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How a California Stake Is Cultivating Youth Leadership in the Lord’s Vineyard

A youth-led, leader-supported stake conference encouraged engagement and conversion

Young men and young women of the Fresno California North Stake gather for a youth conference from March 28-30, 2024, in Fresno, California. Photo by Kiley Powell, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

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By Melina Myers, Church News

Nestled in the heart of California’s central valley, surrounded by orchards and farmland, the youth of the Fresno California North Stake take the lead on laboring in the Lord’s vineyard. The 30-year tradition of holding a youth-led, leader-supported stake youth conference (SYC) is timelier than ever with the revision of the “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet.

Speaking to the youth of the Church in the October 2023 general conference, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles extended increased responsibility, saying the “For the Strength of Youth” guide “doesn’t make decisions for you. It doesn’t give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about every choice you might ever face. ... It focuses on values, principles and doctrine instead of every specific behavior.”

The Fresno California North Stake SYC was held March 28-30 and hosted nearly 300 young men and young women. Over the span of just three days, the camp held a dance, a talent show, a scavenger hunt, sports games, devotionals and 18 senior workshops.

Beginning in May 2023, the senior class — led by three co-chairs — took full responsibility of the event from start to finish, first brainstorming ideas and then coordinating execution of each aspect of the conference.

Brother Bradley R. Wilcox, First Counselor in the Young Men General Presidency, attended the event as a guest speaker and remarked being surprised and impressed when, for the first time ever, he was picked up from the airport, not by stake or ward leaders, but by three teenagers.

As a sort of diving board for future Church involvement, Stake President Ryan P. McNeil believes that this specific model of a stake youth conference instills in the youth a “sense of duty to continue moving forward and serving others.”

Youth participants of the Fresno California North Stake youth conference talk with guest speaker, Brother Bradley R. Wilcox, First Counselor in the Young Men General Presidency, during the event held March 28-30, 2024, in Fresno, California. Photo by Kiley Powell, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

Leading with the Spirit

Youth leaders are guided by the question: “How can we help individuals feel the Spirit?” The theme of the conference was the same as the 2024 youth theme — “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ” (3 Nephi 5:13).

Songs, talks, presentations and even games were all focused on that guiding question and theme with the purpose of transforming outward action into heartfelt conversion. Once internalized, memorized lyrics and scriptures can become personalized prayers available to the youth throughout their lives.

One mother noted the changes she saw in her son after his reluctant attendance to the conference. She initially suspected he would not pay attention to anything, however, her son came home excited and engaged, even asking to attend an FSY conference in the summer.

Stake Young Men president William VanBeever attributed some of the changes that occurred in the youth to the senior workshops. Each night of the conference a different group of seniors gave a prepared message. They were vulnerable about their struggles and insecurities and bore testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

“They just exuberate light, love and charity,” VanBeever said.

Because they have recently gone or are currently going through similar experiences, seniors become mentors for the underclassmen and can point them to the Savior with an authenticity that sometimes leaders may not be able to achieve.

Themed banner from the Fresno California North Stake youth-led conference held March 28-30, 2024, in Fresno, California. Photo by Kiley Powell, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

During the senior fireside the final night of the conference, seniors of the stake bore testimony through word and song, which they had selected and prepared themselves.

One underclassman observed the strength of the spirit with which they led this fireside. Upon returning from a break, the underclassman felt a distinct wave of the Spirit wash over him as soon as he opened the door.

Regarding the growth he sees in both seniors and underclassmen, President McNeil said: “I see their spiritual gifts being enhanced by the Lord as they serve, they truly learn how to love.”

‘They Know What We Need’

Holding youth-led events allows peers to get to know one another, serve with one another and learn to love one another as Christ loves, President McNeil shared. It is made clear to the youth that everyone can receive and learn to act on personal revelation.

Co-chair Carter Salway added, “God knew what was best for us, and he guided us throughout the whole process of planning SYC. God always knows what’s best for us.”

From both the upper- and underclassmen perspectives, the format of the conference amplifies the power of already universal truths because youth relate to one another about the unique applications associated with their generation.

“They know what we want and need to hear,” said Brooke Myers, a 16-year-old junior in high school.

In both temporal and spiritual matters, creating expectations for youth to live up to can motivate them to get involved, Brother Wilcox explained. The senior class worked for hours on choreography for their talent show performance because they “wanted to be better than last year.”

About the underclassmen, President McNeil said: “They realize it will be their turn, and they look forward to giving back.”

Youth participate in games during the Fresno California North Stake youth conference held March 28-30, 2024, in Fresno, California. Photo by Kiley Powell, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

The Power of Gathering

Branches and wards anywhere can pattern activities after the FSY conferences and give youth more responsibility. It’s not about where in the world people are or how many resources they have, Brother Wilcox emphasized, it is about gathering and letting the youth know they are a part of something bigger.

For young men and women finding their footing in the gospel, it is exciting to gather because they get a chance to “see other young people who share their same standards and their same beliefs,” Brother Wilcox added.

Gracie Grant, co-chair, emphasized this point by saying, “Watching all my friends and the younger youth get the courage to get up and share their testimony, only strengthened mine more.”

The senior class of the Fresno California North Stake participate in a devotional meeting during a youth-led conference held March 28-30, 2024, in Fresno, California. Photo by Kiley Powell, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

In his October 2019 general conference address, President Russell M. Nelson described the youth of the Church as being “unusually gifted in reaching out to others and sharing what they believe in a convincing fashion.”

Allowing youth to take the lead on events in appropriate and scaffolded ways may increase engagement as they will be more invested in the fruit of their own labors.

“It’s special to see how our influence and hard work affects the younger kids. I’m super grateful that we got to see the fruits of this conference first hand,” said co-chair Elena Coronado.

Additional ideas for activities that can involve youth in increased measure can be found on the Gospel Living app and the social media accounts @youngmenworldwide and @youngwomenworldwide.

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