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Looking for ways to serve youth better

Congregational and denominational youth programs under review.
By Donald E. Skinner
Spring 2006 2.15.06

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Young UUs at the 2005 General Assembly

Young UUs at the 2005 General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Nancy Pierce/UUA)

There are some Unitarian Universalist congregations where youth are everywhere—in classes and youth groups, leading Sunday services, singing in the choir, working with young children, and promoting social justice projects. And there are other congregations where youth are, well, harder to find.

What makes the difference? The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations has embarked on a two-year study to find out—and to learn how it might help congregations serve youth better. This winter the UUA’s new Consultation on Ministry to and with Youth has surveyed more than 900 youth and is accepting additional surveys through February 28. (See sidebar for a link to the survey.) More than 250 congregations have signed up for conversations this spring that will focus on how the UUA can best use its resources in serving youth.

Megan Dowdell, former youth trustee on the UUA Board of Trustees, heads the consultation with UUA President William G. Sinkford. Says Dowdell, “This is a time for youth, congregations, and professional leadership to sit down and have a face-to-face talk about their ideal image of youth ministry and the current state of it in their congregation and throughout the association.”

“If we don’t engage in this process the results will be devastating,” she says. “Youth are a valuable and precious part of our community. If we don’t do this, we will lose them.”

Sara Eskrich, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, is an example of the youth the consultation is trying to reach. Sara grew up in First Unitarian Society in Madison, Wisconsin. She had no connection with the UUA, and little involvement with First Unitarian’s youth group. At church she participated in the choir, helped with childcare on Sundays, and was on the church’s youth advisory council.

When she was asked last year to become one of the fifteen members of a task force that will oversee the Consultation on Ministry, she went to General Assembly for the first time and discovered a broader UU world.

“I’m hoping,” she says, “that we learn what youth want and we learn some ways of ministering to them not only in youth groups.”

Youth are in many different places in and around our congregations. Some are part of local youth groups, some are members of YRUU (Young Religious UUs, the denominational youth organization), some are active not in youth groups but in other activities such as choir and committees, and some—who dropped out of church after junior high—are absent.

There is no one right way to be a UU youth, says Jesse Jaeger, the UUA’s youth programs director. “The youth in our movement are as diverse as the adults,” he says. “We do a pretty good job with the youth who are part of YRUU and who go to conferences and to General Assembly, but we haven’t done as good a job with other youth. We’d like to help congregations get to a place where they can sustain youth. Every youth deserves a place to access faith in authentic and deep ways.”


The next step in the consultation invites congregations to hold congregational conversations in April and May about youth programming. More than 250 congregations had signed up by late February and congregations can keep signing up until the conversations start in April.

Other conversations about ministry to and with youth will be held at district events; by YRUU itself; by advocacy groups such as DRUUMM (Diverse and Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries, an antiracism organization for UU people of color) and Interweave (an organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender UUs); by the UU Ministers Association, the Liberal Religious Educators Association, and congregational youth advisors; by UUA district staff; and by the Canadian Unitarian Council, whose youth are served by YRUU and the UUA.

There will be reports at the 2006 and 2007 General Assemblies on the consultation’s progress. A final report with recommendations will be prepared at a “summit” in July 2007 and presented to the UUA Board of Trustees at its meeting that October. For more information on the process, go to www.uua.org/trus/youth.

About twenty high school youth gather each week at the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. When Dana Regan, director of youth and young adults programs, asked some of them, at UU World’s request, whether they thought they were getting what they needed from Unitarian Universalism and the UUA, several threads emerged.

For most of the youth their group itself satisfy their needs and there is no inclination, or time in their busy high school lives, to get further involved in Unitarian Universalism.

Several say that opportunities to do social justice work would interest them. Says Elizabeth Thompson, “I would become more involved in UU activities if they provided chances for work in the larger community, either political activism or community service.”

Johanna Steinbrecher admits to being curious whether Unitarian Universalism is the same throughout the United States. Activities that are fun and involved learning about Unitarian Universalism and doing community service would probably draw her in, she says. Proximity would also be important, says Alison Saunders: “I’d like more activities to take place in my area.”

Regan would like to see the UUA support youth and youth programming by putting more resources into training responsible adults to work in partnership with youth at local, district, and association levels. It’s also important, she believes, to give youth transformative experiences, such as youth conferences, mission trips, heritage tours, and coming of age courses.

Rachel Davis, a youth representing DRUUMM, believes the consultation is an important step in engaging more youth with Unitarian Universalism.

“I’ve had the benefit of a strong youth group with great advisors,” says Davis, a member of Central Unitarian Church in Paramus, New Jersey, “but there are a lot of congregations where youth ministry is not a part of the church program. I’m excited about the possibility of making youth ministry a more prominent part of congregations everywhere.”

There is concern about the consultation process from some YRUU members. Dylan Uscher, a member of the YRUU Steering Committee and a student at the University of Toronto, believes the consultation is too “top-down.” “I believe change is needed,” he says, “but it’s coming from the wrong place. I know that there are youth who can’t afford YRUU events and can’t travel to them, but change in that should come from the youth, not the UUA administration. I agree that not enough youth are being served. It’s just the process I don’t agree with.”

Benette Sherman is director of child and youth ministries at the UU Fellowship of Ames, Iowa, with thirty-nine youth program members. “I would like more direction and advice from the UUA as to the expectations for youth programs,” Sherman says. “Congregational polity is a good thing,” she notes, “because it allows for autonomy and creativity and independence, but it can sometimes work against a sense of clarity, cohesion, and continuity in youth programming.”

“If we didn’t have a youth program here at Ames,” she says, “my congregation would not be living out its mission. It would be devastating. Youth give us a lot of energy and optimism and offer a vision for the future. They will decide what Unitarian Universalism will be when we are gone.”


This is a slightly expanded version of a story in the Spring 2006 issue of UU World. See sidebar for links related to this story.

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