People often ask ministers about their call to this work, this life of ministry. The seed of my call was working with our teenage youth. I taught junior and senior high religious education classes in my church, wrote curricula, attended youth conferences and trainings, helped develop youth leaders through district and continental events and organizations, and simply listened. As a youth advisor, I met amazing people, many of whom I now see as congregational and denominational leaders, workers for justice, even other ministers.
When I entered seminary, I had to leave my youth work behind so that I could expand my base of experience and knowledge. A major element of the discernment process involves finding the direction of one’s ministry. Some people find their path in chaplaincy. Others find attraction in community ministry and lives of public service. Of course, many aspiring ministers pursue a dream of parish ministry, eventually serving as the spiritual leader of a congregation and speaking from our free pulpit with the prophetic voice spoken by generations of courageous forebears.
I now enter my first settled position, having been called to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland, Michigan. Unexpectedly, I find the cosmos wending full circle on one element of my ministry, calling me back to youth work. My new congregation stands poised to expand its outreach into the community, and I have every reason to believe that many new faces will cross our threshold in the coming years. In particular, I hope to build a lifelong learning ministry that attracts many children, youth, young adults, their families and friends.
New ministers face many demands and choosing where to devote their time and energy presents a daunting challenge. I have decided that among my commitments will be providing my leadership and energy to the Youth Group. And, beyond a broader emphasis on addressing the needs of young adults – be they students, single, young parents, mobile professionals – I hope to specifically focus on ensuring that youth and young adults in those tumultuous years know that they are loved, that this congregation cares about their spiritual development, and that we invite their active engagement.
Every year at General Assembly, I listen to the recounted history of the struggles of the Unitarian Universalist Association with anti-racism and anti-oppression. I cannot count the times I have read about and heard accounts of infamous events and actions in recent decades during which we learned in painful ways the hurt felt by people of color in our movement. The Unitarian Universalist Association continues to travel toward wholeness and must never forget its legacy of effort and growth.
We also possess a checkered past with regard to our youth ministries. One does not minister with youth long before hearing about past betrayal: the abdication of adult participation in the late 1960’s and 1970’s; the dismantling of Liberal Religious Youth in the early 1980’s; and the recent refocusing of efforts away from the directions taken by Young Religious Unitarian Universalists in the past 30 years.
At the Synergy Bridging ceremony at General Assembly in Charlotte on June 24, 2011, Betty Jeanne Reuters-Ward spoke of this most recent bend in the historical road of youth ministry. Her passionate words resonated with a visceral pain, much like the hurt I have heard for years from LRYers. As a long-time youth advisor, I shared Betty Jeanne’s emotions, and I felt that tightening in my chest of loss; that pang of grief for a life ended prematurely.
Our denomination has what can only be considered in my opinion a shocking record of failure to retain Unitarian Universalists as active congregational participants from youth into young adulthood. I have often heard estimates that 90% of our youth leave our churches as they bridge into young adulthood. Many never return.
I am enraged by this statistic. I seethe with fury that we, as a denomination, too often accept this effect as expected, even normal. I never want to lose any member of our churches for any reason. But to accept the loss of so many talented, loving, and dedicated people – most of whom were born and raised in our movement – without massive outcry and response i s appalling and unconscionable.
So, I am rededicating my effort to minister with youth. In my congregation, through denominational effort, through distance outreach and social networking, I will do whatever I can to minister with our youth. And, I call on each and every Unitarian Universalist minister to increase their commitment to this important ministry and to heal this history of disappointment and neglect. Meet with your youth groups. Help them learn more about worship and spiritual growth. Work with them on service projects. Dance, sing, and act; dream and envision; teach and be taught; empower them to lead. Be their ally. Sit with your youth in person and in spirit and guide them toward a lifelong love of our religion, commitment to our principles, and fellowship in our congregations.