As a teenager, Matthew Arehart felt the redeeming power of Holy Communion’s youth program. He intuitively understood its strength when he realized the most meaningful interactions he had with his peer group happened at church.
A few years later, when he was in charge, he built on what he knew all middle and high school students need: A place to fit in, no matter how odd they believe they are.
As he prepares to leave the program he has run for more than six years to be the full-time director of camps and event manager at St. Columbia Conference and Retreat Center, he’s grateful and reflective.
“One thing that I loved about being a part of the youth program growing up was knowing that I had a loving community that accepted me for who I was,” Arehart said. “I not one of the cool kids at school and I didn’t really fit into any of the standard cliques. I was an AP art student who played soccer, was on the bowling team and was a member of the German Club. I did these things at school, but I did not fit in with those groups.
“But when I went to church, I felt right at home. I was able to relax and be me. But at the same time, I was always challenged, pushed to think about things differently, have conversations that were uncomfortable - but important - and practice being inclusive.
“Those were the same exact things that I wanted to bring to CHC. I wanted every person to know that this church was a safe place where they did not have to worry about fitting into a certain stereotype. They could have the conversations here that it may not be so easy to have at school. I wanted to challenge them too, but you can’t challenge anyone who doesn’t feel safe,” Arehart said.
“I felt as if I spent most of my high school years trying to figure out things about myself and searching for who I was and what social group to fit in with, when the real group I belonged to was the one at church. And that group was a mix of all types. I didn’t have to hang out with the art kids or the soccer kids only, the church group had all of it.”
The kids Arehart has touched, many of them now adults, say his consistency and faithfulness changed their lives.
John Monaghan, 14, now active in youth events, didn’t participate until this year, when his confirmation was on the horizon.
“Matthew’s been a form of a friend to me,” John said. “He’s very trustworthy. You can talk to him about anything. He will always cheer you up and make the mood of the group better.”
Beyond that, John says Matthew is the person who taught him to pray.
“He also helped me learn how to be spiritual when I’m not in church. When I’m on my own.”
He expects those skills will be with him the rest of his life.
Amelia Dowling, a rising freshman, says similar things, including that Arehart is someone “who listens and actually cares.” But she’s experienced him as reassuring presence, including last summer when she had to return to a place that caused her emotional pain.
“He stayed with me, and he reassured me that this time it would be different,” she says.
Besides being personally comforting, Arehart gave her a pattern for facing frightening things. She won’t forget it.
Neeley Mathes, 15, remembers Arehart was the person who introduced her to members of the youth group when she knew no one.
“It made me want to come back,” she says. “That gesture made the difference for me.”
She also says the Wednesday night events Matthew orchestrated “helps me get through the week. It’s something to look forward to.”
Kendall Visinsky says it’s natural to think of Arehart’s impact on kids. The circle, she said, is much larger.
“Matthew has brought families to church because their kids wanted to be part of what he put together. People like to be around him. He’s the Pied Piper.”
And he was serious about building a place of diverse thought in the youth rooms, says Visinsky, who Matthew recruited to teach middle school formation with her husband, David.
“He’s meticulous about mixing up the groups so the youth can cultivate new friends and perspectives.”
For instance, on Arehart-led pilgrimages, every kid has a different roommate every night.
“This is part of the journey of the pilgrimage,” she said.
CHC hired Arehart in the spring of 2011 as a youth department intern. He taught middle school formation, chaperoned trips and was a “presence” at youth events. In March 2012, he was promoted to part-time interim youth director. A few months later, he was named full-time youth minister.
Since then, he has rewritten the Sunday formation curriculum for middle and senior high, basing it and the youth trips on his observation that kids do better when they learn the faith of the ancestors chronologically, (Old Testament, then the New Testament) and experience outreach first in their hometown before branching out to consider need in the larger world. He has taken students on three international pilgrimages. He’s led five rafting trips and nearly an equal number of diocesan ski trips after he and other youth leaders revived the trip in 2013. He’s a valuable adult to teens, their parents and extended families. And to his colleagues on the church staff, he’s an indispensable, can-do guy with a plan, a hammer and saw, and mythic skills.
“The first time Matthew was ever described to me, it was as that guy that builds things,” said Father Sandy. “If you need a ten-foot-tall board-game spinner or a life-size foosball set, Matthew is your guy.
“His creativity knows no bounds. It’s also a beautiful thing to watch him be in relationship with the youth. He leaves with all my blessing and encouragement. This is a wonderful opportunity for him. I am proud of him for pursuing it.”
The average youth minister stays with a congregation about two years. Arehart is by far the most senior youth minister in the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee and among the most senior in the state.
“It means that I have spent a lot of time helping new youth ministers,” Arehart said. “In the diocese, I think I have worked with 20 people who have come and gone since I started.”
In his new job, he will oversee Mud Camp, Camp Able and all events and retreats at the retreat center, which also means supervising hospitality, food service and housekeeping staff.
The congregation said goodbye in a reception at the church on Sunday, June 10.
For Arehart, one of the most rewarding parts of his time is working with young adults he remembers as teenagers or younger.
“Words cannot describe how it feels when you taught someone Sunday school when they were in sixth grade and now you work side by side with them putting on programs for sixth-graders.”
“Matthew’s influential presence in my life has helped shape the man I am today,” said Adam Cruthirds, who was under the care of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital most of his junior and senior years in high school. He is heading to his junior year at Rhodes College this fall and is studying Spanish in Ecuador this summer.
“He has been with there through the best times and worst times with open arms. It is hard to put into words just how selfless and caring he is, and I want to thank him for simply everything.”
Jim House and Cruthirds were sixth-graders when Arehart arrived.
“It was always interesting to walk through the door of his office because you never knew what you were going to be doing that day,” said House, adding that Arehart was one of the men he patterned in which he tried to pattern himself. “He changed the youth program at Holy Communion for the better in so many ways.”