Presentation on youth ministry

Presentation for youth ministry town hall meeting, Sunday, May 10, 10:30 and 12:15.

First, some definitions:

When I talk about “youth,” I mean persons in early and mid-adolescence. In our culture this usually means persons in middle school, typically in puberty and/or early adolescence — and persons in high school, typically in mid-adolescence.

When I talk about “ministry,” I mean that which we do here at UUCPA: doing the work of transforming ourselves, transforming each other, and transforming the world. And of course I mean to imply that such transformation is for the better!

Next, I’d like to review the state of youth ministry at UUCPA:

Here at UUCPA, we have a long history of boom/bust youth ministry. By this I mean that there will be an active high school youth group for a few years, then for a few years there will be no youth group, then we’ll repeat the cycle. I have heard of more than one instance of siblings in UUCPA, one of whom got to attend a robust high school youth group, and the other of whom did not. A similar pattern seems to prevail with our middle school youth.

This history goes back to about 1970. In the 1960s, UUCPA had a high school youth group with some 50 members, as well as a good-sized junior youth group. Then around 1970, the Baby Boom ended, and the number of youth began to drop. What appears to have happened is that our youth program never adapted to this new smaller size, so ever since the late 1970s we have seen a boom/bust cycle, with high school youth groups ranging between zero and ten youth.

That’s the history. What’s going on now?

When I arrived at UUCPA in 2009, we had a high school youth group with an average attendance of about ten, and for middle schoolers we had an every-other-year OWL sexuality education program, plus a Sunday school class that averaged about 8 young people. We had a drop-off in attendance that began in fifth grade, and increased as kids got older. Quite a few families left UUCPA entirely when their child entered high school.

Since then, the CYRE Committee and other volunteers and I have worked to stop that drop-off in attendance, and to hold on to families (not just youth, but whole families) when youth entered high school. We have done a pretty good job, such that in the past two years we have had to double the size of our youth programs to accommodate increased attendance.

Some of you may ask: What about the youth programs offered by the district, that is, by the northern California UU congregations? What’s their role in all this? We used to require teens in our Coming of Age program to attend the district Coming of Age program, but we stopped requiring that when our teens came back saying the district program felt like (and I paraphrase) not worth their time. There is also a district program of so-called “cons,” or district youth conventions, with about four cons a year and a week-long summer camp for high school, and two or three cons for middle school. A small number of our youth have found these programs to be excellent, a few others have not. There have been some recent developments in this program: the high school con program, after receiving criticism on safety procedures from the district staff and Board, decided to remove itself from the district umbrella, and set itself up as an independent entity; this just happened, so it’s hard to know how things will change. But for me the real point is that no district program was ever designed to offer total ministry support to our teens; and I feel we at UUCPA cannot abdicate our responsibility for our youth by shunting our youth off to district programs.

Let’s turn now to the question of programming, that is, the activities and programs that are offered for youth. I’ve been doing Unitarian Universalist youth ministry for two decades now. I feel that what we are seeing now is a new generation of young people, a generation that is significantly different from what I saw twenty years ago. Most importantly, the current generation is far more diverse; UU youth ministry used to mean upper middle class white kids, and that’s no longer no longer the case. Second of all, the current generation of young people tends to be less openly rebellious (on average) and more tolerant of differences; we are no longer in the 1960s youth rebellion. Third, I think we have finally realized that we cannot do youth ministry without providing ministry for the entire family of youth — our old approach was to provide programs aimed solely at youth while ignoring parents, but we have finally realized that we need to support whole families.

What I’m seeing is that the old model of youth ministry is showing its age. The old model of youth ministry can be summed up as follows: Create a group that’s just for youth, with a couple of hip young charismatic adults to hand out with the teens. Ground the program on a philosophy of “youth empowerment,” which assumes that youth are an oppressed class who need to be separated from adults. Have programming which emphasizes deep sharing of personal values using exercises derived from 1960s feminism and the 1970s human encounter movement. This old model worked very well in 1994, when I started doing UU youth ministry; this model still work extremely well for some white upper middle class kids; but I believe times have changed, and the old model is creaking at the joints. I’m now of the opinion that our UU youth ministry needs to grow and evolve to keep up with the times. And I think UUCPA’s youth programs are currently evolving to meet the changing ministry needs of a diverse youth population.

One thing we are doing is increasing the number and diversity of our youth programs, to meet diverse needs. We have a high school youth group for gr. 9-12. We have a Coming of Age program for gr. 8-9. We now offer OWL sexuality education for gr. 7-9 every year instead of every other year. We now have two very different Sunday school classes for gr. 6-8, to accommodate more youth and more diverse interests. We are beginning to see more middle schoolers in our Navigators scouting program. We now offer service trips for teens, and this summer we will have two service trips, one in-state, and one to Central America. We keep adding opportunities for youth to do ministry themselves within UUCPA, including serving as Sunday school teachers and worship associates. We have a few youth who have served on committees and on our Board of Trustees, which I think of partly as developing new leaders for the nonprofit world. We offer one or two discussion groups for parents of teens, none of which has been particularly popular, but we’re slowly learning what might work for parents. And with all this, we seem to have doubled the number of middle school and high school youth enrolled in our program in the last few years.


The question that I’m confronting, as your minister of religions education, is this: — What can we realistically do to meet the evolving needs of all these teens and their families?

Let me review things we already know:

a. Given that we have had to double the number of youth programs, we know that teens and their families generally like UUCPA and want to be here.

b. We do not currently serve all UUCPA teens equally well; I’d guess a quarter of our teens drift away (which is way better than the three quarters that used to drift away).

c. In an increasingly diverse world, a one-size-fits-all youth group no longer works.

d. We now have several compelling programs or ministries or opportunities for teens, including youth group, service trips, sexuality education, and leadership opportunities.

e. We could easily add additional youth ministries, as I’m seeing interest in additional youth programming that we don’t yet have, including sexuality education for high school teens, introductions to spiritual practices, more short-term programs about what it means to be a UU, outdoors adventure (how appropriate in a congregation of environmentalists!), a separate Senior Navigators scouting program for middle schoolers, etc.

f. We could do better at serving whole families. Families are trying to figure out what it means to be spiritual in a post-Christian world, and what it means to be spiritual in a world where almost everything can be bought and sold. They are trying to figure out what are appropriate boundaries, in a world of changing boundaries and norms.

g. And hovering in the background is always the specter of teen mental health. We all wonder how we can prevent risky behaviors like unprotected sex, substance abuse, and self-harm.


So back to the question — how much can we realistically take on? Which raises the question — what are the constraints on expanding our ministry with families with teens? I can think of at least three constraints.

(1) Space. Our youth program is already affecting other parts of UUCPA. With a second middle school class meeting in the library during the 9:30 service, we now have no place for any other meetings during that time. With two and sometimes three youth programs meeting on Sunday evening, we cut down on the number of rooms we can rent out to recitals, which provide much-needed income. If we increase our programs, we will affect even more UUCPA groups, and eat into rental income even more.

(2) Personnel. We have grown quickly, and we still don’t have enough adults who want to devote their volunteer hours to adolescent health and spiritual well-being. Most of our youth programs are understaffed. Some of our current volunteers tell me they are feeling burned out. This is a major constraint.

Let me say a word about adults who do ministry with youth. There’s this image people have that a youth advisor has to be hip, young, and charismatic. Not true. Charisma and youth do not automatically qualify someone to volunteer with teens. In fact, charismatic youth leaders are often poor team players, which usually leads to burn out. Another problem is that sexual predators tend to be charismatic, which unfortunately makes me wary of charisma in youth leaders.

So here’s what I look for in adults who volunteer directly with youth. Good youth leaders are: (a) team players; (b) reliable and trustworthy; (c) able to see youth ministry as both enjoyable and a way to make the world better; and (d) good youth leaders have strong connections with other adults at UUCPA so that we can weave youth into the fabric of life here. Our best youth volunteers at UUCPA have been parents, either empty-nesters, or those with younger kids anticipating what it will be like to have adolescents of their own.

Beyond youth advisors, and equally importantly, we need adults who can contribute by doing logistics work that does not require direct contact with youth. This role can be the best place for adults who don’t really like adolescents, who don’t have time, and/or are working through their own personal issues around things like sexuality and spirituality.

(3) The third constraint on growing our youth program is a question: What does the congregation really want? Over the last few years, I have been pushing pretty hard to expand youth ministry at UUCPA, to the point where I’ve been kind of annoying. I make no apologies for being annoying, as I believe passionately in supporting adolescent health and spirituality, and I believe I did the right thing in pointing out to you an array of possibilities to expand our ministry to and with teens. But I’ve accomplished that, and now it’s up to you, the congregation, to decide where to go from here. So this is the biggest constraint of all — what your priorities are.

At one extreme, this congregation could adopt adolescent health and spirituality, and support of teen families, as top priority. UUCPA could set an example in the community as an organization that treats teens as ends in themselves, persons with inherent dignity and respect. UUCPA could say that teens are more than partially-formed beings that must get into Stanford or Harvard in order to have true worth. UUCPA could be a presence to support teens and their families into becoming more fully human.

At the other extreme, it would be perfectly fine to ease our way back to where we were five years ago, when youth ministry was a low priority, with one small middle school class, biannual OWL program, and a small high school youth group (mind you, we would need to fix the boom/bust cycle of the youth group, but that’s a solvable problem). This would be more than adequate, because here in Silicon Valley there are a wealth of programs for youth and their families. We have limited time and energy, and it would be perfectly fine for us to set other priorities for this congregation — homelessness, affordable housing, anti-racism and anti-oppression work, climate justice, fair elections.

Mind you, this is not an either/or situation. This is an evolving situation. We have families in our congregations with lots of needs. And the world around us has even more needs. Which needs shall we prioritize? This is what the congregation has to decide for itself. And, honestly, the way we will know what has been decided is not by what we say here today. We will know what the congregation decides by watching where people decide to put their volunteer time, and whether they decide to devote their charitable donations to UUCPA — and by watching where lay leadership emerges. The reality is that if a core group of lay people decide to take leadership, they could sway the rest of the congregation to follow.


At this point, I think I really should expose my own biases, and say out loud my personal vision for youth ministry. Which I am not sure is entirely realistic.

We now have an enrollment of about 65 youth in the combined middle school and high school programs, and about 65 children in the younger grades, for a total enrollment of 130.

In my vision, we’d double that in about five years. That would give us children’s Sunday school at both services, plus maybe 4 youth programs meeting every Sunday evening. The youth programs would include a traditional youth group; a junior youth group; OWL sexuality education classes for middle and high school; youth support groups similar to our adult men’s and women’s groups; service trips; classes in a variety of topics for middle and high school; formalized leadership opportunities for teens in UUCPA committees; opportunities to serve as worship associates and Sunday school teachers; at least one domestic and one foreign service trip per year, plus multigenerational service opportunities within our own immediate community; active voting and pledging teen members of UUCPA; another Navigators scouting group aimed at middle school; an outing club for high schoolers to go on outdoor adventures; multiple parent support and discussion groups; more UUCPA summer programming aimed at youth; etc.

In my vision for the future, our programs for youth and their parents would support 125 teens and over 200 parents. The programs would provide support to families trying to raise healthy, ethical, and spiritually grounded teens who are deeply rooted in the practices of democratic institutions. We would, in fact, be raising the next generation of spiritually-grounded and humane social justice activists — young people who are ready to serve on the boards of nonprofit institutions, ready to speak out publicly against injustice and untruth, ready to take their place in the work of transforming the world — first by our side, then out in front leading the way.

But that’s only my vision, that is not your vision. What really matters is your vision. And I’m good either way — I really want to know what your priorities are.


This concludes the formal presentation. Now I’d like to throw things open. What questions do you have?

Handout on youth ministry