|Photo used with permission|
When Sydney A., a high school junior who attended North Madison Congregational Church, Connecticut, approached Sue Timony-Hall, the church’s Minister of Faith Formation and Youth Minister, and asked about offering an empowerment workshop for girls, Timony-Hall was intrigued.
Sydney’s idea was to build a safe space for girls in grades 3-8 to come together in age groups to explore ways to grow in confidence, increase self-esteem, and create healthy friendships. Sydney had led an art camp for girls at the town youth center the previous summer and saw how the girls benefited from that time together and she wanted to open the experience up to more girls in the community.
Timony-Hall agreed to give this “workshop by girls for girls” a try and although she oversaw the project, Sydney and a fellow church teen, Delaney, facilitated the session.
The first year’s workshop brought in 34 girls and focused on celebrating strengths and learning to adopt a growth mindset when faced with everyday challenges. That success inspired the church to hold two more sessions. They also realized that in order to keep the program going once Sydney graduated, they would need to train another younger teen to co-facilitate the following year. So, they invited Caroline to join them. Caroline, a junior, is now poised to take the reins next year with two sophomores, Lauren and Syd W., already training to lead once Caroline graduates.
Timony-Hall oversees the program and mentors the youth who are running it. The team brainstorms ideas, develops the program, and then recruits professional female adults to present to their young workshop participants. This year the church offered the workshops during February and March as a series of four 90-minute sessions for sixteen 4th-8th graders.
“The workshop has now developed into a more in-depth program that explores topics like managing anxiety, separating reality from the world we think we see on social media, and identifying qualities of a good friend,” explained Timony-Hall.
Yoga instructors, sports coaches, and other female leaders in the community have been recruited to lead some sessions. Topics have covered managing stress through yoga and mindful breathing, defeating negative self-talk and tapping into the power of using a reset word to reframe self-sabotaging thoughts, how to interact safely on social media while loving and protecting your own self-esteem, and creating a vision board to dream about and set attainable goals for the future.
Vicki Earl, a yoga instructor who led one of the programs, said that it was a great experience to see so many girls coming together and taking time for self-care. “I wish this was something that was offered to me when I was younger,” said Earl. “Yoga has benefited me in many ways, including raising my level of confidence and patience. My hope is the girls will find the same benefits I have experienced and bring more peace and kindness out to the world.”
Sydney A., now in college, shared how her greatest joy, so far, comes from helping other people learn new things so that they can become better versions of themselves.
“I believe in the value of setting goals and working diligently to reach them,” said Sydney A. “I also feel that belief in oneself is key to achieving dreams.”
Timony-Hall noted that Delaney has been instrumental in developing content for these workshops, with Caroline’s support, as her senior high school project. “Delaney has shared with me that all of the topics she has chosen speak directly to challenges and feelings she has had as a teen herself,” said Timony-Hall. “She and Caroline both wish to support younger girls so that they may grow into confident people who love themselves and are able to support other girls as well.”
“After assisting Sydney last year with these empowerment sessions, I didn’t even question saying yes when Mrs. Timony-Hall asked me to continue these classes by leading in the following year,” said Delaney. “One thing that is important to me is creating a safe space for these young girls to express themselves and the empowerment sessions do just that.”
Bianca, age 10, believed the program was “really good.” “I met new friends and I also got to bring my friends, which made my friends happy,” she said. “I learned to be safe on the internet, to be nice to yourself, and how to calm myself down. And I enjoyed the yoga. Delaney was great as the instructor because she was really open to talk to people and it wasn’t boring – it was fun and exciting to be there!”
“It was heartwarming to see all of the girls interacting with each other and with the leaders,” said Delaney’s mom, Missy. “It was obvious they were really enjoying themselves. Delaney was very engaging and open to any questions/comments the girls had. She not only was a good leader but also a good role model.”
“We feel this program serves our local girls well, especially as national numbers rise around anxiety and depression in our kids, and the correlation between social media and feelings of isolation and or low self-worth become more apparent,” explained Timony-Hall. “We feel mentoring relationships between adults, teens, and younger kids are the work of ministry, and that building supportive relationships strengthens each of us.”
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in February, 2023, that teen girls are experiencing record high levels of violence, sadness, and suicide risk. “While all teens reported increasing mental health challenges, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, girls fared worse than boys across nearly all measures. The new report also confirms ongoing and extreme distress among teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning (LGBQ+).”
“Jesus teaches us that in order to grow into who we are created to be, we need to push away the negative messages that society tries to impose on us – things like beauty standards and how systems treat people who don’t fit the 'mold,' for example – so that we don’t buy into those messages and begin to love ourselves less,” said Timony-Hall.
“In order to love our neighbors well and use our gifts to the fullest, we need to first love ourselves,” she continued. “I see how that can be tough in our media-centered world where preteens and teens, especially, often feel that they don’t measure up to artificial ideals. Our hope is that ministry programs like GE will meet girls where they are today and start to build community supports around them as they begin to realize all the ways they are each wonderfully made. We'd love to see other communities try out this model in ways that might bring their local girls together as well.”
“Stories from our earliest Christian origins affirm the presence of powerful, competent women upon whom Jesus and the early church relied for nurture and leadership. And yet, confoundingly, the Church remains, 2,000+ years later, conflicted about our empowerment,” said Rev. Dr. Heather Arcovitch, Senior Minister at the church. “This ministry, conceived and facilitated by young women, is a wonderful expression of a more balanced investment in celebrating the gifts and value of all who are created in God's image, sacred and beloved.”
North Madison Congregational Church is looking forward to offering the workshops again this fall.
Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane writes news articles for the SNEUCC website. She is also the editor of the Starting With Scripture newsletter. Contact her if: Your church has a great story to tell about an innovative ministry. You have a prayer request to ...