Animating Church Life
“We actually had a conversation recently about how we can get more older people to come to our church,” shared Ryan Novosielski, current president of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City. “I know that’s not a common conversation [in Unitarian Universalist churches] but hey, it’s New York!” Ryan is one of the many young adults serving in leadership at Fourth Universalist, commonly shortened to "4th U." He helped start the young adult group about five years ago when they lacked critical mass. Now their group tells a very different story.
Erin Bigelow, who chairs the Church Council where representatives of each committee meet, and serves on the Transitions and Right Relations Teams, is also an active young adult. She says that young adults are included in many aspects of church leadership from leading youth group and Coming of Age programs to chairing the membership committee. “We are the people who do the majority of the work in the community, we have more energy than most [other age groups],” she explained.
The young adult group itself is informally organized. According to Katie Zaffrann, a young adult member who has been attending for seven years, the group is led from within and activities pop up organically such as potlucks, brunches, and a young adult retreat. Erin White, the current vice president of the board and yet another active young adult leader, notices the importance of these peer group social events in maintaining her leadership in the wider congregation. She mentions the young adult group as a place to find support and “just be myself and not my role.”
Helping to run the church and connecting socially aren’t the only activities these young adults are up to. They take on Sunday morning in what is becoming an annual event where young adults fill every role in the worship service from ushers to musicians to coffee hour planners. Erin White reflected that this worship planning has allowed her to grow spiritually in ways that she doesn’t think would be possible otherwise. There have also been multigenerational service projects led by their group as well as witness events such as a performance art piece in the window of their building in protest of New York’s “stop and frisk” policing policies. They even take their social events out into the city, recently holding a tea party in a subway car.
Of course, as with any organization, there are challenges for the young adults at 4th U. Ryan noted that sometimes when young adults lead activities meant for the whole community, people assume it is a young adult event and don’t show up. Yet the congregation will sometimes expect the young adult group include youth, despite youth being at a different developmental stage. Katie sees the main challenge of their ministry as the “busy busy busy” nature of everyone’s lives. She and other members of the group struggle to show up regularly given the other aspects of their lives and this inconsistency can make it harder to build community. Erin Bigelow agreed, and emphasized the importance of engaging folks beyond the core leadership of the church as a way to combat burn out and volunteer fatigue among the core members.
While busy lives and overtaxed leadership is an issue for any volunteer organization, these young adults certainly seem to be rising to the challenges. Whether they’re leading the Board to fix the roof of the church, planning the annual 4th U Easter Egg hunt that takes place in Central Park, putting on feminist theatre at the church to end violence against women or hosting the next informal young adult dinner party, this group puts their leadership skills and creativity to use, serving their church community, receiving support from one another and deepening their connection to each other, their community and their spiritual life.