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Flourishing in Community with Young People: A Conversation with Lena Crouso and Elizabeth Tamez Méndez

In this conversation, Lena Crouso, vice president for Intercultural Learning and Engagement at Southern Nazarene University, talks with Elizabeth Tamez-Mendez about building a culture of inclusion for young people that aims for shalom and provides places and spaces for young people to ask questions and experience courageous conversations in their faith exploration.

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:00:16] Welcome to this session of Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth. This is a series hosted by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. I am Dr. Elizabeth Tamez Méndez, executive director of New Generation3, and today we have the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Lena Crouso, who is joining us for this conversation. Lena, thank you for being our guest. We're so happy to have you here. 

Lena Crouso [00:00:42] Well, I'm just so grateful and thankful to be here with you, and thank you for this good work you're doing. It's just an honor to participate with you. So I appreciate being with you today. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:00:52] Thank you. We have been looking forward to our conversation. In this series we really want to learn from one another about community worship practices in different contexts, and especially those that encourage intergenerational relationships and empower youth. Lena, would you please share with us a bit about your context and work? We're really excited to get to know more about it. 

Lena Crouso [00:01:14] Yes, absolutely. So I serve at Southern Nazarene University as their chief diversity officer and the vice president for intercultural learning and engagement. And that's basically the work that . . . it has a title, but it has so many different encompassing aspects. But basically we're charged with the work, my office, of really moving the intercultural understanding throughout our campus, the work of reconciliation, the work of becoming culturally responsive followers of Christ, the work of caring about God's inclusive love and how that translates and embodies. And what does it mean when we say—our university mission says making Christ-like disciples through higher education. What does that mean? As we are making those Christ-like disciples, how do they then translate their lives as culturally responsive, inclusive disciples when they go into the world and live out their faith? So that is a very generalized, very aspirational aspect of what I do. But then we get down into a lot of the strategic work, the building bridges, the integration of everything into all areas. We focus a lot on intercultural learning opportunities, we call them, which is a very active way to learn about each other with each other. And so those are really exciting opportunities. We also engage our student body, which is why I'm so excited that this is focused on youth, because we actually develop our societies, which are focused on affinity groups, because of our diverse context of our student body. We are 40% diverse by ethnicity, race, and international students also. But we also don't want to create this idea that that's the diversity. We want to think of being intercultural people. And so we've incorporated this idea of intercultural ambassadors now, which are student leaders. And with these affinity groups called societies, we're just seeing a lot of movement of mutuality and how we're learning with each other. But that's only with the student body; there's so much more happening on our campus for what we would call DEI, diversity, equity, and inclusion. And then I'm also a professor in the School of Theology and Ministry as well as the School of Education. My focus is on race and class and gender, and I really work to build the bridges of what it means to be in community and to develop communities. So a lot of my work is around community development, the church's role in community development, and what it means to build intercultural place and space when we live out in communities, not only within a university setting, but really in neighborhoods and cities and states, the nation. So it's an exciting work, but obviously a hard work that no one does by themselves. I have a wonderful team, and the university is highly engaged in this work and I’m very supported from the president and the cabinet. I serve also on the cabinet, which I consider a great honor and an unusual placement because people in my role aren't often at the cabinet level and/or also reporting to the president. So those are just some basic, general aspects of what my work entails at the university. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:04:43] Thank you so much for sharing, Lena, about how everything is just interconnecting there at the university campus. You touch upon some very important points that I look forward to further unpacking as we continue our conversation, because these aspects of having spaces for diversity and inclusiveness and understanding each other and learning together, that has been part of our central conversation as well. I think a lot of communities are certainly starting to see the shift that were shielded in the past, but now with all the demographic changes, more and more communities, more and more congregations are becoming diverse. And we continue to remind those who are working with young people that this generation is marked by that, that they grew up with multicultural and very diverse friends and professors and spaces. And so I know that that's going to be very helpful as we get into the conversation for those who are ministering in different contexts and they're seeing the changes, everything that’s coming their way, and they're trying to figure out, okay, how do we navigate this, especially with young people? So I'm excited about that. And that's going to help us then to frame our conversation for the series, because within this conversation, we have chosen five values for incorporating into corporate worship models of ministry with youth, and these are youth agency, spaces for theological questions, the role of the family, sparking intergenerational relationships, and designing multiple pathways for ministry with youth. Lena, how does your work with young adults through Southern Nazarene University reflect some of these aspects of youth agency and being able to bring them into not only the conversation but also the action of what's taking place there? 

Lena Crouso [00:06:50] Yes, that's an excellent question, and I really appreciate these values. I think they're framing in ways that intersect with some of the things that we're doing. We may not be explicit about the language that you're using, but what I love about these values is it frames an understanding of the holistic person and then also the holistic community. And we really want to think about these values in terms of what it means to develop a “shalom culture,” this kind of completed place. We're not ever going to finish that, but we are aspiring for that, right? This place of shalom. And so we think of the work we're doing as how are we helping and being an instrument of God's work to shape our young people who come to us by however divine intersection and plan that God brought them to Southern Nazarene University. But how are we a part of that shaping for the holistic well-being? And so youth agency is becoming more and more, to your point, this really important aspect of, Where are their voices? Often I have seen over the decades of my work in Christian higher ed that sometimes we plan for young people, but we don't plan with young people. And I've also found this in the church. I'm an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene as well. And so I can see similarities. Sometimes we plan for youth ministry, but we plan for them, not with them. 

So to your point, we have worked very hard to think about ways to include our youth on our committees and our councils. We have student representation on our faculty committees, our faculty/staff councils, what we call the Student Government Association—we have different terms; people call it student government, but we just recently shifted to SALT, Student Activities and Leadership Team, and they have regular meetings with the president, they meet with our cabinet on certain issues. So again, we're building this culture of inclusion and not just saying that their voices matter. So I think that youth agency becomes very important when they actually see that they are included at the table, but then they also have a voice at the table and many times give some of the best recommendations. The exciting part is when they see their recommendation actually get implemented. One of those things that they were very explicit about is wanting affinity groups when I first came almost five years ago. So we began to listen, learn. We began to see what they want from those.

One of the things that I thought was very powerful is that the students said, “We do want our affinity groups, like our . . . Hispanic Student Society, Black Student Society, International Student Society”—they wanted those themes. We have a student society for women—but they also said, “but we don't want that to be an enclosed space and that's all we do.” They wanted it to be affinity for belonging and understanding and then expanding into bridges into the rest of the community. And we found that to be very wise, and we responded to that with, “That is really, really a bright idea because you don't want it to be closed in. You need that space for affinity. But then you also want to be out into the greater communities; you would live your life in the world.” And what does it mean to be a follower of Christ in our intersections of identity, living in the world as a follower of Christ? And so when they saw those get launched, they were so surprised but also thankful that they had a voice. And interestingly enough, our alums who had already graduated, they found out that we had started these, and they said, “What an incredible thing; I wish that we had had those.” But they were so excited that this generation of youth, they were part of launching something new, and they could see their handprint on it. Those are just a few ways that we are being intentional and we're putting action behind our words. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:11:14] That's a great example. . . . Even though it's in the university campus and context, for those who are in ministry, in churches and in maybe parachurch organizations, we can see that excitement. You provided pathways for young people to take ownership and to create something, and then the energy that brings to your campus, into your organization, and the endless possibilities. As we always encourage leaders to embrace that young people bring energy and they bring so many creative answers to issues that we're so used to seeing all the time, and because this is something completely new for them, they may come up with another way of approaching it. And so I think for our churches, as we're looking to embrace renewal and find ways to continue tapping into the needs of people, this is a great asset that young people can bring into our congregations and our leadership. And as romanticized as that may sound, I know there's some challenges sometimes, especially being in the university campus. How have you guys been able to navigate the challenges of embracing students leading and giving there and even taking these positions in these community groups? 

Lena Crouso [00:12:45] I think that the challenges come with, Do they have the expertise? Can we talk about certain things with our students there? I think sometimes our own expertise gets in our way, and we lose sight of the innovative, creative love that we had even when we were beginning in our leadership roles. Every president, every vice president, every director, every whatever, we were at one point that young person with the excitement and anticipation of being heard, being known, being understood. One of the things that we've worked really hard at is really delving into the scriptural context for why this is good and helping people understand that our practices are biblical and that we are forsaking the actual fullness and completeness when we don't have our intergenerational context at the table, and we're forsaking the good and instead not getting to the better or the best. Good can be good enough, but I think there is the better and then there's the best. And I think that's the perfected work of God. We have had some challenges and difficulties. We've also had some students who feel that they don't have the right to be there, or they sit there but they don't take their voice. We've worked hard to do a lot of pre-work training, a lot of understanding of what it means to serve on a committee. These are future training grounds also for future board members. I appreciate how you even brought in the church because obviously I can see these models apply in any organizational entity.

The other thing that's been really powerful is that we have seen a cultural humility develop that we hadn't seen before. It has evoked this essential imperative that we have to get more culturally humble before the Lord. Whether we think we know or not, we have to put that to the side and listen well to what we're hearing from our young people. And what's also been really interesting, I will say, is that there's been a turn to mutuality of respect. Our young people are starting to say, “Wow, you have forged through so many challenges that we didn't even know existed. We're living in a time where you've set things in place that we don't have to wrestle with anymore. You've made way for us.” Particularly women and students of color have said that, particularly to the older ones of us who have sat in those places and spaces over decades, and it builds such a beautiful, mutual respect. So it's been worth it. As we've navigated the complexities of some of the relational challenges and the different aspects of generational challenges, it's been beautiful to see the mutual respect that has emerged. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:16:18] You point out something very important, that intentionality in saying (that) this is a good way for us to train and prepare and just walk alongside of them in that scaffolding, mentoring, saying, “We’ll be here for you. We're going to catch you. Don't feel overwhelmed.” As you pointed out, some young people may feel overwhelmed. And then at the same time, some adults may also feel overwhelmed and worried. Will they be able to do this? But if they're walking alongside each other in that type of relationship where we know we're passing on the legacy and we're passing on the keys and saying this is an investment also not only for now, but for the future. How do we prepare? Because I think a lot of organizations and leaders are finding that they're coming to this point where they're about to retire or they're moving on to other positions and situations, and who have they prepared to follow and continue that work? There's so much loss there when somebody else has to come from zero, start over again and that wisdom and knowledge was not passed along. That's very encouraging, I think, for other leaders out there to think about that, to consider how can they integrate it into their ministry alongside of this learning, accumulative position that you pointed out, that if they see that in us they're going to mimic it. Something that keeps coming up over and over again in all this research of the new generations and what it is that they're attracted to, there's a book from Springtide, Meaning Making: 8 Values that Drive America's Newest Generation. They point out that one of those eight is this aspect of accountability and inclusion, but also being authentic and welcoming because they want to do something that is impactful. We see how they're energized by that, and then they give that on to us. That’s a great example and a beautiful testimony of how the university has understood that it will not be complete without it. 

Lena Crouso [00:18:44] Yes, yes, yes. We're on a journey, but we have not arrived. But it is an incredible, incredible path we're on. I appreciate your added value to understanding that. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:19:00] You were pointing out that part of the work the university has done is to understand this way of connecting and opening agency for youth as part of our biblical and theological frameworks of work. Could you share a little bit more about that and maybe some of the ways that the young people have had space to wrestle with theological questions? 

Lena Crouso [00:19:23] I think one of the most beautiful things about Christian liberal arts learning is that it's just that: we give space to learn. . . . We really want our young people to be able to understand that curiosity, questions—these are the divine postures that Jesus even modeled for us, to ask these questions, to get to the truth, to pursue truth in tandem and in concert with others, but not just for the sake of questioning, but questioning to get to what the intentions are about the written Word, not only what God is saying, but what does God mean by what God is saying. So, to create, to cultivate an environment where it is safe and brave, so you can be safe in knowing you can ask questions, but you also know that you can be brave because you won't be shut down or ridiculed or foolishly told something like, “Well, that's just how it is,” or our own very easy defaults to “Well, the Bible says . . .”, and I think it's just been beautiful to see the freedom of theological interest. Sometimes when we give them freedom to ask as opposed to simply tell, they kind of lose that creativity and innovation. I think this is part of that, where they're given freedom to flourish in their creativity and innovation because they can ask questions. And so we desire for these theological conversations. We call them courageous conversations. We call them intercultural learning opportunities, where they're sitting in space, it's active learning, and they can ask, but we don't leave them to their own “Now what do I do with this deconstruction/reconstruction or unpacking?” But we travel with them. What we've also found with many of our faculty and staff is they have found that they have had a renewed and refreshed move of the Spirit upon them when they are working with these young people who are asking these beautifully intentional questions with such childlike faith—not childish, but childlike faith that they just want someone to to tell them. It has invigorated our faculty and staff, our faculty mentors, our staff mentors sitting in those conversations with their young people. We have found that it's almost—I'm not going to be that dramatic and call it a revival, but I will say that it’s brought us some rejuvenation. Typically, right after we have some of these learning opportunities, we see a campus kind of lift up. So it's been really, really good. So that's just a few of the ways that we're thinking through, this cultural curiosity, this theological curiosity. It’s this desire to ask, to question. It's safe; it's OK. And someone will be there to respond. And sometimes the response will be, “I don't know; no one’s ever asked me that. Let’s go find out together.” And I've always said that a well-developed question reveals more about someone's intellect than a quick answer. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:23:25] I think you point out something very important about that. As you noticed in your campus, when the other generations opened up to this reality, they're energized as well. So they're receiving, and it’s that mutually beneficial relationship where the two are having a chance to grow. We're always reminding leaders because . . . there's so many things going on, so many things to juggle, but those precepts of leadership and the Christian life where it is designed in that manner, where we pass it along from one generation to the other, and when we're not having the opportunity to connect in meaningful ways and having those deep relationships that open the the trust to ask the questions, we're missing out on precisely . . . Our faith grows because we're passing it on and creating these spaces. And part of what this book Meaning Making from Springtide was about was the differences in the generations with their desire and their hunger for guidance in that process of critical thinking and reaching the answers versus let me just give you the answer. In essence, they don't want our answers. They want us to do the hard work, which is, let me walk alongside of you to discover the answers. And what are we going to find in the process? Because I think we often forget that that's precisely the exercise of theological construction. It needs to be contextual, needs to be with the times. I enjoy being with young people because they keep us in touch with what is going on out there. They don't let us grow old. We know what's going on, we know what they're worried about, what they're thinking about. Otherwise we would be so insular within our own ways of thinking and generations and filters and then we don't even find out about what's out there. So they are our teachers too, to come in to help us to bring that too and bring this space for theological construction and saying, “What does scripture say to us today? And what is God in the Holy Spirit speaking?” So, a beautiful testimony of what's going on. 

Lena Crouso [00:26:09] Yes. Absolutely. One of the things that as you were talking about the youth agency and then with this theological questioning, it was very interesting at one of the meetings, it just reminded me, some of the students at the meeting said, “You know, I don't think that we communicate enough what this committee does.” And we said, “Well, what do you mean? We send out a little email and we send out a report.” . . . “No, no, no. I really don't think we are communicating enough in the right way.” And next thing you know, they develop their communication plan for the committee. And it was brilliant. We were so ingrained in the memo and the email, the report, and they were like, no, I think more communication with little bits is better. And we're like, “Of course, you’re bringing the ways of your own tech-savvy world.” Everything happens quick and short and quickly. But they were showing us it can be valuable if done well. So it just reminded me of how we had to decide that that's a good, innovative idea that we have missed. And it made a difference. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:27:26] When a game changer, right? Because then it’s meeting the needs of both. And we know that higher education—I used to be involved with higher education as well, and it's just so many protocols of reports. . . . [But] then people miss out on what's happening. I think sometimes the same thing happens in the church. There are just so many wonderful things going on, but not everybody's finding out. And so when we team up with young people, they just find it so easy,  where perhaps for me it takes a lot more energy and thought process to shoot a video; for them it’s just like, “You just push a button.” . . .

Lena Crouso [00:28:13] I love it. It's very familiar conversations you just described. I love it. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:28:19] What a beautiful way also for them to open our horizons, the two generations bringing their assets to the table to see what evolves. I think as you are going through that process of exploration and helping, people understand each other [even though] they're coming from different backgrounds and different cultures. That helps to tone down any questions there might be about differences and really highlights the differences, but also how that can be a beautiful way of connecting. 

Lena Crouso [00:29:01] Yes, indeed. So true. So true. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:29:06] Thank you so much, Lena, for sharing with us about how the university is doing this important work of bringing the different generations and opening itself to looking at new ways of doing ministry with youth and understanding that it has to be very hands on. This is something important for the new generations. Thank you for pointing that out. Anything else that you wanted to share with us? 

Lena Crouso[00:29:35] I'm just very grateful and thankful that this work is happening and that we have leaders like you and your team who are trying to put these kinds of conversations out there, and these learning opportunities. So thank you for allowing me to be a part of it. I appreciate this work so much. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez  [00:29:54] Thank you. I'm glad we could collaborate. Thank you for making time. And we're so grateful that the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has that vision to always continue the conversations and find new ways for doing things. We just appreciate the engaging conversation that we had with you today. I know that we learned a lot, and we're going to be able to empower other leaders who are also seeking ways of imagining and finding pathways to connecting with youth. Thank you, Lena. 

Lena Crouso [00:30:31] My pleasure. Thank you. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez  [00:30:33] We also want to thank our audience for joining us in this session of Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth. We really pray that these conversations inspire and encourage you in your efforts for reaching the new generations. Please continue browsing through the videos; there are several in the series. And leave us a comment; we really want to hear from you and continue the conversation that way. Thank you, Lena, and I look forward to our continued conversations.