Leading by Example

Youth group leader Gary Dietz retires after 31 years.
Gary Dietz flips pancakes in preparation for a 6 a.m. prayer breakfast in his home.

While teenagers are notorious for pressing the snooze alarm to gain extra sleep in the mornings, the high school students involved in St. Stephen’s Episcopal youth group don’t have that luxury. Every Wednesday morning, youth group director Gary Dietz opens up his home for a 6 a.m. prayer breakfast. And while Dietz’s breakfast array of pancakes, cereal, fruit, bagels and orange juice serves as an incentive for teens to roll out of bed at the crack of dawn, Dietz knows that the gathering isn’t just about the breakfast or about his popular homemade caramel rolls, whose secret lies in letting the dough rise overnight. “In good times, but especially in painful times, it’s important for a young person to have an anchor—that community that they can fall back on,” says Dietz.  Having been a youth leader at St. Stephen’s for the past 31 years and hosted the prayer breakfasts off and on for 20 years, Dietz has many stories to illustrate this point. He recalls a young man openly praying, “Dear Lord, please let [So-and-So] say yes when I invite her to the prom,” to which a girl across the room answered, “Dear Lord, please tell him I said yes.” Yet whether it’s a weekly prayer breakfast for seniors, a monthly prayer breakfast for juniors or a Wednesday night youth group meeting, Dietz notes that for every lighthearted moment there are just as many painful ones, where a kid will open up to the group about a problem.  “There is a power to presence and longevity,” says Dietz, “whether it’s a parent or a youth minister, it’s important for a young person to have someone whom they can count on and feel like they won’t go away.” The loyalty and commitment that Dietz has shown in the community for three decades has built an example that many of his past youth group members have followed. “One of the things that I am most proud of is the fact that over half of the 25 adults who volunteer in the program used to be teenagers in our program,” says Dietz. “I really feel like something happened for them in their lives as teenagers that made them want to come back and give back to their community.” For the past 25 years Dietz has encouraged the kids to participate in mission work. His youth groups have helped local efforts such as Feed My Starving Children, national efforts such as work in Chicago housing projects, and international efforts such as building an Anglican Episcopalian school in Belize. “To sit there and just read the Bible, reading about the good of helping other people, doesn’t work for youth,” says Dietz, “But helping kids connect with their faith while living it out makes Christianity make sense.” One of Dietz’s students recently nominated him for one of Edina’s “Connecting with Youth” awards. The award is given to leaders who make an extra effort to help youth in the Edina community, and Dietz was honored this past February. “The biggest part of the honor was the fact that a young person cared enough about me to spend time filling out the application, writing about what she felt,” says Dietz says with characteristic modesty. At age 61, Dietz retired from his role as youth director  at St. Stephen’s at the end of June. “While my love for youth ministry is strong as ever, my body just isn’t,” Dietz says, “At the Chicago housing project, besides the gratification of the work itself, my reward was when the work was done so that I could go to sleep on the floor for about five hours and then start it all over again.” Dietz recalls an enthusiastic youth telling him on one of the Chicago trips, “Gary, we should have these one-week trips last a lot longer.” Thinking of that, Dietz joked, “Had I stayed on much longer as the youth minister, the kids might have had to pull me up from the floor each morning on the mission trips. It’s always better to end things with kids wanting a little bit more.”