Category Archives: Youth ministry

In New Orleans

We arrived in New Orleans about three hours ago, rented our cars, and got to First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans where we’ll be staying. On the plane here, I wound up sitting next to two women from New Orleans. They told us about all the good cheap places to eat, talked about how angry they are with BP, and told me a little bit about how the continued cleanup is going.

Tomorrow, we will attend an orientation session with the groups from the UU churches in Monterey, Calif., and Columbus, Ohio. We will get our final work assignments then.

Next post in the trip diary.

Off to New Orleans

Tomorrow morning, I’m heading off to New Orleans with our church youth group to participate in rebuilding work. Yes, New Orleans is still being rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina. Now, we will not be cleaning up the BP oil spill — apparently volunteers aren’t allowed to work on cleaning up the oil yet (’cause, ya know, BP is doing such a good job on its own).

Will post more from new Orleans beginning tomorrow evening….

Next post in the trip diary.

Comparing church fundraisers

It’s always interesting to me to see which fundraisers raise the most money for the least amount of work. Sometimes, the simple easy fundraisers raise more money than the complex difficult fundraisers. For example:

The youth group here at the Palo Alto church is raising money to go to New Orleans for a service project. The ice cream social (ice cream donated by a local merchant) grossed $775 for two hours of work. The New Orleans theme dinner grossed $750, with much higher expenses, and three or four times as much work.

Youth ministry and sleep

A few weeks ago, someone posted a question to the UUA youth advisor email list. I’ve forgotten who posted this question, I’ve long since deleted the original email message, but the question sticks with me: What do you do to recover after you’ve been a youth advisor at a district youth conference (or youth retreat, or local church overnight)?

For those of you who haven’t done youth ministry, a weekend-long district youth conference can last 40 hours. You might have to drive several hours to get to the conference, and several hours to get home. If the conference is not well organized, adult advisors might not get more than a few hours of sleep for two nights in a row.

You’ll likely get more sleep if you’re an advisor at an overnight for a local congregation. I’ll be one of the adults at an overnight planning retreat for our church’s upcoming New Orleans service trip. The overnight will last just 13 hours, and while I won’t get eight hours of sleep, I’ll be fine. Plus I’ll have time to recover afterwards.

After 15 years of doing youth ministry, I’ve decided I’m no longer willing to be an advisor at district youth conferences unless the organizers arrange for me to get eight hours of sleep two nights in a row. I was at a youth conference in a midwestern district, and they arranged for local adults to come in and take shifts through the night so that the adult advisors who had come from far away could get plenty of sleep. Not only are midwesterners generally better organized than people on the coasts, but midwesterners also recognize that they don’t want adult advisors driving home for long distances unless they’ve had adequate sleep. I loved that midwestern youth conference. I got enough sleep, I’m sure I was more present for the youth, I had a great time, and when I went to work on Monday I wasn’t totally exhausted.

If any of you are youth advisors, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you do to recover after you’ve been a youth advisor at a district youth conference (or youth retreat, or local church overnight)?

“And only four kids came…”

Maggi Peirce gave a talk today at the church about how she and some others started a folk music coffee house in New Bedford in 1967. They had programming every Friday and Saturday evening, to provide a safe place for teenagers during that era of youth unrest. After starting off with a bang in May, 1967, they began having increasing difficulty finding adult volunteers, until things reached a crisis point in July. Here’s how Maggi told the story this afternoon:

“Every time that I would ask for people to help, they sort of faded like snow off a ditch. And then there was one famous night where I had to take care of Friday night. And I turned up, and wonderful Joe Cardoza. We loved Joe Cardoza. He always did the door. He was our doorkeeper, and he was from Pilgrim Church [the UCC church here in New Bedford]. The salt of the earth! And there was another woman there called Florrie; and then Ellen; they worked in the kitchen.

“And when this happened, I arrived on the Friday, but nobody else did. Joe was on the door. And there wasn’t even any coffee that night. And only four kids came. And one of them was P—— and he was from Fairhaven. And he said to me — he had a guitar with him; he didn’t play very well [laughter] — and he said, ‘Is nothing happening tonight?’

“And I said, ‘There is always something happening at Tryworks.’

“And he looked at me, and he said, ‘You know, Maggi, this is sort of typical of New Bedford. Everything starts with a big article in the newspaper, and a big hoopla.’ He said, ‘Remember that first night in May, when we opened?’ And this was about July [1967]. He said, ‘Everybody starts with a terrific hope, and everybody’s going to help, and then it all fizzles out within six weeks.’

“And I said, ‘P——, I promise you. Tryworks will not fizzle out in six weeks.’  ”

Well, to make a long story short, Maggi kept that promise. Tryworks coffee house did not fizzle out in six weeks. Maggi became the first director of Tryworks coffeehouse and ran it for twenty years. After she stepped down, it continued for another fifteen years, and when it finally closed for good in 2003 it was the longest-running folk music coffee house in the United States. More importantly, in those thirty-five years Tryworks made a huge impact on the lives of hundreds of young people.

I guess the moral of the story is this: If only four kids show up for your youth program, don’t give up.

About Unitarian Universalist youth ministries


A post by my evil alter ego, Mr. Crankypants, has managed to annoy people. Here’s the situation: The Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) correction, UUA staff has cut off funding for the Steering Committee for the continental Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU). Mr. Crankypants tried to make the point that sometimes organizations have to cut back on programs that are no longer serving large numbers of stakeholders, and he drew an analogy between YRUU and General Assembly (GA), suggesting that maybe funding for GA could be cut as well. In one fell swoop, Mr. C. managed to annoy both the fans of GA, and the fans of YRUU.

But in his fiscally-conservative zeal for budget-cutting, Mr. C.’s post managed to ignore the deeper issues that came into play with the funding cut-off to YRUU. I’d like to list a few of the deeper issues that I see, to try to make it clear how the death-rattle of continental YRUU is merely one symptom of deeper problems among us. So here are just four of these deeper issues:

(1) Compared to mainline and evangelical churches, local Unitarian Universalist congregations have low aspirations in regard to allocating resources (financial, staff, and volunteer resources) to youth ministry. Evangelical and mainline churches aspire to having a youth minister, and often when a church is ready to hire a second minister that minister will have primary responsibility for youth ministries. Contras that with Unitarian Universalist congregations, where the norm is to aspire to a ten-hour-a-week “youth advisor,” and then when a church finally hires a second minister that minister is more likely to have primary responsibility for pastoral care for elders, than to have any responsibility for youth ministries.

(2) Compared to any other denomination in the United States, Unitarian Universalist gives less money to their churches, while at the same time we (on average) have higher incomes than most other denominations. This is appalling enough, but this low level of giving is typically coupled with a high level of self-interested entitlement — we want the local church and the denomination to provide high levels of funding to programs we value. This low level of giving, and this high level of self-interested entitlement means that groups that don’t have much money are most likely to find that ministries aimed at them will be cut first. Put this another way: The UUA Board of Trustees is always caught between a rock and a hard place — they face continual funding shortages, while at the same time they receive demands to provide services that directly benefit those who do give money — it’s no wonder they cut funding for YRUU, it’s just a wonder that our selfish denomination didn’t force them to do so much sooner.

(3) The general culture of Unitarian Universalism is to ignore youth and youth ministries. Compared to evangelical and mainline youth ministers, our paid youth advisors are poorly trained. Compared to evangelical and mainline ministers, most Unitarian Universalist ministers lack knowledge of, training in, and passion for youth ministries (I say this as a Unitarian Universalist minister who has spent some years observing his colleagues!). Lay people are just as bad: our local congregations usually consider youth ministries to be an add-on, not a central function of the church, and so budgets for youth ministries are non-existent, or are the first thing to go in budget crunches. Unitarian Universalists often have the self-fulfillingive attitude that “young people don’t want to come to church,” and so they behave in ways that tend to drive youth and young adults out of churches.

Did you know that the largest church in the United States, Willow Creek Church (ave. attendance 20,000 per week), began in 1975 as a youth ministry? Maybe we don’t like youth ministry because we’re afraid it will make us grow….

(4) In terms of theology, Unitarian Universalism is dominated by second-wave feminism (it is no accident that “Spirit of Life,” a second-wave-feminist anthem, is the most favorite hymn among us). Second-wave feminism did wonders for Unitarian Unviersalism in the 1970s and 1980s. But as we have learned from the critiques of womanist and third-wave feminists, second-wave feminism works best for well-to-do white folks who already have significant amounts of money, education, power — and second-wave feminism has been known to shut out people with less money, less education, less racial privilege, etc. I believe our over-reliance on second-wave feminist thinking has tended to seriously restrict access to power in our churches, allowing mostly white, upper-middle-class, middle-aged and older white folks to have power and influence.

Finally, I’d like to say that while it will be easy to keep on ranting and raving about the death of YRUU, I don’t think it will get us anywhere because it won’t address these deeper problems. Instead of ranting, I’d like to suggest that we all need to get active in the budget process of our local congregations and advocate for increased funding of youth ministries; we need to increase our own personal giving to our church to between 2% (for incomes under US$20,000) and 10% (for incomes over $150,000), or a quarter of your discretionary spending for high school and college students; we need to raise our expectations of how we will reach out to youth and young adults. Above all, we all need to do some serious theological work and reflection, because if we can’t articulate the religious reasons why we do youth work, we’re not going to get anywhere — oh, and by the way, if you try to use the “seven principles” to do your theological work for you, remember that they are a product of second-wave feminism, and thus the seven principles are part of the problem not part of the solution.

OK, I’ll stop ranting now — and go and write a check to my local congregation.

Now, what do you think of this?

In an earlier post, I asked about whether or not you would welcome “outside” teens, that is, teens whose parents were not part of your church. Now, here’s a more specific question along these same lines. In the most recent issue of Interconnections, the newsletter for church leaders put out by the Unitarian Universalist Association, someone writes in to ask:

“A 16-year-old girl whose parents do not attend our church is attending our Exploring Membership class. She assures us that her parents are OK with this, however I am concerned about allowing someone under the age of 18 to sign our membership book without our knowing what the parents think about it. How do other churches handle these situations?”

I won’t include the answer printed in Interconnections — instead, how would you answer this question? And if you immediately say that you would let a 16-year-old girl sign the membership book, how young would you go — if she were ten years old, would that make a difference, and why?

What do you think of this?

Recently, our tiny little youth group here at First Unitarian in New Bedford has been adding one or two new people, who have come at the invitation of a regular attender of the youth group. These newcomers have no prior affiliation with our church.

Now, in the evangelical church world, this would be considered normal. Indeed, youth groups and youth ministries are often used by evangelical churches to promote rapid growth. Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago was founded in 1975 as a youth ministry, and now boasts an average worship attendance of 20,000 people each week (Wikipedia on Willow Creek).

By contrast, in the Unitarian Universalist church world — or indeed, in many liberal churches — we may become quite uncomfortable if “outsiders” begin to attend our youth groups. I have heard various reasons for this discomfort, and I’ll give you three such reasons (these are fictional reasons, but based on actual conversations I’ve had):– (1) The church is not able to expend human resources (volunteer or paid) or financial resources on “outside” youth; (2) The church faces legal and/or insurance trouble if “outside” youth are allowed to participate in church activities without written permission, and/or with parents/guardians present on church grounds; (3) The church cannot guarantee that “outside” youth will behave appropriately. That’s what some people say.

Personally, I’ve always supported the right of “outsiders” of any age to participate in the activities of any liberal church, although I do feel that children under 12 should be accompanied by parents or guardians during Sunday school because I think it’s better for the children to have parent involvement at that age. In previous churches I have served, we welcomed “outside” youth, about half of whom became pledging church members — and of course I am continuing that practice here in New Bedford. But I know there’s debate on the topic, and I’d love to hear from you — I’d like both your opinions on if and how your congregation should allow “outsiders” to participate, and whether you think youth ministry could or should be a way for liberal congregations to grow.

Defining youth ministry

A post on the youth advisor list serve alerted me to the fact that the Youth Office at the denominational headquarters is surveying youth advisors.

These denominational surveys are usually pretty boring. I was plodding along, not paying much attention as I clicked on questions like my age, gender (six choices on that one), whether I’m a member of my congregation, and so on. But then I got to a section and a question that required some thought:

12. Definition of Youth Ministry

As part of the Consultation on Ministry to and with Youth, we are trying to define what Youth Ministry means in a Unitarian Universalist context. Below is our first draft of a definition.

Unitarian Universalist youth ministry is a collaboration between youth and adults to create authentic, anti-racist, anti-oppressive,* multicultural, and intergenerational communities which empower and support:

  • The spiritual and religious development of youth
  • Mutual love, respect, and trust between and among youth and adults
  • Relationship-based ministry and support among youth
  • A youth-driven ministry of justice that calls all of us to live out our values in the world.

Like all ministry, ministry with youth is the responsibility of the whole congregation and the whole community.

“The great end in religious instruction…is not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own.” – William Ellery Channing

* Anti-racist and anti-oppressive communities are ones in which individuals actively work against individual and institutional racism and oppression while striving for safe, welcoming, and radically inclusive communities. The language of “anti-“ is used to emphasize the prevalence of oppression in the world. It is our calling as people of faith to actively dismantle oppression in Unitarian Universalist communities and the world at-large.

29. Looking at the definition above, what do you think Youth Ministry is?

I guess I was feeling crankier than usual. Here’s what I wrote in reply:

Well, your definition is very politically correct but it leaves me utterly cold. “Collaboration” — how cold. “Authentic communities” — any time you have to call them authentic, communities aren’t. “Religious development” — as if youth are like third world countries waiting to be developed. “Relationship-based” — I don’t even know what that means. Your definition simply doesn’t get at the emotional and spiritual depths of what religion and ministry have been in my experience.

First of all, ministry is all about love. You have to start there. And it doesn’t have to be “mutual love.” As a Universalist, I believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and that all human relationship tend towards love. Ministry is one process by which we can get to love.

Secondly, ministry always has a horizontal dimension (human community) and a vertical dimension (God, the divine, that which is larger than ourselves, the best that is in human nature). Ministry is a relationship that takes place, not just between you and me, but between you, me, and something larger than us.

Thirdly, in our tradition ministry implies a covenant, promises that you and I make to one another, and to something larger than ourselves. In our tradition, covenants are typically formed in congregations.

Fourthly, when you minister to me, one of the things you do is to help me find out what my ministry in the world is or will be. You do this through love — through holding me accountable to that which is greater than myself — and through the bonds of covenant.

But it’s all founded on love. For me, it’s the radical love taught by the rabbi known as Jesus — although I’m also deeply influenced by the practice of love taught by Siddhartha Gotama, called the Buddha. Whatever. It’s all about the love.

When you get to the end of this survey, you can see tabulated results [link], and you can even read what everyone else wrote in response to question 29 [link]. One respondent said that he/she wanted young people to grow up to become Unitarian Universalists, which I happen to agree with. One respondent said, “I’m pragmatically oriented, and those statements seems unnecessarily obtuse” (hear, hear). And one respondent quoted Kahlil Gibran: “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that his arrows go swift and far. Let your bending of the archer’s hand be for gladness; For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable”; which I felt was a nice addition to any definition of young people’s ministry.

How would you define “youth ministry”?