Building a Youth Group Takes Time, Dedication
For three years, Stefanie Samara Hamblen, director of children and youth programs at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship in Gainesville, FL (290 members), met every Sunday night with the three teenage boys who comprised the congregation's youth group.

They talked, played games, watched movies, and "had a good time hanging out," she said. Occasionally one would bring a friend, but the group mostly stayed at three for several years. Then, slowly, as the group became known, it grew, first to eight, then twelve, fifteen, twenty-one and now thirty-six.

Now the group has four trained youth advisers. Half the youth are from outside the fellowship. Some of their parents joined the congregation. There were ten youth in last year's coming-of-age class. Hamblen credits vision and perseverance. Back when there were only three youth, she and the board of trustees decided a youth group should be a priority. And all through those lonely first few years it remained a priority.

"It still isn't perfect," she says. "A lot of the planning still falls to me, but the youth are slowly taking over. Another two years, and I see the group running itself. It hasn't been easy, but our youth group has been a major source of satisfaction in my job." She recommends: "Start them young. If they get into the habit of going to youth group (also called Young Religious Unitarian Universalists or YRUU in some congregations) before they become incredibly busy in high school, they learn to prioritize, and they want to come."

Building a vital youth group is one of the greatest challenges for UU congregations. Too often youth seem to fall away at twelve or thirteen. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Nathaniel Klein recalls the challenges of his youth group at a Southern California congregation several years ago. A dynamic youth leader helped the group quickly grow from ten to forty. But because of its size it got bounced around, from a too-small room to a patio, then under a tree and then into a pre-school classroom with tiny chairs. "We had to take our chalice home with us every week and hope that people remembered to bring it back," he said. "Finally we lobbied and got our own space."

Klein, now twenty and a former YRUU program specialist for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), says a successful youth program needs the following elements:

  • adults who support it without dominating
  • a blend of active and passive activities
  • sleep-overs, trips, and other events that bond members
  • a long-range goal such as a year-end trip
  • meaningful involvement in church life including a place on the board of trustees or the social justice or worship committees
  • occasional involvement in community projects

Have several adult advisers, Klein recommends, because youth can be taxing to work with. Parents should generally not be directly involved, he believes, although they should be part of a youth advisory committee.

Separate groups are important for middle and high school youth whenever possible. "Middle school, when youth are more self-conscious than they are in high school, is a more challenging age to motivate," says Benette Sherman, Religious Education (RE) director at UU Fellowship of Ames, IA (259), with thirty youth in its program. "Don't  be too formal with either group," she advises. "Work on community building."

Hamblen, at Gainesville, concurs. "We don't do curriculum with our youth group. We're there for fun, fellowship, and mutual support. It's real important for kids to have friends they can be honest with without putting on a show like they have to at school." Some youth come only three to four times a year, but they're still part of the group. The group has prepared lunch for Habitat for Humanity workers and done an AIDS walk. "To do a youth group, look beyond the traditional," says Hamblen.

Youth can be attracted to short curricula, says Jennifer Harrison, UUA youth programs director. "There are hundreds of successful curricula used at workshops and camps. Many aren't written down, but exist in peoples' heads," she said. "We'd like for youth leaders to send these to us so that we all don't keep reinventing the wheel."

"A good youth program," she said, "should include a connection be-tween the middle school and high school groups, social action, and a balance of contemplative and physical activity. If teens won't show up Sunday morning, pick another time—Saturday or Sunday nights or during the week."

Occasional sleep-overs or "lock-ins" at church are essential, says Jeff Lamicela, Youth Advisor/RE Chair at May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in Syracuse, NY (385). "I can't say enough about scheduling a retreat for seventh and eighth graders and teenagers at the start of the year. It really helps them  bond. For our teens last year we had group activities (games, discussions, etc.), a worship service which was pretty much impromptu and then they had time to do whatever they wanted, within reason. This usually involved lots of frisbee in the parking lot or games in the social hall.

"No matter how busy kids are," he believes, "if they see something in it for them, if they see it as a place they want to be, they'll be there." And let them have fun, says Peggy Olsen-Missildine, RE director at Olympia UU Congregation in Olympia, WA (170). "One of my concerns is that as UUs we are very intellectual, and we expect kids to be also. All kids don't like to sit and discuss things. They want to be up and active."

Many congregations experience a boy shortage. Peter deFur has been leading youth groups for fifteen years and is an advisor at UU Community Church of Glen Allen, VA (132). "The lack of boys/guys in church is easy enough to explain and hard enough to address—if I am correct. I think the teen boys come to church and keep coming back if they find people their own age, activities that give them something to think about without pressure, adults who listen, programs that don't feel like school, food, music, and fun, and adults, including men, who care and involve themselves in YRUU.

"Being an adviser," he notes, "may mean giving up hearing sermons, singing in the choir, the social hour afterward, sleeping in, free time, and more. Mind you, the rewards outweigh the costs, but one does have to find that out for oneself."

At Saltwater UU Church in Des Moines, WA (133), the middle school group is called the MSGers. Last year this group visited churches as part of the Neighboring Faiths curriculum, created a play for Children's Chapel and a Halloween party, did an environmental project, had overnights, and learned about yoga. RE director Lee Sanchez Carr says, "The secret is to find folks who truly love this middle school crowd and let them go with the flow!"

Build choice into the program, says Liz Jones, RE director at First UU Church in San Diego, CA (773). Youth who are required to come on Sundays should have as much choice as possible in what to do, whether that's a curriculum, church work project, cookie-baking for coffee hour, or a rap session on a topic of their choice. "And show middle school youth what's coming," says Jones. "Letting them know what will be there for them when they are older is important. If the younger kids know they'll get to do this or that, it motivates them to hang around if it's exciting enough!"


Contact your UUA district office or the UUA Youth Office for information on youth programs.

About the Author

  • 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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