The following is an imagined conversation between Rev. Paige Getty and Valerie Hsu, Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries, about youth ministry at UUCC. Its content covers topics we’ve discussed regularly over the past two months, and we share it with all the families of UUCC—regardless of whether there are youth in the family—who want to learn how better to support the youth of this congregation.
Valerie: The reason I want to talk to you today, Paige, is because as I understand it, UUCC made the decision to completely rethink what youth ministry looks like in the congregation before I came into this position of Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries two months ago. I want to hear about what led to this decision and discuss how I’m thinking about youth ministry at UUCC, now that I’ve got two months (and a haunted house!) under my belt.
Maybe let’s start by having you describe the way youth ministry has existed here.
Paige: Youth ministry at UUCC has looked like pretty traditional models of church youth ministry, centered around a youth group for grades 10-12 that met weekly called Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU). YRUU has operated on the school calendar and has participated in annual activities (like the haunted house in the fall and youth service in the spring) and an annual service trip to Appalachia.
Sometime in the past decade, youth ministry at UUCC fell into a routine with those key annual events. As students moved through the religious education (RE) pathway in their elementary and middle school years, they looked ahead to one day participating in those annual traditions when they reached their tenth grade year.
We never heard from the youth themselves about what identity and belonging at UUCC meant to them… what would actually help the youth grow into their full selves or would create real connections to the congregation.
Valerie: When I was growing up, I was not active in a youth group, and I envied my peers who were. I heard about the mission/service trips and lock-ins and inside jokes—all those stereotypical markers of youth group life—and I longed for the sort of camaraderie and belonging they described. YRUU sounds like it has offered all of those things through group projects like the haunted house. Why change it?
Paige: In the past year, the staff and board of UUCC launched a new set of Core Visions for the congregation. The first of those visions had to do with identity and belonging: We expressed a vision that members of all ages have a sense of belonging—they value UUCC and their Unitarian Universalist identity as top priorities and key connections in their lives.
Standard youth programming can certainly foster belonging during the high school years—sounds like that’s what your peers experienced in their high school youth groups. But we realized we never heard from the youth themselves about what identity and belonging at UUCC meant to them. We’d spent the past decade of youth programming doing things because that’s what had been done… or what was expected. We hadn’t stopped to find out if that’s what would actually help the youth grow into their full selves or would create real connections to the congregation.
Youth ministry at UUCC wasn’t unsuccessful, but we knew there was more that we could be doing, especially when it came to building deep relationships with and among the youth and engaging with the community outside of the congregation. And that’s how we came to recognize that we wanted to approach youth ministry through the lens of community organizing, not just congregational programming. What are the youth of Columbia missing in their lives that the UUCC community could step in and fill for them?
Valerie: It sounds like UUCC has a desire to see youth ministry expand beyond the bounds of traditional youth ministry, by adapting to the needs and desire of the community we’re serving. Is that why youth ministry has been moved out from under the RE umbrella?
Paige: Yes, we decided that we would not limit youth ministry to RE, because RE operates a certain way with classes, teachers, and curricula. Youth ministry at large and the YRUU youth group are more than another RE class. In fact, we shouldn’t think of it as a class to attend, the way that my kids are attending OWL and their Sunday morning grade-based classes.
Valerie: To me, youth ministry is all the ways the youth relate to each other and relate to the congregational community. Coming to a YRUU youth group gathering once a week on a Sunday evening is just one part of that—it’s simply one mechanism, one way for the youth to relate to each other and relate to the congregation. YRUU is not the entirety of youth ministry; it’s one part of it. I might even venture to say that maybe YRUU is only 10% of what youth ministry is. My goal is to activate the imaginations of the youth so that they can start imagining for themselves what they want the remaining 90% to look like.
Youth ministry is all the ways the youth relate to each other and relate to the congregational community.
Perhaps not all youth find that YRUU is an effective or meaningful way for them to relate to other people or to the congregation. And in that case, let’s listen to the youth and work together to discover what would actually be effective and meaningful for them.
That’s not to diminish the importance of YRUU—as a regular weekly gathering, YRUU is an opportunity we have to build a safe space for youth. It can be a grounding for youth who are pulled a hundred different directions with extracurriculars and feeling the burden of academic pressures, a safe and supported space to explore questions of identity and belief, and a nurturing community where those feelings of belonging to the congregation can start to take shape. The activities we do and discussions we have at YRUU should be youth-led; we adults are there to serve as sounding boards and mentors.
Paige: We want to see youth take ownership of their time in the congregation, just as any member of the congregation decides how they want to be involved, checking out the ministry booths at the Engagement Expo, etc. Whether or not they’ve “signed the book” officially, the youth of UUCC are vital to the life of this congregation, and we want them to feel like they are full members of the congregation.
What are the youth of Columbia missing in their lives that the UUCC community could step in and fill for them?
Valerie: Earlier in the conversation, you mentioned UUCC leadership’s desire to look at youth ministry through the lens of organizing. In my mind, that means that I am coming into this UUCC community to listen. Not to prescribe solutions or design programs—maybe that will come later—but to listen first.
It’s only through listening that we begin to build relationships that can result in the change we want to see in the world, because we’ve started to understand each other’s self-interests and motivations. Have you seen the new Bank of America ad campaign that asks, “What do you want the power to do?” That’s really what I want to find out from listening to the youth: What do you, the youth of UUCC, want the power to do both within the congregation and outside of it? And are you willing to build the relational power it will take to do it?
Paige: I think the youth know exactly what type of congregational community they want to be a part of. And they have the power to change this congregation—UUCC as it is—to become that congregation—UUCC as it should be—if they decide it’s important enough to them.