Nuts and Bolts of Healthy Youth Groups
General Assembly 2007 Event 2018
Presenter and youth advisor Jack Brand spoke to a room full of youth and adult participants in a lively exchange of information and ideas on Thursday morning. Mr. Brand is a member of the Woodinville (Washington) Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church (established 1991, membership about 150). He described the experience of his church, a community which had experienced a near failure of the high school youth group five years ago. From that nadir, when the program was nearly discontinued due to lack of interest and participation, the Woodinville congregation has experienced a renaissance in their programming. Mr. Brand identified the steps that he and other adult members of the community took to reinvigorate the program. Initially, he and other committed adult members invited youth participants to brainstorm an array of activities that might fall in any of the six components of balanced youth programming. These six components are Worship, Learning, Leadership, Community Building, Social Action, and Youth-Adult Relations. Then the adult leaders took responsibility for planning, coordinating and implementing events. Mr. Brand went on to explain that early positive experiences and appropriate and well trained adult leaders/advisors were foundational pieces that needed to be in place before any additional work of youth leadership development could happen. In the case of the Woodinville congregation, when the youth group achieved a critical mass of participants, the youth leaders began to take a greater role in shaping their own experience.
As he described the six components of successful youth programming he acknowledged that there are also six killers of a healthy youth program. These six are unqualified advisors, lack of planning, unbalanced activities (e.g. developing activities/programming in only one or two of the successful component areas), an unwelcoming atmosphere, lack of church support, and poor communication.
In his experience, Mr. Brand identified—and the group attending the workshop affirmed this in their own experience—the greatest contribution to the success or failure of a youth group as the absence or presence of appropriate and well trained advisors. Some churches, he suggested, may benefit from regime change. He described the ideal advisor as committed, able to "lead from behind", able to listen without judgment, possessing good boundaries, enthusiastic, and capable of equipping and empowering youth leaders. The careful selection, training and support of advisors is an important key to recruiting and keeping the top leaders. Support for the adult leaders and by extension, the youth program, is personal, institutional and financial. Mr. Brand encouraged congregations to recruit leaders who will enjoy the youth group experience—or as he put it, "I served for three years on my congregation's governing board and youth group is a lot more fun!"
The group of workshop attendees had a lot to say as well. Mr. Brand asked for input on a number of questions and the group responded with insights, opinions and stories from their own experience. It was a lively exchange on diverse programming tactics, resource suggestions, leadership development ideas and techniques to involve youth in advisor selection. Several participants recommended the Chrysalis Program (PDF) of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and district events and trainings—youth conferences, the Pacific Northwest Goldmine intensive and congregation sponsored advisor trainings. As one participant put it, "It's encouraging to see people sharing information about fully integrating our youth. I feel a lot more energized knowing there are others leading these positive changes with me".
Reported by Rebecca Kelley-Morgan; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.