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4010 Coming of Age: Deepening Ties Within the Congregation
General Assembly, Past General Assemblies

Sponsor: Planning Committee Sponsored

Speaker(s): Kathy McWilliams, curriculum author; Teresa Putnam, Director of Religious Education (DRE), UU Church of Greater Lansing; Anna Putnam

Prepared for by Margy Levine Young, Reporter; the Rev. Jone Johnson Lewis, Editor

Fred Cole of the General Assembly (GA) Planning Committee introduced this workshop, which is sponsored by the Planning Committee. Kathy McWilliams, Teresa Putnam, and Colleen McNeilly-Murphy from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing, MI,presented their new "Coming of Age: Deepening Ties Within Your Congregation" curriculum, which was seven years in the making. This is not the curriculum being written by the UUA—it was written by the parents in the congregation.


This Coming of Age program is designed for 12-14-year-olds—seventh graders—and it acknowledges the transition from child to youth. This transition is as important as birth, partnering, and death but not acknowledged. In this program youth focus on themselves, their own spiritual journey, and their goals for themselves.

Coming of age is a yearlong journey and the program includes tools that youth can use to shape their spiritual journeys. A year provides time for a deep process that transforms lives. The program uses the four elements of initiation:

  • Ritual: Special space marks the event as important. Dramatic ritual helps bring the ritual alive. In one ritual, youth give up their favorite childhood toys in a safe environment, as a symbol of their transition
  • Learning: This takes place constantly, including in weekly sessions.
  • Testing: The program pushes one's limits to provide a sense of accomplishment, including tasks that are hard but not impossible.
  • Celebration: This both acknowledges and raises awareness that these youth are changing. The culmination is Coming of Age Sunday where each youth is formally acknowledged, reading their faith statements and possibly performing music.

The Greater Lansing congregation wanted to turbo-charge their Coming of Age program, and wrote this new curriculum. It touches on UU history, world religions, and service projects, but the main topic is that childhoods are ending.

Some important elements of the program design are:

  • It is designed for four facilitators to make a yearlong commitment, with two on each Sunday and two rotating. The program is offered during Sunday morning RE time.
  • Each of the 26 sessions has a script, but not every script has to be followed. The order of the sessions is important, though—they have worked well.
  • There's plenty of room for discussion with the youth.
  • A mandatory youth and parent orientation includes a brainstorming exercise in each family unit privileges and responsibilities of growing up. This provides each family a chance to review these for their family.
  • Youth make a commitment to participate for the year. The orientation session includes a ceremony in which parents give their children permission to come of age.
  • There is a mentor orientation and ritual. Mentors are chosen and assigned by the Coming of Age team, and in a ritual each receives a mentoring stole and tools to use as mentors, with an acknowledgement of the tools they already possess.

The Medicine Wheel Retreat

After the orientations, the first event is the Medicine Wheel retreat. The Greater Lansing congregation adapted the retreat from the Prairie Star District's Coming of Age retreat, because it gives the youth four tools:

  • Self-sacrifice
  • Larger perspective
  • Excitement
  • Introspective

They also include a discussion of cultural misappropriating and the appropriateness of using a medicine wheel as a ritual.

The retreat lasts from Friday night to Sunday morning. In one exercise, each youth gets a big piece of paper with their name on it and everyone says and writes something positive about them on the sheet. All the receiving youth can say is "Thank you." This sheet of positive statement is used in various ways over the course of the Coming of Age year.

In another exercise, the youth think about how to have a life with no regrets. They are asked, "At the end of your life, what would you regret not having done?" They hear a story about John Goddard, who structured his life around his list.

Before the weekend, the organizers ask each youth's parents or guardians to write the youth a letter, sealed, about their birth story, the story of their families, and anything else that they've always meant to tell their children. The youth don't know about them in advance and we open them in a small group setting. Some cry. They can share the letters or not. The youth come out of the experience knowing how much their parents love them. In some families the letter comes from another relative, but the facilitators work hard to make sure that even youth gets a letter.

Outside they do ropes work or other physical games. On Saturday night, at a workshop of the North, in the dark with candles, the group is exhorted to look at each other and appreciate the moment. This is usually the moment when the group begins to bond.

The Mentors

After the Medicine Wheel retreat, about seven weeks into the program, the facilitators bring the mentors into the program, matching mentors and youth and providing events where they work together. The Coming of Age program provides a lot of games and activities to help them get to know each other, and things to talk about. Mentors and youth wear stoles, which denote that they are participating in coming of age and in important work. Mentors and youth have slightly different stoles.

Mentors are in class once or twice a month. At an early session, the mentors help the youth decorate each youth's stole. The mentors attend sessions and help the youth with activities, with the hard ones coming later—where youth interview mentors about their spiritual journeys, or where mentors help the youth with their faith statements. Parents also develop a bond with their children's mentors. Mentors work with their youth in these group settings rather than one-on-one because of safe congregation policies and concerns.

The Vision Quest Retreat

In a vision quest, the youth also spend about six hours by themselves in the wild, thinking about "their thunder" and envisioning their future. Youth have control over the experience and can chose not to participate or to come in early. Four characters are invoked, coming from different traditions: the Native American Coyote, an African Goddess, a European Storyteller, and an Asian ancestor.

Before the Vision Quest, the youth learn meditation techniques. At the end of their quest, when they return, they enter the Council of Elders, who ask questions of the youth about their experience and then they return to the larger group. The mentor presents each youth with a staff. Circles of men and women gather later to welcome the youth back into the congregation.

The Service Project

The next element of the Coming of Age program is a service project. The program introduces the idea of "innocent suffering"—if enough bad things happen in a row, any of us could end up in a shelter. Mentors and youth create a service project together, not the facilitators. A key requirement is that the project involve direct interaction with the people they are serving; it's not enough to raise money and donate it. Also, working on something together is the best way to deepen the ties between the youth and the mentors and among the youth. The service project gives mentors a way to model building community service into your life. When fundraising for the project, mentors and youth often end up cooking together for a bake sale, lunch, or dinner, which provides a nother valuable way to bond.

The Sunday Sessions

In the weekly Sunday morning sessions, the youth discuss how they feel about the religious messages that they receive in their lives. In the Greater Lansing congregation, most youth have been told by someone in their lives that they will go to Hell, and they share their reactions. Youth talk about the big questions, and the weekly sessions provide a chance to help the youth to articulate their answers, which can be part of their faith statement.

Each youth creates a Coming of Age packet, starting by creating and decorating a homemade envelope. At the end of each discussion session the youth receive an index card on which they capture their thoughts about their answers, which they add to their packets. By the end of the year, the packets contain all their thoughts and tentative answers, which the youth use when they write their faith statements.

One activity, borrowed from the "Building Your Own Theology" curriculum, is writing your own Tem Commandments. In another, the "Who Wants to Be a Donut-aire" game, they answer questions for donut holes, with questions about world and UU history. Youth and mentors work as teams. They answer questions like "How many UU principles and purposes are there?" and "What is another name for Buddha?"

The program includes a discussion of "bad things" that includes creating sculptures of the bad things that youth may have experienced, heard about, or fear. As part of the exercise, they compete in a scavenger hunt through the yellow pages for ways to find help for a variety of bad things, such as smoking, AIDS, and homelessness. A discussion of after-death beliefs includes part of the Robin Williams movie "What Dreams May Come." Then the youth also participate in a "fishbowl" with belief statements from kids about death.

In the session about God beliefs the youth use oils to paint their image of God. Another session talks about the nature of faith itself. Other topics include elevator speeches about UUism and what to do when people try to convert you. Rather than slamming other religions, the point of this session is to educate the youth about conversion and what other religions believe about the necessity of "saving" all of us. They consider the question, "How do we respect others' beliefs when they aren't respecting ours?"

The Coming of Age Sunday Service

Each youth creates a faith statement, usually written as essays but sometimes as collages or original musical compositions. Anna Putnam, who went through the Coming of Age program, loved creating her faith statement, and both wrote an essay and created a collage, which was on display at the workshop. With help from their mentors, each youth first explores their options about what a faith statement can be like, including faith statements in the arts and in interviews with others inside and outside their congregations. With their mentors, they create their faith statements using their Coming of Age packets.

The faith statements are published in a book, and youth who create a non-text statement work with their mentors to determine what to include. The program emphasizes that the faith statement is a snapshot and that it'll change over a lifetime. Putnam reported that she wrote another faith statement a few years later and plans to write a third statement soon.

The night before the Coming of Age Sunday service the youth, mentors, and parents have a party to celebrate the end of the program. On Sunday, the art of the youth is displayed and the youth give the service.

The point of this Coming of Age program, concluded the speakers, is to create an empowering story and to deepen the youth's ties with the community. The Coming of Age curriculum was supported by the Unitarian Sunday School Society and is available from their website UU Curriculum and Resources Developers (UU CARDS) booth in the General Assembly exhibit hall. Or, email uucoa [at] mac [dot] com.

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