After 27 years serving in youth ministry at Matthews United Methodist Church, Laurie Little is moving on to work with people with special needs.
“We’re in mourning because she is transitioning, but we’re also in profound gratitude for what she’s going to do next,” said the Rev. Ken Lyon, the church’s senior pastor who has worked with Little for more than 20 years.
Little, 56, oversaw the church’s youth group, which serves grades 7-12, as it grew from about 25 students to more than 400. Much of her ministry focused on helping youth understand how they can live a life following God. She also taught them that serving the poor could be an integral part of their lives, not an occasional event.
Moving to Matthews in the 1980s was a homecoming for Little and her family. She grew up in Asheville, and her husband, Tom, grew up in Charlotte. After living in Maryland and Ohio, they were looking to get back to the Charlotte area.
Even though she had a young child at the time, Little quickly began volunteering with the youth group at Matthews United Methodist and soon was offered a job there. She said her first youth group meeting was with 10 teenagers at a picnic table.
Lyon said at that time, youth work often was folded into the assistant pastor’s job, and few women were serving in pastoral positions.
‘I love teenagers’
But she had felt drawn to youth ministry for years.
“I love teenagers, and I think they are the most fun folks in the world,” she said. “They are the most real and honest people around.”
She learned to juggle taking care of her four children and working as church youth director, laughing that her oldest was attending youth lock-ins at 3 months old.
“(My kids) have loved being part of the ministry, and they’ve had such awesome kids and adult leaders around them their whole lives,” Little said. “I loved being able to have them in that environment.”
While many ministers see youth work as a stepping stone to other jobs in the church, Little had no intentions of moving on. She said she valued working with teenagers during such a formative time in their lives.
She frequently arranged mission trips to cities all over the United States. She often took middle school students to work with underserved people in rural areas, while high schoolers traveled to inner cities.
She wanted to get them out of their comfort zones.
Little was determined that her youth get to know the people they were serving, and at times, learn what it was like to live with less. She often provided sparse packing lists, banned electronics on the trips and limited showers to once or twice a week.
The group often took along hundreds of bags of toiletries to give to people who are homeless, and sometimes Little gave each youth a bag too – their only toiletries for the week.
“We did a lot of having to create their own outreach and learning how to build relationships with folks,” Little said.
They could talk to the people they met about faith, but Little also wanted the youth to listen and learn from those they met.
“The mission trips exposed them to the fact that the life they experience back in Matthews is not the life the vast major of the world experience,” Lyon said. “As followers of Christ, we are called to make a difference for the ‘least of these.’ ”
Transition to special needs work
One of the most popular ministries Little founded is Rainbow Express Camp, a summer camp for kids with special needs. One of Little’s sons, who is now 25, has special needs, and she started the camp 19 years ago with her son and a few others.
This summer, 118 campers with special needs attended the weeklong camp. More than 220 youth and adults volunteered to help.
As her son has grown into young adulthood, Little has found there is little for him and his peers with special needs to do.
“It’s the biggest black hole I’ve ever seen,” she said. “God’s been talking to me all the time and really nudging me that I need to spend more time with this. It’s just a huge gap in ministry.”
Leaving youth ministry has been a “heart-wrenching decision,” Little said, but she said she needs time and space to build the Rainbow Express ministry. She wants to provide regular opportunities for people with special needs to build life-long friendships and integrate into the community and with churches.
“I think this is just going to be a joyful, great adventure,” she said. “We’ll just see what God does.”
Lyon said Matthews United Methodist is conducting a nationwide search for a new youth director.
“There is no way to replace Laurie Little,” Lyon said. “There’s not another one like her. We will bring in someone who is very competent, someone who loves kids and families and who will build a new chapter of youth ministry.”
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Marty? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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