Youth leadership on display at Institute

David Burke


UMY Institute 2023

BALDWIN CITY, Kansas – Three weeks after the youth from the Great Plains made some of the most memorable moments of the annual conference session, many of them took leadership roles at the United Methodist Youth Institute.

The youth were on a panel with bold statements discussing the Church of 2050 and had poignant and powerful moments leading worship on the final day of the June 7-10 annual conference. And that carried through to Institute, a Methodist tradition at the Baker University campus and next door at Baldwin City First UMC since 1911. This year’s Institute is June 26 to July 1.

“The relationship that we have with the campers here basically correlates with what we said at the conference,” Zander Seth, a member of the Youth Coordinating Team who lives in Lyndon and attends Topeka First UMC. “We love all, and we believe that God welcomes all. We believe that we are building that here at Institute, and we’re building the church of 2050 right here.”

Members of the Youth Coordinating Team -- along with William and Charles Baker, sons of Revs. Amanda and Ross Baker -- lead worship during visitors night at UMY Institute. Photos by David Burke

Emma Yeon, another YCT member who also spoke during the conference, said the spirit of what the youth said in La Vista, Nebraska, comes to life at Institute.

“Everyone shows great leadership here. Everyone is so involved, and we can all see a little of the love of Jesus radiating from everyone at Institute,” said Yeon, who attends Paola UMC. “We can feel it in the sanctuary, because everyone is so vibrant and so joyful. I think it’s really amazing.”

Rev. Kurt Cooper, community life coordinator at Institute for many years, said the conference got a glimpse of what inspires the youth.

“Some of that carries over from conference, but this is also a generation that is very hopeful for what could come next for The United Methodist Church, and that’s a good thing,” said Cooper, campus pastor at Emporia State University.

The traditional visitors night on June 28 gave parents, families, pastors and friends a glimpse of what happens at Institute, from singalong songs to deeply personal testimonials.

Bishop David Wilson, a few days before his six-month anniversary with the conference, talked about patience and kindness.

He recalled his unsuccessful campaigns for the episcopacy in 2012 and 2016, and how he was not convinced he should try again in 2022 (after a delayed 2020 South Central Jurisdictional Conference) until several people urged him to make himself available.

“Many of the people who convinced me were from the Great Plains Annual Conference,” he said.

Bishop David Wilson talks to campers at Institute.

Bishop Wilson said he was discouraged after losing the elections, but those led to other opportunities. He joined other Indigenous leaders in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 and 2017, which would have destroyed parts of Native American land.

“Had I been elected I never would have had that experience,” said Bishop Wilson, the first Native American episcopal leader in the history of the denomination.

Halfway through this year’s Institute, youth leaders were pleased with what they had seen.

“It’s just been a wonderful time, a wonderful experience, a wonderful getaway from home for a lot of these campers. For a lot of them it’s their first time experiencing Christ,” Seth said. “It’s been a great experience to watch these young people grow in their faith.”

“Although we are a small camp, everyone here is inclusive of everybody and so loving,” Yeon said. “I think our group is really amazing. It’s an amazing opportunity to see how Jesus can affect not only people in my hometown but people who come from all over the Great Plains.”

Institute is still feeling the effects of COVID, which shut down the gathering in 2020 and 2021, Cooper said. This year included 34 youth, while numbers in the late 2010s averaged 85-100.

“We’re just trying to build back like everybody else is,” he said.

Rev. Kurt Cooper welcomes guests to visitors night.

Cooper, who attended Institute as a youth in 1982 and has worked as an adult leader with various duties and titles for 32 years, is stepping away at least temporarily. Rev. Brenda Davids, pastor at Council Grove Dunlap-Alta Vista Simpson UMCs, will succeed him as community life coordinator.

He said being involved with Institute was his way of giving back.

“There were adults who invested in me as a young person when I was here. No matter how many times I’m here as an adult, I can’t pay that back,” he said. “It was such a great gift.”

Cooper said the transformation of the teenagers during their week at Institute is gratifying.

“The heart of young people makes it special, and their opportunity to experience and encounter God in a space for a full week of time. It gives them an experience they can’t get for an hour a week in church. It’s just a different world with their peers and talking about their faith life,” he said. “It’s really a great space.”

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