Find a Way
In October, I introduced the idea of multiple pathways, and the need for there to be a variety of ways, beyond and in addition to the youth group model, for youth to be involved in their congregations.
This month, I'm focusing specifically on committees and boards in congregations. Youth being involved in our decision-making structures is vital. Not just to our youth programs, but to everything we do. Youth leaders bring dynamic ideas, vitality and unique experiences and perspectives to our shared life and we do not shine as brightly without their participation.
It's not enough, however, just to say "we'll add a youth to this committee" and consider the work done.
Assess the Current Structure
Even if you already have youth on your committee or board, a review of your "working norms" is a good place to start. How accessible are your groups to youth? Do the committee or board norms automatically exclude people based on their age/stage in life? Here are some questions to think about.
- When does the group meet? Is it after service but during youth group? On a weeknight when youth without their own car would need a ride from a parent or guardian? During the typical after-school activity time in your area? There's no right answer for when you should meet - though during youth group would be a particularly bad time - but have a conversation about what barriers your timing presents and how you might overcome them.
- What are the term lengths? A three year term would make it nearly impossible for a youth to serve a full term, especially if they planned to go on to college in another area, unless they began as a freshman. Perhaps that means you'd want to create two staggered two-year youth seats, or two one-year seats, to give youth a place at the table that works with their life stage.
- What is the meeting style and culture? Do you have quarterly, formal hours-long meetings? Frequent shorter ones informal ones? Consider whether your meeting style is conducive to younger members, or members of any age with a variety of learning styles, attention-levels and needs.
- How are decisions made and are we willing to change it if necessary? Does the entire group get to hear from each member about their perspective on the issue at hand? This applies not just to youth on committees, but to any decision-making body with a diverse membership where a yes/no vote after only personal deliberation and not group conversation could silence those with concerns.
We're ready for youth. Now what?
Here are some things to keep in mind when you have a youth on your board/committee.
- If possible, let youth serve in pairs. This helps reduce the tendency to tokenize a single youth member and it gives them peer support on an otherwise all-adult group.
- Remember, your youth member doesn't speak for all youth. Don't ask him/her/hir to. If you're looking for "what the youth group thinks," an adult and a youth on the committee could always visit the youth group together and get feedback. Youth members on committees, unless it is a committee of representatives from various groups, speak for themselves and their experiences. Just as the rest of the members do.
- Make sure you let youth know the opportunity is available. Individually reach out to youth you think might be interested. And don't be discouraged if no one wants to be on the committee - not all members of your congregation want to be on committees either. Keep the option open for youth to serve so that when that a youth with an interest in business and accounting wants to join the finance committee, you're ready.
- Special committees or groups that are formed to meet a need and then dissolved can also be great places for youth to serve. I've seen youth serve with great success as members of Ministerial Search Committees.
Youth on Board, a non-profit organization based in Somerville, MA dedicated to youth in decision-making, has some great resources. Their organizational assessment (PDF) gives you a different way of assessing where you are with including youth in decision-making and where you might like to head. Their publications Youth on Board: Why and How to Involve Young People in Organizational Decision-Making and 15 Points: Successfully Involving Youth in Decision Making are resources that can aid you as you blaze this pathway.
What do you think? Are there questions committees and boards should ask themselves? Are there things they should remember when working with youth?
Are you a youth who serves on a board or a committee? Tell us about it!