Continental YRUU 'will be replaced,' Sinkford says

Continental YRUU 'will be replaced,' Sinkford says

Funding cuts uncertain for youth organization; new model for youth ministry in development.
Donald E. Skinner


Unitarian Universalist youth reacted in anger last week when leaders of YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists), a continental organization of UU youth, announced “with great sorrow” that the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations would end support for YRUU in June.

In a letter posted to YRUU’s website on February 11, the YRUU Steering Committee announced: “on June 30, 2008, the UUA will cease to fund YRUU youth activities at the continental level. Therefore, Youth Council,” YRUU’s governing body, “will not be held this summer or in the years to follow and YRUU Steering Committee 2007-2008 will be the last.”

UUA leaders quickly responded that it was premature to say that continental YRUU was finished, although they acknowledged that they envisioned a new continental structure that would eventually replace YRUU.

UUA President William G. Sinkford and the UUA Board of Trustees issued statements saying no final decisions had been made about YRUU’s funding. UUA Secretary Paul Rickter, who represents the UUA Board on YRUU’s Steering Committee, said the board has not considered removing YRUU’s status as a “sponsored organization.”

Sinkford confirmed, however, that YRUU will be replaced. “It is true,” he wrote in a February 15 letter to the YRUU Steering Committee, “that continental YRUU, as we have known it, will be replaced at some point by a new structure.”

The steering committee’s announcement was released at the end of the first meeting of the Youth Ministry Implementation Working Group, a 15-person group of adults and youth that met in Boston February 8 through 11. The working group was appointed by Sinkford to prioritize recommendations made last summer by the UUA Summit on Youth Ministry at the end of the Consultation on Ministry to and with Youth, a multiyear review of Unitarian Universalist youth ministries.

“The findings of the Consultation demonstrate that there is a broad consensus that the current structure for continental youth ministry is not serving our faith well,” Sinkford said in his February 15 letter. “It is the task of the Youth Ministry Working Group to recommend that new structure.”

YRUU is a continental organization of UU youth ages 14 to 20. It is supported by the UUA as a “sponsored organization” of the Association through the Office of Youth Ministries. YRUU helps plan conferences for youth and advocates for youth on continental and district levels. It is the “face” of youth ministry on the continental level, said Judith Frediani, UUA director of Lifespan Faith Development and the supervisor of the UUA’s Youth Ministries staff.

Word that YRUU would be phased out at the continental level came the same week that the leaders of the Continental UU Young Adult Network (C*UUYAN) announced that the UUA would stop funding the young adult network at the end of June, which UUA staff confirmed. C*UUYAN, an organization of 18- to 35-year-old UUs, is the UUA’s second “sponsored organization.” Plans are also underway to merge the UUA’s youth and young adult ministries staff groups into a single new office, according to the Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, acting director of the Young Adult and Campus Ministry staff group. (See’s coverage, February 25.)

[Update 2.25.08: The UUA published "Frequently Asked Questions about the Status of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU) and Youth Ministry" on on February 25.]

The Consultation on Ministry To and With Youth has been gathering information on the state of youth ministry within the Association since October 2004.

The final report of the Consultation, which was developed at the July 2007 Summit on Youth Ministry and presented to the Board of Trustees in October 2007, offered 60 recommendations. Frediani said that the working group that met in Boston earlier this month narrowed down the recommendations to 11 “activities” as its top priorities. (See below for a list.)

The working group also met with the Steering Committee of YRUU. After that meeting, the steering committee published its letter announcing funding cuts and set up a blog for reactions by YRUU members and supporters ( President Sinkford later apologized for “failures of communication” by UUA staff. “Some incorrect information was shared with you at your recently completed meeting,” he said in his February 15 letter.

“You were told that the Continental YRUU structure would end in June of this year and that there was no funding in the UUA’s budget for Youth Council next summer,” Sinkford said. “The reality is that the UUA’s budget for next year will not be presented to the UUA Board for approval until its April meeting. No firm decisions have been made about ending support for the Continental YRUU structure. And because of YRUU’s status as a Sponsored Organization, the UUA Board will have to approve any decision to end support for the organization.”

He also noted that Consultation participants have been clear that “we need to imagine new and more effective ways to support youth ministry.”

Frediani, the UUA’s Director of Lifespan Faith Development, the staff group that is responsible for youth programming, said that while YRUU will most likely be transformed into a new continental structure to serve youth, there is no deadline for YRUU to cease to be.

“Certainly the structure that is YRUU will change,” she said. “It’s the overwhelming sense of the Consultation that the current structure is not working to serve the many thousands of youth in our congregations.”

Frediani noted that “YRUU” can mean different things. In addition to the continental structure, some congregational youth programs carry that name. “We’re only talking about the YRUU continental leadership structure.” She said that structure involves “at most, a couple hundred youth. Yet, 75 percent of the money the UUA allocates to youth programs through the Youth Office goes to this continental structure. That leaves thousands of youth untouched by Youth Office resources. That’s what we want to change.”

Frediani emphasized that UUA staff will continue to support services presently provided to youth, including trainings, curricula, and district and continental gatherings, including the General Assembly Youth Caucus.

At the Summit on Youth Ministry last summer at Simmons College in Boston, participants posed what became known as “The YRUU Question.” The final report observed that YRUU has been “allowed to function without a clear sense of mission or accountability” and raised questions about whether it can support “the Summit’s vision for youth ministry.”

The Summit report noted that any discussion of the future of YRUU should include “an evaluation of ending the current YRUU structure.” The report also urged YRUU’s governing body to “discuss the possible future role of YRUU in a congregationally based model of youth ministry with diverse leadership structures and a variety of congregational and extracongregational ministries to and with youth.” The report added: “This must include an evaluation of ending the current YRUU structure.”

“If YRUU continues to exist,” the report says, “it must have a clear, defined mission as a part, not the whole, of our youth ministry.”

Will Floyd, 18, is a member of the YRUU Steering Committee. He said YRUU leaders have been in general agreement since at least 2004 that there needed to be major changes within the YRUU structure. “We know that our organization has not been successful at serving all UU youth and needs to change,” he said.

Floyd said he is not as concerned that YRUU might change as he is about the Consultation process, which could, he believes, minimize youth input. “We feel that youth empowerment is a unique UU value that has nurtured thousands and is now under attack by this process.” And although the information about an ending date for YRUU was erroneous, it was still a shock, he said, to be told that YRUU funding might abruptly end.

Floyd is a member of the Unitarian Church in Summit, N.J., and was part of its youth group. He said YRUU helped him learn leadership skills.

YRUU has also been a catalyst for change within the UUA, Floyd said, by its commitment to antiracism and antioppression work, among other things. He said YRUU was striving to be an organization led by youth who were supported by UUA staff. “That system never really was working 100 percent,” he said.

He said that the YRUU Steering Committee is “ready and willing to work with the UUA to make major changes to our denomination’s youth ministry and we remain committed to making sure this process of change is directed by the interests of the youth in our congregations, not by the interests of the UUA.”

Nick Allen, 16, a former member of the YRUU Steering Committee and now a member of the Working Group, said in an email interview that YRUU has had difficulty quickly disseminating information to congregations under its current structure. “My hope is that any new structure will quickly and effectively get information and resources to youth in congregations.”

Allen added, “I hope that whatever structure emerges will arise from the input of many youth and adults, so that revisioning youth ministry will be a more empowering and accountable process than the administrative discussion around ending YRUU.”

Allen, of Unity Church–Unitarian in St. Paul, Minn., believes certain “cultural shifts” need to happen so that the needs of youth can be better met: More youth should attend General Assembly so they are aware of programs available to them. Congregations need to encourage and cultivate more young leaders. “It’s sad to me that youth are limited to youth groups at most congregations,” he said. He also believes religious educators, youth workers, and ministers should be properly trained to work with youth and that youth ministry needs to be better at meeting the needs of youth of color and “queer/genderqueer” youth. He added, “My hope is that as youth ministry is revisioned, models to bring about these changes will emerge.”

Dori Davenport, religious educator and growth consultant on the staff of the Central Midwest District, said continental YRUU has been “a community unto itself.” She added, “There has always been a huge level of confusion in congregations about what YRUU is and how it functions. When it was formed over 20 years ago it was to be a broad umbrella group. I think it lost that original purpose.”

Davenport is a former director of religious education for several congregations and also participated in the Consultation. She added, “It’s not that anyone wants to end YRUU. We’re trying to create something that will be a much more comprehensive program serving the needs of more youth.”

Davenport added that the revisioning of youth ministry involves everyone. “I wish we wouldn’t always look to Boston to create something new. I’d like to see us say to all of our ministers, for example, ‘What do you think we need to do to create viable programs to minister to youth, and what are you willing to do to make this happen?’”

Frediani said a plan for a new youth ministry structure will ultimately be decided by the Board of Trustees, but probably not until its October 2008 meeting, at the earliest. She said she recognizes YRUU’s contributions, “especially in justice-seeking work.” YRUU has also been a place, she said, where youth of color and queer youth have found a home. “They have often been isolated in their home communities and have only experienced truly diverse UU communities at YRUU events. We don’t want to lose that.”

She noted YRUU was formed to replace Liberal Religious Youth in 1983 when that organization became disconnected from congregations. YRUU was formed with two goals, she said: One was to be a real youth-adult partnership with youth empowered in relationship with adults. The other goal was that YRUU was to be congregationally based. “What we’re aware of now, is we’re trying not to again create an autonomous youth national structure that is not based in congregations,” Frediani said.

Frediani added that it’s not known yet what structure will follow YRUU. The implementation working group will meet again in April to continue working on what that might look like. “This is a time of transition and that is hard for many people,” she acknowledged. “It’s both a wonderful opportunity and a scary place. And we know, from the information gathered during the Consultation, that making this transition has enormous support.”

“We want to create more meaningful opportunities for all youth,” Frediani said. “I hope that we can continue to sponsor continental opportunities and bring together larger numbers of youth for social justice opportunities and spiritual immersion experiences.” She said it will be important, as part of the process of creating a new youth ministry structure, “to recognize all of the good work of YRUU and to celebrate that.”

Here are the 11 prioritized activities the implementation working group selected at its February meeting:

  • Create identity-based ministries to and with groups marginalized by society as well as to groups privileged by society.

  • Build on antiracism/antioppression/multicultural work already begun by YRUU.
  • Provide dedicated staff support for youth of color and those who minister to youth of color.

  • Develop a training and consultancy program to serve congregations by region.

  • Convene a task force to work on strengthening the preparation of clergy, religious educators, and others for youth ministry.

  • Create an organization and process for recruiting, credentialing, and supporting competent youth workers.

  • Develop a congregational grants program to help congregations add paid youth ministry staff.

  • Create a tool kit to equip congregations for multigenerational ministry.

  • Plan for a multigenerational General Assembly in 2010, including workshops and worship.

  • Provide resources to youth, adults, and congregations so they can be involved in all these activities.

  • Invite discussion from the YRUU Youth Council (the governing body of YRUU) about UU youth ministry.

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