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Ideas and How To’s for Practicing Supportive YaEA Ministry

[“Youth” refers to high school age and “Emerging Adult” to 18-22 year olds. I use these terms loosely because these developmental life stages are based in maturity and experience, not necessarily age]

Here’s some details and examples of how to practice supportive YaEA Ministry in 2020/2021. Supportive YaEA Ministry means it’s focused on sustaining and maintaining connection and responding to needs as they arise (read more about this).

Cell phone with red paper heart around it

Use social media. But go where YaEAs are. Don’t assume they’re seeing your posts on Facebook (they’re not). 

  • Sam Wilson, Director of Youth Ministries at the Winchester Unitarian Society, uses Instagram to remind his youth group of upcoming events but he says members have also commented how good it is to see his posts even when they can’t make it to the meeting; like gentle reminders that they have a place and a people who care about them.
  • Kari Gottfried, Communications Ministry Specialist at First UU of Ann Arbor and college student in Massachusetts, has a TikTok, @unitarianuniversalist, dedicated to connecting to UUs and the UU curious on the platform. She’s reaching young people (as well as older adults like me) just being herself and talking about UUism.

Check-in with them

  • Using group chats is one way to keep up with Youth or EA groups. But depending on the familiarity and culture of the group, conversion might not flow freely in these spaces. Rotating fun, funny and reflective check-in questions can be a good way to invite engagement, especially if members come up with them.
  • Pay attention to where there is enthusiasm and let the group lead. For instance I have a group of youth who really got into growing things this year - we regularly have a proud plant parent check-in. Whatever you do, don’t squelch a conversation because it doesn’t seem to have a point (to you) or you don’t understand it. Remember, as an (older) adult in YaEA spaces - it’s not about you.
  • Specific or individual check-ins can be very important, especially to people who don’t feel seen in the larger group or are more shy about sharing. In group chat, tag someone and ask how that history test went or request pictures of their cute dog, etc. If you're sending messages to minors outside of the larger group it’s best to either copy another adult (a co-advisor, minister, parent, etc) or follow your congregation’s safety policy in regards to communicating pastorally with youth.
Envelope with red paper heart in it

Don’t underestimate snail mail and other physical gifts. I don’t think receiving postcards and greeting cards through the post ever gets old! It’s like getting gifts of mini art AND a reminder that someone thinks enough about you to pick up a pen and peel a stamp. 

  • My colleague in the Central East Region, Sunshine Wolfe, has a sticker ministry that they’ve moved to snail mail since they can’t spread the love of stickers at in-person events. You can buy inexpensive stickers at the dollar store, purchase from artists on Etsy or Instagram or buy stickers with a message whose proceeds help your favorite cause. 

Model self-care. Older adults working and volunteering with young people are constantly modeling, from the way we answer the check-in question of how we spent our weekend to how we deal with a conflict in the group to how we react to the news. That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect or that we can’t be genuine. But it does mean that we can intentionally model positive ways to deal with stress, anxiety, depression, overwhelm, etc. 

  • Share spiritual and self care practices (I tend to believe they are one in the same) and help them see how things they are already doing in their lives fill these needs. When asked, many young people will tell you they don’t have any spiritual or self-care practices. But the difference between a practice and just doing something that helps you relax, reflect or feel good is awareness and intention. For example, talking about how you feel more focused and optimistic when you do something as simple as straightening your work area, can help them connect how cluttered vs uncluttered space makes them feel and develop their own habits around this.
  • Practice your passion. This can be as simple as what you share in a check in, or a photo you add to the group text. Like at in person events, you might find youth wanting to learn about it or discovering there are youth who already share your hobby!  Because we automatically gravitate towards people who are being and enjoying themselves, it’s easy to be an inspiration just doing what you love. 

Reconsider anything that might feel like school. High Schoolers have never really been excited about doing “school work” at church. But when learning was in their youth room, with friends and snacks and adults who were not their teachers, it felt less like school. Now it’s all blending together. Whatever you do, don’t pile more unwanted work on them in the name of “faith development”. This year, right now, just learning to live, witness, experience joy when there is so much sorrow and uncertainty, and dream up a future that they actually want to live in, is faith development enough. This might be the year to put aside your curriculum map and focus on deepening relationships, processing current events and just enjoying being together.    

Let them lead. Or not. But always try to follow. This one is tricky right now. Capacity for traditional leadership among young people seems to change day by day and opportunity by opportunity. With school starting, and not in ways they are used to navigating, some high school and college students are struggling with leadership commitments more than they normally do in the fall. And some are finding themselves with more free-time but less emotional capacity to take on projects.  And yet, so many of our UU YaEA programs are based on the empowerment model that requires a high level of YaEA direction to succeed. If you are trying to run a program like that this year my advice is to have real-talk conversations with them about interest and time. Do not make them feel like the program can’t go on without them. And be emotionally ready to support them in letting things go. Then follow their passions. They might not formally lead you, but I promise if you pay attention, listen carefully and are willing to embrace the motto “Never a failure, always a lesson” they will show you what they need. Even if it’s just to be a non-anxious witness to their becoming.

About the Author

Shannon Harper

Shannon Harper has been working with the Central East Region since the Fall of 2016. In her role as Youth and Young Adult Ministries Specialist she supports regional and national youth and emerging adult programming as well as advising and resourcing congregations.

For more information contact conglife@uua.org.