Who We Are

The CYMT Innovation Laboratory exists for the purpose of spurring innovation in youth ministry. We are passionate about youth, as well as the intersection of daily life and living faith. We are excited about what new models of youth ministry might mean for the formation of young people. 

About the Center for Youth Ministry Training

The Center for Youth Ministry Training equips youth ministers and churches to develop theologically informed and practically effective youth ministries. Our graduate residency program is unique: CYMT creates a whole-person learning environment by nurturing residents academically in the classroom, vocationally in the local church, and emotionally through personal coaching and peer interaction. At the end of three years, you’ll graduate with a Master of Arts in Youth Ministry, three years experience in a local church, a cohort of theologically-minded people, and no debt.

Innovation Lab Staff

Kate Unruh (Laboratory Managing Director)

“Kate-O” Unruh holds a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Youth Ministry from Princeton Theological Seminary, where she is also a Doctoral Candidate in Practical Theology. Kate-O co-directs the Innovation Grant and teaches education and formation at Memphis Theological Seminary. Her research interests include youth ministry, confirmation, and the intersection of youth, faith, and culture. She hails from Kansas and will forever be a Jayhawk at heart.

Mark Taylor (Laboratory Research & Content Coordinator)

Mark holds a Master of Arts in Religion with an emphasis in Youth Ministry from Memphis Theological Seminary and a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Spanish from Calvin College.  Mark is a graduate of the CYMT Graduate Residency.  He has over a decade of experience working with youth in the church both as a volunteer and a youth minister.

Andrew Zirschky (Laboratory Chief Strategist)

Andrew holds a M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Practical Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. He oversees the development of the CYMT academic program and holds a faculty position in practical theology and youth ministry at Memphis Theological Seminary. He has 20 years of ministry experience as a youth and college minister at churches in Idaho, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. He has also been named a Timothy Scholar by the United Methodist Foundation for Evangelism based upon his research emphasis in youth and young adult ministry.

Lindsay Brooks (CYMT Event Operations Manager)

Lindsay holds a Master of Arts in Religion with a focus in Youth Ministry from Memphis Theological Seminary, and a Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education with a focus in Economics and Political Science from Clemson University.  Lindsay is a graduate of the CYMT Graduate Residency.  She served in student ministry for 12 years, 9 years at Brentwood UMC in Tennessee, and 3 years at Northbrook UMC in Georgia.

Dietrich Kirk (CYMT Executive Director)

“Deech” Kirk has been in youth ministry for 20+ years. He served as the youth minister of Brentwood United Methodist Church for six years before becoming the Executive Director of the CYMT in 2006. He continues to serve as one of Brentwood’s associate ministers. He is the author of Raising Teens in an Almost Christian World: A Parent’s Guide and one of the co-authors of Now What? Next Steps in Your New Life with Christ. When he is not leading the CYMT, speaking at youth events, or training other youth workers, Deech enjoys spending time with his wife Keeley and daughters Carlisle and Hallie.


The CYMT Innovation Laboratory seeks to (a) foster the creation of new models of youth ministry beyond the tired youth group model, (b) discover and name congregational characteristics that either promote or hinder innovative ability, and (c) refine our approach to successfully leading congregations through a practical theological innovation design process. Ultimately, the Innovation Lab will help to shape the future of youth ministry.

Through participation in the Innovation Laboratory, your congregation will be lead through a process of creating an approach to youth ministry that is organic and unique to your congregation and context. Along the way you’ll find that your congregational culture is enriched and enlivened, and you’ll gain experience leading a team of people through a transformative theological innovation process. You will have developed and tried a new model for youth ministry and will be equipped to keep thinking in new ways that will help you continue to innovate.

Why Innovate?

We believe that the modern formula for youth ministry, which emphasizes gathering peer-based groups as the dominating model, needs updating. We also believe we have been called to create and innovate in the image of our Creator.

Our Lilly Endowment Grant

We have been awarded a $1.1 million grant to create an Innovation Laboratory for the faith formation of young people.  By bringing design thinking into conversation with practical theology, we hope to help youth ministers develop the ability to create and test new models for youth ministry that organically fit the context of their local congregations.

To this end, we are seeking 10 “Lead Innovators” to participate in our Innovation Lab. Our lab is designed to develop new models for ministry that are both practical and theologically grounded and which seek to better intersect with the real lives of adolescents. Lead innovators will spend two and a half years walking through our Theological Innovation Process and prototyping your ideas for youth ministry in your congregation. As a Lead Innovator, you will be paired with a coach to help you navigate the innovation process. You will be in a cohort with the other innovating churches in the lab. And, you and your church will both receive funding: a stipend for you, and seed money for your congregation to implement your church’s ideas.

As the Lead Innovator of your congregation’s innovation team, you will receive a $5,000 annual stipend (a total of up to $10,000 over the course of the grant), paid in installments when your church’s innovation team reaches its benchmarks. This money can be used as you see fit, e.g., as additional income, to create a personal care plan for your own mental health and physical wellness, take an overseas dream vacation, pay for date nights and babysitting with your spouse, or hire additional administrative help to reduce your workload. If you make it into the final stages of the application process, we’ll lead you through a planning process to help you make the most of your stipend.  

Churches accepted into the program will have the opportunity to apply for grants of up to $12,000. These grants are need-based and will be awarded to help your congregation purchase the necessary resources to prototype, test, and scale their innovative youth ministry models.  

Additionally, the members of your innovation team will receive occasional small incentives (Starbucks gift cards, movie tickets, etc.) to keep you all moving forward, excited, and motivated as you hit benchmarks along the way.

Our Theological Innovation Process

Research and design firms all over the world show evidence that innovation happens through a planned process. After looking at a number of these processes, we discovered that, to some extent, they parallel the consensus model of practical theology. We merged the best elements of these design thinking processes with the consensus model to create a robust and workable Theological Ideation Process for the purpose of ministry with young people. Our Theological Ideation Process has five steps:

Step 1 – Descriptive

What’s going on here? What is the problem you want to address. Immerse yourself in the environment and demographic you’ll be designing for.  Observe, engage, and interact. Record data as you gather intel to identify possible problems or opportunities you might miss at first glance. This is a fire-hydrant stage of intake and intel.

Step 2 – Interpretive

Why is this happening?  With all this intel, you’ll have all sorts of ideas about why things are happening.  But you will work to uncover the real underlying reasons behind the issue at hand. Then, redefine the problem that you want to address.

Step 3 – Normative

What should be happening? Guided by theology, you will establish parameters for solutions to your problem even as you trust the Holy Spirit to expand your imagination.

Step 4 – Ideation and Prototyping

What could we do? Intentional brainstorming sessions will create a broad scope of ideas to solve your problem. You will then narrow down to a handful of ideas, and store the rest for later. You will begin to test out parts of your Big Idea in small ways, to gain further insight to its viability. Prototyping requires adaptability, and failing in small ways at this stage means you won’t fail big later on.

Step 5 – Pragmatic

What will we do? What is next? In light of your theological parameters and what you’ve learned from prototyping, you will implement your Big Idea full-scale.