My Move To Hashtag Hope

On January 1, 2022, for the first time in 10 years, I will reduce my hours with Youth Unlimited / Youth for Christ.

For most YFC staff, a reduction in hours is usually due to a lack of personal fundraising dollars; the reduction is set to keep a staff’s account from going into the negative. But that’s not what’s happening here. What’s begun is a six month transition for me that’s been in the works since the summer. At the same time I drop down to 20 hours with YFC, I pick up 20 hours with Hashtag Hope.

The goal is that on July 1, 2022, I will be the full-time Executive Director of Hashtag Hope, a suicide prevention charity based in Cambridge, Ontario.

As I’ve been connecting with friends and partners (donors) over the last three months about this coming transition, I’ve fielded lots of questions about this. So, I’ve written this as a longer form response to some of the most common questions.

(For easy navigation, you can click on a question to jump to that section.)

What is Hashtag Hope and what does it do?

Hashtag Hope is a new and local suicide prevention charity that is pursuing a world without suicide through outreach and education. The project and brand was begun in 2013 by a friend of mine, Nick Pegg, from Heritage College & Seminary. As my own speaking ministry grew in the 2010s, I kept running into Nick at events and conferences, often sharing on the same topic (suicide & mental health). In 2018, we agreed to bring our speaking ministries together and I started leading the process of establishing Hashtag Hope as a registered charity. This was granted in November 2020.

Currently, Hashtag Hope is pretty much just my and Nick’s creative measures to serve, encourage, and reach out to those considering suicide or battling mental health issues, particularly young people, and to equip those around them. This is our speaking, advocacy, and training in classrooms, gyms, youth rooms, music venues, church auditoriums, conference stages, and staff rooms. But we want it to be much more. We want to replicate what we do and why we do it in others.

Our Mission:

Speaking truth & life into darkness & death
Hashtag Hope exists to speak truth into the lives of those experiencing hopelessness and suicidal thoughts to inspire perseverance towards the future, and to declare victory of the darkness.

Our Vision:

Creatively pursuing a world without suicide
Hashtag Hope strives to see a world where there is no suicide, accomplished through intentional outreach & equipping, and where people discover the Source of abundant life.

Strategic Focus Areas:

OutreachEquippingResourcingStory SupportAdvocacy Focused Merchandising

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What’s your new role look like?

Parts of it are very similar. I will still be travelling and speaking or teaching in schools, youth groups, conferences, and churches. You can still follow my booking dates here on my website. But in addition to this, I am also stepping into a new and significant leadership role, overseeing the general operation of a registered charity. There’s a steep learning curve to some of this, but I have some good support. For the last year, I’ve been participating in a YFC-Arrow Leadership training program, and a retired friend of mine will be meeting with me regularly to do executive leadership coaching. I am excited for the opportunity to invest in other young leaders and equip them to bring hope and light into this world.

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Why do you want to do this?

I’ve always said there’s not many things I’d leave Youth Unlimited to do. This is a big step of faith for me, to leave an organization I love to start something risky and new. To share a co-directorship model, instead of being in charge. To step outside of an established and trusted ministry that people know and recognize. But in some ways, this has been a long time coming. I’ve long had a sense that God was preparing me for something else, for something that didn’t yet exist.

One thing that YFC has trained me to do well is to look for where and how the Church isn’t connecting with people that aren’t a part of it. It’s why I sneak into the balcony at a youth event and make fun of the speakers with the kids with ripped jeans and marijuana emblazoned hats. These are the people I’ve been called to serve and love. And part of why I’m leaving YFC now is because one of these students of mine, Mustafa, took his own life in February of 2021.

Suicide has marked my life in many, many ways. Personal attempts, deaths among my family and friends, and many people thanking me for sharing my story because it connects to their own. Mustafa’s death didn’t cause this transition, but it brought an incredible sense of urgency to it. The work and ministry of Youth Unlimited is still needed and essential ministry to people the Church doesn’t know how to reach. But a new and exciting chapter has come for me, still rooted deeply in my personal mission to love the outsider.

Why focus on suicide prevention and mental health? Because there’s a great need for it:

  • 1 in 3 Canadians will experience overwhelming anxiety or depression at some point in their life
  • 1 in 10 teenagers have felt suicidal in the last year
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those under 30
  • 20% of Canadians currently report having high levels of mental distress
  • Domestic abuse calls have doubled since the start of the pandemic
  • 1 in 3 youth who identify as LGBTQ+ have attempted suicide since the start of the pandemic
  • Half of those diagnosed with bipolar die by suicide

I have a great, divine burden on my heart for those facing overwhelming darkness, and hope to get through my own darkness. How can I do anything else but share that hope?

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Is this a Christian ministry?

Yes and no. It depends on what you mean by “Christian” and “ministry”. Now, I know that some are already throwing up their hands and saying, “Well, that’s all I need to know; he’s clearly abandoned the Scriptures and become a socialist heretic.” If that’s not too far from what you’re feeling, I encourage you to lean in, to listen, to hear my heart.

So for the Bible thumpers, let’s begin with some Bible thumping (If you’re not interested, skip to the next paragraph). Acts 6 tells the story of the early Church running into social issues. The greek widows (outsiders from the religious community) were “being neglected in the daily distribution” of food. And so the apostles—those tasked with preaching the news of Jesus’ resurrection—said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” This is the beginning of how most churches define the roles of elders (ministers) and deacons (board members): those who’s main focus is on preaching, and those who’s main focus is on meeting the physical needs of the community. Unfortunately, in evangelical circles, the latter role has been downplayed, seen as less honourable or less essential to the pastoral work of ministry, leadership, and the gospel. I know this, because I see and hear the disappointment in some people when I tell them of my new work. I would be lying if I said this wasn’t hurtful.

So back to “Christian” and “ministry”. I am a follower of Jesus. Nick is a follower of Jesus. Every person on the Board of Directors is a follower of Jesus. Directors and Officers all must sign a statement of faith and beliefs that is centre-of-the-road Christian. But future staff or volunteers, if not in a key leadership role, won’t have to. We have nothing on the website that is blatantly Christian. While our incorporation documents list religious purposes, our charity designation is “social benefit”, not “advancement of religion.” We speak in bars. We also speak in churches. Sometimes, we talk about Jesus. Often we don’t, or can’t.

If you’ve ever taken the ASIST course (suicide intervention skills), you’ll remember that a caregiver, while doing a suicide intervention, can get out-of-sync with the needs of the person-at-risk. This usually happens when a caregiver wants to talk about a safety plan, but the person-at-risk isn’t ready and needs instead to share more of their story. A good caregiver will recognize the current need of the person and meet that need, in order to move them along in their journey. This requires attentiveness, patience, and trust in the process.

The same thing is true of the kind of ministry Nick & I do. Most of the people we meet have no initial interest in a conversation about faith or eternity or Jesus (I mean, just think about how conversations about religion go at your extended family get-togethers). Instead, we strive to see what their current need is, meet it, and if we have agreement, then we can move forward in our conversation. This sharing of mutual interests, mutual respect, and willing agreements is the core of all relational evangelism teachings. It’s central to any ministry that cares about not being spiritually abusive or manipulative. It’s why YFC ministry takes so long or often seems to never bear fruit. It’s why your neighbour or co-worker may take several years before they ever consider attending your Christmas Eve service. Any it’s why sharing hope with people who are deeply suicidal and deeply suspicious of religion is so delicate.

If this wasn’t already long, I would also insert a conversation here about the different parts of the Body of Christ – each serving its own purpose, each valuable, each equal of honour. Instead, I’ll encourage you to reflect on this and consider if and how you show favouritism towards some spiritual gifts or parts of the Body over others. Hashtag Hope is not the Church. I don’t hold all the spiritual gifts. We don’t have to do all things or be all things.

This isn’t like growing dandelions; it’s like growing orchids. To understand how a ministry that doesn’t do evangelism is Christian, you need to understand hardship, despair, your neighbour, and maybe a bit more about Jesus’ ministry. This is complicated work. People are complicated. And mental illness is complicated. At the end of the day, we love, serve, and encourage people because Jesus asked us to. And I still define that as pastoral—even priestly—ministry, even if I never preach a sermon.

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Why couldn’t Hashtag Hope be a part of Youth Unlimited / YFC?

I tried. Three times, in three different ways. I tried with my local YFC community; it wasn’t a great fit as most of my speaking and fundraising and time was being directed outside of the local community. I tried with the National office; they didn’t have (and still don’t have) capacity to add whole new national programs and support them well. And when it came down to the nitty-gritty of bylaws, mission, supervision, and branding, it wasn’t looking like it was an exact fit. At the end of the day, the Hashtag Hope Board made a decision to put out a fleece, as it were, and see if we could get our charitable designation on our own, and if that wasn’t working, to explore coming under the umbrella of an established ministry. And we got it. On our first application. Quicker than predicted. In a pandemic. No questions asked.

I will always hold a deep love for YFC, its work, and most of all, the people who choose this kind of work. Hashtag Hope beautifully compliments the ministry of YFC workers, and I leave with the blessings of my supervisor and Executive Director at YFC Highlands. There are times when two ministries will both function better when more closely aligned to their own, distinct mission statements. Unity, not uniformity. Again, I see echoes of Acts 6 in this.

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Why doesn’t it say anything about Jesus on the Hashtag Hope website?

Have you ever run into a soapbox preacher, screaming at people in public? I have.
Ever had a gospel tract shoved into your hands and someone start their spiel without even bothering to ask if you already follow Jesus? I have.
Ever had someone make you feel inadequate because your Christian faith or theology doesn’t look exactly like theirs? I have.

These are all deeply uncomfortable experiences. Not in the good uncomfortable way that brings introspection and positive change, but in the shaming, anger-fuelled, and repulsive uncomfortable way. Our reality is that we live in a post-Christian culture where the Church has been rightly exposed for being (among other things) abusive, neglectful, racist, exploitative, murderous, greedy, unjust, and indifferent. Let that sink in. We have profaned the work of the cross and are the reason why “Jesus Christ” has become a curse word (Heb. 10:29-31, Rom. 2:24).

So how does a disgraced and maligned people regain trust and contribute to culture again? Through service. Quiet, humble, respectful service, with great respect for dignity and personal agency. We are about the work of reconciliation and the rebuilding of trust. For Hashtag Hope, that means our friends tell us when it’s time to have spiritual conversations; we don’t tell them. Hidden in a bin behind every table we set up in a bar is a box of paperback New Testaments that, instead of saying “Holy Bible” on the cover, say, “You Are Loved”; just waiting for the ones that linger at the table, sharing their pain, asking why we do what we do.

We’re not soapbox preachers. We’re shepherds, stepping into rooms where preachers are scared to go, reminding people that want to die that their life matters and that they are deeply loved. This is our calling, our work, our purpose. We are the first step of service and care to these friends, preparing the soil of the heart. Steps two and three and four, the planting, the watering, the harvesting, may belong to others – maybe even you.

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Do you need to raise support to work at Hashtag Hope?

Kind of, but it’s different than YFC. I don’t have a personal support fund in our budget line, and neither does Nick. We are paid out of the general fund of Hashtag Hope. However, as the Executive Director, it’s my responsibility to make sure that the funding is available to pay for programs, outreach and salaries. In many ways, I see my time with YFC as God preparing me for this role. There is no way I could’ve had any confidence and skills to fundraise a $135k budget if I hadn’t had to first learn how to fundraise a personal $12k budget.

So yes, we still need your support!

(BTW, $135k is not my salary; it’s two salaries, programs, outreach, insurance, accounting, software, banking, and travel expenses!)

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Do you still need donations?

If you’re asking if I still need your support, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Whether it’s $5 or $50,000, we need your help to grow the life-saving work of Hashtag Hope. There’s so much more work to be done and we’re only getting started. On a personal note, some of my previous partners, for various reasons, won’t be continuing with me to Hashtag Hope, so your support would make a recognizable difference. If you’d like to support this work, visit www.hashtaghope.ca/donate

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What happens to my financial support / when & how do I switch or change it?

If you’ve been supporting my work at YFC, thank you! I will still need your support there through to the end of June 2022. You have a few options:

  1. Keep supporting YFC Guelph (and an eventual person to replace me)
  2. Move your support to Ashley’s work with YFC
  3. Move your support to Hashtag Hope
  4. Discontinue your support

I will reach out to you personally about if and how you’d like transition your donations. For now, please hold tight until I connect with you.

If you love this new work I’m doing with Hashtag Hope in pursuit of a world without suicide, you can make a tax-deductible one-time or monthly donation at www.hashtaghope.ca/donate. Not everyone will be moving their financial support as I move, so if you believe in our mission, I could really use your help!

We also accept corporate donations! If you have influence at your place of employment, please tell them about Hashtag Hope and ask them to give to our work!

Alternatively, book us to speak somewhere, or grab something from the store (yes, it’s not cheap, but that’s because we try to make quality products that last long, and the proceeds support the charity). You can even use the code STROMBOMB10 for 10% off!

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In Conclusion

I am really, really excited to start this new chapter of my personal calling and ministry. My heart has always been bent toward those that are hurting and don’t fit in well in a church. That hasn’t changed. I have a renewed passion for my work that I haven’t had in about six years. I am seeing my gifting, heart, life experiences, and leadership coalesce into one place. I’m not alone, but have an incredibly creative co-director and a Board of Directors that’s strong, passionate, optimistic, and invested.

To those who’ve encouraged me to follow my calling, even when it’s scary, thank you. To those who’ve invested in my leadership, thank you. To those who’ve challenged me in how I think about the gospel and justice, thank you.

To those who’ve previously given to my work with YFC, thank you! Your gift made it possible for me to be present in the lives of hurting teenagers for a decade.

To those who don’t agree with my direction, I’m sorry. It saddens me greatly that you do not understand that this work is core to the work of the gospel, of bringing good news to those who need it. I am confident in my calling, and I must follow it. I pray that one day, hopefully without great pain, you will appreciate the work I am now beginning. Please continue to pray for me.

Great is the need, but so great also is the hope.”

Nicholas Pegg, Friend, Founder of Hashtag Hope

Discover or support our work at www.hashtaghope.ca
Instagram: @hashtaghopeca
Facebook: /hashtaghope
Twitter: /hashtaghopeca

Published by Mark Stromenberg

Click here! https://strombomb.com/about

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