UU youth show congregational leadership
by Donald E. Skinner
At 18, Jessie Pounds is the youngest member of the committee on ministry at the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Her age and inexperience has come to be an asset. “Sometimes I don't understand the lingo and so I'll be the first one to ask a question,” she says, “and then we'll realize that many of us didn't know what that meant either.”
Pounds is involved in many ways with her congregation. With other youth, she's doing oral history interviews with members. Last summer she and her mother attended a Unitarian Universalist Service Committee work camp, and now they're enlisting support at Oak Ridge and nearby Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church for local migrant worker aid projects.
For many UU youth the weekly youth group meeting is enough. For others, it's just a beginning. They, like Pounds, thrive on active involvement in congregational life. Their involvement helps them grow and it benefits the congregation as well.
“I seem to connect really strongly with a lot of adults,” Pounds says. “At the work camp last summer my favorite person was eighty, and we got along great. And being involved with all these projects at church just helps me feel more connected.”
The Rev. Jake Morrill asked Pounds to be on the committee on ministry because he wanted every generation in the congregation to be represented. He notes that he grew up in the Tennessee Valley church and was himself a member of its board of trustees while in high school. “Jessie is wise beyond her years,” he says. “Her presentations on the work camp have sparked lots of conversation. On the committee she helps keep everybody on track. She brings the youth perspective, but she's also very comfortable talking about wider church issues. She asks good questions.”
At the North Parish of North Andover, Massachusetts, Elise Forcino, 17, wanted to be part of a small group where she could have contact with older adults. So she started one. Until then, the small group ministry program at North Parish had been just for adults. “I didn't think that was fair,” she says. With encouragement from the Rev. Lee Bluemel, Forcino formed a small covenant-type group that meets twice a month. Topics have included “Summer Journeys,” “What is God?,” and “Death, Dying, and Living.” Forcino says, “You get so many different perspectives when youth and adults are together. We've had some great sharing. And I find that youth often challenge adult beliefs, and vice versa.”
“This is a place where youth learn leadership and how to be part of a community and discover what it is they are called to do in the world,” Gail Forsyth-Vail, North Parish director of religious education, says of the congregation. Its Youth Adult Council (YAC), a standing committee of youth and adults, participates in parish decision-making. “The YAC spends a lot of time identifying, nurturing, and supporting emerging leadership,” she says.
“Our youth are incredibly well-integrated here,” says Forsyth-Vail. “They are in the choir, on the worship team, and in social action groups. Part of this is because the congregation has an expectation that youth will be involved. And it is willing to put money and volunteer time into our ministry with youth.” Youth are often involved as presenters in lay-led services. Most recently they offered their perspectives as part of the All Souls Day and Love Makes a Family services. “Once you start to involve youth in that way it takes on a life of its own,” said Forsyth-Vail. “Youth see other youth speaking from the pulpit and they know they can do it too.”
Forcino, a high school junior, and Dan Brosnan, a sophomore, both participated in the Lawrence, Massachusetts, Teen Coalition, which teaches leadership skills. Brosnan used what he learned to help create a Spanish-language radio public service announcement about teen pregnancy prevention. “After the training, I saw the pregnancy issue differently,” he said, “and I learned how to organize groups of people.” He also participated in a domestic violence teach-in and is using his new skills in his North Parish youth group and Youth Adult Council.
At the First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, Youth Program Director Marni Kaplan Earle says youth want to share their gifts, but sometimes need to be invited. Being comfortable in their youth group is a necessary first step. And there are others who may not connect with youth programming but thrive on helping with worship or social justice projects or other church events. When a youth delivering his religious credo at a First Parish Coming of Age ceremony made the observation to the adults in the audience that “You get to hear what we believe, but we never get to hear what you believe,” it triggered an adult/youth connection that is continuing.
The congregation's Youth Advisory Council facilitated an annual “spirit circle” with members of a men's group and the youth group. The thirty to forty participants talk about religion, life, and current events. “At the first spirit circle the men started the ball rolling, but by the end of the night many youth had stepped up to the plate, grabbed the spirit stick and opened up on a very spiritual level,” says Susanna Medoff, a high school senior and member of the Youth Adult Council. “Weeks later my friends and I were still talking about the insightful comments that were made. We were all Unitarian Universalists in that circle, and it was really interesting to see how we all got there.”
She adds, “When the topic of the Iraq war came up in the circle there were multiple viewpoints, and it was interesting how our common UU background made it easier to understand the different opinions. It was the kind of deep conversation you can't have at coffee hour.”
For four years Medoff has been First Parish's youth representative in the Boston City Year Serve-a-thon, an annual day of service by religious groups, corporations, community development groups, schools, and others. She was also part of a visioning process at First Parish for new youth guidelines. “It was comforting to see the concern and passion of adults about the youth group and that they were willing to stand up for us,” she says.
Caitlin Cotter, a high school senior, is on the board of trustees as well as on a religious educator search committee at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. “I like hanging out with the adults in my church,” she says. “The board sessions can be boring but also really exciting. And before I joined the search committee I thought the DRE was just someone who popped in to make sure we took roll. Now I know differently.”
What does Caitlin's presence add to the board? “I make people laugh,” she says. “And I remind them that we have a youth group that wants to be involved. My board experience is probably more about me growing than me contributing, but I do speak up when youth need to have a voice in something.”