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”?

5 thoughts on “Defining youth ministry

  1. StevenR

    the “youth ministry working defination” is one of the most silliest things i’ve read… and I’m sure wanting to rant….but to stay on topic:
    to me, “Youth Ministry” is preparing youth to be the adults and the adult UUs of the future.

  2. chutney

    Seems like there must be some PC statement generator on the web they might have pulled this off of. Or, could have gotten a better one from.

    How about we challenge our youth and youth leaders to do something they don’t already agree with? I really don’t understand how ARAO work got to be equated with youth ministry. Don’t they realize it’s not 1995 anymore? I thought they were supposed to be on the cutting edge.

    Why isn’t there anything about learning about our movement and finding there place within it? Is there anything at all in this statement that indicates it is uniquely Unitarian? If this is all they’re going to do, why don’t they just leave and join the Green Party?

  3. Pingback: Ok, so the anti-racism anti-opression stuff… « Spirituality and Sunflowers

  4. Jean

    I suppose, as a teacher, I can weigh in on this. I consider what I do in the classroom to be a kind of ministry. I teach out of a love for the subject matter — writing — and a love for my students. There is a vertical dimension here — writing is something bigger than us; and a horizontal — me and the students.

    But I don’t think of this teaching/ministry as necessarily preparing my students for something in the future. Publication, say (which could be an equivalent to adulthood referenced in the previous post). I think of what I do as connecting to who my students are right here, right now, and helping them learn who they are, and become most like themselves through writing. We strive toward an authentic voice on the page, their voice; we strive toward discovering the authentic intentions of their writing. Why do you write, I ask early on, and throughout the course, and then again at the end. Why do you write? It isn’t solely to “become” something or someone different. To stress the becoming sends a message that who they are now — their “being” — is not as worthy as it will be when they are done with my course. So writing is about discovering who they are, in part; of course, in that process of writing, and learning what writing can do, a growing process begins which does in fact change my students. So even as they are discovering who they are (being) they are acquiring new skills, ideas, and experiences which change them (becoming).

    And yeah, it does all start with love. It is amazing that this is so, even in a classroom, but it is.

    – Jean

  5. Administrator

    StevenR — I agree that what you say can be a piece of youth ministry, although I’m also willing to welcome teens who just need a safe place at this stage in their lives, whether or not they stay in our tradition when they grow up.

    chutney — You ask: “I really don’t understand how A[nti] R[acism] A[anti] O[pression] work got to be equated with youth ministry.” I don’t have a definitive answer to your qeustion, but I can give a historical perspective. When Jen Devine became Youth Director at the UUA in 1997, she came into the job with a firm commitment to anti-racism work; a commitment which only deepend as she experienced just how racist (and classist) youth events could be at the denominational level. In her commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression work at the denominational level, I think Jen and her successors lost sight of the differences between denominational youth programming, and youth ministry in local congregations — particularly (1) the fact that some local congregations have done a good job at addressing racism while others are in complete denial that racism still exists, and (2) the huge difference between denominational programming where you see a few motivated, relatively wealthy youth once or twice a year, and doing youth ministry week in and week out in a local congregation.

    Jean — Thanks for an additional perspective; and yes, teaching can be a ministry. I disagree with equating publication with becoming an adult within a faith tradition — a better analogy would be around literacy: religious literacy, and knowing how to write well. I believe teachers, especially writing teachers, are indeed preparing young people for the future, for adulthood — while at the same time, like those in churches, they have to accept the young people exactly where they are now without thought of the future. I think it’s both-and, not either-or.

Comments are closed.