UU young adult population grows in number and voice
by Donald E. Skinner
Remember young adults? The group that’s been missing from many of our congregations? It’s a little early to say the missing generation is no longer missing, but it’s making a significant reappearance.
Unitarian Universalist young adult groups are popping up in increasing numbers both as part of congregations and as campus groups. The UUA’s Young Adult and Campus Ministry Office counted about 250 young adult groups this fall, up from about 100 in 1997. (Young adults are considered to be 18 to 35 years old.)
At least part of the reason for the increase is the Mind the Gap campaign of last fall and winter. The campaign, part of the UUA’s Handing on the Future campaign, aimed to raise $2 million for youth and young adult programs and raising awareness of these age groups in congregations.
The campaign fell short of its financial goal, raising a little more than one million, much of it in the form of planned gifts and bequests. But the second goal has been markedly successful. More than 300 congregations held Mind the Gap Sundays, taking special collections while learning the value of youth and young adult groups.
“The campaign raised the profile of young adults from top to bottom within the UUA,” says Joseph Lyons, a UUA young adult and campus ministry field organizer. “That awareness has helped to form local groups and to connect those groups within their districts and the denomination.”
Another factor is that in recent years the UUA has expanded the staff members and resources devoted to young adults. Some of the new resources at www.uua.org/ya-cm include ConnectUU, an online directory of groups and individuals and a worship and activity archive where people can submit outlines for young adult programs they’re willing to share with others. Nine of the UUA districts now have a staff person who consults with young adult groups. There are also seven part-time regional organizing consultants available to help with group formation and resources.
The attendance of young adults at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had been pretty sparse in recent years even though the church is within walking distance of two college campuses, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.
But a year ago the congregation, aware of the approaching Mind the Gap campaign, obtained a grant to hire young adult Devon Wood as part-time campus ministry coordinator. When school began in the fall of 2002, Wood and several students set up informational tables on the two campuses and gathered names of 100 interested folks. They threw a pizza party, and 40 people came. A two-campus group was formed, which met every other week last year for a combination of worship, recreation, outside speakers, and social justice projects.
The group also took charge of Mind the Gap Sunday at First Unitarian.
It lined up students to speak about the need for a campus group and sent
out mailings to the congregation. “The young people spoke about
how important it was just to know there was a congregation that was welcoming
Kierstin Homblette, who graduated last spring, began attending First Unitarian in her sophomore year of college, when people her age were scarce at church. When the campus group was formed it made a big difference, she says. “I discovered that more of my friends were Unitarian or Unitarian-leaning than I knew.”
Mind the Gap also helped create a fertile field for young adult ministry at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, but it was Amy Rasberry who got the ball rolling. When she first attended a service there last spring it felt immediately like the right place to be. “Everything I heard, I liked,” she says. “I loved it right away.” Except as she looked around there were few people her age––that is, young adults. “When I asked,” she reports, “people told me they wanted to have a young adult group, but that young adults just didn’t stay.” Two months later Rasberry decided to start such a group; eight people came to the first meeting and eleven to the second. Now the group meets regularly.
Says First Jefferson President Kimmel Jones, “Now we are attracting a sizable number of young adult visitors to the church and are offering the young adult group as a great place for them to hook in.”
Lyons says most groups start with one or two interested people. However, it’s not unusual for groups to fail at the end of the first year when the initial leaders experience burnout. “We’re trying to catch them before that with ways of deepening their group and developing leadership that will make the group successful in the long term,” he says.
Michael Tino, director of the UUA’s Young Adult and Campus Ministry Office, says that linking youth and young adults in the Mind the Gap campaign focused attention on how youth can become Unitarian Universalist adults. “In addition to new programming for young adults,” he says, “congregations are increasingly providing programming to help older youth cross the bridge into young adulthood.”
Really successful young adult groups have the same five components that youth groups have—worship, learning, leadership, social justice, and social activities—says Nancy Edmundson, a young adult regional organizing consultant from Santa Barbara, California. She notes that a congregation may need more than one young adult group, just as it has multiple groups for older adult members.
Lynn Kelly, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis, Oregon, created a campus group at Oregon State University two years ago. It’s small—about four people attended twice-a-month meetings last year, and she expects more to attend this year. Kelly arranges pizza parties and during finals brought in a neck and shoulder masseuse for group members.
The group was formed before Mind the Gap, but the campaign helped generate
more interest. “We found there was huge support for a campus group,”
she says. “It let me say, ‘Hey, how important is this age
group to you?’”