Successful youth groups support teens' conflicting needs
by Donald E. Skinner
When Katherine Gray was in middle school, about once a month her more orthodox classmates would tell her that she was going to burn in hell because she didn't believe the right things. "That was hard to hear at such an impressionable age," says Gray, now a college freshman. "But then I would come to church and talk to other people in my youth group who'd had the same experiences. Sharing our stories helped all of us."
Caitlin Prendiville, 17, found a home in the Young Religious UUs group at the UU Congregation of Marin, San Rafael, California, when she accompanied a friend to a YRUU meeting two years ago. "It wasn't until I found the group that I realized I was searching for something inside myself that I hadn't been able to find," she said.
Prendiville found the group's focus on social justice and political activism just what she was looking for. She has helped the group organize a benefit concert for the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, sell chocolate for UNICEF, and post peace and antiwar signs after September 11. Prendiville was a panelist at a youth-adult antiwar forum earlier this year and is on the church's long-range planning committee. "The sense of belonging and being accepted keeps me coming back," she says.
The youth group at the UU Church of Reading, Massachusetts, is about twenty strong, up from five just a few years ago. "All my friends are in it," says Alex Drexler, a junior. "It's a really great bunch of people. You can hang out and talk in a nonconfrontational way. You don't get that very many other places."
A year ago January, the group had a sleepout in the parking lot in cardboard boxes to raise money for homeless issues. It has also organized beach cleanups. About once a month Drexler also attends the adult worship service. "I find it really uplifting to sit in a room with all different kinds of people, all of us taking something different away from the service."
It takes just the right mix of leaders, programming, and timing to have a successful youth group and to connect it to the rest of the church through intergenerational activities. "It's hard, sometimes frustrating work," says Jessica Ruben-stein, director of youth ministries at 378-member Winchester Unitarian Society in Winchester, Massachusetts, where the youth group has fifty active members. In an attempt to bring youth and adults together, she said, "We've tried a lot of things that didn't work mentoring programs, youth/adult Sunday breakfasts, and guest speakers from the congregation. We had better results with poetry slams, coffee houses, and social outings.
"We make sure that youth serve on committees, do readings on Sunday mornings, write my column every now and then, and are recognized in morning services and in the newsletter for the work they do at the church acting as sexton, and helping with child care, for example. This helps people learn their names and helps people understand that if it weren't for the youth a lot of the events they and the other adults enjoy simply wouldn't happen."
At the 500-member Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut, "There's not tons of interaction between adults and youth, but what there is is meaningful," says youth advisor Bob Perry. "For instance, we had our Coming of Age ceremony in May for eighth-graders. Our youth group came in at the end to welcome them. They passed around the microphone and said things in front of the whole congregation that really showed a depth of openness and caring and insight. It was somewhat astonishing and moving to the rest of the congregation.
"I'm always trying to push intergenerational activities, but I'm also aware that these kids mainly come to church to be with each other to have a community that they can't get anywhere else, including at school and in sports. And many adults don't necessarily want direct teen interaction but they do want to know that our youth have a place here that is right for them."
Five components are necessary for a balanced youth program: education, worship, service, fellowship, and leadership, says Denise Atkerson, co-director of the religious education program at the Emerson congregation in Houston. "In the beginning we tried to give equal weight to all five, but the youth said they really wanted more education and service time, so that's what we focus on." The youth group has done two adult curricula recently Building Your Own Theology and one on ethics, and this fall will do Our Chosen Faith. In addition to having a teacher and youth advisors, the group is fortunate to have several service advisors who work with youth on service projects.
"We have a lot of positive energy," says Atkerson. "The key has been to have interested, enthusiastic adults who are very supportive of youth."
Jesse Jaeger, who became the UUA's youth programs director in July, says that within the youth movement a new emphasis is being placed on incorporating anti-racism and anti-oppression information into youth curricula and looking at ways to better integrate youth ministries programming into the overall ministry of the congregation. "Youth should be viewed as leaders now, not of the future," Jaeger said. "Ask them to serve on the governing board and on committees. It develops leadership and it creates opportunities for mentoring."
At Houston, Katherine Gray was heading off to college this fall in Iowa knowing how to explain Unitarian Universalism and how her faith fits with the rest of the world all because of her youth group. "I've had many aha! moments in youth group when I discovered 'Yes, that is what I believe,' she says. "That is what I will cherish from my group."