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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker

LEADING THE LAMBS by Tia Swanson

Morrow's extraordinary youth pastor finds a new calling, and a new home



Spaghetti Dinner
Pastor Ehlers making spaghetti with a long-ago member of youth fellowship. The annual spaghetti dinner raises money to defray the cost of building supplies and registration for the week spent repairing homes in North Jersey.

It is not every pastor who spends a Sunday evening teaching teenagers how to cut Sheetrock with a straight knife.


But then Brenda Ehlers is regarded as a pastor like almost no other.


For 20 years, she has led the children and youth programming at Morrow United Methodist Church in Maplewood, the stately edifice at the corner of Ridgewood and Baker that considers itself an integral member of the community. Ehlers is central to that integration.


Not only has she run all the summer programming open to members and nonmembers alike – from Bible school and her Peace and Nature camp to the justly famous theater camp; she also oversees the Friday night youth fellowship meeting that routinely draws students from across the two towns and across all faiths.


With the late Maplewood police chief Jimmy DeVaul, Ehlers also founded the town’s restorative justice program – a program that seeks to settle cases of wrongdoing through a community circle rather than the court system. The circle includes a mediator, the victim or victims, as well as the juvenile who has committed the crime and his or her supporters. The group discusses what happened and why, and the victim is given the time and space to explain the crime’s effect.


“Everyone together decides what the solution is to make the situation right,” Ehlers says.


The juvenile has 30 days to complete the solution’s tasks. A student caught tagging a garage, for example, might have to wash and/or paint the garage, write an apology note and research how graffiti affects neighborhoods. In fact, the program has become so popular it has been adopted at Columbia High School as well as at both middle schools.


No matter what program, Ehlers’ desire is always the same: to meet kids where they are, and help them grow up to be secure, serene, caring adults.


She once said that JYF – Junior Youth Fellowship – exists not so much to provide religious instruction to youth as to give them somewhere safe to hang out with their friends. “Middle schoolers want to go somewhere on Friday nights,” Ehlers explained then. “But they don’t actually have anywhere to go.”


Ehlers has seen to that; she has ferried hundreds to the corn maze in Chester; taken dozens bowling, swimming and to laser tag; packed up carloads for a winter getaway to the Frost Valley Y camp and to shop for Christmas presents for needy children.

Mission Trip
Pastor Ehlers blessing a group of young church members heading out on a mission trip.

Ehlers has a similar group for high schoolers. The numbers shrink but the trips get more profound. For years she has taken a small group to Sussex County just after school ends in June to help repair houses for those who can’t do it for themselves. She’s led similar trips to Appalachia and to Louisiana. She has taken students on a civil rights pilgrimage through the South and to explore immigration at the border of Texas and Mexico. The Sunday night Sheetrock instruction was intended to get her latest crop of high schoolers prepared for the trip to Sussex County this year.


For the first time in decades, however, Pastor Ehlers will not be leading the trip.


After a great deal of prayer, she has accepted an offer to become the senior pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Montclair. Instead of planning youth trips she will be plotting sermons, and, instead of scheduling Bible school she will, as she puts it, be “organizing the life of the church.” The congregation is small and diverse, and she hopes to be able to grow it, bringing all of her skills in raising children, to the task. She leaves Morrow, the church she came to first as a member, this month.


In the early days, Ehlers was a marketing executive with three young children whom she regularly carted to Sunday School at Morrow. Her marketing expertise was educational literature, and she was horrified by Morrow’s Sunday School literature – the same literature she had had as a kid.

She wanted to help move the church out of the Stone Age and so got appointed to a committee looking for a new director of education. They found no one.


Finally, someone recommended that Ehlers apply for the role.


She has not looked back.


The irony, she says is that “as soon as I started working with the youth groups I realized, ‘It ain’t about the curriculum.’ It became really clear to me that it was about people.”


Ehlers had already decided she would begin seminary at Drew University, although the job did not require her to be ordained. She graduated in 2008, choosing to be ordained as a deacon rather than an elder. In the Methodist Church, a deacon was not traditionally in line for senior pastor roles. But the work of the deacon – service, compassion, justice – was central to Ehler’s conception of pastoral care.


Over her many years, in addition to the mission trips that have shaped generations of Morrow kids, she has counseled teens of all stripes, with all sorts of problems. Her work in restorative justice began with a simple request to help a young person who had gotten into trouble.


To many adults, she has been not only pastor, but friend. Mary Beth Scherer is now a daily walking partner but got to know Ehlers when her girls were middle schoolers.


Scherer remembers a Sunday School lesson Ehlers taught in the large hall of the church. There were three tables, one piled high with donuts, a second with some rice and a pail of clean water, and a third with nothing but dirty water. The tables represented the first, second and third worlds, and the kids were randomly assigned to the tables in proportion to the number of people in the world living in each category. Most of the kids ended up huddled around the table with only dirty water. The kids lucky enough to be assigned to the donuts, had five a piece.


The lesson stuck, for middle schoolers and parents alike.


confirmation group
Pastor Ehlers with her last confirmation group this spring.

Morrow’s engagement with youth is exceptional and Ehlers hopes to find a way to continue to do similar work in Montclair, although, because it is a small church, she will spend half her time as a chaplain.


Others at Morrow, however, are hoping she guides the creation of the programs, but leaves the daily work to others. Says Sunday school teacher Maggie Tuohy, “I’m so happy that after so many years of spending her Friday nights with our teens, she’ll be able to sit at home on her own couch and relax.”


Tia Swanson will be forever grateful that her children benefited from all the love Pastor Ehlers gave them, and the experiences she so joyfully shared.

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