How one church is breathing life into common good ideas

“In our cultural moment, we need to make the pivot toward the church being known in the community for what we’re for instead of what we’re against,” said David White, pastor for families, youth, and children at Upper Arlington Lutheran Church (UALC) in Columbus, Ohio.

For White, being for the community means being for its thriving. And if the church is to give energy toward that, it needs to know the community’s needs, hearing from community members themselves. So White proposed an initiative that would offer young people the opportunity to identify a genuine need and a proposed solution — an initiative that could give oxygen to those ideas through people and money. Through this proposal, the O2 Conference began.

“The vision statement for our church is responding to the needs in our community, we serve children and youth in engaging families for the kingdom,” White said. “The O2 Conference embodies that.”

The initiative’s hosted its first pitch night May 12, 2018. Through the O2 project, leadership invite youth from middle school and up to apply for mini-grants from UALC. Applicants describe the problem they hope to address, how they’ll tackle it, and what makes them passionate about this particular need. White’s O2 task force includes five congregants who advertised the pitch competition through social media, word-of-mouth to the church’s 4,000 members, and through sharing with local schools. Ten teams (sometimes one individual, pairs, or small groups) applied for funding and the task force selected eight students to make oral presentations on pitch night. Winners received grants ranging from $500 to $2,000 each, and were matched with a mentor from the congregation. Mentors agreed to meet two-to-four hours a month for six months with the young entrepreneurs to help them turn their ideas into reality.

At the O2 event, a panel of seven mentors from UALC listened to each presentation, then departed for a short time of deliberation. They reviewed the ideas and each chose one team, as well as which applicants would receive $1,500 or $500 grants. The audience also voted for their two favorite ideas and those teams each received an additional $500.

One of the proposals came from Hilliard Davidson High School students Sarah Khoury and Deika Ahmed. They proposed a new fitness initiative tailored to the needs of immigrant women, particularly Muslims. Their thought was to provide a safe, modest environment where these often-isolated women could build friendships and learn to swim.

Congregant Lisa Igel chose to work with Khoury and Ahmed. It was a perfect match, given Igel’s own work: She manages the Huntington National Bank Wellness Program for more than 16,500 employees.

Mentor Taylor McClintock, who oversees graphic design for G&P Productions, a creative media and marketing firm she founded with her husband, collaborated with Elizabeth Weller from Hilliard Weaver Middle School. Weller’s idea was one that especially warmed her youth pastor’s heart, given White’s desire to nurture rich, cross-generational relationships. She proposed a “Senior Prom” that young students would organize in order to meet with older people living in nursing homes. She explained how the event would initiate a series of future visits by these young people to prom attendees, allowing the young and old to deepen relationships, giving the teens relationships that would provide opportunities to learn important life wisdom.

Three siblings from the home-schooling Rakowsky family pitched an ambitious vision. They wanted to encourage other kids to put down their cell phones and get out to explore the rich cultural offerings of Columbus. Their idea was to create a Project Innovation Card that students could earn points for attending museums, conservatories, and mind-opening events. The points would then be redeemed for restaurant and transportation discounts. The scope of this big idea didn’t dissuade mentor Charley Shin from pairing with these visionary youth. He founded Charleys Philly Steaks (with nearly 600 franchises), two other restaurant chains, and Solar Planet, one of the largest commercial solar power companies in Ohio.

To recruit mentors, White reports that he and his team pursued individuals ranging from business owners to city administrators to stay-at-home moms. “Being Lutheran,” he said, “we know Martin Luther had some important things to say about vocation and calling. He says pastors aren’t the only important workers; people are doing holy work all the time all over the place.” He continued, saying

UALC includes many people who hold skill sets that are really impressive, but don’t have an obvious connection to ministries within the church. They have all this expertise and giftedness that can be used for the kingdom. So this was an opportunity for them to share about Jesus openly and put those skill sets to work.

The project is a vehicle for putting kids’ creative ideas into motion. And the church doesn’t have to be the one implementing all of them. As White says, “they remain other people’s ideas. But we can be part of connecting with them and building relationships that simultaneously advance the Kingdom and the common good.” 

Topics: City Engagement, Community Development, Entrepreneurship, Mission & Outreach, The City

About the Author

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).