Phil from Phil’s Little Blog on the Prairie happened to be in the area today, and he stopped by the Geneva church to say hello to Lindsay and me. I told him how great it is to hear that the Prairie Star District of UU congregations (for whom Phil works as program consultant) has made it an explicit goal to grow lifelong Unitarian Universalists. We got to talking about how to make that happen. We agreed that one crucial moment for retaining young people is when they leave high school, and go off to college, military service, or the world of work. Often that’s when we lose touch with our young people. I mentioned three easy things any UU congregation can do to keep in touch with high school graduates, and Phil suggested I list them here on this blog. People here in Geneva have already heard me say these things, but other people read this blog too — so here are those three things….
(1) Include a time in a worship service in late spring where you recognize all those young people who are graduating from or otherwise leaving high school. You can have an elaborate bridging ceremony if you like, but here’s the simple ceremony I prefer –
Pick a Sunday in June (or after high school graduation) when you replace the “story for all ages” in the regular worship service with a short recognition ceremony (you replace the “story for all ages” because we want the little kids to see what they have to look forward to when they get done with high school). Have the youth group stand on one side of the church with the graduating seniors, and on the other side of the church get a group of people who grew up as Unitarians, Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists. One by one, the graduating seniors walk away from the youth group, are welcomed by the minister(s) halfway, are told that they will always be welcome in this church (and I like to present them with the UU Pocket Guide and a meditation manual), and then are welcomed by the lifelong UU’s on the other side of the church. The message is simple — we’re glad you’ve been with us, you are always welcome here, and here are a bunch of other people who have remained Unitarian Universalists just as we hope you will do.
(2) In the late summer issue of your congregation’s newsletter, place a notice saying that you will send the newsletter to every former member of the youth group, and request college or military mailing addresses. (Usually parents/guardians or friends will send in the addresses.)
(3) If you have a Christmas eve service, plan a youth group reunion. This is a time when college students are usually back home, and those in the military may get leave over Christmas. Reserve a room in the building after the Christmas eve service, or between the two Christmas eve services — supply chips and drinks — invite current youth group members (who may know the grads) — and send out invitations to everyone who is in college or the military, or who is working nearby. (This church tried this for the first time this year, and while there are a few bugs to be worked out, generally it went very well.)
So there you have it — three cheap, easy, effective ways to maintain contact with the young people of your congregation after they leave high school. And thanks to Phil for prompting me to post these three ideas.