5 Things I Learned in (almost) 5 Years
These past (almost) five years have been filled with a whole bunch of emotions. Joy, sorrow, celebration, dismay, disappointment, anger, pride, and love are just the beginnings. I met around fifteen hundred youth and adults who visited the UUA and taught them about our denomination and our faith. I went to every single LREDA Fall Conference, eager to be with my religious educator people, learn from mentors, and share my learnings. I added five more General Assemblies under my belt. I could keep throwing out statistics, but they aren’t the most important part. What I am most proud of is the way I have helped our faith move towards creating better immersive experiences and better congregational experiences for our young people, specifically co-creating spaces for our young folks to claim space within our faith.
I’ve also been working on some projects that won’t be finished, and I want to share some learnings with y’all before I go. So here they are:
We need to embrace innovation and change.
So much of what we do in youth ministry is dated, including many philosophies and models. It’s not 1961, 1977, 1987, or 2000. Heck, it’s not even 2015 any more. It’s 2019, almost 2020... our models and philosophies for ministry should reflect this!
Of course, there’s a balance of tradition and innovation, but I invite all of you to ask the questions, “What are we doing? Why are we doing it? How is it Unitarian Universalist?” Traditions for traditions’ sake isn’t useful pedagogy, especially when no one knows the stories. We can carry our ancestors while still dreaming up new rituals and new traditions that meet our needs and are meaningful to us today.
As we move into new traditions, remember acronyms and abbreviations are insider language. Our youth communities haven’t always been accessible by new folks because of our love for all things acronymed or that include ‘u’ or ‘con’ in them. Call things what they are.
Henry Ford was an iffy dude, but that quote about how if he had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’ is spot on. Dream!
Our young folks need Sabbath.
We all know young people who are over-scheduled with martial arts, cello, bass guitar, art club, theater, soccer, ultimate, exams, and so much more. And you want to add church leadership to their resume too?
What would it look like for us to embrace our churches as sanctuaries away from the busyness of everyday life and the stresses put upon us? How can you make your church become a place of sabbath and rest for your community instead of one other place that is demanding time and energy?
All of us need rest and Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest. Let’s reject the culture of must do it all and embrace a culture of rest!
We need to commit resources to our young folks.
This is vital. Budgets are moral documents, the way we spend our money says a lot about our values. What percentage of your congregation’s budget is invested in your religious education programs? What percentage of that is invested in your youth? How much for young adults? I know there are a lot of competing priorities at church and at home, but it is imperative that we reverse the trend of our young folks leaving Unitarian Universalism soon or there will not be a UUism in the future.
This also means personally investing your time and energy in the youth and young adult ministries where ever your gifts and talents lie. Does your weekly ministry/volunteer service to your community include the youth and young adults? If not, you have an obligation to do that work as a gift to our larger faith. Everyone has gifts and talents they can share with our young people and every multigenerational connection we make, we strengthen our faith.
(Yes, I know I made a comment about demanding time and energy above. We have an obligation to create a world and opportunities for our young people that are better than we had.)
There’s a balance between relevance and authenticity.
Unitarian Universalism is largely irrelevant to our wider American society. We are a small faith with just over a thousand congregations. Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors were presidents and senators, songwriters and screenwriters, famous scientists and philosophers. We’ve stopped celebrating our own current Unitarian Universalist heroes in favor of those from the past. Our eyes brighten with excitement every time we catch a Unitarian joke on a sitcom or from a satirical website, but there are millions and millions of people out there for whom that joke makes no sense because we don’t exist. Let’s all work to make our faith relevant again.
Authenticity is the key trait for youth and young adult ministry. Show up as your full self, but be mindful of what of yourself you are sharing. Don’t pretend to like things that you don’t, but also don’t be smug about not liking (or understanding) things other people like. And celebrate what you do like, with boundaries of course.
We can’t be everything to everyone, but we can minister and share our faith to/with everyone.
I’ve witnessed a lot of generalization over my years in UU youth and young adult ministry, and have done it a fair bit myself. Your youth group, campus ministry, 20s/30s group won’t meet everyone’s needs. That is okay. We can minister to everyone by helping them find places where their light can shine the brightest. Sometimes, that means trying new things, even ending things, but failure is a lesson not a state of being.
Furthermore, we need to set priorities and be honest about what is fueling the priorities. In my opinion, faith formation should be the number one priority for all of our congregations. Too often we find that our people who found Unitarian Universalism as adults lack deep Unitarian Universalist identity, while our young adults leave the faith claiming their spiritual needs have progressed and are not being met. Have you never wondered why, from a faith formation perspective, we ask our children to do years and years of religious education, many times including a year-long intensive coming of age program, before they can become “official members” of a congregation but folks who find Unitarian Universalism as adults don’t do this work?
Lastly, and please repeat after me, EVANGELISM IS NOT A FOUR LETTER WORD. Like literally, but also figuratively. Ask your friends to come to church with you. If your Unitarian Universalist faith is important to you for any reason, then your friends and family and strangers might also need their spiritual needs met in a similar way. I share my Unitarian Universalist faith loudly and proudly because it saved my life and I never know who else might need it too.
These are just five small takeaways I leave you with. Instead of leaving you with a departing quote, why don’t you leave one in the comments?