Family and Youth Ministry in Challenging Times

Family and Youth Ministry in Challenging Times

Religious education programs continue to evolve amidst ongoing pandemic and social upheaval.

Kat McKim
Three young people in face masks due to COVID are standing in front of a greek temple facade. The top of the facade reads "seek wisdom" and the columns read "honor, care, accept, listen, connect, guard."

During the pandemic, First Unitarian Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, reworked their religious education program—now called Camp Athena—to more closely mirror their popular summer camp.

Courtesy First Unitarian Church in Worcester, Massachusetts


The pandemic has been a time of challenge and innovation for serving families with religious education programming.

Facing uncertainty and fatigue, religious educators are devising new ways to offer loving support, foster spiritual development, and encourage conversations about racial justice in Unitarian Universalist communities. Here are a few examples of ways programs have adapted.

Alison Aguilar Lopez Gutierrez McLeod, religious education director at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito, California, started a weekly story time for all ages via Zoom that focuses on antioppression. She chooses books that are related to current events and that prompt discussions about social justice.

Throughout the pandemic, Aguilar Lopez Gutierrez McLeod has also cultivated a young adult ministry, where members in their late teens to late 20s gather to grapple with issues of grief and spirituality. She said that in-person turnout for young adult groups was low pre-pandemic, but that the group is now thriving on Zoom and will continue in that format.

At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix,Arizona, Director of Children’s Ministry Katie Resendiz de Perez has been helping families create individualized faith development plans as the primary focus of this year’s religious education program. Families can schedule one-on-one 90-minute meetings to talk about their beliefs and spiritual needs, why they go to church, and potential resources the church can provide.

“Moving through the curriculum . . . is not the point of faith development,” said Resendiz de Perez. “[Instead], we’re pulling back to [ask], ‘What do you want out of this, and how can we support?’”

The pandemic gave the Rev. Sarah Stewart and her team at First Unitarian Churchin Worcester, Massachusetts, an opportunity to rework their religious education program—now called Camp Athena—to more closely mirror their popular summer camp. All children gather for a ritual and discussion of the children’s story and are then invited to choose from a range of activities such as crafts, games, or quiet time rather than sorting into age-based classes. Though Camp Athena meets in person, organizers have taken pandemic precautions by requiring masks, requiring vaccinations among staff and volunteers, using three larger spaces on their campus to avoid gathering in small rooms, and having kids eat snacks socially distanced in a large gym space.

Since the pandemic, the team behind Our Whole Lives (OWL)—the comprehensive sexuality education program developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ—has been hosting monthly webinars for facilitators on topics such as supporting parents and caregivers as sexuality educators, and racial justice in OWL. Additionally, the team will be releasing a new video series in January for parents and caregivers of elementary-aged children, called Under Your Wing.

OWL is also taking a more intentionally antiracist approach to programming, a shift that began before the pandemic when OWL Program Manager Melanie Davis and her colleagues convened a focus group of Black, Indigenous, and people of color community members to give feedback on grades 7–9 OWL materials.

“As we revise and create things, we’re keeping that input in mind,” Davis said. “We’re continuing in our commitment to be ever more mindful of ableism and to make [OWL] as inclusive as possible.”