young Adult Initiative, is completed under Princeton Seminary’s Office of Continuing Education.

Since assuming her current role in April 2022, much of Perkins Lee’s efforts have been focused on designing a process to help churches identify and discover young adults outside of their churches in their local communities, she says. Another focus has been to help church leaders think innovatively about how to engage young adults, which hasn’t always been at the forefront in most churches.

“Ruth models a contagious, holy ingenuity that embodies the spirit of the Ministry Collaboratory in every way. She’s an organizational whiz who leads through partnership. Whether working with students, our senior research scholar (Dr. Michael Paul Cartledge), or churches themselves, Ruth helps congregations trust the leadership of young adults by offering theological depth, humility, holy friendship, and a little pizzazz to their ministries.”- Kenda Creasy Dean, Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture.

Thus far, one pilot cohort has completed the three-month program, twenty churches are in the September 2023 cohort, and the Collaboratory is currently accepting applications for its second cohort beginning in February. Churches across the nation can apply but the hope is that interested parties have some young adult ministry experience because the program’s work is led by one young adult and one pastoral leader from each church. Over the course of three days, the two leaders convene through in-person meetings with other churches in their cohort to learn how to identify young adults, what young adults in the world are thinking today, where young adults find community outside the church, and increase their knowledge of innovative strategies. Once this aspect is complete, churches have eight to 10 weeks to complete a design sprint, in which they are provided resources and modules to build their work with the goal of hosting a pop-up project in the community to engage young adults.

“Our approach is intentionally designed as fast-paced because it’s the opposite of what a lot of churches do,” says Perkins Lee. “We want them to move quickly so that they don’t get stuck in systems, but instead experiment and identify new ways of doing things.”

Finding time has been a challenge. Perkins Lee realizes the time commitment needed from churches when planning a new project or ministry, as well as the financial planning that needs to take place. Another obstacle is innovative thinking. “We’ve learned in our first cohort, that sometimes it’s difficult for churches to be able to think creatively and outside the box, not because they’re opposed to it, but because churches are already so busy. Being innovative and thinking of new ways to engage people takes time and energy.”

Of the initial pilot of three churches, one church has completed a successful project and two projects are in progress. Currently, the Collaboratory is helping to cultivate 20 churches in the current cohort. Applications for the February 2024 cohort recently opened, and Perkins Lee is excited about learning which churches will apply.

“It is really life-giving for me to think about the churches that will be a part of a Collaboratory and an excitement for all the different ways that they will seek to engage and to be innovative.”

Perkins Lee has also been focused on the key priorities of the program, which include determining what’s helpful to churches, ensuring their work is in alignment with the university’s goals, and program administration. “We don’t want to prescribe what churches need to do, but instead we want to offer resources that churches can use and even select from, to best fit the needs of their local context.”

Through feedback, observation, and learning from other organizations that are also grantees, Perkins Lee has been able to learn best practices and new ways to help strengthen the grant. For her, the entire program and process have included various highlights — spending time talking to young adults and ministers who work with young adults, hearing how young adults are engaging with and in their community, and hearing from ministers about how young adults are plugging into their churches. This is and incredible opportunity for young adults and congregations across the nation to connect and grow with one another, while doing good for their communities. It is the hope of the Collaboratory that many will apply and take advantage of this unique opportunity.

“One of the things that we say in our work is that we want to help center young adult voices,” says Perkins Lee. “So a highlight is listening to ministers talk about how their young adult voices are leading in various ways in their local church.”

Perkins Lee’s experience in youth and young adult ministry, her work as a local church minister, and her roles at Cooperative Baptist Fellowship informs her current work. She’s had the opportunity to connect with various ministers and churches and listen to their hearts and where they’ve found successes and challenges, she says.

“I have a deep appreciation for the multiple different ways churches approach ministry in their congregation and in their communities,” Perkins Lee says. “It is really life-giving for me to think about the churches that will be a part of a Collaboratory and an excitement for all the different ways that they will seek to engage and to be innovative.”