Should We Have a Youth on Our Board?
Should you? I don’t know.
Here are some guiding questions and ideas that’d I’d offer as you consider this. These are largely cautionary, but don’t feel disappointed. Youth on congregational boards can be wonderful! It simply takes some thought to set up a good experience.
- How are youth empowered to be members of the congregation and vote? Is there an orientation? Do they sign the book as part of coming of age? Who explains congregational governance to them and helps them understand their first congregational meeting? Having engaged youth members is a key to a successful youth on a Board.
- What does your board generally handle and are these matters of concern to your youth members? The matters handled by a board vary greatly by congregational size and board structure.
- Are there other places in your governance and committee structure youth are more interested in being involved?
- It is quite hard for a single youth to really have a voice as part of a group of adults. Adults are generally socialized in ways that make it difficult for us to make space for youth (I am as guilty of this as anyone) and the youth have experienced a lifetime of being under adult thumbs and so easily read adults’ tone and language as dismissing them. More, adults have access to life experience, vocabulary, and so on that can be intimidating for youth. In general, for youth on committees, sending them as pairs makes more sense. Are you able to shift how you discuss issues to make room for youth to fully participate? How will you welcome the youth? How will you build bonds and form connections?
- Most congregational boards meet at times that are entirely out of sync with teenagers’ schedules. Today’s teens are very over scheduled compared to past generations and it has to do with a complex set of pressures created by today's college admission process. Are you willing to adjust how you do business to make room for youth to fully participate?
- What pastoral care is available to a teenager when your board handles rough stuff? As adults, you already know your loyalty to this faith has been and will be tested when you experience fellow congregants behaving badly. By inviting youth into leadership at this level, you are inviting them into a place where they may see too much of the “sausage making” and even bad behavior from adults they have looked up to their whole lives. Who will be supporting them?
- Our principles support democracy and the children’s version of this may be even more radical: “We believe that all persons should have a say about the things that concern them.” Remember a single youth does not speak for all youth. Is your youth position structured in a way that assists the youth in bringing all youth voices to the table? Or all there other ways for the rest of the youth to have voice? How is information about decisions and conversations that may impact youth disseminated to youth? Are they given a chance to understand? Do they feel like you want them to understand and you want to listen to their thoughts?
- It can be a formative and wonderful experience for a teenager to serve on a congregational board. And there are many teenagers who love this kind of work—we might call them church geeks. Heck, I know teenagers who love the parliamentary process at General Assembly! But. What will you do if you don’t happen to have a youth like that at this time? Is a board position the only way youth have voice, or is it just one way? If there’s not a youth this year, will the position still be open next year? Does your system tend to force someone to be in the position whether or not they are suited?
(Many of these questions apply to members of every age!)
The worst result is when a congregational board forms a youth position on the board to give youth voice, but doesn't understand welcoming the teenager, doesn't change their work habits, language, or schedule. And then if they end up with a youth who really isn’t interested anyway and if the teenager is largely silent or stops coming, they decide that youth don’t care about what the board does. And then later if any of the youth complain about a decision, they point out that they had a chance to affect the outcome because they had a youth on the board. I don’t think congregations set out to create that dynamic, but I’d urge careful consideration of the whole of how youth have a voice to avoid it.
And there’s no one way. Your context, size, governance structure, relationships between youth and adults, and particular youth make a difference. If you want to start building the groundwork, I’d suggest Board members serve as Coming of Age mentors to your younger youth and you as a Board consider how to help youth understand governance as they become old enough to be members.
Really, having engaged youth in congregational governance is the outcome of loving relationships between congregational leaders and youth, where the youth know their voices matter and they have the power to have an impact, for the good of all, in their congregation.