At a time of physical distancing, when in-person ministry and religious education are on hold, UU leaders have new challenges and new opportunities to bring transformative faith development experiences and vital, supportive connection to families large and small. Explore practical and spiritual resources here.
[“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).
Use social media. But go where YaEAs are. Don’t assume they’re seeing your posts on Facebook (they’re not).
Check-in with them.
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.
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, conflict, etc.
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, and 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.
[“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]
This year is hard on everyone, in universal ways, but also in ways specific to age, identity, and life stage.
With youth and emerging young adults we’re seeing stress, anxiety, depression, self harm and suicide ideation related to the pandemic and results of quarantine and isolation; additional stresses of academic challenges, domestic violence, economic and environmental uncertainty; and the impacts of police brutality, civil unrest and loss of loved ones and icons.
And many of us also wonder about the long-term effects of online and social distanced school; loss of extra-curriculars, sports and social outlets; and an increase in screen time with less varied human interaction. How do we help young people in 2020/2021? More importantly, as more seasoned adults, how do we help young people while also acknowledging that our own energy and reserves are being depleted by the very same things that are impacting them? Sometimes more so?
I’m going to suggest something that might seem counter-intuitive. I think we need to back off.
I believe that we need to shift our focus from active to supportive, or responsive, ministry with young people right now. What I mean by active ministry is programs and events that rely on active participation and attendance. Success and impact of these programs are based on attendance, witnessed engagement and participant feedback. Examples are large youth group programs, OWL (Our Whole Lives sexual education program), service and heritage trips, cluster/regional/national youth and young adult conferences, faith development curriculums, creative fundraising events . . . you get the picture. These are the most visible and most celebrated signs of YaEA engagement in congregations. Often they are the things that attract new people or encourage more participation. They are the programs that young people look forward to finally being old enough to join - like their siblings and friends before them. And when older adults look back on their time as YaEAs, they are often the powerful memories that come to mind first.
But for most congregations, a lot of “active” YaEA ministry is off limits this year. We’re reduced to trying to make Zoom compatible with vibrant, immersive experiences and pastoral spaces. We’re frantically planning social distanced events before the weather stops cooperating. We’re making hard decisions to cancel or completely re-vision age-old traditions. We’re desperately trying to figure out how we can hold onto what we know (or believe) works, while watching our participation numbers dwindle. It’s exhausting when it works but exhausting AND disheartening when it doesn’t.
There has always been another side to YaEA ministry though. One that doesn’t take as much energy - or rather a different kind of energy. And chances are, when life-long UU adults look more closely at their time as YaEAs, past the more visible programs, they know that this side was just as important to their formation.
Supportive YaEA ministry does not require participation or attendance or even learning. In fact, it does not require anything - it invites, reminds, and shows compassion and love regardless of how people do or do not show up. Supportive YaEA ministry knows it’s value based on faith, relationship and the occasional grateful text message received years later. This is the “behind the scenes” footage, the scaffolding that holds the artists - integral but not polished or attractive.
Sometimes ministry is just about reminding people that you are here for them when they need you.
Here are some ideas for practicing supportive YaEA ministry (more details)
Use social media - Using platforms they are already on means less energy they have to exert to see your message.
Check-ins - Group and personal check-ins such as through group texts build relationships and familiarity so they know where and who to go if they are in crisis or need.
Don’t underestimate snail mail - In a very virtual world, tangible things like post cards or stickers in the mail convey that you are thinking of them and value them.
Model self-care - Young people need to see how others are dealing with anxiety, stress, overwhelm, etc. Just sharing your own coping or spiritual practices could be the best “lesson” you can give.
Reconsider anything that might feel like school - Don’t add more work or “assignments” onto them without enthusiastic consent!
Let them lead. Or not. But always try to follow- Take your cues from them and recognize you might need to hold more of the structure this year.
I’m not saying we need to throw out all active YaEA ministry this church year! I’ve heard from several congregations who are seeing an increase in attendance at virtual gatherings and who are planning really dynamic activities for their YaEAs based on participant feedback. If your congregation has volunteer resources to carry out these kinds of programs, that’s wonderful.
What I’m hoping this article does is give hope and validation to those who have had to cut back their YaEA activities due to low interest and lack of volunteers; who are seeing fewer and fewer youth faces on their Zoom calls despite hours of preparation; who are feeling like they aren’t reaching enough of their YaEAs and just don’t know what to try next. It’s okay.
First, remember that the in-person meetings and events we think of as a staple of active YaEA ministry weren’t reaching everyone either. Online activities are going to appeal to a different, yet overlapping group. I’ve found that some young people with sensory issues and social anxiety, love doing things on-line and having control of their environments; while young people who were completely dedicated to a certain in-person community, have lost their enthusiasm when it moved online. So maybe you are reaching different people. And maybe the ones who aren’t into active online events can still be reached through more supportive means.
Second, don’t get hung-up on numbers. The value you give to YaEA ministry should never have been measured by attendance or membership or pledging family units. Your value is in the life you live and the lives you touch. This summer I led a congregation youth group with an average of 3 attendees at each meeting and on more than one occasion it was just one (and two adult advisors). And even when just the one showed up, we didn’t cancel if they wanted to stay and talk. Because we recognized that might have been one of the few times that week that youth got to talk to someone outside of their family. This is the weird-kind-of times we’re living in. And yet, depth vs breadth should always have been our priority.
And finally, as hopeless as it seems at moments, remember this pandemic and the restraints on in-person activities will not last forever. I wish I could say the same about systemic racism and climate change. We have our battles ahead. Let’s use this time to build the relational framework and support network that will sustain ourselves and the young people in our lives for the future.
May this year be a study, for all of us, on recognizing what we have the power and capacity to impact. Even when that impact is small. Even when that impact is so subtle there is no way to measure. Even when that impact won’t be evident for years.
One way UU congregations live our values is through our Safe Congregations committees and policies to create a safer and more welcoming community for all. Visit the Safe Congregations pages for complete information.
Below are some particular areas to pay attention to during online programming for the safety of children and youth.
As with in-person programming, it’s important to clearly distinguish between spaces designated for children and/or youth, space for parents/guardians together with their children, adult-specific space, or multigenerational space.
We recommend treating online and in-person programming the same: each child or youth's parent or caregiver must participate in an orientation process and must sign a permission form.
Parents and guardians need to understand that it is impossible to fully and effectively supervise across the internet and therefore parents and guardians must understand they are responsible for the health and well-being of their child while their child participates in any online space. This includes taking responsibility for their child’s appropriate behavior, appearance, and what is visible on the camera.
The UUA continues to recommend two unrelated adults, approved by your Safe Congregations’ policy (including a background check), for all RE and Youth spaces. It is wise to have a third adult available if one of the adults has a technical difficulty. An additional option is to ask a parent to be present until both adult facilitators are present. Otherwise the space should be closed and the group postponed.
This includes recommending two adults for each breakout room when programs use breakout rooms.
Adult volunteers should sign a code of ethics that includes agreements on:
Contact between volunteers and minors
Visibility of adults’ posts on social media
The UUA has Youth Safety Guidelines for UUA programs offered to congregations as potentially useful as they consider their safety policies. There is a new section about online programming which includes an analysis of social media and platforms and will continue to be updated.
Many congregations have had conversations about navigating in-person multigenerational spaces. We are in a new multigenerational space creating new covenantal expectations. So, expect new tensions and issues to arise and see these as creative community building opportunities.
Be sure to fully inform parents and guardians that, like coffee hour at church, they are responsible for supervising their children’s participation in multigenerational space.
The UUA recommends that congregations adopt a policy requiring adults to avoid one-on-one electronic interaction with minors who are not their children. Instead, adult volunteers and religious professionals should include the child or youth’s parent, another volunteer, or another religious professional on any direct communications.
Pictures/video of minors should never be shared with anyone other than parents/guardians outside of covenantal space without appropriate written parental permission.
For streamed worship, if parents/guardians are having their video turned on at home and the children are visible, this is their choice and you do not need a signed photo permissions form for the streamed service.
However, be cautious of posting public video such as on your website with the children or youth visible without a signed permission form. Consider editing the video to remove the images of anyone under 18.
To protect the privacy and safety of those under age 18, avoid sharing full names, even if parents or guardians give permission to do so. For example, some congregations display children’s art and credit the artist by first name only.
In online programming, congregations should require members and friends with Limited Access Agreements and Behavioral Covenants to continue to follow these agreements.
Limited Access Agreements: These agreements are created by Safe Congregations committees and/or religious professionals to allow people who may pose a threat to safety, such as people with a conviction of a sex crime or who are registered sex offenders, to participate in some of a congregation’s religious life in a way that protects those who may be vulnerable in the congregation.
Limited Access Agreements may need updating for online programming. These are suggestions which may or may not apply to the particulars of your situation. Contact your regional staff for assistance.
Revisit and clearly define which programs the person may attend and what behavior is expected of them.
If the agreement includes accompaniment, revisit what that looks like online. It could look like texting the volunteer accompanying them when they arrive and leave.
Clearly prohibit contact with minors through any electronic means.
In cases of sex offenders against children, inform parents/guardians which programs the person attends.
Turn off private messaging on the platform in multigenerational spaces.
Behavioral Covenants: These agreements are created by Safe Congregations committees with individuals with disruptive behavior, whose behavior, such as bullying or harassing, are harmful to others.
Like Limited Access Agreements, Behavioral Covenants may need adapting as well.
Appropriate participation includes all ages appearing in clothing appropriate for the public. Nudity should not be allowed. Set the expectation that individuals of all ages and genders will wear clothing that covers their genitals; in addition, the nipples of older children and adults should be covered. However, this should not be an excuse to police or body shame anyone, especially teens, for clothing which others find revealing.
A particular concern with appropriate attire by minors includes the possibility of another participant taking a screenshot on their computer and generating an image that could be seen by authorities as child pornography. In this instance, the person capturing the image and the parents/guardians may be at risk of investigation.
Live sessions should have a co-host without facilitation responsibility able to turn off microphones and cameras of any participant as well as remove any participant whose behavior and/or appearance is deliberately offensive.
As a religious educator, a minister, or a lay leader, here’s some vital family ministry you can support in simple short ways.
Nearly all of our families have children and teens spending more time online than they did a year ago–including in our programs. Mostly, this is serving a vital role in keeping our children and teens connected to the people they care about.
And your UUA staff have fielded questions related to UU children and teens involved in bullying, experiencing some “weird” or “uncomfortable” adult interactions, and parents surprised by their young child finding sexually explicit material on youtube.
Like sexuality education, talking about internet safety is faith formation. The goal isn’t to swaddle our children and teens to protect them. The goal is to give them the tools they need to navigate the world. For each family the timeline of how much freedom to give is going to be a little different. Here are some simple ways to support your families:
The families in your program including the children and youth should know the safety standards you’re holding your adult volunteers to. They should know that the adults from their congregation shouldn’t message them privately one to one and that this is modeling what the congregation believes is safe adult behavior.
Remind them: One of the ways a faith community can be helpful is in reminding and supporting parents and guardians in having conversations with children and teens. Our post for all ages and focusing on teens give many conversations parents and caregivers should have with their children and teens. You are welcome to take a section at a time and include it in your emails to families.
Host some conversations: If the parents and caregivers in your congregation are gathering in small groups or want to gather in small groups the Parents as Sexuality Educators small group ministry curriculum is one we recommend using right now! The sessions on pornography and social media use may be particularly relevant.
This workshop was given by Evin Carvill Ziemer on September 19, 2020 focusing on safety guidelines and protocols as congregations prepare to launch religious education programming in an online environment.
Topics covered in this presentation include building covenants, securing parental permissions, hosting safe spaces and special information focusing youth and social media.
This workshop is designed for RE volunteers, staff, mentors, and anyone involved in children's and youth programming.
Special note: The overall guidance on creating safety, especially a culture of safety, will continue to be helpful to congregations. However, the technical guidance specific platform guidance will continue to evolve.
Recommend adults review the specific activities before doing them with your group.
Melanie Davis, Our Whole Lives Program Manager for the Unitarian Universalist Association, strongly recommends that OWL programming be postponed until it can be done in person. She advises,
You can keep your participants engaged through online check-ins, social gatherings, games, or even group home study time, but please do not offer OWL online. It wasn't created for or tested for efficacy online. Its in-person interactions and experiential learning cannot be replicated on an online platform. More importantly, potential for harm exists online.
If a participant is triggered, facilitators may not notice and may not be able to offer effective support. Lack of privacy is a grave concern, as friends, parents, and siblings may be in the room, off or on camera. For youth and teen programs, parental permission is required, and that agreement can be broken if friends and siblings listen/view OWL workshops online.
In addition, the UUA and our United Church of Christ publishing partner must be responsible stewards of material we've been granted permission to use in print but not online. If you have questions about this, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nothing in Our Whole Lives is so timely that it is worth putting lives at risk. Once health officials give the all-clear, you can double up on your sessions or offer workshops for Grades 7-9 or 10-12 in 3-4 workshop weekend retreats until your program calendar is caught up.
The UUA and UCC have published some suggestions for adapting the Our Whole Lives for Grades 7-9 material to create a program that consists of fewer, shorter participant gatherings. Similar recommendations are in development for the Grades 4-6 curriculum. Note that any program you adapt will not be a comprehensive, in-person Our Whole Lives program, so you cannot use the Our Whole Lives name or OWL acronym. Visit the Our Whole Lives Facilitator Resources page for the latest information, including free webinars and a host of lifespan resources for at-home sexuality education.
Some congregations are using the Parents and Caregivers as Sexuality Educators Small Group Ministry program online during this lull in in-person programming. This 12-session curriculum can be downloaded at no cost and can easily be adapted for online use.
DRE Panel sharing what has been effective in their congregations to engage families during these virtual times, presenting a sampling of activities for all ages. Presenters include: Jules Jaramillo, Ryan Hurd, Leia Durland-Jones, Stacey Stone, Kathy Smith, Kirsten Hunter, Meredith Plummer
This is not a time for a complex faith formation program. Our children and youth need to connect, to be cared for, to care for others, and to make meaning together of this time. While these suggestions include many things that work on online zoom calls, you can connect with the children and youth in your congregation even if zoom isn't going to work for you.
Go simple. Let go of previous lesson plans. Focus on connecting
Take advantage of what you can do online you can’t do in person such as check in paired with show and tell or having children see each other’s houses.
Have children make art on a theme to share. They can do it ahead of time and show live or make space online for them to post pictures. The White Plains NY congregation’s first project was making chalices!
Do not shy away from expressions of sadness or grief. These are not normal times and it is okay to have these feelings. Give children and youth space to be sad or angry during check-ins or as part of Joys and Concerns. Avoid “everything will be fine” platitudes.
Pay particular attention to ritual. As we stay away from our churches, we will miss the rituals that are embedded in our time together. So, create simple rituals as part of your online gathering. Light a chalice. Do joys and sorrows. Note other natural rituals emerging and repeat them.
Spend time talking about home faith rituals. A chalice lighting time to begin or end the day can be grounding for everyone. An evening time ritual at dinner or bedtime might include lighting the chalice and sharing joys and sorrows of the day. Have families share what they do or are thinking about starting to do! Many children love a chance to share
As the time stretches on, mail a care package to families with some activities. Go for activities that are fun, includes material they may not already have at home, engaging, steer away from those that feel like school as children may have relatively boring packets of work from school.
Please do not do OWL online. It’s not designed for that.
Check in with parents - they’ll be able to tell you if what you’re doing is working well and what their kids’ needs are.
Prioritize pastoral care of parents. They’re stuck with their children most of the time and if they retain sanity, humor, gratitude, and groundedness it will help the children immensely.
Recorded stories lets the children of the church see your face.
Help children connect with other adults in the congregation. Children also need to feel like they’re doing something to help. They can call, write, send art.
Help older children connect with younger ones. They can even connect via video chat through the week. Younger children appreciate older children being goofy, telling jokes, reading to them, listening to them!
Send parents short selections of ways to connect to UUism including videos from other UU congregations
Soul Matters has an archive of activities for families. Curate something simple that meets the emotional and spiritual needs emerging.
Full Week Faith is one way to structure week long connection. Tap into simple, easy messaging apps like GroupMe or Remind, invite your families to sign up, and then share a daily dinner blessing, prayer, meditation, story, activity, or online worship. Your families can then come together and build their spirituality and deeply connect to Unitarian Universalism, whenever it makes sense for them. This webinar and PowerPoint can be utilized to support you.
Tim Atkins says: “Don’t try to exactly replicate what you already do. It won’t work. Think of it like this - when you’re learning a foreign language an important moment is when you start to “think” in that language instead of translating. That goes the same for online - translating will work ok but you need to get to the point of “thinking” and designing it from the beginning for online.”
If the children know what the questions might be ahead of time, they’ll be more ready to participate. This is something parents can help them do
Older children can engage in a zoom video on their own. Younger children may need a parent helping them.
Zoom can do break out rooms. You can have a volunteer facilitate each room. They can be multiage or you can do a little sorting. (Practice this ahead of time)
You really do not need to find “new” topics to engage with. Faith formation is about engaging with life. And life is offering our young people a lot right now. Follow them through their emotional process and you’ll find a lot to engage with:
Taking care of each other - physically and emotionally. This could include connecting them with isolated elders. It helps children and youth to know they are making a difference in someone’s life.
Taking care of ourselves when we feel crabby, bored, stuck at home.
Getting along with each other! Expect families to have a hard time.
Spring and hope even when life seems hard
Death is a likely topic to emerge in the weeks ahead.
Unrelated adults and minors should never message one on one without a parent or religious professional copied on the message. If you set up a Facebook group to connect multigenerationally parents can help organize their children’s activities and will be aware of what their children are doing. Video calls and online are similar--parents are responsible for supervising their children just like at coffee hour. Video calls and games should happen at a place like the kitchen table rather than alone in a room. Finally, create a covenant that material shared in the online group won’t be shared. Especially pictures and videos of minors.
As a parent of young children, the idea of staying home with my kids for two weeks makes me think: severe cabin fever.
Selfishly, I began wondering how our congregations can help. I mean, really, there would be days a five minute Facetime call with my six year old so someone else can hear all about her fish tank and how much she loves her fish would help save my sanity.
And then as the CDC advised older people and those with health risks to start staying home now, I began thinking of people I love who will face weeks of little in person social contact. I texted one of them. He wrote at one point: “This isn’t just quarantine ourselves for two weeks like we are sick. This is quarantine ourselves forever until this goes away?” Right, or until there’s a vaccine.
But I’m going a step further—how can the generations in our congregations help each other, connect, play, feel less isolated? Even if our school isn’t cancelled, we’ll be spending a lot more time at home. And both my children understand being bored—and would want to help other people we know and love not be bored. They love doing drawings or recording videos for people. So, if my kids will probably spend more time than I want in front of a screen, what if that was a way they were connecting with the adults they know from our church? And a way for those adults to spend a little time playing instead of engrossed in adult worries?
Below is a list of ideas brainstormed with religious educators online. My suggestion is to create a Facebook group specifically for multigenerational connection so this isn’t a new volunteer or staff job, but something the community can self organize. And then share this post there!
Internet safety for minors is a real concern. Here are some guidelines to following Safe Congregations policies in this setting: unrelated adults and minors should never message one on one without a parent or religious professional copied on the message. Having communication in a Facebook group makes this much easier and the parents can help organize their children’s activities and will be aware of what their children are doing. Video calls and online are similar--parents are responsible for supervising their children just like at coffee hour. Video calls and games should happen at a place like the kitchen table rather than alone in a room. Finally, create a covenant that material shared in the online group won’t be shared. Especially pictures and videos of minors.
Brainstorm—not all of these ideas will work for every congregation, but hopefully they’ll get your own creativity started!
Technology to know about:
We need to take care of each other and our communities physically. Let’s stay in touch even from a distance. Help keep parents sane and break up the monotony of being isolated for everyone. And not just connect about serious things, but also just to have fun. Connection, fun, community—things all ages love about their congregations.