Breakthrough Congregation: Teens lead the way

Breakthrough Congregation: Teens lead the way

A Breakthrough Congregation’s teen-led religious education program revitalizes First Religious Society in Carlisle, Massachusetts.

Youth from First Religious Society in Carlisle, Massachusetts, carry the banner they created in the crop Hunger Walk on October 20, 2019.

Youth from First Religious Society in Carlisle, Massachusetts, carry the banner they created in the CROP Hunger Walk on October 20, 2019. (© 2019 Ilene Perlman)

© 2019 Ilene Perlman


It’s the Sunday before Halloween at Clark Farm in Carlisle, Massachusetts. The fields’ muted colors and a strong, steady rain hint at fallowness and rest. When a minivan pulls into the driveway and a dark-haired woman in a red jacket steps out, that illusion dissipates. Before long, more than a dozen members of First Religious Society in Carlisle’s junior youth group are busy in the barn with the woman, Pam Howell, the congregation’s director of family ministry. They pull plastic storage tubs from the van into the barn; a jumble of Halloween decorations spills onto the floor. It’s chilly, damp, and smells strongly of the goats watching attentively from one stall. The youth group’s mission: to transform the space into a haunted barnyard to raise money for the Concord area crop Walk, which raises money to fight hunger.

Junior youth group leaders Katie Baum, Isabella Synnestvedt, and Jasmine Paris summon the other kids close. Baum looks at the map they had drawn together the week before, then points: “We’re going to have a graveyard in here,” she says.

Over the past four-plus years, Clark Farm has become an important part of the junior youth group’s activities. At the same time, the teens began leading the youth group and the congregation’s other weekly religious education classes. These changes have catalyzed impressive religious education growth at First Religious Society, bringing new buoyancy to the congregation as a whole and prompting the Unitarian Universalist Association to name them a 2019 Breakthrough Congregation.

‘It’s important for kids to see other kids in leadership positions, and also, we [kids] know what’s important for kids.’

In 2015, when Howell took the director of family ministry job at Carlisle, a congregation of 300 (with seventy adults in the pews on Sunday), the congregation’s RE program included twenty-two kids. “It was fledgling in every sense of the word,” says the Rev. Lisa Mobayed, Carlisle’s minister. The congregation spoke to Howell, who landed there after serving a larger congregation for ten years. “They were down-to-earth and they were makers, two things that I really love,” she says. Carlisle’s rituals and monthly rhythm resonated, and the RE committee was open to change. Others credit Howell with a vision for the program. While she agrees, “it was something that we worked [on] together,” she emphasizes. “There was a synergy and an energy around nature and religion and making things.” Howell had arrived on what she calls “fertile ground.”

From that ground, a distinct RE space has grown. Howell sets out what she jokingly refers to as “fidget spinners”: pinecones and shells, along with skeins of yarn. A woodworking corner beckons invitingly and dried hydrangeas hang from the ceiling, creating a Waldorf-meets-Montessori vibe. RE takes place in multi-age groups. Although not set fast, these include the babies (0–2 years), the littles (3–5 years), the middles (first through fifth grades), junior youth group (sixth through ninth grades), and night youth group (seventh through twelfth grades). RE teachers use UUA curricula, including Our Whole Lives (OWL) and Coming of Age.

When Howell was new, the paid Sunday nursery worker left. Finding a replacement proved a challenge until Howell offered the job to a teenage congregant who’d been helping. Over the course of three years, nearly the entire RE program shifted to being youth-led: Eleven teens now lead everything except owl and Coming of Age. Parents help on a rotating basis. RE enrollment has since grown to 100.

“The parents are really responsive,” Howell said, “but it was the kids who understood the thread of ritual and mystery here.”

That thread of mystery now seems to include the alchemy, as Mobayed calls it, created by Howell, music director Dan Ryan, and Mobayed (who arrived in 2014 and 2016, respectively). Howell talks about the importance of embracing imperfection at church. Mobayed’s outlook is similar. “We’re so measured in our work lives that we can’t take risks at all, so church is the place where you can take those risks, and you can discover something new about yourself that might have been difficult,” she says. They emphasize belonging; that one’s presence at church should feel essential.

That philosophy has underpinned Carlisle as it anchors teens. “They want responsibility,” Howell says. “If they don’t show up, that barnyard isn’t going to happen. Do you think I’m going to call ten parents to come in and do it? No. And they know I’m not.” Teenagers bring a creativity that favors unpredictability, the senses, and experiences—nighttime cemetery walks, whimsy, and nature, she notes, adding: “Teenagers are, I believe, our most spiritual human beings. They’re the ones that are growing into themselves . . . yet, in most churches they separate from traditional religious education because it can be confining and dogmatic.”

Teens, says former RE committee chair Amy Smack, make programs extra appealing to younger kids. “It surprises me how they go about getting things done,” says Smack, a junior youth group parent and helper. Teenagers don’t sweat over perfection, and kid-to-kid interactions are “just different,” she says. “They are allowed to say [things] in a way that’s playful,” and still evoke respect.

“The kids can really get to know us,” says Holly West, a high school senior who leads the middles. “It’s important for kids to see other kids in leadership positions, and also, we know what’s important for kids.”

Last winter, when a student in the middles died in an accident, West grieved with the class she thinks of as “my kids.” The loss shocked the congregation. Howell reached out to all the teen leaders with the news to check in, then worked with them, supporting West and leading a combined RE service the first Sunday after the boy’s death with additional adult support. “Pam definitely sort of took the lead, because, obviously, this is her profession,” West recalls. “She knows how to deal with that sort of thing. But it was certainly collaborative.” Their rituals included making a “grief soup” and pouring it over seeds in the church garden.

Fortunately, Baum, Paris, and Synnestvedt have faced more commonplace challenges during their time as junior youth group leaders. Paris underscored Howell’s support and permission as the trio lead. She and Baum, both high school juniors, began leading junior youth group two years ago. Synnestvedt, a high school sophomore, co-led with Baum last year while Paris studied abroad. This year, all three shepherd the lively, engaged group that meets during the Sunday service.

One week before the haunted barnyard, junior youth group members wrote on acorns and a large butternut squash for their three-dimensional CROP Walk banner; there was room for playfulness. They walked that afternoon. The following week, their haunted barnyard raised $300 more for the organization. Two years ago, having back-to-back CROP Walk fundraisers felt stressful. This time around, the leaders trusted that they were up for it. Whether speaking during a service or doling out fake spiderwebs, Synnestvedt, Paris, and Baum seem at home, relaxed. As well as leading the junior youth group, Paris and Synnestvedt have joined the congregation’s Green Sanctuary Committee, while West, in addition to leading the middles, sits on the RE Committee.

Leading has “helped me develop more confidence,” says Synnestvedt. “From that first day, now I feel like if I walked into that same situation, I might not have been quite as nervous.” The others agree.

Partnering with Clark Farm feels crucial to the leaders. Baum calls Clark Farm “an outdoor classroom,” a place where kids can get goat poop on their shoes for the first time and pick vegetables. Farm manager Andrew Rodgers hopes the partnership begun in 2015 will be replicated by other groups. Farm steward Marjie Findlay has noticed the Carlisle UUs en route to the farm. “They look really happy. There’s a lot of positive energy coming out of them towards each other and towards getting here,” she says, adding that farms are spiritual places. Finding things on the farm and deciding what to make with them at church is “a leftover ministry,” Howell adds. “It’s holy work.”

Equally organic has been the interconnectedness that has gradually taken hold within the congregation. Before, Carlisle’s offerings seemed compartmentalized, designed to check off different boxes, Smack says: “There was nothing telling us this was a whole community.” Now, kids are part of the music program, adults lend their talents to RE classes, and teens speak from the pulpit. Howell considers the community a teaching congregation where mixed-age infuses everything. Smack calls it vitality.

The Rev. Brock Leach, a consultant to the UUA on emerging ministries and a member of the Breakthrough Congregations team, says that First Religious Society of Carlisle’s teen/farm combination “felt pretty unique.” There’s an axiom in innovation, he notes, that change emanates from those who share a community’s values but who are in some way dissatisfied; it makes sense to him that Carlisle’s transformations have seeped beyond RE. “Generally, it’s healthy for people to encounter other people who see the world differently,” he says. “It’s part of spiritual growth.”

West and Howell applied to lead a session at last summer’s General Assembly. Baum and Howell co-wrote the Breakthrough Congregation application. They have succeeded at both. This is perhaps not surprising from a group that shows up week after week amidst joy and sorrow, ready with activities and projects, happy to connect. They’ve even started a Teen Wall of Fame in one of the RE classrooms—photos of teens who have taught, then graduated out of the Carlisle nest. Younger kids say they, too, want to be on the wall.

The Sunday before Halloween, chatting during coffee hour, longtime member and office administrator Ann Quenin noted the new energy abuzz in the congregation. “You can feel it,” she said enthusiastically. Carlisle’s youth “gives me hope . . . that they’re passionate, that they’re committed. They’re not jaded, they’re not saying, ‘there’s nothing we can do.’”