Alumna Rozella H. White’s new passion: Helping the church reconnect with young adults

A condensed version of this article was published in the Spring 2013 edition of
PS, The Philadelphia Seminary magazine 

Rozella H. White, a 2010 graduate from The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) with an Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) degree, is embarking on a pioneer venture as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Program Director for Young Adult Ministry.

Rozella WhiteWhite is a self-proclaimed “church nerd.” She is also a third-generation Lutheran, something of an anomaly for an African American, she said. In her new post, which started March 11, she will be working on brand new ways to lead the church in reconnecting to a young adult population “that often is not found in our churches. It is less about getting them into church than it is about connecting with them where they are. Many young adults are telling us they are spiritual or believers in God. They are not so much against God and faith, but they are not connected. They are finding our churches irrelevant — not authentic.”

White’s thoughts are well represented in a recent Pew Research study on the “Nones,” those surveyed who say they have no religious affiliation of any kind. The percentage of “Nones” in American culture has been steadily climbing to now about 20 percent, according to the research. But in the 30 and under population to which White is charged to reach out, the percentage is considerably higher — 32 percent. 

In a nutshell, White said she will need to discover “by what barometer” today’s young adults might begin to see the church as authentic again. “It is a risk for the ELCA and a risk for me personally,” she said. “It means finding another way to be the body of Christ, using networks that connect with young adults in non-traditional settings in order to develop new and authentic relationships.”

While White is not ordained, she sees that her work will be pastoral in nature. “It will involve how we listen, sometimes making use of the authentic communication messages and mediums used by young adults today,” she said. “It is a paradigm shift that we are facing and we will work to embrace it.”

The networks she will employ in her work include “people” networks like campus ministry programs, camps, and military chaplaincies, and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. “We want to be a presence with this population, hear their life stories and concerns and be a presence with them. Accompanying people theologically is one of the gifts of the ELCA. It is who we are. All of us experience what it means to struggle and suffer. We want to uphold young adults for who they are, help them find meaning and connect with them. Most of them are not looking for answers. They value being heard. They care a great deal about justice and service to others. In terms of congregations, this will not mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It means reaching out to a population that does not agree with being part of a traditional church setting. It means we are thinking about the importance of the voices not now present in that church setting. We will work at being authentic without bearing the burden of conversion.”

As a young woman in her early 30s, White has accomplished much. She graduated cum laude from Texas Southern University in 2007 with a degree in sociology, and also with honors from LTSP, with a focus on Black Church Concentration and Practical/Pastoral Theology. While at LTSP, she earned two awards — the LeRoy Aden Scholarship in Pastoral Care and the Joseph Q. Jackson Award for Academic Excellence. She became a Certified Youth and Family Minister in 2002 while part of Wartburg Seminary’s Center for Youth Ministries, and in 2010 was certified as a Disaster Chaplain with the National Disasters Interfaith Network.

White has worked in several capacities as an independent contractor for the ELCA in areas of leadership training and support, strategic planning and program development. From 2010 to 2012 she was Minister for Youth and Families and Young Adults at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Atlanta, Georgia. (She moved from Decatur, Georgia, to Chicago.) From 2002 to 2007, she served as Ministry Coordinator for Youth and Family Ministry for the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the ELCA, creating a youth leadership development program for the synod and overseeing youth gatherings for as many as 450 young adults and youth.

White originally wanted to be a lawyer. “I wanted to be independent, ambitious, have a successful legacy to leave for my family,” she said. “I think many African Americans with our history feel that way.” But she explained that through a combination of life experiences and events, she felt led back into the church.

“Life is about being so much more than oneself,” she explained. “It has to do with a way of being in the world. I began to feel comfortable with becoming a public theologian. It was a new way of being. At one time I felt I would need to be dragged kicking and screaming into seminary study, but when I was at LTSP I knew I was supposed to be there.”

She credits all the professors she had at seminary for giving her an understanding of “the context we find ourselves in. When you are a spiritual leader, I learned you need to go beyond the surface of things to understand where you are serving.” She mentioned especially Professors Katie Day (Church and Society), Wil Gafney (Old Testament) and Nelson Rivera (Systematic Theology). She said she believes seminaries will increasingly need to become more flexible about how education is given and received. (Click to learn more about LTSP’s new curriculum and how it meets this challenge.)

“I really enjoyed my experience at LTSP,” she said. “The professors, my peers, and the location of the school were all I needed. The seminary gave me the educational foundation to practice ministry in a rapidly changing landscape.”

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