Reports outline new model of UU youth ministry

Reports outline new model of UU youth ministry

Urge congregations and districts to make ministry to youth and young people of color priorities.
Donald E. Skinner


For four and a half years, many Unitarian Universalist youth, young adults, religious educators, ministers, and others have been meeting to develop a new model for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “ministry to and with youth.”

In mid-April, the two groups that have been leading this effort, the Youth Ministry Working Group and the Mosaic Project, delivered their final reports to the UUA Board of Trustees. Both reports call for a culture change in UU congregations that would put serving the religious needs of teenagers and young adults at the heart of each congregation’s mission. They also call on the UUA to provide staffing and financial support for congregational and district initiatives.

The UUA launched the Consultation on Ministry to and with Youth in 2004 with an Association-wide survey and several years of focus groups. In 2007, the Consultation presented the UUA Board of Trustees with 60 recommendations; the Youth Ministry Working Group was then charged with developing a new model based on these recommendations. In 2008, the UUA ended its financial support for YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists), a continental UU youth organization, and announced that it would be reorganizing the two offices that supported programs for youth and young adults at the denominational level.

UUA leaders said the Consultation’s work showed that that UUA needed to shift from supporting continental activities, like YRUU, that engaged relatively few youth to supporting programs and opportunities for youth at the local level. In 2008, when the Association announced that it would no longer support YRUU, UUA President William G. Sinkford wrote, “The current structure for continental youth ministry is not serving our faith well. It is the task of the Youth Ministry Working Group to recommend that new structure.”

The Youth Ministry Working Group report recommends:

  • that the UUA decentralize its services to youth by hiring five regional youth ministry consultants who will support local congregational staff working with youth;

  • that each congregation (or cluster of congregations) have a paid youth ministry coordinator or director, and that the UUA create a grants program to help pay personnel costs;

  • that youth be integrated into all areas of congregational life, including worship, governance, social justice, and small group ministry programs;

  • that the UUA provide financial support to youth to attend conferences and other events.

The second report, from the Mosaic Project, focuses on the needs of young people of color in UU congregations. The Mosaic Project asked, “What are the ministry needs of African, Caribbean, Native/American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latina/Latino and Hispanic, Middle Eastern/Arab, multiracial and multiethnic and transracially adopted Unitarian Universalist youth and young adults?”

The Mosaic Project’s final report stresses the need for more multicultural UU communities; the development of healthy racial identity among all UUs, with particular attention to the specific needs of people of color; and forming connections between people of color at the local, regional, and continental levels and youth and young adults of color.

The Rev. Archene Turner, director of senior high youth ministries at Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Md., said she attended a Mosaic Project summit in August 2008 not knowing what to expect. “I found my heart bursting with pride and pain,” she said. “I heard tragic personal stories from our UU children of color, who are youth and young adults from around the country, of how our ministry had failed them. I also heard stories about how they had rallied together to minister to each other. Their stories made clear how our religious communities are not recognizing their world and how they desperately want to walk in it embracing our UU Principles.”

Laura Spencer, the UUA’s program associate for racial and ethnic concerns and author of the Mosaic Report, said, “When we talk about creating more diverse congregations, we often forget that our children and youth communities already include much more diversity than our adult communities. There are growing numbers of multiracial, multiethnic, and transracially adopted children. Our ministries often do not recognize or address the unique needs of people of color. The Mosaic Project strives to help our faith communities become communities that welcome and minister to people of color of all ages in the fullness of their identities.”

Specific recommendations in the Mosaic Report include:

  • that a congregation’s religious professionals, youth advisors, and volunteer teachers participate in ongoing antiracism, antioppression, multicultural awareness programs;

  • that districts give a high priority to supporting congregations by providing antiracism, antioppression, and multicultural awareness programs;

  • that the UUA require antiracism, antioppression, and multicultural awareness training for ministers and other professional leaders.

The Youth Ministry Working Group report recommends biannual assessments of the Association’s progress toward implementing the new recommendations.

Several changes have already taken place as a result of the years-long discussions about youth ministry. YRUU, for many years the umbrella group for UU youth, no longer exists as a continental organization, although congregational youth groups are free to continue to use the name. The UUA’s youth and young adult ministry staff groups have been merged into a single new Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries. Judith Frediani, director of the UUA’s Lifespan Faith Development staff group, said a director for the office will be hired this summer.

“Our immediate goal is to get everyone to read these reports then go to work on creating truly multigenerational congregations,” said Frediani. “We’ll be asking religious professionals and our district staff to lift these up, and we’ll be using other methods of reaching congregations as well. We’ll be talking with religious leaders, lay people, theology schools. Everyone has a role in youth ministry.”

Frediani added, “We don’t think of these reports as marching orders. These recommendations are open to modification and adaptation. We want everyone to go from here and find what works best for them. These reports point the way to what a vital congregational life for all ages will look like. And give specific steps you can take to reach that point.”

Jeremie Giacoia, program associate for youth ministry, said, “There are a lot of things congregations can do that don’t require a huge investment—such as opening committees to youth and including youth in worship. The important first step is simply to sit down—with youth representatives—and talk about what might be possible.”

Two workshops at the UUA’s annual General Assembly will address the youth reports, at 11 a.m. and 5:15 p.m. on Saturday, June 27. District staff have also begun scheduling regional gatherings to talk about the reports.

Sherry Warren is director of religious education at the 160-member Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence, Kans., and the youth and young adult specialist for the Prairie Star District of the UUA. The Lawrence fellowship has six active youth. None has a connection with Unitarian Universalism beyond the fellowship, Warren said.

“I’m happy to see an effort to reach more youth at the congregational level,” Warren said after reading the reports, “and to see that the reports note that everyone has a responsibility to youth, not just the overworked and underpaid DREs. I don’t want this to be another set of recommendations dropped on the DRE.”

Warren would love to see a grants program for helping congregations hire youth ministry staff. “I know that with the economy that may be pie in the sky right now, but if we all make it a priority I could see this happening within five years,” she said. “It would make a huge difference for those congregations who need help in professionalizing youth ministry.”

What else would she like to see? “A guidebook to youth ministry would be nice,” Warren said. “So would a social networking website for youth, and I’d like a greater clarity on what services the UUA will provide and which ones they won’t.”

In October, wearing her district hat, Warren will be hosting a district youth summit, inviting two youth and two adults from each congregation to talk about youth ministry.

In her own congregation, Warren has been inspired this year by a convergence of events—an expanded building, hiring a consulting minister, the new youth reports, and more middle-school youth moving up—to gather people together who want to work with youth. “We’ve identified this as a priority,” she said. “We want to hold on to these youth, and we’re finally in a place where we might do that.”

Kimberlee Tomczak of Madison, Wisc., is youth and young adult coordinator for the Central Midwest District and has many years of involvement in youth and young adult leadership. “People have asked me what I thought was wrong with our youth ministry,” she said. “I’d tell them that what was wrong was that 90 percent of the work relied on courageous untrained volunteers we call youth advisors. I’m excited that seminaries and ministers and others are being brought more fully into this work—especially ministers. Systemic change depends on ministers talking about youth ministry in sermons, in classes, and in board meetings.”

Tomczak added, “I’m really thrilled about the Mosaic report. Simply reading it is a training in and of itself. It will be wonderful to have the opportunity to talk about the multicultural issues it raises.”

“I’m glad the reporting is over so the work can start,” Tomczak said.

Michael Kusz, a member of Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Seattle, Wash., and a member of the Youth Ministry Working Group, said, “As a youth in a small congregation, I see the need for change on a weekly basis. My church has less than 200 members, so maintaining a vital youth group has always been an issue. We are lucky to have six people come to youth group, and we usually only have three, despite the best efforts of our director of religious education and youth advisors. There are simply not enough resources available.”

“Serving youth, especially youth of marginalized identities, is a challenge for many small congregations,” Kusz said. “This is why I believe in the call to shift the center of gravity in youth programming to the congregational level.”

The Rev. Dr. Monica Cummings, the UUA’s program associate for ministry to youth and young adults of color, said implementing the reports’ recommendations “will require a cultural shift in the way many UU congregations and leaders understand the importance of ministry to and with youth in general and youth from traditionally marginalized communities in particular.”

“It will take a shift in habitude away from relying solely on volunteers or paid staff to meet the ministry needs of youth to an understanding that all members of the congregation are responsible to meet the ministry needs of youth,” Cummings said.

Caitlin DuBois, a member of the Youth Ministry Working Group who attends the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, Mass., said, “I acknowledge that we are asking a lot of our congregations. At the Working Group meetings we talked a lot about cultural change—the need for everyone within our congregations to transform their perceptions of ministry. This report should affect every aspect of congregational life.”

“If we begin to see youth, not only as full and capable members of the congregation, but also as individuals who offer gifts just as much as they receive them,” DuBois said, “then this cultural change will be achieved. If we do not take this and the Mosaic reports seriously, we are at serious risk to not only waste many UUA dollars, but also to prevent individual and religious growth.”

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