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Spring 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 1 · pp. 68–73 

Writing for Youth: An Interview with Carol Duerksen

Laurie Oswald

The following is an interview with Carol Duerksen, editor of With magazine for Christian youth, published by Mennonite Church USA, which has received several awards for excellence in recent years. In December 2001, Laurie Oswald asked Duerksen about the goals, challenges, joys, and outcomes of her ministry: writing for and working with Christian youth.

With magazine feels strongly about its mission to address tough topics in a realistic way because we know that is the world youth live in.

Question 1: What are your biggest challenges in writing and editing for youth?

Answer: One of the biggest challenges is knowing if what I’m writing and editing is connecting with youth. I’ve always wondered if adults in the “ivory towers” of their offices can put out a publication that meets youth where they are. And, despite the fact that I climb out of my tower often—my husband and I have worked with youth in our church for sixteen years, host a different high school exchange student in our home every year, and work as coordinators for the exchange program—I still ask {69} myself the question. With magazine does have teens that provide feedback on every issue, and that’s very helpful. Sometimes the youth completely disagree on an article, and it is obvious that youth are at very different points in their faith journey, just as adults are. I know we will never meet all of our readers’ needs all of the time, but I hope for a high percentage.

Question 2: What are the biggest joys in your ministry?

Answer: The biggest joy has been the “God things.” I started keeping a list of “coincidences” that came together in the process of working on With—things that happened that I did not create or plan for but that occurred in a wonderful Holy-Spirit-moving kind of way. It has been totally awesome to be the recipient of that kind of blessing.

Question 3: In your role as With editor, what do you see as the themes that most touch today’s youth?

Answer: The sex and dating theme is always popular. The other themes that we address will often have some youth that really are into them and others who are less enthused. I try to alternate themes between those that are “issue” based and those that are “biblical.” I use those terms loosely and there is, of course, a lot of crossover between the two. For example, the 2002 themes are Sex and Dating, The Holy Spirit, Integrity, Service and Mission, Traps/Bad Things, and God’s Call.

Question 4: How do you go about making sure you make those themes accessible for the youth? For example, With tends not to shy away from the tough topics, like sexual abuse, drug use, divorce, sex. And when it deals with those topics, it does so in a realistic and head-on way. Why does With feel so strongly about its mission in this regard?

Answer: With magazine feels strongly about its mission to address tough topics in a realistic way because we know that is the world youth live in. Sexual abuse happens. Divorce happens. Pregnancy happens. Teens are at times victims of bad choices made by others, and at times they make the bad choices themselves. Either way, we need to walk with them in the process, and walking with them means we don’t wear blinders.

Question 5: How does With strike that balance between the evangelical and the radical—telling youth that Jesus loves and cares and has {70} some answers, and yet not doing that in a legalistic and preachy style that leaves no room for questioning, searching, processing, and a sense of “journey”?

Answer: Our balance of being both evangelical and radical comes through the language used in the articles, and in the “takeaway” from the articles. For example, a true story about a girl who had an abortion ends like this: “Giving the baby to God hasn’t taken away the pain of earthly loss. Eddie is gone, my innocence is gone, the baby is gone. But Jesus is here with me. And that’s a forever love.” In that same issue on the theme of purity, another article stated: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9 NIV). To summarize, Zach met Jesus, obeyed Jesus, followed Jesus, was changed by Jesus, and used his resources to serve Jesus. Jesus calls us to do the same.” The contributing editors who write for With range from conservative to liberal in their theology, and their stories reflect their approach to faith. This, I feel, is a strong point for the magazine because it helps us achieve that balance.

Question 6: What role has the workshop for contributing editors and writers played in helping you fulfill your mission?

Answer: The annual writers’ workshop that Eddy Hall, former co-editor of the magazine, initiated for With writers ten years ago has been invaluable in terms of With’s ability to fulfill its mission, communicate with youth, and be recognized in the industry as the best Christian youth magazine. The workshop brings together a group of committed, highly skilled writers from a variety of faiths and spiritual understandings. We spend a weekend together critiquing manuscripts, sharing our lives, and growing in our skills and relationships. These writers feel ownership in With—it’s not just another magazine they write for. I can call any of them with a story idea, and know that what they write will be what I’m looking for. That is a huge advantage for me as an editor.

Question 7: How has the world of publishing changed since your season began at With? What do you find most exciting about those changes? The most challenging?

Answer: When I started editing With as part of a three-person team in 1990, the magazine was two-color, twenty-four pages, and was published eleven times a year. We have gone through several major design {71} changes, and now we are a full-color magazine, thirty-two pages, published bimonthly. The printing industry has changed so dramatically that four-color is now an option for us, and that was one of the most exciting things that happened to the magazine. The most challenging has been marketing, and the future of the magazine will depend on our ability to get it into the hands of teenagers. We keep hearing from people that With is one of the best-kept secrets around, and we would really rather not be a secret any longer.

Question 8: Have teenagers’ questions, dilemmas, challenges, or theological frameworks changed much since you began at With? If so, in what ways?

Answer: I don’t think the challenges, questions, dilemmas, and theological framework of youth have changed dramatically since I began editing With. Some issues seem to be settling down, like the AIDS scare, and others are increasing, like the fear of violence and terrorism as a result of school shootings and September 11. This may be one of those areas where my ivory tower is protecting me from the true picture, and I’d be open to talking about it, but my sense is that their challenges haven’t changed that much.

Question 9: What is your future vision for With?

Answer: In the last three years, With has received the Award of Excellence twice and the Award of Merit once at the Evangelical Press Association’s annual convention. This was before we were four-color, and our competition was four-color magazines with budgets much larger than ours—publications like Campus Life and Focus on the Family’s Brio and Breakaway. Getting those awards has meant so much because it affirms that our content is right on, and that our designer, Jim Friesen, has done wonders with a limited budget and use of color. Jim and our contributing editors should each have a copy of those awards hanging on their computers because they have made them possible. My dream for the magazine is that it would no longer be such a “best-kept secret” and that other denominations would promote it and make it available to their youth.

Question 10: What are you most excited about in your field of publishing, writing, and speaking for youth?

Answer: Right now, one very exciting aspect of my career is the {72} opportunity I’ve had to work on curriculum for the federal government’s anti-drug campaign. I am applying some of the methods I learned in Mennonite curriculum publishing to a new activity guide for faith denominations (Christian, Muslim, and Jewish) so they can help educate their youth on the abuse of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. When my contact person in Washington, D.C. says that the activity guide went into a committee that is known to be harsh and to slash things to pieces, and it came out with very few changes—that is rewarding.

Question 11: How do your speaking engagements for youth fit into the writing aspect of your vocation?

Answer: One of the most fun outcomes of the books, writing youth curriculum, and working with youth in our church has been the opportunity to do speaking engagements and youth retreats in other parts of the U.S. and Canada. One of the more popular topics is “Sex: God’s Great Idea.” My goal in that retreat is to be open and frank with the youth about the topic, about God’s plan for us in the area of our sexuality, and to expect the youth to be open and respectful of the discussion in return. I also want to build both fun and thoughtful times into the sessions, and to create a weekend that will be worth their time and give them something to think about.

Question 12: Tell us about your curriculum writing for youth. What is the most enjoyable, challenging, or joyful about this part of your work?

Answer: The challenging and rewarding part about writing curriculum (and leading retreats) is finding ways to make the message come alive. Storytelling is a big part of that—whether it’s telling biblical stories or stories from our own lives. Creating fun activities is also part of the answer. Engaging the youth is a must—if we can’t do that, we’ve wasted our time and theirs.

Question 13: What do you find most meaningful about being a communicator who is also a Christian? How much does your faith weave into your work, and where is it most powerful?

Answer: The most awesome thing about being a communicator who is a Christian is that I’m not doing this communicating by myself. The serendipitous actions of the Holy Spirit continue to blow me away. I am {73} given assignments, I sit at the computer, I talk or write, and stuff just comes. My faith and my work are interwoven in ways beyond my understanding. I’m just thrilled to be a part of the process.

Question 14: If you were doing a David Letterman late night show, what would you say was your number one favorite part of being a communicator for today’s youth?

Answer: My favorite part of being a person who’s privileged to communicate with youth is simply that I get to do it, and that hopefully a positive connection is being made. One of my favorite quotes is, “People will value me to the extent that they believe I value them.” I value teenagers, and if they value me or my work in return, then thanks be to God.

Carol Duerksen is editor of With magazine and has been associated with it since 1990. She lives on a farm near Goessel, Kansas, with her husband, Maynard Knepp, with whom she has coauthored seven novels written about the Amish. Her book on youth ministry is reviewed in this issue of Direction.
Laurie L. Oswald, former assistant editor of Mennonite Weekly Review, is a contributing editor for With and News Service Director for Mennonite Church USA. She lives just outside of Newton, Kansas.

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