Coming of age (COA) ceremonies, marking the transition from childhood to young adult, are as old as history. They have included ritual abductions, vision quests, and bar and bat mitzvahs, all to help youth learn about themselves and prepare for adulthood.
Such programs transform the youth, says Gaia Brown, director of religious education at North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield, IL, (372 members). "The thing I love, and that happens fairly often, is that during the affirmation ceremony a youth will say, 'Well, I never knew why my parents were dragging me to this church but now I do and I'm glad they did,'" she says.
It's important to mark the transition to adulthood, says Jennifer Harrison, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) Youth Office. "It's an opportunity for youth to learn who they are and where they are on their spiritual journey, bond with other teens, celebrate their gifts, and become more confident in how to make decisions."
If you're starting a program, "don't worry if it's not a big elaborate thing," says Abby Crowley, religious education (RE) director at Paint Branch UU Church in Adelphi, MD (280). "Just get it started and expand it later." Some congregations use the Prairie Star model, which includes four weekend retreats: High Adventure, a ropes course that builds confidence and teamwork; Wizard of Oz, focusing on life as a journey; Medicine Wheel, discussions about sexuality, emotion, and being of service; and Vision Quest, where a youth stays alone on a remote site. The retreats are followed by male and female group rituals and a culmination dinner with parents and siblings.
Beth Brownfield, a developer of the Prairie Star model, thinks many COA programs focus too much on an adult agenda rather than on youths' self-discovery. "Youth can go lockstep through many COA programs not fully engaged. It's important to include profound experiences that put them in uncomfortable positions where they don't know the answers," she says. Brownfield's program is not affiliated with the Prairie Star district.
"The COA program at the Deerfield church takes two years. The seventh grade studies the curriculum, How Can I Know What to Believe?, which raises the quality of the eighth grade affirmation year," says Brown. Attendance is mandatory. "They have to make a choice between COA and soccer." The youth at Deerfield pick their own mentors, with director of religious education (DRE) and parental approval. Mentors get invited to family summer social events and bond with the youth before the program's fall start-up.
Pacific Central District congregations join for three COA retreats and also sponsor their own individual programs. Allow latitude, says Rev. Geoffrey Rimositis, associate minister for religious education at First Unitarian Church in San Jose, CA (260). If a youth is short a few service hours, remember, "It's a journey, not a destination," he says.