Welcome to the Spotlight Series! Each month we feature a different Unitarian Universalist congregation or community that is doing effective, innovative or otherwise interesting ministry with young adults– Ed.
Making their place
“My daughter was 19 and she said, ‘there’s nothing for me at church.’ It was a knife to my heart.”
Sound familiar? Sadly many young adults who bridge out of our youth groups don’t find a place in our congregations. But Jill Armstrong, quoted above, wanted to do something about that in her congregation in Golden, Colorado. Along with Jacqui Ainlay-Conley, another mother of a young adult UU, she started researching churches with successful young adult groups. Then, after receiving a grant for their congregation, they held a conference at their church about ministering to young adults and invited Kayla Parker, former UUA Campus Ministry Associate, as their special guest.
“We emphasized that [young adult ministry] IS ministry,” noted Jill. “Instead of ‘how do we get them to be members,’ we got in the mindset of ‘this is a group we need to minister to.”
So what do things look like now in Golden, Colorado?
Well, for one thing, they have a Young Adult Ministry Committee as part of their church structure, which includes adult members of all ages. Tina Voelker, who currently chairs the committee, explained: “We support each other and because we all care, that’s what makes us fit together.”
Jacqui shared that forming the committee helped stop a trend of well-meaning groups in the congregation trying to “give” projects to the young adults without actually consulting them. Plus, as Morgan Davies, one of the young adult members, pointed out, it’s nice for the younger adults to lean on the older adult leadership, because finding leaders in the 20s/30s crowd can be a challenge.
The committee has three main areas of focus: the 20s/30s group at the church, the campus ministry at Colorado School of Mines, and the ministry to youth who have graduated and moved away from the congregation.
Morgan is a member of the 20s/30s group and she told me they have a variety of activities, from helping with Family Promise, which provides hospitality for homeless families in churches, to hosting “popcorn theology” events where they choose their own movies. Their young adult covenant group filled up quickly last year and they also had a successful fundraiser to support the Emergency Financial Assistance Fund at their congregation.
The campus ministry, “Spiritual Freethinkers” is currently coordinated by Tina, who is a faculty member at School of Mines. Their group is based on UU ideas, but many of the students who wander in have never heard of Unitarian Universalism. Some are curious and come visit the church while others stick with the campus group. They are a small group, but they’ve been able to build deep connections. As Tina put it, “they’re really interested in learning about different ways of expressing spirituality…we’ve really journeyed together.”
In addition to these local groups, the young adult committee pays attention to the alumni of their youth group. They send notes and care packages during finals time for those who have gone to college. They also host reunion parties twice a year for this crowd: a summer BBQ and a holiday party. Their next experiment is to invite the 20s/30s group to these events to give the younger young adults a sense of what UU young adulthood can be like.
It is clear to the members of the young adult committee that their efforts are making a difference. An exchange student who spent a semester at School of Mines with the Spiritual Freethinkers wrote to Tina thanking her for the rare opportunity “to find a place to discuss about our beliefs and expand our understanding about others’, with no judgment at all.” One young woman who grew up in the congregation took the initiative to send the young adult committee her new mailing address when she moved because she enjoyed staying in touch.
These ministries matter. They bring the life-giving message of Unitarian Universalism to students, they help young people stay connected to the congregation that grew them, and they facilitate connections and community.
And as for that 19 year old who didn’t see anything for herself at church? Well several years later, she has just signed up to teach Our Whole Lives to 7th graders in the congregation. It’s amazing how things can change if we work to change our structures and our framework!
Special thanks to Morgan Davies, Jacqui Ainlay-Conley, Jill Armstrong and Tina Voelker, whom Annie interviewed on fuzebox in order to write this piece!
Does your UU congregation or community do exciting ministry with young adults? Email Annie at email@example.com to set up an interview and get your group in the Spotlight Series!