Episode 01: Kirsten Knox on Understanding Gen Z, Empathy, and Small to Medium Size Church Youth Ministry

Making Sense of Ministry Podcast interview of Kirsten Knox - understand Generation Z

In this episode, Kirsten Knox discusses the traits of Generation Z and their greatest challenges. Kirsten shares why empathy may just be the key for Gen Z and why she believes that small to medium size churches may have an advantage in reaching students today.

Resources Mentioned:

“How To Speak Gen Z” video.

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Here Are The Show Notes:

Ashley (00:01):

Welcome to the making sense of ministry podcast presented to you by the youth ministry Institute, a podcast designed to help you lead well in your ministry, transform lives and impact generations. Here’s your host, Brian Lawson.

Brian Lawson – Host (00:13):

Hey friends and welcome to the making sense of ministry podcast. In fact, welcome to the very first episode of this show. This podcast is a podcast presented to you by the youth ministry Institute, also known as why am I, why am I has been around since 2005 and since that time we’ve helped churches develop their youth ministers, children’s ministers. We’ve helped churches with strategic planning, consulting, coaching, team development and job placements. Part of the reason why we wanted to start this podcast in the first place was we understand what it’s like to serve in ministry. We understand that it can be challenging and confusing and then oftentimes we feel overwhelmed and under-prepared and so our hope is that this podcast will help you to, this podcast will help you lead well in your ministry, help you transform lives, and help you increase your impact on generations.

Brian Lawson – Host (01:07):

Every episode of this podcast will contain an interview with somebody who brings unique perspectives, challenging insights and encouragement. Today’s guest is Kirsten Knox. She is the senior director of ministry partnerships for why am I, she’s a graduate of why am I and has extensive youth ministry experience before she began serving in youth ministry, Kirsten was a trained social worker and she’s also a graduate of Asbury university. She has some great insights for us today regarding generationZ , which is the generation born around 1997 through 2012 this is the generation currently in your children’s ministry, your youth ministry, even your college ministries and maybe one or two outside of our college ministries. This generation faces some unique challenges different than previous and she shares a little bit about those challenges. She shares the role of empathy and reaching this generation and she also shares about why small to medium churches might actually sit in a position of strength when it comes to reaching young people. Today. Without further ado, I hope you enjoy this interview. Kiersten, welcome to the podcast. Thank you. So what’s been the driving factor for you serving in ministry and what has kept you in ministry when things got messy or sticky or didn’t make sense?

Kirsten Knox – Guest (02:24):

The driving factor for me is that teenagers matter and that teenagers need to know that Jesus invites them to have a relationship with him, that the creator of the universe knows their name and wants a relationship with them. And so when times have gotten hard, I would say a couple of things. One is remembering that there’s something we’re fighting for something bigger and that we need to be a part of helping teenagers because adolescence is such a hard time. How can we do that with them and help create those spaces, safe spaces for them. But also I would say the community around me because there have definitely been those times when you thought, I think I’m done with this. Like I don’t know if this is really, I’m really making an impact. Am I really, you know, and it was in those moments particularly that’s where my, why am I community came in, is I had friendships that I had made through that, that they walked that journey with me of trying to figure that out. And then so I think that community that had built it really at times when I’ve felt discouraged or not so sure about this speak life to me in those moments and really just journey with.

Brian Lawson – Host (03:32):

Yeah. So community has been important, has played an important role for you, it sounds like. Do you think that the same would be true for your students in your ministry, that community is significant, it plays an important role. Is that something you would agree with and what does that look like?

Kirsten Knox – Guest (03:49):

I would, I mean, I think that that is very important to them and yet it’s an area in which they lack a lot of skills at time, particularly in this generation where a lot of how we communicate is behind screens. Like they have this desire to be in community, to have healthy relationships, but they’re not always real sure of how to obtain those. So it’s intimidating. But I think when you can have developed that community with students, when they talk about trips or they talk about activities, what are really reflecting on is, yes, we did some fun things, but the people I got to do it with and those relationships are very powerful.

Brian Lawson – Host (04:27):
You talked about trips. Have you ever, have you ever taken your students on trip and said, no, you’ve

got to keep your phones at home?

Kirsten Knox – Guest (04:32):

I did. Yeah. At first it was a little shaky. When we first started, when I first started at Pasadena, we had talked about mission trips. And my first year there I was like, I don’t really think we need to take cell phones on mission trips, but that hadn’t been the culture in the past. So we work with a student leadership team and our leadership team to make those decisions. But there was pushback and even, you know, Sony phones appear on the trip. And so removing the phones and holding those so you journey through that. But then once we created a culture of, I mean, I remember like six or seven years in, you know, you get new people who go to the trips, so students are asking about and they’re like, Oh, we do our bring our phones. And the other kids would be like, no, we don’t bring phones.

Kirsten Knox – Guest (05:19):

Like it was like, why would you do that? Where I’m like, yeah, before we fought it. And then it just became a part of the culture. And I think they really appreciated that they were hesitant because there’s some real anxieties and they sometimes would give their passwords to other people to keep their snips, chat. It’s Trent alive, you know, cause they couldn’t, I’m like, seriously. I also think parents is difficult on parents at times, as much as students to be away from their phones, for the parents to be like, they’re not taking their phones. I’m like, no, we would give out all of our leaders phone numbers so that they had all that. I’m like, you can contact us at any time. But that anxiety of not having it, not only is it students have to navigate that, but parents how to navigate that, which I get. Right. But yeah, I think they experienced the freedom students particularly afterwards liked it. And I think even look forward. I mean, they look for the mission trip for multiple reasons, but they also look forward to it because there was this sense of freedom that they didn’t experience any other time.

Brian Lawson – Host (06:21):

Yeah. Yeah, I would agree. Yeah. I mean the next following year, and you after that because look forward to it and it was not, we don’t take our phones. Yeah. And yeah, you’re right. Parents can be fearful of that. I mean, my daughter will be a middle school soon and I’m thinking, Oh, she doesn’t have a phone now, but what I want her to have a phone in the trip I want, do I want to be able to reach her? Right. So there is a fear there for sure. But knowing that you’re accessible to the parents and your leaders are accessible, helps that fear for the parents. Yeah. So gen Z is something you’re passionate

about. And a, and actually a couple of years ago I got, I think it is that last year, Carl from Sunday, Cole released a video that is all about gen Z language and it became really trendy and it was trending actually even outside the youth ministry world.

Brian Lawson – Host (07:08):

And my leaders and I, we used to, we washed it and I didn’t understand any of it and some of them did, but most of them didn’t. So we would just make up words and talk like we were talking to gen Z to each other all the time. The students made fun of us, we made fun of each other. It was a good time. If you haven’t seen the video, we’ll put it in the show notes so you can see the video. What is some things we need to know about gen Z that might help us understand them a little better?

Kirsten Knox – Guest (07:32):

I think some of the most important things is to remember is this culture is different than other cultures. So other generations, when we think about how we have ministered and communicated with other generations, generation Z is different and the battles that they face are different. So studies would tell us that they, the four big significant things that they, they battle would be loneliness, anxiety, depression and suicide. And then when you think about those things, they can shape the way you do ministry and the way you communicate to students because you recognize what they’re facing is different than what we would think of drugs, alcohol, sex studies would say those are on the decrease, but are what is on the increase are those things. And so creating a culture and a community, like we talked about earlier, how important is that community when students, teenagers are facing those kinds of issues?

Brian Lawson – Host (08:25):

Yeah. So when you say they’re facing a different world, what do you think some things are that are contributing to that? Like what, why is it that depression, anxiety and those things, why do you think those things are on the rise? Whereas the traditional things we talked about in the 90s about youth ministries on the decline, what do you think is contributing to that pressure? Pressure from where?

Kirsten Knox – Guest (08:47):

Everywhere. I think they get, I think oftentimes us as adults underestimate the amount of pressure our teenagers have to navigate every day. Oftentimes think of them as like a pressure pot and how they’re getting it from every angle and that changes them and changes how they respond to things. And that creates some of those issues. But I mean if you think about it just with social media, they’re never off, right? Like if there’s always this sense on of I’m on, cause when do they ever just get to turn it off? Whereas when I was a kid, you know, I went to school, I might have felt pressure at school and had to be on my game, but when I went home I didn’t have to be. And now they carry a cell phone with them, with their social media. But that pressure is at school, that pressure is home. It’s all the time. It’s at night when they wake up and check it right. Like it’s, they never are released from that. And then they have the compounding pressure of academics. So we see middle-schoolers dealing with what high schoolers used to deal with and the pressure of I’ve got to take the right classes so I can get in college and I’m a seventh grader. Like that’s a lot of pressure.

Brian Lawson – Host (09:55):

Yeah. I mean I think, I even think that’s coming down into elementary school. I mean some of the fourth or fifth grade teachers are feeling that pressure that’s being put on them, which is then translating to students.

Kirsten Knox – Guest (10:05):

Yeah. I was having a conversation with one of my students on Sunday and her mom and her mom was trying to tell her to limit her AP classes. She’s like, I don’t want you to take any more than three AP classes a semester. Cause she’s also in drama and she does a lot of theater and drama and that takes up a lot of her time. And her mom really sees the value in those things and doesn’t like edgy. And she makes, I think she’s one of those straight A’s students. One of those high performers. You know, I say that a little bit. I’m like, yes, I don’t know that world, but I can pretend that might be like but for her like thinking the student is saying I need to take more AP classes cause I’ve got to get to college and I got to do this and the mom is saying you don’t need to put up all that pressure on yourself. Let’s limit it. What a gift that is to her. Yeah. And I thought that pressure isn’t coming from the parent that’s internal. Right. Like she’s feeling that she’s picking up on that. She’s getting those messages and she’s the one saying that. So it was an interesting conversation where I thought, again, students are on a lot of pressure and I don’t think we always recognize just being at school what a battle that is for them and how much that takes out of them. The academic as well.

Brian Lawson – Host (11:16):

The social. Yeah. So do you think there’s common mistakes that people who work with young people, whether it be youth or children, is there common mistakes that people make that maybe apply pressure more or don’t recognize its impact on them? What are some of those things?

Kirsten Knox – Guest (11:32):

[Inaudible] What have we tend to do? Particularly because we care about them. So it comes from a good place is we minimize how they feel. We minimize the pressure. So when a student shares that with us, we want them to feel better. I don’t want you to feel like this. I want to throw them away to minimize it. And I think that is difficult as well as trying to fix it. I think both of those create more pressure because if I’m trying to minimize that when I’m communicating to that student is you’re just blowing this out of proportion, it’s not as big as you think it is, which is really devaluing to them. Right. Or to try to fix that of here’s let me, well at least, or like you know, or the good thing is like we say these phrases in a sense of trying to fix something, but again that’s pretty devaluing of I’m feeling this way and what you’re saying is my feelings aren’t enough or I can’t sit in this space. Right. Like I need to feel differently. So we really aren’t teaching them like the harmfulness is, we don’t teach them how to navigate those feelings. We try to suppress those feelings for them.

Brian Lawson – Host (12:31):

Yeah. And when we try to fix them, we’re really not helping them learn how to handle situations. Are we, we’re just giving them the bandaid. Say here you go, move on. Rather than learning what caused it, what’s contributing to it? How do you navigate that?

Kirsten Knox – Guest (12:43):

Which oftentimes it’s probably really about us than it really is about them. What do you mean by that? Because if I can help, if I can fix it, then I walk away feeling good. One that I have helped someone. I mean that feels good, but too we tend to feel uncomfortable when someone comes and shares

something with us and we have this sense of responsibility, like I’m supposed to do something about this when I think oftentimes we’re just supposed to sit in that space with them versus do something. So when I tried to fix it, I’m really doing something so I can move myself out of this uncomfortable space with them and get to a different space versus really what’s best for them. It really becomes about what, what’s best for us. So it sounds like, it sounds like you wrote talking about practicing empathy. Yes.

Brian Lawson – Host (13:28):
Right. It says that what she would say it is.

Kirsten Knox – Guest (13:30):

Yeah. I think that’s one of the greatest tools we have that is under utilized that we can help students navigate anxiety, depression, loneliness. Not that we can fix that for them, but we can help them navigate it by giving them permission to feel the way they feel. And that’s powerful when you give someone permission to do that and identify with it. So if a student comes to me and they’re upset about something and I can say, well, of course you’re upset about that, that is painful or that is upsetting, right? Like there’s just something freeing when someone says that to me. Yes. Like, yeah, I have a right to feel the way I feel. That may, we may handle it different. Like we may talk about what we do with that, but being able to say, yeah, of course you feel like that and that’s freedom and that allows them to sit in that space. And I think that’s the coast sitting right where I’m going to sit in this space with you, rather trying to move you to a space that feels more happy or comfortable. Let’s sit here and give them permission to do that.

Brian Lawson – Host (14:28):
Sure. Like not trying to move on too quickly. Right. Which we do all the time.

Kirsten Knox – Guest (14:32):

Well, yes. Yeah. And really listening to them and helping them navigate it. Because the other part they struggle with is I have this feeling and I don’t really know what to do with it, so I can come in and tell you what I think you should do with it and I might be right. I mean, most of them I think I am right. You’re like, I can help you with this. But that really doesn’t help them develop the skillset so they then can sit there and I give them permission, but also think the subs were asking good questions. That if as youth ministers as if we develop the skill of being able to ask good questions, then I help them walk through it and let them own what they do with it, but give them, that helps me develop that skillset of I feel this way now what?

Brian Lawson – Host (15:15):

Yeah. Yeah. I think asking good questions is really important. [inaudible] Followup questions really matter. And listening. Well, I remember I used to sit in the back of the youth room where I was, because students would come in early and hang out for a while before we had programming. And I would just sit there and they thought I was working on something. But in reality I was listening to their conversations, right? We all do that. Parents do that to their kids, right? So I’m listening to their conversations and I’m listening, yes. To what they’re interested in and kind of learning about them that way. But I’m also listening beyond that, right? I’m trying to hear what’s, what is it they’re really bringing in with them today and then how do I, when I actually get to talk to them, how do I approach that with empathy? Right? So listening is so important too. Right? So you asking me the questions like you said, and then listening

Kirsten Knox – Guest (16:11):

And listening is powerful, right? Like I tend to talk to people who are listened to me like when I know, and I think teenagers know very well they know and someone is listening to them and when someone is just pretending to listen to them, right? So there’s a, you really speak value when I’m willing to listen to you and that is attractive. So I’m going to talk to people. If we want to be people who students share things with, we’ve really got to figure out how do I listen well to them and how do I identify with how they’re feeling, how do I ask them questions to navigate through that and really give them permission to do that. And I think sometimes we underestimate the value of that because there’s not a concrete output, right? Like if I tried to fix it for you, then I can be like, okay, just do a, B and C and you’re going to feel good and this will be great.

Kirsten Knox – Guest (17:02):

Whereas that’s a lot more messy and it doesn’t feel like it has this concrete outcome. But I feel like that gives students way more help and it just helps them navigate that and like ask the questions asking. I think the goodness really is in the second and third question oftentimes. So I would say even you asked that question if you don’t get much as other questions, but even when they share to ask follow up questions cause also helps them to be able to verbalize what they’re feeling. And I think that’s a part of empathy. Empathy too is sometimes the help is they describe it and you to be able to name it, name the emotion for them and then give them a chance. Is that how you’re feeling? Because they oftentimes don’t, can’t articulate, right. I can figure out how I’m feeling but I can’t really, the feeling and you being able to help them make those connections is also very powerful for them. Helping them deal with whatever they’re going through, but also just in developing skills.

Brian Lawson – Host (18:00):
Yeah. So something like, so I hear you saying that you are hurt by this, is that right? Is that what you’d

say then? Something like that.

Kirsten Knox – Guest (18:09):

Yeah. And then if a student comes in, they share, right. They’ve been left out with friend group, which is very popular. Right? Like we talk about that a lot cause we do that and you get to say, I bet it really hurt when they, I imagine that was really painful when you felt left out and they get to say, yes, it was painful. I know why. Yeah, that is painful. Right. And just that permission, it’s okay for it to be painful. It’s okay for you to be hurt. Right. I’d be hurt too. And really to identify that in that place with them. But I think yes, and helping them and sometimes guys and girls do that differently. They talk differently. Right? they verbalize differently and I think seeing that in both genders can look a little different. And being able to recognize what does that look like in different, how they communicate it I think has helped too.

Brian Lawson – Host (18:57):

Yeah. So so we’re talking about putting this in relationally, right? One-On-One, practicing empathy one- on-one. Is there a way that in an entire ministry with a youth or children’s ministry in the program structure, or what should the activities you do, is there a way to put empathy into those and what, what might that look like or where have you seen that done before?

Kirsten Knox – Guest (19:25):

I think it probably starts first with training your people, your volunteers and your leaders and really raising the importance of that cause naturally I think we have phrases where it’s harmful and we don’t intend it to be. So I want to bring awareness to that and I want to help them understand what empathy is and then to be able to do that with students to be able to communicate that way. So I would say first start with the training and second, I think it’s just in your every day interaction cause I oftentimes would tell leaders some of your best conversations will be those unplanned, right? Like you’re in the middle of game time. I want to take advantage of the unplanned time. So we’re waiting. It’s not their turn, right? Or it’s hanging out and we’re eating dinner. Like those kind of one-on-one. I oftentimes tell my adult, I want you to have one meaningful conversation with everyone that’s in your small group or with whatever group of students they’re working with, if you can, and not the every week you get one with all of them.

Kirsten Knox – Guest (20:23):

But if my goal is I’m going to go in and I’m going to listen and want to ask questions and that be to think almost anytime in your youth ministry, you can do that during game time. Small group is also a time to do that and not to move too quickly because I think in small groups sometimes we have an agenda, right? Like I have these questions and I have this bottom line that I want to get to. So you feel like, Oh we something good today. And then being able to, when they’re sharing really to spend some time and what they’re talking about and not feel like you have to rush too quickly to get the agenda done so you can create those spaces. I think anytime there’s one on one conversation or group conversation.

Brian Lawson – Host (21:04):

Yeah, so give it even giving your small group leaders the training to understand when to veer off of the curriculum and also the freedom to do that I think is what you’re saying is to know like I have got 10 questions I got to get through in the short amount of time. However this student has brought this and it’s significant and important to them. Probably also important to someone else in the group if not the entire group, if that person’s experiencing it. So maybe the last six questions, we don’t really need to get to tonight.

Kirsten Knox – Guest (21:35):

Right? There’s great value there. And I think they’re watching how you respond. So if I’m another kid in that small group and someone shares something and you rush past it or you minimize it or you try to fix it, right? If I’m sitting there, I’m thinking, why aren’t going to share what’s going on with me with them? Cause that’s not real helpful. I don’t want to feel like I’m an idiot for feeling this way or I’m wrong. Right? So I think even having those conversations really opens it up for other people who may not have been sharing to be able to say that’s a safe adult. This is a safe space that I can talk about those things and really explore that. So the, the ripple effect of that is far greater than that one conversation. And at times there’s far greater things and getting through. So I’m like, you, you have permission not to get through all the questions. And then sometimes someone might share something where you’re like, Hey, that’s really great and talk about it. And then, then I know I’m gonna follow up with them. Right? We’re going to get through that. I’m going to have some, right. We’re going to navigate that. But then I also know that I can then talk to them at another time and later that also gives me follow up and able to follow up with them with that.

Brian Lawson – Host (22:44):

Yeah, absolutely. So I actually think today the, the culture that we’re in and gen Z now might actually be easier for small churches to reach than previous generations. Is that something you agree with?

Kirsten Knox – Guest (22:59):

I say medium. Small churches have have the advantage more than they have ever had the advantage. Wow. No more than ever. But in recent, right? Like in this culture of if I’m a student, right and I am lonely, so I crave relationships but I don’t know how to do it. So that’s intimidating and relationships are intimidating anyways cause there’s a vulnerable component. But even when I don’t have the skills and that’s even more intimidating. So I tell oftentimes tell small to medium churches, you haven’t asked that. Cause you can start with five or six kids and if you create a safe space where they can be themselves and that’s good enough, there is your carrot like we have, I think, not that everyone would always verbalize this, but we always feel like we’re competing, competing with the church down the street that has the lights and has the resources and has all these things and you’re like, we’re never going to do that. And I’m like, yes. And you have something to offer them that is so good and is so they need, and there’s, there’s your carrot, right? There’s what makes you attractive. You create that students are craving and dying for spaces that they can have that. And once they obtain that, and it’s easier to do when you got smaller group because you can create that safe space that will be attractive and there’s your growth strategy. Yeah.

Brian Lawson – Host (24:14):

So good. So good. So, so small, medium churches, that’s your, that’s it. Practice empathy. Really develop those relationships, which has been in youth ministry forever and it’s still the heart of it and it’s not changed. And for our larger churches, maybe their, their challenges, how do they get smaller, right. That you can stay large. But how do you create smaller spaces where empathy can really be practiced?

Kirsten Knox – Guest (24:39):

Yes. That’s what I tell small churches is really the larger street, their larger church down the street is competing with you. Yeah. Because they are trying to figure out how do I become small and you are already there. So start with what you have and to really understand that that’s a strength that you have and students will gravitate to that and that will grow if we really can obtain that. And that I’m like, that doesn’t take resources. That takes leadership. Which is why I would say leaders need to be investing in their own leadership and growth. Cause I’m like that takes leaders and knowing how to create that, that doesn’t, that’s not a budget item. It takes no money to create that. It takes skill and leadership but it doesn’t take money. So good. So gen Z needs empathy. They need it. They need one of the greatest gifts we can give.

Brian Lawson – Host (25:27):
Absolutely. And I cost $0 million. Right. So, so we just need to be practicing that

Kirsten Knox – Guest (25:34):

In recognizing that it requires more of me. I think that’s probably the other reason. Sometimes we don’t spend time in that is because that’s going to cost me right to sit with someone to talk with someone to navigate in those bases emotionally has a cost. So I think the other pieces leaders is recognizing if I’m going to do that well and our leaders are going to do that well, we get to figure out how we’re also filling their cups and filling my cup so I have that to offer. Yeah.

Brian Lawson – Host (26:00):
So as we close to the person who maybe feels a little stretched, maybe they fill a little challenged or

discouraged in ministry that it doesn’t, it doesn’t always make sense. What would you say to them?

Kirsten Knox – Guest (26:18):

I would say you are enough that God has called you in this space and in this time and God has given you what you need to do, what he has asked you to do. And when we get in those incurred discouraging spaces, oftentimes, at least for me, I know I tend to then to rely a lot more on myself because I’ve got to figure this out. I gotta be able to do this versus really leaning into God has me to this space. God has called me to this place. How can I allow him just to work through me and relax a little bit? And to recognize that you are enough. And I would also think about how can you fill your cup? What is energizing to you? What are things that make you feel encouraged and passionate and invest some time in that? And that can be spiritual stuff. I mean, are spiritual disciplines that can do that as well as that might be just putting in going to the beach or go to the movies or getting your nails done or going to play basketball, whatever that is, that relieves some of that tension and allows you to be present to invest in those things in your life. But ultimately to recognize God has put you here, what you bring to the table is enough. And he won or that. Yeah.

Brian Lawson – Host (27:32):

Yeah. Excellent. Thank you, Kiersten. Appreciate it. Generation Z is different than any generation before. They’re the first generation who’s had the smartphone technology nearly their entire lives and even though they’re connected to one another all the time via their phones, they struggle with personal relationships. They want community, but they don’t know how to obtain that. Our role as leaders, whether youth or children, young adult ministries, is to teach them empathy, to model empathy for them so that they can see the power that that has on their relationships. As Kirsten said, those of us who practice empathy, which costs us $0 million are playing a significant role in the kingdom of God. So before we head to our last segment, I have one final question for you. How are you currently practicing empathy in your ministry and now friends, this brings us to the last segment, a segment called quick win.

Brian Lawson – Host (28:29):

These are segments we’ll have the end of our podcast that you can do immediately to help you gain traction in your ministry. Post it notes. I bet you have some sit in your desk. I have lots of them, different shapes, different sizes, different colors. The more unique, the better. One of the quickest ways that you can catch a win is to write your awesome or you rock or I love it when you come to youth group and send it to students randomly. Just choose students in your, in your role and just send them, post the notes to say, you’re awesome. You’re amazing. We love you. I’m so glad you’re here. Those little notes will make a huge difference in our lives and many of them will keep them. In fact, I bet they take them out of the out of the envelope and put them in their Bibles.

Brian Lawson – Host (29:13):

We put them on their bulletin board in their room, reminding them how amazing they are will play a huge role in how much they love care and trust you as a leader. Well, that brings us to the end of our very first episode of making sense of ministry, podcasts, friends, I hope you enjoyed this show and if you did, do us a big favor and subscribe to this podcast, share it with your friends. Leave us a rating. Help us out as we seek to help you and others make sense of this thing we call ministry.

Ashley (29:41):

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