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Engaging Youth and Young Adults

The secret is no secret.

Terry L. Johnsson is executive director of mission integration for Adventist Health in Portland, Oregon. Prior to that he was a radio chaplain for radio station WGTS-FM in Takoma Park, Maryland, and before that youth pastor at Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church. Before he studied at Oakwood University, Johnsson served in the United States Air Force as a member of the presidential honor guard at the White House.

Because of his experience working with youth and young adults, we recently spoke to Johnsson about the importance of mentoring in transmitting Christian values to younger generations.—Editors


Give us a short list of some of the mentors you’ve had over the years.

One who probably stood out the most was T. Marshall Kelly. He mentored me two ways: One was by example. Just seeing him in action and how he worked with ordinary people; [he was] probably one of the humblest men I ever met. The second way was when I went to him and said, “I just want to learn from you.” Since I was starting in ministry, I remember specifically asking, “If you were starting over, what would you do differently?” He spent hours talking and sharing with me.

When you became a pastor, was mentoring a large part of your ministry? Or was it something you grew into?

It’s something I grew into. I left Oakwood College specializing in youth ministry; that was my concentration. When I got to my first church assignment in Portland, the youth group had a total of 15 kids. I went down there with all my books and charts, and we were going to have a fantastic youth program.

In six weeks it went from 15 to three kids. I ended up going backward instead of forward. It was so bad that the conference president called me in to see how I was doing. I remember thinking, Maybe I should have stayed in the military.

I called Elder Kelly and told him what was going on. He told me, “Terry, I want you to get a box, and I want you to put all your youth ministry books, all your charts, and put them in a box.” I thought he was going to help me organize them and put them in some kind of structure.

When I called Elder Kelly the next week, he said, “I want you to take that box and put it in storage. Just go down there and be Terry and talk to those kids.”

The very next week I went with no fancy stuff and simply pulled up a chair with three kids and said, “Tell me, what’s going on in your life?” And the kids just started opening up.26-1.jpg

I’ll never forget one girl, Nancy. When she walked out, she looked back at me and said, “That was one of the best Sabbath schools I’ve ever had.”

Fast-forward two years: that same youth group had 115 kids. One of the things I learned from that experience is that instead of it being all about me, I helped set up the program for them. Then I became more of a manager than the person up front leading out.

I met Bailey Gillespie, who was also a mentor, at La Sierra. I sat down with Bailey and told him what I wanted to do. He said, “We could have you do some child, marriage, and family programs at Loma Linda; then we could have you do some youth ministry stuff here.”

So I went from Portland to Loma Linda and La Sierra for the next three years. They allowed me to come back [to Portland] every other quarter to make sure [the program] was still going. I knew what I was doing was working when I could be gone for a semester and kids could still run the program. They had an adult in the room, but they ran it. That’s what started the whole chain of knowing that it’s not about me, it’s about me teaching the kids, then letting them lead out and run the program.

Did you find it easy to implement that kind of program when you went to Sligo church?

I had written a paper at La Sierra for Bailey Gillespie titled “Designing a Youth Ministry Program,” which I still have. I wrote that if I worked on a college campus, if I would get young adults who were still at an age where they could relate to the kids, I would have them be in charge of a certain amount of kids. They would report to me, but they would be the ones who would help out those kids.

We started with a total of 12 Sligo youth directors. Each of the youth directors had 10 kids they were responsible for. Every Monday they would give me a report about their kids. If a kid missed more than two Sabbaths, they were to visit that young person and make sure everything was OK. If they didn’t come back the next week, that name went to me. That meant I would make a visit.

I would go to their schools, and kids will tell you stories about me showing up at their public schools, how their youth pastor would be waiting by their lockers. That’s how the Sligo youth director program started. It was me mentoring that group of 12.

I went with no fancy stuff and simply pulled up a chair with three kids and said, “Tell me, what’s going on in your life?” And the kids just started opening up.

Tell us a couple success stories about your Sligo youth directors.

Pete Garza stands out. When I first met him, he was just a neighborhood young person involved with gangs. Our youth director group always allowed two (what we called) “wild cards.” These were people you would never think would do it in 100,000 years.

Every year, when we had new ones come in to take the places of those who had graduated, I would say, “OK, let’s pick a wild card.” Pete was one of my wild cards. The youth directors said, “He’s too cool; he’s too whatever.” But Pete was the first in his family to graduate college, and with a ministerial degree.

Another wild card was Kitty Pilli [now Sligo church associate pastor Pranitha Fielder]. She wasn’t even a member of our church. She was very active at Takoma Academy. She didn’t even go to church that much. She was definitely one of my successes.

Michelle Koilpillai stands out. I asked her to go on one of our mission trips. At first Michelle said, “There’s no way I could go on a mission trip.” But we found out that there was dental work needed, so we asked her father, a dentist, to come along. Michelle originally wanted to work with the rest of the kids, but we convinced her to work with her dad (her dad had a lot to do with that, as did her best friend, Lexi). Michelle was so influenced by helping with dentistry that both she and Lexi went on to become dentists.

Another was Jackie Sanchez. She became a youth director [for Camp Upward Bound]. For years Sligo had a [summer day camp] called Camp Upward Bound. I was on a committee where that was going to close it down. They said its usefulness was over. I said, “What if we had a young person be the director of the camp? And let’s hire youth who don’t have summer jobs.”

Certain people said, “That’s just not going to work.”

I said, “I’ll be there to mentor them. But they will be the ones organizing, leading out, and we will do the same, exact concept we have for the youth program.” That very first summer we cleared $80,000 with young people leading out.

Another person was Phil Riley. We asked Phil to become one of the youth directors. Jon Mowry is another one, now one of the elders at Sligo church. Chris Lunsford, Heather Lunsford, we could go on and on.

What lasting effect does a mentoring program leave with young people?

Just about every young person who was involved in ministry in the Sligo youth department is still in church. It’s shown them that church is something to be involved with. It’s not about just sitting down and being entertained. They’re part of the vision.

Youth groups from around the country came to sit in on our meetings. Just about every weekend people came to see what we were doing. They would come and think: It’s going to be Terry Johnsson up front telling stories and kids sitting around his feet.

The thing that shocked them most was that the young people would give me five minutes at the end of Sabbath school to do a wrap-up. Other than that, young people led out in the entire program, from beginning to end, music and everything.

We have to allow young people to lead out, and coach them. They have questions, but let them be involved. That’s the secret of mentoring. 

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