UUA suspends funding for young adult network

UUA suspends funding for young adult network

C*UUYAN has cancelled annual conferences; UUA staff groups serving youth and young adults expected to merge.


UUA funding for the Continental Unitarian Universalist Young Adult Network (C*UUYAN) will be eliminated this summer, according to the network’s leaders. The cuts come after C*UUYAN’s leadership decided to cancel its two summer conferences to allow the organization time to revision and regroup. The organization, which serves 18- to 35-year-old UUs, is planning a meeting before the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in June to discuss its future.

The Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, acting director of the UUA’s Young Adult and Campus Ministry (YACM) staff group and director of congregational services, told the C*UUYAN steering committee in January that it will no longer receive funding from the UUA’s operating budget after June 2008. The steering committee shared the news in a public letter February 12.

The steering committee letter quotes Robinson-Harris, who gave several reasons for the changes. She pointed to unresolved concerns about C*UUYAN’s relationship to YACM, but she also mentioned changes in the UUA’s staff support for youth and young adult ministries.

“A year and a half ago, the staff of the Young Adult and Campus Ministry Office sent a letter to the leadership of C*UUYAN raising significant questions/issues about the relationship between the office and the organization, and the needs of UU young adults,” Robinson-Harris wrote. “While these matters were still on the table and unresolved, the office began the process of restructuring, resulting in the decision to create a new office for youth and young adult ministries.”

No details are available yet about the new office for youth and young adult ministries, although Judith Frediani, director of the Lifespan Faith Development staff group, which includes the Youth Ministry Office, confirmed that discussions about a new office are underway. Robinson-Harris clarified that the implementation of a new staff structure would begin in the 2008-2009 fiscal year.

A separate announcement from the steering committee of YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists), a continental youth organization, announced February 11 that the UUA “will cease to fund YRUU youth activities at the continental level” at the end of June. The steering committee’s announcement provoked strong reactions from current and former YRUU members.

UUA President William G. Sinkford acknowledged in a statement February 14 that “our youth and young adult ministries are in a time of transition.” Affirming that his administration and the UUA board “remain committed to the creation of vital and effective youth and young adult ministries,” Sinkford said: “We are listening carefully to the concerns and hopes of youth and young adults and those who stand with them in faith. Let me assure you that the new course has not yet been defined and decided.”

Sinkford added: “Within a week I will distribute widely the emerging direction and try to address as many of the good questions that have been raised as possible.”

In a February 16 letter to the YRUU steering committee, Sinkford said that, “as a result of failures in communication within the UUA staff, some incorrect information was shared with you at your recently completed meeting. 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. 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.”

UU World will report on developments concerning YRUU as more information becomes available.

Mary Manchester, head of C*UUYAN’s steering committee, expressed little surprise at the decision to cut the young adult network’s funding. “Given the reasoning we were given from the YACM office, I am not extremely surprised that our funding was cut,” she said. “Considering the huge changes that they’re going through and we’re going through, it’s going to make things quite different for us. It will also initiate much-needed change.”

While C*UUYAN will be losing $34,000 in UUA support per year, it has approximately $40,000 of its own money in savings.

C*UUYAN was founded in 1986 to sponsor Opus, an annual spirituality conference for UU young adults. The network supported the Young Adult Caucus at the General Assembly and, for the last ten years, has also sponsored ConCentric, a young adult leadership conference.

The UUA established an office to support young adult and campus ministry several years after C*UUYAN was founded, gradually expanding until four people were employed by YACM in 2007. The UUA board granted C*UUYAN “sponsored organization” status in 1999. (The board had recognized YRUU, the youth organization, as a sponsored organization in 1998.)

Traditionally, C*UUYAN’s Opus conference has served young adults who may be unaffiliated with a congregation, while the Young Adult and Campus Ministry office has worked with young adults through districts, congregations, and campus ministries.

Roughly half of the funding the UUA has given C*UUYAN in recent years has been used for programs and conferences. The other half has paid for steering committee meetings and expenses. YACM office staff also provided some administrative and program planning support.

The YACM staff sent a letter to the C*UUYAN steering committee in September 2006 raising concerns about the relationship of the two groups. That letter criticized C*UUYAN for serving a “continental clique”: “Our support for C*UUYAN was intended to free leaders to work on new projects; instead, it has helped C*UUYAN become mired in an institutional identity dependent upon three annual conferences that at their best serve 300 people a year (200 of whom are at General Assembly).”

“We clearly see the need to emphasize in all of our work the shifting of power from the continental level to the local level,” the letter said, “so that it is more shared with congregation- and district-based young adult communities.”

While the conferences may have served a small clientele, it is a dedicated one. “For the group of people it touches, it touches deeply, lastingly, and importantly,” said Jeff Bailey, a young adult and former Opus facilitator. “As a movement you have to ask, ‘How can we take that to other individuals? How do we connect with more people?’”

“Our Association is an association of congregations,” Bailey said. “The direction from the UUA is always going to be to push for congregations.” But he sees C*UUYAN’s value in its service to unattached young adults.

“The reality of where young adults are is that they’re not congregationally based,” Bailey continued. “That can be mitigated through campus groups, better outreach programs, and though tie-ins through the districts. C*UUYAN by its nature is the young adult network.”

In an interview, Robinson-Harris agreed that C*UUYAN’s function has been to serve unchurched young adults, but she said that the YACM office has become much more intentional about serving young adults through congregations. “A national office like YACM is not able to minister effectively to hundreds and hundreds of individuals around the country,” she said. “What we can do is support our congregations in being welcoming and inclusive and help congregations reach young adults in their communities.”

C*UUYAN had been having problems before the announcement about the UUA’s decision to cut funding to C*UUYAN and the group’s own decision to cancel its conferences this year.

Manchester described a “dysfunctional” culture surrounding C*UUYAN leadership. “There’s no institutional support within C*UUYAN for volunteer leaders,” she said. “They’re getting used and abused. People come into volunteer leadership really early on in their young adult experience and get burnt out really fast.”

Leanne Todd, who served as conference and planning committee chair, agreed. “As the years went by it was getting more and more difficult to get people to apply to be on the conference staff. The quality of the conference staff hadn’t necessarily gone down . . . but people were burning out so quickly because we weren’t giving them the support or training they really needed. The support and training were supposed to come from the conference planning committee, but the steering committee wasn’t designating the funds to do it.”

Bailey added, “We have failed to train the community to respect its leadership and also failed to train that leadership to set those boundaries and barriers that would prevent them from getting tromped on.”

“Expectations of leaders are high,” Manchester said. “A lot of young adults don’t feel like they’re a part of a congregation so they latch onto this continental community and the only times that we meet are at the summer conferences. That’s a lot of pressure on people planning conferences.”

Bailey also addressed what he called a “culture of entitlement” among UUs. “We see it in the structure of our General Assemblies, we see it in the structure of our churches, we see it in the structure of all sorts of things that we do,” he said. “I would say that Opus winds up being a microcosm of that.”

The C*UUYAN steering committee made the decision in the summer of 2007 to suspend Opus and Concentric for 2008, a decision that drew criticism not so much for the decision itself, but for the fact that it was made solely by the steering committee. “A lot of people felt it was a top-down decision,” Manchester said, “and that the community wasn’t consulted. But we’re leaders elected by the community, and we’re elected because we have a vision for the community. We made the decision in the interest of the community’s greater good.”

“I’m actually for the decision to cancel the conferences,” Todd said. “The conference planning committee supported putting them on hiatus with the understanding that it would go to a vote of the ConCentric body. But the steering committee just made a decision and announced it, which took all the power away from the ConCentric body.”

Manchester acknowledged that people were angry about the way the decision was made. “A lot of people feel like their lives have been saved by the community that happens at Opus,” she said, “and that it was irresponsible to stop because someone might have come to the next Opus who would have had their life changed by it.”

“I can see peoples’ point in thinking it was a top-down decision, not grass-roots enough,” Manchester said. “But the steering committee has been elected to lead, and we are doing our best to lead this community toward a more sustainable future.”

So what is C*UUYAN’s future? There are many ideas. “I have a vision for young adult programming across the continent that would make the work of C*UUYAN redundant,” wrote Erin Riffle, a young adult who has helped organize ConCentric in the past. “In my vision, every congregation near a college or university would offer outreach to college campuses and start campus ministry groups. I also see young adults engaged actively in local congregations because the congregations are striving to provide a truly intergenerational worship experience.”

Todd said that she hoped the money not being given to C*UUYAN would go to local programming for young adults. “I hope some of the money goes to fund district coordinators to do conferences and trainings,” she said. “I’d like to see it made more accessible to everyone.”

Bailey said, “I would love to see C*UUYAN decide how it could reach out and touch every young adult who doesn’t feel like they’re connected with a congregation.”

Robinson-Harris expressed optimism. “I hope that C*UUYAN can take advantage of this time of change and figure out how it can best contribute to the wellbeing of UU young adults,” she said. “I don’t know what their future should look like, but in this time of transition, a range of possibilities are open for consideration.”

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