Matt Overton’s path was clear to him from early on. When he was barely out of high school, he was already on his way to becoming a youth minister.
“I was running a youth group at 19, and leading teens on a house-building trip to Mexico at 20,” says Overton, MDiv ‘06. “I felt God was calling me to ministry.”
Overton, now 41, continues to pursue his calling with the fervor that propelled him as a young adult.
But he encounters increasing numbers of stressed-out young people who are struggling to find their way.
“I see so many great kids who feel like they have been on an assembly-line track that their parents and community have put them on and which is all performance-based,” said Overton, the associate pastor of youth and family ministries at Columbia Presbyterian Church, in Vancouver, Washington. “They don’t really know who they are or what they want, and they feel deeply anxious about their future.”
His solution has been to draw teens out into the larger community.
Overton created Columbia Future Forge, a church-based nonprofit that puts teens to work on landscaping crews, gets them involved in a cross-training program, and has them participate in classes where they can reflect on what it means to be an adult Christian.
“The idea is so basic,” Overton said. “Every human needs to have experience and the space to reflect on those experiences. And this is where our faith comes in so powerfully.”
About 125 young people a year participate in various Columbia Future Forge initiatives, including a flagship program that pairs them with adults for mentoring and life coaching. The kids can also join in several startup enterprises that Overton has developed with support from the church and other partnerships: Mowtown Teen Landscaping, Utmost Athletics, and Forge Drones.
Each of the enterprises offers an apprenticeship experience in a relatively noncompetitive setting. At Mowtown, teens and young adults handle lawnmowers, rakes, and other equipment under the tutelage of experienced crew bosses. For many, it’s their first paid job.
Utmost Athletics meanwhile provides supportive coaching for cross-training that’s rigorous but far removed from the machismo of some gyms. And Forge Drones helps participants test and fly drones under the guidance of a former aeronautical engineer.
All participants meet as a group throughout the year for reflection and guidance in learning adult life skills.
Overton says teens typically emerge from the program feeling confident, connected, and better able to envision possibilities for their future. Recently, he has seen an influx of first- and second-year college students interested in participating.
“Our ultimate goal is Gospel-based human transformation,” Overton said. “And that comes from being around other human beings who care about you.”