How to Create Vital Young Adult Ministries

By Donald E. Skinner

There was a time when it was a bit of a challenge to identify Unitarian Universalist congregations with thriving young adult ministries—but not anymore. More and more congregations are getting the hang of young adult ministries, and they have lots to teach the rest of us.

The Rev. Annie Gonzalez, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Young Adult and Campus Ministry Associate, has been collecting stories from congregations with thriving young adult ministries and posting them on the Blue Boat blog of the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA’s) Youth and Young Adult Ministries staff group. She writes about a different congregation each month.

If you’re looking for inspiration or simply for helpful tips about starting or strengthening a young adult ministry, this is a place to start. “It’s been very inspiring to collect these stories,” said Gonzalez. “It also reminds us there is no one formula for engaging young adults.”

Here are some of the stories Gonzalez has written about. The full reports are on the Blue Boat blog.

First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Dallas has held gatherings called Pints and Ponderings at local restaurants. People got to know each other and at each event a member of the congregation who was involved in a community service or social justice activity gave a presentation. “Pints and Ponderings was the perfect mix of social event and church function, and we had a great combination of established members and visitors who wanted a casual way to get to know our community,” said Lisa Peterson, a leader of the group.

The First UU Church of Columbus, Ohio, created a covenant group for people in their 20s and 30s. The congregation also holds monthly Soulful Sundown services and maintains an active presence on Facebook and other social media.

At Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colo., member Jill Armstrong was motivated to help start a young adult group when her daughter, 19, told her, “There’s nothing for me at church.” The first step, Armstrong told Gonzalez, was to get past the mindset that young adults would be members in a “typical” sense. “We emphasized that [young adult ministry] IS ministry,” noted Armstrong. “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.’”

When Lori Emison Clair, director of Congregational Life at First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, Iowa, couldn’t find a young adult to take charge of Young Adult (YA) activities, she tried a new tactic. Honing in on specific interests of several young adults she divided the responsibilities of the group among three people. One was in charge of organizing service projects, another coordinated social events, and the third organized small group ministry for young adults. At least one of the three is generally present at coffee hour to welcome young adults, Clair told Gonzalez.

Interested in knowing how your congregation stacks up in regards to young adult ministry? Take the Young Adult Self-Assessment for Congregations. The ten-question multiple-choice quiz lets congregations know which of five stages they are in, with the final stage being full integration of young adults at all levels of congregational life.

Gonzalez also reminds that even though this is August it’s not too late to plan for campus ministry. “The most comprehensive campus ministries do involve having a budget and a paid staff member, but no effort is too small. Start by supporting our own UU youth. The first year out of high school can be a really difficult time. Youth are renegotiating their relationships and finding it challenging to stay connected. Send them a note on a birthday or holiday or a care package as finals week rolls around.”

Check out campus ministry resources on They include how to start a campus group and the various levels of engagement that are possible for congregations.

Next Generation Ministries

In addition to highlighting established young adult programs, the UUA is launching an effort this fall to support the creation of new faith communities and outreach initiatives that have the potential to reach young adults.

Project Next Generation Ministries (NextGen) is a collaboration of two UUA staff groups—the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries and Congregational Life.

NextGen coordinators are Gonzalez, the Rev. Tandi Rogers in the Office of Growth Strategies, and Carey McDonald, the UUA’s Outreach director.

NextGen officially gets underway in mid-September. Gonzalez said, “We’d like to hear about ministries that may not take the traditional form.” The UUA would like to help support these ministries, she said. That could come in the form of coaching, help with creating a business plan, or help in using social media. Learning circles—groups of like-minded people who can support each other—are also possible, as are webinars on various topics. “Basically, if you’re a UU with a great idea for our faith, we want to help you make it happen.”

She added, “NextGen wants to be part of the conversation early on in the process of developing a new ministry, to provide discernment resources and guidance right from the start.” She emphasized that projects don’t have to be fully formed to be submitted to NextGen.

More about NextGen Ministries is on the Blue Boat blog. Reading the blog regularly can also help you understand how to connect with young adults.

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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