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Training the next generation of leaders

two teens talking Lutheran Leadership March 2023
High school students attended keynote and breakout presentations on Lutheran leadership at the conference.

This year, for the first time, WELS high school students were specially invited to attend the WELS National Conference on Lutheran Leadership in Chicago. Sixty-one teenagers from ten area Lutheran high schools attended keynotes and breakout sessions, participated in mixers, and went to Navy Pier for an evening of teen-only fun and fellowship. One of the breakout sessions even featured a panel of high school students discussing their experiences and views.

“[Our church body] is hemorrhaging young adults, and you often hear people my age (or even older) speculating on why that is the case. So we wanted to have some presentations where we actually listened to young people,” says Jonathan Hein, conference coordinator and coordinator of WELS Congregational Services. “What are their views on why their generation is quitting church? What do they think we can do better to attempt to retain and reach young people today?”

He continues, “It was one of the most highly attended breakouts. In my work, I hear a lot of young people who say that they don’t really have much of a voice. They certainly had one at the conference.”

Natalie Hatzung, a student at Wisconsin Lutheran High School, was one of the teen panelists. “After we spoke, I heard so many compliments and so much appreciation,” she says. “People were coming up to me who had no idea who I am—they just noticed I’m a teen, and they said, ‘Thank you for being here.’ Parents and teachers came up [to me] and said, ‘This is really eye-opening. I appreciate your input.’ ”

The fact that so many adults cared deeply about their input and experience left a huge impression on this next generation of Lutheran leaders. WELS teens desire to be respected and valued by the adults in their lives. Hein adds, “They want to have a role to play. . . . They want to be more than consumers of gospel ministry. They want to be doers of gospel ministry.” The conference exposed them to some of the very real conversations happening in the synod surrounding leadership, ministry, and outreach.

Lutheran Leadership teens March 2023
Phil Huebner (far left), campus pastor at Wisconsin Lutheran High School, Milwaukee, Wis., hosted a breakout session at the conference titled “An Honest Conversation with WELS Teens.” Students from Wisconsin Lutheran High School shared insights on life as a teen in school, home, community, and church.

On the final day of the conference, Phil Huebner, campus pastor at Wisconsin Lutheran High School, Milwaukee, Wis., gathered the high school attendees together for a closing discussion about the conference. Favorite moments included the trip to Navy Pier, worshiping and communing with more than one thousand other WELS members, meeting teens from other schools, and engaging in conversation with the adults in attendance at the conference.

What was abundantly clear from that discussion is that these young people are compassionate and enthusiastic, with hearts for sharing the gospel. Moreover, many were open and vulnerable enough to reveal that they are also nervous about the impact college might have on their faith.

But as Huebner explains, by inviting teens to this conference, we are showing them that they matter. We are making an effort “not just to talk about teens but rather include them and train up the next generation of leaders,” he says.

Author: FIC
Volume: 110, Number 03
Issue: March 2023

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This entry is part 8 of 16 in the series lutheran leadership

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