Supportive Ministry with Young People

Part of Guide to Faith Development

By Shannon Harper

[“Youth” refers to high school age and “Emerging Adult” to 18-22 year olds. I use these terms loosely because these developmental life stages are based in maturity and experience, not necessarily age]

Laptop on a desk with a sign that says You Got This

This year is hard on everyone, in universal ways, but also in ways specific to age, identity, and life stage.

With youth and emerging young adults we’re seeing stress, anxiety, depression, self harm and suicide ideation related to the pandemic and results of quarantine and isolation; additional stresses of academic challenges, domestic violence, economic and environmental uncertainty; and the impacts of police brutality, civil unrest and loss of loved ones and icons.

And many of us also wonder about the long-term effects of online and social distanced school; loss of extra-curriculars, sports and social outlets; and an increase in screen time with less varied human interaction. How do we help young people in 2020/2021? More importantly, as more seasoned adults, how do we help young people while also acknowledging that our own energy and reserves are being depleted by the very same things that are impacting them? Sometimes more so?

I’m going to suggest something that might seem counter-intuitive. I think we need to back off.

I believe that we need to shift our focus from active to supportive, or responsive, ministry with young people right now. What I mean by active ministry is programs and events that rely on active participation and attendance. Success and impact of these programs are based on attendance, witnessed engagement and participant feedback. Examples are large youth group programs, OWL (Our Whole Lives sexual education program), service and heritage trips, cluster/regional/national youth and young adult conferences, faith development curriculums, creative fundraising events . . . you get the picture. These are the most visible and most celebrated signs of YaEA engagement in congregations. Often they are the things that attract new people or encourage more participation. They are the programs that young people look forward to finally being old enough to join - like their siblings and friends before them. And when older adults look back on their time as YaEAs, they are often the powerful memories that come to mind first.

But for most congregations, a lot of “active” YaEA ministry is off limits this year. We’re reduced to trying to make Zoom compatible with vibrant, immersive experiences and pastoral spaces. We’re frantically planning social distanced events before the weather stops cooperating. We’re making hard decisions to cancel or completely re-vision age-old traditions. We’re desperately trying to figure out how we can hold onto what we know (or believe) works, while watching our participation numbers dwindle. It’s exhausting when it works but exhausting AND disheartening when it doesn’t.

There has always been another side to YaEA ministry though. One that doesn’t take as much energy - or rather a different kind of energy. And chances are, when life-long UU adults look more closely at their time as YaEAs, past the more visible programs, they know that this side was just as important to their formation.

Supportive YaEA ministry does not require participation or attendance or even learning. In fact, it does not require anything - it invites, reminds, and shows compassion and love regardless of how people do or do not show up. Supportive YaEA ministry knows it’s value based on faith, relationship and the occasional grateful text message received years later. This is the “behind the scenes” footage, the scaffolding that holds the artists - integral but not polished or attractive.

Sometimes ministry is just about reminding people that you are here for them when they need you.

Here are some ideas for practicing supportive YaEA ministry (more details)

Black person sitting in a chair, reading cell phone while eating a plate of spaghetti

Use social media - Using platforms they are already on means less energy they have to exert to see your message.

Check-ins - Group and personal check-ins such as through group texts build relationships and familiarity so they know where and who to go if they are in crisis or need.

Don’t underestimate snail mail - In a very virtual world, tangible things like post cards or stickers in the mail convey that you are thinking of them and value them.

Model self-care - Young people need to see how others are dealing with anxiety, stress, overwhelm, etc. Just sharing your own coping or spiritual practices could be the best “lesson” you can give.

Reconsider anything that might feel like school - Don’t add more work or “assignments” onto them without enthusiastic consent!

Let them lead. Or not. But always try to follow- Take your cues from them and recognize you might need to hold more of the structure this year.

I’m not saying we need to throw out all active YaEA ministry this church year! I’ve heard from several congregations who are seeing an increase in attendance at virtual gatherings and who are planning really dynamic activities for their YaEAs based on participant feedback. If your congregation has volunteer resources to carry out these kinds of programs, that’s wonderful.

What I’m hoping this article does is give hope and validation to those who have had to cut back their YaEA activities due to low interest and lack of volunteers; who are seeing fewer and fewer youth faces on their Zoom calls despite hours of preparation; who are feeling like they aren’t reaching enough of their YaEAs and just don’t know what to try next. It’s okay.

First, remember that the in-person meetings and events we think of as a staple of active YaEA ministry weren’t reaching everyone either. Online activities are going to appeal to a different, yet overlapping group. I’ve found that some young people with sensory issues and social anxiety, love doing things on-line and having control of their environments; while young people who were completely dedicated to a certain in-person community, have lost their enthusiasm when it moved online. So maybe you are reaching different people. And maybe the ones who aren’t into active online events can still be reached through more supportive means.

Second, don’t get hung-up on numbers. The value you give to YaEA ministry should never have been measured by attendance or membership or pledging family units. Your value is in the life you live and the lives you touch. This summer I led a congregation youth group with an average of 3 attendees at each meeting and on more than one occasion it was just one (and two adult advisors). And even when just the one showed up, we didn’t cancel if they wanted to stay and talk. Because we recognized that might have been one of the few times that week that youth got to talk to someone outside of their family. This is the weird-kind-of times we’re living in. And yet, depth vs breadth should always have been our priority.

And finally, as hopeless as it seems at moments, remember this pandemic and the restraints on in-person activities will not last forever. I wish I could say the same about systemic racism and climate change. We have our battles ahead. Let’s use this time to build the relational framework and support network that will sustain ourselves and the young people in our lives for the future.

May this year be a study, for all of us, on recognizing what we have the power and capacity to impact. Even when that impact is small. Even when that impact is so subtle there is no way to measure. Even when that impact won’t be evident for years.


About the Author

Shannon Harper

Shannon Harper joined the Lifespan Faith Engagement Office as Co-Director in the summer of 2022. Previously, Shannon worked with the Central East Region since the Fall of 2016.

For more information contact .