by Natalie Briscoe, Congregational Life Field Staff for the Southern Region of the UUA
I became a Unitarian Universalist as a Youth, at the age of 14, through a local congregation’s Our Whole Lives Program. That congregation in a suburb of Dallas, Texas and its youth group of about 20 Youth between the ages of 14 and 18 taught me a lot about leadership, respect for self and others, responsibility, integrity, and friendship. Those early experiences of leading worship, engaging in justice work throughout the community, and participating in the life of the congregation set me up for a lifetime of success both inside and out of the Unitarian Universalist world. I am still in touch with many of my Youth Group friends, some of whom are now Unitarian Universalist ministers.
Ten years later, I began volunteering at another Unitarian Universalist congregation as an Advisor for Middle School Youth. Shortly after I began volunteering, I was hired as that congregation’s Director of Religious Education and, as an aside, met my future husband at a conference for Youth Advisors that same year. During my time as a Director of Religious Education, the greatest joy in my work was to administer the Coming of Age Program for fifteen year olds, which culminated in a heritage trip to Boston. The minister of that congregation and I always chaperoned the trip alongside a team of dedicated volunteers, and every year the Youth would reduce me to tears as I saw them grow into self-assured, confident, responsible, and loving young adults. It was here, in this class, year after year, that I felt a call to Unitarian Universalist ministry and, in particular, ministry to and with Youth.
As your Congregational Life Field Staff, I sit on the Youth Ministry Roundtable, a body of national staff from the UUA Headquarters, other Regional Field Staff, and staff from the College of Social Justice at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, who gather to discuss and imagine exemplary, meaningful, and relevant ministry to and with youth. Throughout our work, themes have emerged about the kind of support congregations are looking for when it comes to youth ministry.
First, small to mid-sized congregations are always searching for the elusive “Critical Mass.” They have a few teenagers in their congregation who attend sporadically, thus making it difficult to convene a class offering on Sunday Mornings. The youth do not have a consistent group to be involved with, and therefore many of them find other activities outside of the church to be involved in.
Second, many congregations of all sizes are struggling with retaining their teen involvement after graduation. Young Adults often fall away from the church through a variety of reasons from moving to a new city to finding a real lack of motivation to be involved. Many Young Adults have simply not been taught as Youth to participate in the wider congregation and, in the absence of a Youth Group, feel lost and marginalized in the wider community.
Third, many congregations of all sizes who have been running youth programs for many years are struggling to keep them relevant and engaging to Youth. Even with the most dynamic of Youth Leaders and staff, the congregation and its Youth Ministry are competing for the Youth’s attention with so many other events and activities. From school to sports to jobs, Youth are pulled in many directions, and the church often falls to the bottom of the list.
I have been working in congregations and thinking about these issues for nearly two decades now, and I have come to the conclusion that the solution to all of these issues is that we have been doing Ministry to and with Youth completely backwards.
All of these issues stem from a core assumption that there should be a class for youth that meets on Sunday morning, usually during worship, just like every other religious education class. If that class doesn’t “make” for whatever reason – sporadic attendance, lack of participants, lack of adult leadership – then the congregation usually uses its limited resources in other areas and resigns itself to “not having anything for Youth.” If the class or group does exist, sometimes the class is used as a springboard for other youth programming, such as trips, justice work, or social outings. In some circumstances, the class or group will form and encourage leadership, where Youth may be able to participate in opportunities within the larger congregation and the wider UU Community.
But what if we’re doing that backwards? What if the class or youth group is the LEAST important thing we can offer?
We know that Youth need a meaningful relationship with at least five adults who are not their parents in order to feel secure and valued. I firmly believe, instead of thinking about Youth Ministry in the large group sense, we should begin by thinking about how we can foster relationships between adult members in the congregation and every youth. Instead of starting with the class or youth group, let’s start with a comprehensive mentoring program.
Select members of your congregation who have an interest in spending time with Youth. Background check them. Train them to be mentors, not teachers and advisors. (Not sure how to recruit and train your mentors? Email me.) After that, match your mentors with youth who have similar interests. Maybe one of your youth really wants to go into broadcasting as a career, and you have two members of your congregation who work in that field. Maybe one of your youth likes to garden; I’m willing to be there are more than a few gardeners in your congregation. Perhaps one mentor could take on two or three youth mentees.
As the mentors get to know their mentees, mentors can be a bridge for the youth to get involved in other areas of congregational life. The mentors can help the youth become a valued member of the social justice committee, the worship associates, or the membership committee. The mentors can see where a youth is passionate and has leadership potential, and also help the adult members of the congregation listen to and value youth input. In this way, we create even more connections between youth and adults in a congregation, help youth to feel valued and empowered, and help the entire congregation shift its culture toward one of inclusion for all ages. Hopefully, we will not even be able to count the number of meaningful cross-generational relationships a youth has on one hand.
After these relationships have been established, you can host gatherings of mentor/mentee groups at the congregation on days that are NOT Sundays. A monthly dinner, a quarterly bowling game, or yearly pool party work well. In this way, all of the youth who are having similar mentoring experiences can gather, meet each other, and get to know one another. They may even start to want to do things together, apart from the mentors.
And then - BAM! - you’ve got a vital, meaningful, and relevant youth group that emerged organically from the relationships between youth and adults. The youth group is in covenant with the rest of the congregation, it includes youth who feel invested in and valued by the congregation, and it will be led by a group of youth advisors and youth leaders who work cooperatively, through healthy relationship, to provide meaningful and relevant learning and spiritual growth for all members. (Need help recruiting and training Youth Group Advisors and Youth Leaders? Email me.)
As the product of the Youth Ministry of the last two decades, which has started with the idea of the Sunday Morning Youth Group, clearly we have done a lot of wonderful work that has touched a lot of lives. And yet, as a wise man once said, “Times, they are a changin’.” If the youth group model is working for you, wonderful! And if it’s not, I might suggest turning the whole thing on its head and starting from the end. The Congregation is the Curriculum, so let’s give ourselves to the youth before we expect them to give their precious talents, time, and treasures to us.