Apparently funding for continental youth leadership by the UUA will end in June 2008, according to a letter from the YRUU Steering Committee. As a former adult-at-large member of Youth Council with 15 years of experience in youth work in our denomination, I read this announcement with mixed feelings.
Recent directions in Young Religious Unitarian Universalists at the continental level have distressed me. For instance, I have disagreed with the prioritization of anti-racism and anti-oppression work above all other objectives, particularly given the methodology used by the training during the late 1990’s and early part of this decade. I have read with increasing dismay the conclusions of the Consultation to and with Youth on Youth Ministry, seeing between the lines a carefully scripted agenda.
Continental YRUU leadership was not perfect by any means. However, eliminating Youth Council and throwing the leadership of our movement to the district and congregational level is a mistake. Youth ministry depends heavily on the encouragement and sustaining of strong leaders, both youth and adult. A congregation can consider itself fortunate to have more than one such leader. Even districts can be challenged to find people willing to shoulder the burden of sustaining healthy and thriving youth programming.
I have been involved in the Youth Adult Committee of the Ohio-Meadville District for many years and consider it to be an example of a quality program of youth ministry. But, even our program has teetered occasionally, depending perhaps too heavily on the devotion of a handful of dedicated people who too often suffer burnout from the stress.
A key problem with this decision is that it disempowers a ministry that traditionally must fight for legitimacy. At the congregational and district levels, there exist too many people who fundamentally disagree with the philosophy of youth programming in our denomination and who constantly challenge our right to host conferences and other activities. Youth empowerment is not a universally accepted ideal in our denomination, even in a district with a solid record like mine. Continental Youth Council, even functioning less than effectively, provides a legitimacy — a recognition that the denomination supports our importance and our philosophy.
One point lost in this decision are the indirect benefits of the existence of continental youth leadership. Let me provide a personal example. Right now, there are a significant number of students pursuing Unitarian Universalist ministry at Meadville Lombard Theological School whose call came through their work in youth ministry. One fellow student served on Youth Council with me. Another I met at a YRUU Chaplain training. Many of us have experience as advisors. Who knows how many youth who have served on Youth Council have gone on to positions of leadership in our denomination who might not otherwise have done so?
Another point is one near and dear to my heart. As a writer of religious education curricula, I have advocated for many years that churches provide junior and senior high youth with more educational opportunities. I wish I had a dollar for every youth or advisor who said to me how sick they were of just coming to church every Sunday and doing nothing but checking in. Without a visible force of youth leadership at the continental level, I cannot see this situation improving. While moving the control of youth programming to the local levels sounds noble on paper, I fear that for many churches, this means that youth programming will wither and die. This is one reason why a group of us recently proposed the establishment of a youth ministry course at Meadville Lombard.
At this point, all I can do is continue to advocate for stronger youth ministry programming whenever I can. Wherever I go as minister, I plan to be directly involved with the youth of my church. I strongly promote that all seminarians and ministers consider a similar commitment.