by Leigh Finke
Young adulthood—that murky phase of life when adulthood is just starting. Or, maybe should be starting but just quite hasn’t. Or, perhaps it has, despite one’s best effort to avoid it. It’s hard to know just what young adult means these days. Even for those who make young adults their very livelihood. Savanna Sullivan, director of Young Adult Programs at the ELCA, has just as much difficulty knowing exactly who she serves.
Sullivan defines young adults as, generally, 18-30 years old. “Pretty solid on that lower age cutoff,” she says, “but upper age limit is kind of fuzzy.” That fuzziness represents a changing cultural landscape. Sullivan says, “There are whole cultural studies on people getting married later and moving out later and being financially independent later, and those are the traditional markers of adulthood.” There’s also the shifting identity within the ELCA church.
If there’s one advantage that Sullivan has in serving today’s young adult Lutherans, it’s that she is one of them. At 26, Sullivan is the youngest program director in the ELCA. Her life story reads like an advertisement for Lutheranism: child of a pastor, attended Lutheran summer camps, staffed Lutheran summer camps, involved in Lutheran Campus Ministries at Clemson, participated in Young Adults in Global Mission in Rwanda after graduation. As she says, “I ran the gamut” of Lutheran programs.
All of which makes it easy to understand why Sullivan is in the position she is. She’s done it all and clearly has a love for all that she has done. The community of young people that comprise the Lutheran church is, and has always been, her community. So, when you ask her why she thinks young adults need a more prominent role in the church, it’s no wonder when she says, “It’s kind of like a no-brainer.”
I spoke to Ms. Sullivan recently about how she found her way to the role of program director, how she feels about the declining numbers in church attendance and why she has hope for the future of ELCA young adult programming.
This conversation has been lightly edited.
Connect Journal: Tell me a bit about your background.
Savanna Sullivan: I am a lay professional. I majored in biology and philosophy, focusing on applied ethics in undergrad. I’ve been at Churchwide for about two years now. Originally, I started off as a recruiter for Young Adults in Global Mission. And then I was the manager of strategy for HIV and AIDS, and then about a year and a half ago, I started off in this position.
CJ: How did you end up with the HIV/AIDS job?
SS: When I saw the job come up for the strategy in HIV/AIDS I was really excited to talk with them about what managing that strategy might look like, especially in how we might get young people involved in educational and advocacy work within and on behalf of folks living with HIV.
A lot of the biggest struggle around HIV now is stigma, and what people do and don’t know about the disease and what public policy looks like in relationship to HIV and AIDS. So, the practical and applied ethics piece really helped a lot. When I was in that position I formed a young adult coalition with Lutheran Campus Ministry and ELCA World Hunger to take five undergrad students and two World Hunger leaders, all of whom are young adults, to the U.S. Conference on AIDS, and those students have returned to their home contexts and have been big advocates in their local contexts and synods in HIV education and destigmatization, and the work that we Christians are called to in light of the HIV epidemic.
CJ: Was that work specifically on LGBTQ efforts, or was it on a higher-level scale than that?
SS: It did have specific LGBTQ implications, and we started to work with folks in the LGBTQ community who are also Lutherans who are really passionate about HIV education and destigmatization. So, a number of the students we took were LGBTQ identifying, and that is on purpose because we know that it’s really important for people to have a seat at the table themselves. We developed worship materials around both HIV and LGBTQ inclusion. And worked with ReconcilingWorks to create a conversation guide for congregations about HIV and AIDS.
CJ: How did you make the transition from strategy on HIV/AIDS to your current position as director of Young Adult Programs?
SS: I’m really passionate about the work the church is doing with young people because it has deeply and personally affected me. Because of my experience with the strategy for HIV and AIDS, we’ve been able to really partner with that desk still, so there were youth ministry students who went to the international AIDS conference in Amsterdam last year and who helped write all the content this year. So it’s been really fun to stay connected to that work .
CJ: Can you talk a bit about your relationship to your job? You said you’re a lay professional. Do you feel a calling to your work?
SS: Yes. My dad was a pastor when I was growing up, and I have seen the church when it’s at its best, and when it’s at its not so best. The only way you can survive in this work is to really have a calling to it because the church is so life-giving, and also sometimes it’s really hard to work with an institution that is flawed, just like any institution. So, I definitely feel called to this. I feel called to learn from young people in the church. I feel called to help the church better include and better serve the young people that are already here. And to make the church more accessible to young people who feel pretty disillusioned by what they imagine the church to be or what it has been to them in the past. I think young people have something really prophetic to say to the world and especially to the church of the ELCA, and, so, that passion keeps me going and being able to equip young people to do that. And to equip the church to receive what young people are doing, I feel that is a really deep call for me.
CJ: What do you think the church looks like at its worst?
SS: There’s a lot of facets to that. But any human institution at its worst looks hateful. I don’t think our church is there. The worst I’ve seen in the church is saying things and not acting on them. Faith without works is dead. We profess to have faith in something, like in the leadership capacity of young people, and then we don’t as a church act like that’s true. And that leads to a lot of toxic situations and leads to that disillusionment.
CJ: It’s clear you have passion for the work young people are capable of, but we also live in a time when numbers in the church are showing fewer and fewer young people attending. So, how do you relate your work to those numbers?
SS: It’s hard. I understand the church has hurt a lot of young people and/or been irrelevant. I think both of those things just as much as the other lead to an exodus by young people from the church. But I really believe in the power of the communities that the ELCA has provided to my life, and I think that young people are hungry for that. I think numbers tell a lot of different stories, and that the story of the age demographics might not be fully reflective of the way that young people are engaging in the church.
I mean, less and less young people are showing up on Sunday morning, but less people across the board are showing up on Sunday mornings. I don’t think that shows that young people are less faithful, less curious about the divine or their vocation or spirituality. Young peoples’ desires to ask those questions, to be part of communities that ask those questions, and wrestle with those things, is not diminishing at all.
CJ: Do you think there’s something positive you can see in that desire?
SS: I see some hope that the church has an opportunity. Instead of acting out of fear that what we have known is not always working, the church has an opportunity to say, well, this is not keeping people here, so we have an opportunity to be creative. To see what can be born out of what is, in some places, diminishing. We’ve seen that. We’ve seen some really creative communities and some really impactful communities that are relevant in young peoples’ lives form up. I think Young Adults in Global Mission, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Lutheran Servant Corps kind of paint that picture a little bit. We have young people clamoring to get in these programs. Because they’re relevant, because they’re not perfect and don’t purport to be perfect, and because they create authentic communities
I can go on forever about it. But I think numbers are scary, and they’re scarier if we let them be. But the story is not one just of death and dying, but also one of hope and opportunity, to live with the mindset of abundance and create something beautiful, if we can let go of what’s not working.
CJ: What are you working on that you the most excited about the future?
SS: I don’t know if you heard last year about the National Young Adult Discernment Retreat. We opened it up to 50 people that filled up in, like, 48 hours, and within a week, we had a waiting list over 200 people long. We held that first retreat in Georgia. We had 35-40 percent young adult people of color, and all seven seminaries represented, as well as Yong Adults in Global Mission, Volunteer Corps. We had time to talk to Bishop Eaton, and we had synod bishops there. But what got me excited was seeing the response. Young people really are here. These aren’t all people who are connected to a congregation, but they are hungry for community, which is what gives me hope.
CJ: What else are you doing that’s exciting?
SS: Another thing that’s really exciting to me is the collaboration. The program directors in Youth Ministry, the Gathering, kids ministry and Children’s Ministry—together we formed this little First Third of Life group at the Churchwide Expression. So, birth through young adulthood—how is the church affecting the lives of young people? Working with them has been really life-changing. Because they get it. They really believe that young people are important to the church. So, we are collaborating together at the youth Extravaganza to let people know about all the resources we have for the first third of life and to collaborate on workshops with people who are curious about how we get a youth or young adult ministry started. So, the collaborative work we’re doing is really exciting to me too.
CJ: When you have a conversation with young people who are not in the church, you hear the same kind of things about LGBTQ inclusion, race, issues that operate on a cultural level. How much of your work is involved in that side, and what do you see happening in these areas?
SS: I think all people, and especially young people, are looking for a church that’s relevant. So, our program and the resources we produce definitely address race, power and privilege, inclusion, general social issues. For example, Young Adult Ministries has a partnership with our Peace Not Walls Campaign, which leads pilgrimages to the Holy Land to learn more about the conflict in Israel and Palestine.
We also have border immersion retreats, for people who want to learn what’s really going on at the U.S./Mexico border, facilitated through Lutheran Servant Corps. Young Adults in Global Mission and Lutheran Volunteer Corps and Urban Servant Corps have a lot of content about social issues because the church is in the world. So, I think there’s a lot of exploration, a lot of question-asking. The church should be, I believe, a place to have hard conversations.
CJ: What are the main barriers to achieving the success you’ve described?
SS: There are a lot of things that we can prioritize as a church, and I think sometimes we don’t prioritize our young people as one of the many. Giving lip service to the fact that it’s important that young people lead, and actually including young people in leadership, are two different things. I want to see more young people in the leadership of the church, and I think until their voices are more meaningfully at the table across the board, there’s not going to be as much movement as there could be in the work we’re trying to do.
CJ: If those are your barriers, what are your goals? How would you measure success in the work you’re doing?
SS: Success would be more young people in leadership in synods. It’s more programming available to young people, more leadership opportunities available to young people in synods. It would be a big measure of success for me. I think robust offering of programs at the national, regional and local level for young adults would also be a goal. And I think intergenerationally, too, young people forming meaningful relationships and being spiritually fed where they are. I think there’s so much good that comes from intergenerational relationships, and I would love to stop hearing about young people from older folks in a disparaging way and to hear young people talk about themselves and to see the power of those intergenerational relationships with young people when they’re healthy.
CJ: Is there anything you think the readers of Connect, people who work in churches with youth and young adults, should know about your work? Anything you want to pass along to those readers?
SS: I just think the relationship between, especially, people who work with children, youth and young adults is really important. And that we can’t give up. They know that young people are already so important to this church. I would say thank you because that’s such important work. But we cannot give up on our young people when they leave high school, when they leave our congregations. I would encourage them to connect, to help young adults do some research and connect them with campus ministry, or a camp or ask a synod what’s going on for young adults in your synod. To really be an advocate for young adults because it can be a really great, wonderful and confusing time in life, when not a lot is really nailed down yet. I think the church can step into that spiritual void and really provide community, and provide support and refuge for people. If our churches who have strong youth ministries can connect young adults to that next step, I think that would be really powerful.
Leigh Finke is a journalist and free-lance writer who lives in the Twin Cities