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Survey sheds light on youth experience

Youth survey results will help congregations better attract and retain youth.
By Donald E. Skinner
4.7.06

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Young UUs at the 2005 General Assemby

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

A high percentage of Unitarian Universalist youth say they feel welcome at UU worship services and that their congregations value their opinions. Yet only about half feel that their congregation is their spiritual home.

Those are some of the results of a just-completed survey of Unitarian Universalist youth undertaken to determine how youth regard their faith community. The survey is part of a two-year process of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations to determine how it might better reach and serve youth. Called Consultation on Ministry To and With Youth, the process will culminate with a summit on ministry and youth in July 2007.

Of the 1,399 youth who responded to the survey, 39 percent had been UUs for more than 10 years, and 21 percent for less than 4, while 5 percent no longer considered themselves UU. The ages of those surveyed ranged from 12 to 20. The average age was 15.

Some of the results:

  • 91 percent said they feel welcome at worship services, 89 percent said they were treated respectfully, and 87 percent said their opinions were valued. But only 53 percent felt that the congregation was their spiritual home. Noted Jesse Jaeger, UUA Youth Programs director, “The fact they feel welcome does not necessarily mean they are being fed.”
  • 58 percent felt that youth programs were a priority in their congregation and 18 percent did not.
  • Of the youth who had stopped attending religious education, 42 percent believed youth programs were not a priority in the congregation.
  • A strong majority of youth, from 71 to 80 percent, said they had “excellent to very good” support from RE teachers, ministers, and youth group advisors. But interaction with other adults in the congregation was rated lower. Only 50 to 56 percent of youth reported excellent to very good support from board members and “other adults,” respectively. Said Jaeger, “The survey shows that youth have made real connections with ministers and adults in the RE department, but not so much with other adults in the church.”
  • Of the youth who had left the RE program or their youth group, half said they became too busy to attend. A quarter left because they didn’t like other youth in the program, and a quarter attended worship services instead of RE. A combined 37 percent of those who left said the program didn’t address their interest in social action (20 percent) or spirituality (17 percent). Youth could check as many reasons for leaving as they wanted to.
  • 58 percent of all respondents said the RE or youth program met their spiritual needs.
  • Transracially adopted youth (adopted youth who are of a different race than their adoptive parents) rated the youth group experience lower than other respondents and indicated less of a feeling of belonging and fewer opportunities to address social issues such as racism and oppression.

Jaeger noted that transracially adopted youth seem to have a particularly hard time in our congregations. “Often they’re the only people of color. One place we need to focus energy and resources is in supporting those youth.”

The next step in the consultation process is for congregations to hold conversations about youth in April and May using the survey results as a basis for discussion. “We want congregations to explore how involved youth are in the daily life of the church,” said Jaeger.

Beth Dana, Youth Ministry associate, said the Youth Office is not suggesting answers to congregations as they hold their conversations, but wants them to come up with their own. “We’re giving them some pointed questions to help them think about these issues. And we want them to identify what resources they need.” Conversation material is available on the consultation’s website (see sidebar).

As of early April, 277 congregations had signed up to hold a conversation. Congregations can continue to sign up by contacting Dana at (617) 948-4352 or at bdana@uua.org and are encouraged to hold these conversations in April or May.

A process guide to help congregations with these conversations is available at the consultation website. “This is going to be an amazing body of information for us when we get all of the responses from congregations,” said Dana.

See sidebar for related links.

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