by Natalie Briscoe, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff
In my last article for our Southern Region news, I wrote about a model of youth ministry that is relationship centered and based in a mentorship model rather than a group or class-based model. It would be an understatement to say that I received some strong reactions to that article. I received calls and emails from around the country asking for more information about how to implement a program such as this in their congregations. It was wonderfully exciting to see how many congregations throughout our Unitarian Universalist Association are ready and willing to experiment with new ideas of serving our Youth. I was so grateful to be a part of those conversations.
I thought for many weeks about how to write a program that detailed exactly how to build mentoring relationships into the youth program. I considered writing about safety policies, how to handle communication with youth, and how to select and train your mentors. I thought about writing a detailed list of topics to talk about in mentor/mentee conversations and how to structure and plan these meetings. I thought about writing ceremonies which recognize these relationships in your congregations and detailing how to foster and celebrate these relationships over the course of your church year.
I would begin again and again, and over and over I would completely hit a brick wall. Something was missing, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Something bothered me about this work, and I couldn’t understand what it was.
I finally realized that the first article had some pretty large assumptions in it, and I don’t think we can continue to build programs for youth – or for anyone in our congregations – until these assumptions are spoken. Writing a program of this nature – in all its glorious detail – is something that I absolutely love to do, and will do. I worry, however, that this program will become a technical solution to an adaptive issue. If the underlying philosophy of youth in the congregation is not addressed, a program such as this will surely fail. We first have to look at the congregational culture around children, youth, and even young adults before any structure can be imposed.
My first assumption in that first article is that some, but not all, youth programs are not “working” in congregations. By not working, I mean failing to maintain attendance, interest, and energy. I also might mean that they are not serving our youth, not helping them become more spiritually healthy and grounded individuals, and not giving youth a spiritual community which helps them navigate the choppy waters of adolescence. I think the response to the first article tells me that this rings true for many.
A second assumption is that youth need those things I just mentioned: the opportunity to grow spiritually as individuals and a community that grounds and supports them. These are two of the main reasons people come to church at all, and we forget that youth are looking for these things in a church as well. I believe this assumption also strikes many as true, both in their personal experience and with regard to research on the subject.
A third and final assumption is that our goal is for our congregations to be whole communities where all people are welcomed. I believe most Unitarian Universalists would also affirm this statement, but the shadow side of this remark is the underlying assumption that our congregations are historically segregated places. It was a large advancement in religious education when we realized that children and youth are not mini-adults, and that they have unique needs and desires. We made church a significantly more welcoming place when we gave people of all ages an opportunity to be together in cohort groups which catered to the particular developmental needs of a certain age group. This culture change was nothing short of a revolution, and it served our communities well.
As time went on, however, our churches came to rely on the model where children went one way, youth another, and adults a third. We came to see – and implicitly teach – that RE is for kids, youth group is for youth, and worship is for adults. We started to come into church to drop off our kids to receive their liberal religious education and to have our “adult time." Church became more and more segregated on the basis of age, with fewer and fewer opportunities for the whole community to be together and create meaning. Somewhere along the way, we forgot that church was meant to be one whole community, where people of all ages learn and teach together and figure out what it means to live a Unitarian Universalist life. Since Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal, not creedal, religion, the way in which we are in covenantal community with one another is how we practice our religion. If we are not doing that as a whole community, then I would venture to say we are broken.
We have seen so many of the harsh implications of this model play out in our congregations and in our larger communities. Youth who are segregated into youth groups – no matter how high-functioning and engaging those groups are– bridge into young adulthood and realize that the church they have grown to know and love does not exist beyond high school. In fact, it is often the case that the better the youth group, the harder it is to transition to congregational life. Where once youth were leaders in their youth groups, they find their voices marginalized in the larger congregation, both as youth and as young adults. So, unable to find a place, they leave. And hopefully, if we are lucky, they return when the congregation serves their needs again – most often when they have families of their own.
As communities of faith, we are not whole. By marginalizing youth and young adults, and by failing to change our very specific culture to include their voices and help their spiritual needs to be met in the context of the larger community, we are breaking ourselves over and over. I, for one, refuse to accept this brokenness as the inevitability that I was taught it was.
I believe in Whole Church. I believe in whole community. I think it is time for the pendulum to swing back toward spending more time together as a complete community. It is time for us to remember – as we once knew so well – that everyone, regardless of age, needs to come together to make sense of the world (worship), to learn about ourselves and others (religious education), to create community and break bread together (fellowship), to get in touch with the deepest part of ourselves and to listen to that still small voice (spiritual practice), and to be of service in the name of Love (justice-making). And we need time to do those things together, because it’s all of our responsibility to pass our religion to our children and youth. They need us, they need our communities, they need our knowledge, and they need our love. And we most definitely need theirs.
Whole Church means that all people are welcomed and accepted into our community. It means that we recognize that people of different ages have different needs, and we seek to be in relationship with them as they go about their journey of becoming. It is the idea that not just the perfect parts of us are welcome, but the parts that we are still working on are welcome, too. We are free to be ourselves in our communities, even if that means sometimes our shared space is quiet and sometimes our shared space is loud. We are free to be ourselves here, even if that means some of us want to pray and some of us want to sing and some of us want to cry and some of us want to dance. All of our expressions of faith are welcomed because that is how we see the sacred beyond our own hearts.
Whole Church means that we support families and not just individuals. It means we help parents and grandparents talk to children about what is most important. It means we give youth the meaningful relationships with adults who are not their parents to ensure their healthy development. It means that we see the community as a place where we build the world we dream about, one child and youth at a time. It means that we step into teaching and mentorship roles for children and youth because it’s hard to be a parent, and we can support each other spiritually and emotionally by being the village we all so desperately need. It means that saving the world starts with raising children who know boundless love, and church is a place where we can go to intentionally do that.
That is not to say, however, that Whole Church means we are together all the time. Of course we still have time for children to run on the playground while adults drink hot coffee and talk about things other than Thomas the Tank Engine. Of course we have time to be together in developmentally appropriate ways, with information and conversation that is geared for a particular age. But it also means that our whole selves are welcome wherever we are on the path, and we join our lives together in covenantal community. It means we are intentional about our time together and our time apart, and we live our lives in the balance between the two. Whole Church calls us to be co-creators of our faith communities, not consumers of it. If we desire a community where all are welcome and encouraged on their spiritual journey, then we are called to be the welcomers, even when that call makes us uncomfortable or the community transforms into something that we weren’t expecting.
So, going all the way back to the way this article began, I can’t talk about mentorship programs in a congregation without talking about Whole Church. We have to think about having authentic relationships with youth where they are included in the fabric of the community for the gifts they bring and the needs they have right in this very moment. If we don’t think about the overall culture of our congregations and how welcoming they are to all people, no matter what their age, then the mentoring relationship has little foundation. It will be unsupported, and it could end up being just another program. Could it succeed without widespread culture change? Maybe. But isn’t it one of our promises to one another that we don’t have to do all of this hard work alone?
To be truly transformational in our relationships and the lives of our Youth, I urge us to think about the larger congregational culture that supports and sustains the spiritual development of all people in the community, and how we do that through our authentic and personal relationships with each individual, regardless of age, religion, beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability, ethnic and cultural background, or income level. No matter how you got here or where you came from, no matter how long you’ve been traveling, Unitarian Universalism welcomes you. We must be those people for our Youth, so that we can all continue to be those people for the world.