Raising Kids Who Love to Serve

A youth program that builds agency


At its simplest, Summer Stretch is a ministry model, a way of doing some things youth and others—especially middle school youth—have found very meaningful. It helps build agency in youth, and thereby, hope for their, and others’, futures. Why am I telling you about it now? Because winter is the time to plan for summer youth ministry!

I’ve had the privilege of being part of Summer Stretch for over 30 years, and experienced it as an  opportunity to be part of many people’s faith growth, especially their growing in their sense of having a vocation or calling, as people who serve as part of their commitment as disciples/children of God—to make a difference in God’s world in a myriad of ways.

How it came to be

I didn’t create Summer Stretch. Tim Clark, then the youth minister at the local Catholic parish by our home (Mary, Mother of the Church), came up with a ministry model that gathered middle school youth together one day a week to have a Gospel devotion at the beginning of the day, to go in small groups to serve someone/somewhere in the morning, return for lunch together and then go do something recreational, ending with sharing “God sightings” as a large group. The first year, some 40 youth were involved as middle schoolers. The second year, more than 100 youth signed up. And I began volunteering.   

By the second or third summer, as we talked about this ministry option, other regional congregations started doing it based in their places. The spread to other churches grew not on denominational lines, but on relational lines between youth ministers, parents, and other people who saw or heard, and wanted to be involved. And Colleen Needles from WCCO TV came out to do a piece on Summer Stretch.

About 5-10 years later, a group of Summer Stretch colleagues went to a national conference of the Catholic Federation of Youth Workers in Cincinnati. I managed to join them as they presented about Summer Stretch, and we learned that a group in Baltimore was using this model too.

What does it look like?

Youth may have lunch with a homeless person, uproot buckthorn at a nature center, do work in a church building, gather food, quilt, or help at the local food shelf, do yard work or visit seniors from your church.  They might help play bingo at a nursing home or play ring toss outside with seniors on a beautiful summer day at an assisted living facility. They might set up for Vacation Bible School (VBS) or other programming. They might play with young children while their parents access support services. Activities like these build intergenerational relationships. (One of my strengths is that I can generate hundreds of ideas of where to serve.) Many of us engage high school small group leaders, adult drivers, and natural mentors, people already serving who know a place where others might help. Serving helps us learn through so many senses and avenues, especially with mentors working WITH us.  

And youth enjoy it! They build meaningful relationships with friends they may only see once a week when school is out, or only at youth group if they attend different schools. They see what an impact their actions can have, and often, interacting with other people who are very different from them changes how they see others. They grow in faith, love, and grace. And growing relationships between age groups in your congregation can lead to their involvement in other areas of ministry, too. When youth join worship, they may even sit with older friends, or at least be greeted by people who know their name—what a gift to be known. If you’ve never seen 8th-grade boys quilting alongside elder quilters, you’re missing out!

You may notice I haven’t yet used the word “fun” in describing Summer Stretch. A few years in, there was a rule that youth could not just come for the afternoon, but had to be part of the morning’s service and accompaniment activities. We soon found that some youth could find better fun stuff, but would come just to serve.

Adapt to your context

There’s nothing written in stone about how often, or how specifically the “Summer Stretch” model must be followed. Now we try to do 1-3 orientation meetings in different locations around the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota) in January, to gather & share ideas. Last year there were 39 congregations in this metro area involved, but also Rapid City, South Dakota, northern Iowa, western Wisconsin, and non-metro Minnesota sites. 

At one church I served, Edina Community Lutheran, the youth wanted to “do it all year.”  So we created something called “Stretching in Faith” that met one night a week, including dinner, but we didn’t have time to both serve and recreate every week—when they came, they didn’t know which we were doing, but still they came!

When I hear language about “the future of the church is our youth,” I look around and see how many people in the last few years no longer find what their church is doing to be meaningful. Youth need to be the present of the church; they won’t continue if what they’re doing doesn’t bring them hope, and “after the pandemic,” we can look around and be reminded that we, too, want to be involved in things that matter.  Blessings on your ministries that matter with everyone these days! Being the hands of Christ brings joy!

If you want to learn more, please email me [email protected], or call or text me at (612) 532-7083.

Other leaders say: 

“It’s our #1 activity for junior high kids, and pushes them toward ministry in high school”  

“Kids say ‘It’s really fun; we do different things!’” Josh Svenulski, youth minister, Christus Victor Lutheran, Apple Valley, Minnesota“Summer Stretch has been part of my ministry for at least 15-16 years, starting when I was a lay minister at Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Mounds View and to this day in my role as pastor. Summer Stretch creates an opportunity for engagement and memory making with youth and their parents. Having parents involved in at least one event in the summer has opened up relationships—so now there is a shared memory when we are together. It’s fun to have a story with a youth that is remembered so many years later—even when you run into them on the street after they have grown and moved into their own homes. The youth who end up doing Summer Stretch for 5 or 6 years (yes many keep coming back through 11th or 12 grade) are often the very same ones who are generous volunteers in the community. Helping others, showing love, is part of who these young people grow to be.  I love Summer Stretch!”  Pastor Carol Sinykin, Christ Lutheran Church, Faribault, Minnesota

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