“Full Circle—15 Ways to Grow Lifelong UUs” by Kate Erselv reports on a study focused on 82 men and women from age 25-87 who were raised lifelong UUs (including our own co-ministers!), from birth or early childhood. During a time when the denomination was asking: Why do our children leave? Why this mass exodus? Kate decided to ask: “Why did you stay?” In this book, the UU lifers listed some major connections to youth programming that they believed truly kept them connected to this denomination:
- Church leaders (staff, board, worship, etc.) acted as models and mentors and took the time to notice and appreciate our youth and recognize their emerging talents. Lifers list these leadership activities as some that made the deepest impression:
- speaking in church,
- helping with meaningful duties at important events,
- volunteering in Sunday school,
- participating in theater, choir, lecture series and serving on the board,
- leading worship for the whole church.
- Immersion experiences held some of the most significant memories from UU lifers. Conferences, family camps, whole church retreats and special trips were among these experiences. Retreating from everyday life to a sacred place, talking to a friend late into the night, diverse worships, watching the stars, dancing freely, and being trusted and empowered to be a leader, has helped create lifelong memories and impressions.
- And finally, attending a positive youth group may have been the most important facet of creating lifelong UUs. They listed that positive adult advisers with appropriate boundaries, who worked with the group to create a safe space of confidentiality; expected respectful communication; asked for youth input; and believed in and practiced youth empowerment; helped them connect to their spiritual self.
We are currently re-initiating our youth group here at Cedars. Jeff Philip, David Barnes and I are offering youth group meetings and activities twice per month: 2nd Fridays in Poulsbo and 4th Fridays in Bainbridge Island. We have ten high school youth affiliated with this community. Helping these youth find connections together within their busy schedules, geographical locations, and varying identities with UUism…and not, is quite the challenge but well worth the energy.
However, there are some important investments that need to be made for our success. All of the things listed in Full Circle are true, and there are a few more things, in my opinion, that we need to keep in mind. In my previous UU community, our youth group ebbed and flowed like many other churches. However, it finally started to truly grow and function when: we had more energized, youth empowering volunteers come forward to support the group; youth attended regularly with the support of their families and gave input into the activities and topics covered; youth attendance at trainings and conferences in the greater UU world became an expectation and a norm; the church provided more paid staff time for youth coordination; and more thought was placed into developing a stronger Middle School group, Coming of Age program, and regular Our Whole Lives (our Sexuality Education program). It was lots of work and investment and it paid off.
As you might gather from the long lists above, there is not one simple path to keeping our youth engaged. It is actually ALL OF THE ABOVE that creates a vibrant youth program. As I have sent multiple UU young adults off into the world, I have learned how various experiences solidified their personal identity as UUs. I’ve seen firsthand how our time, money and care have been a great investment in the future. Sometimes these young people went on great excursions around the world, sometimes they had children and became amazing parents; while others took up a cause with such passion, they immersed themselves into the work of helping ease suffering. ALL of the ways we provided engagement to these young people were important. Whether attending a group, serving on the board, helping to create worship, or attending conferences…each of these activities have been listed as reasons why these young people see themselves as Unitarian Universalists. Each provides a different way for youth to build identity.
So…we are providing adult support, some pizza, a group meeting space and our time…what’s next Cedars?