The one thing that inspires me to work with children and youth more than any other is the sheer boundlessness of their talent and insight. Whether I’m watching elementary-aged students design and implement a new UU holiday or realizing how deeply I’ve come to trust the lay leadership of a specific youth, there is always a moment when young people push right past boundaries I didn’t even know were there, and once again I have to expand my understanding of what is possible. I have to stretch.
While we as congregations affirm the importance of our children and youth, we also fall into the trap of believing, however subconsciously, that we are stewarding them toward a distant future of leadership and empowerment, when in fact they are perfectly capable of rising to meet a challenge now. Perhaps the conversation could stop there, with a grin, a headshake, and a “Silly us!” except for one problem: we’re the ones holding the keys to every single door.
Young people have a long history of being leaders and change agents in our denomination. This is one reason that the UUA recently transitioned the role of Youth Observer on the Board of Trustees to a full Youth Trustee position, complete with voting rights. Youth also serve in shared leadership with adults at events and trainings at the area, regional, and national levels. In fact, the Heartland Area, where we reside, has one of the most active and vibrant youth councils in the country. This year, three members hail from All Souls. Our own Grace Miller, who bridged in 2017, began stewarding many of Heartland’s current youth leaders when they were as young as 11. Yet all too often, adult UUs remain relatively unaware of the age spectrum of our leadership, and at the congregational level, our models are often far less empowerment-oriented than they could be.
When we underestimate our young people, we run the risk of constraining them. For example, when volunteering in Faith Formation classes, we may shy away from certain activities on the grounds that they seem too challenging, or that the kids don’t seem to be responding as enthusiastically as we’d hoped. Often, this moment of uncertainty is more visible than we intend it to be. It may also be amplified by nervousness or discomfort we carried to church with us. After all, for most of us our service in RE is unlike anything we do the rest of the week. The trouble is that our young people feel our hesitation and react to it by pulling back. Our doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we run the risk of “sitting on the treasure chest,” just as Diana Eck warns. In larger congregational life, this mindset leads us to accidentally close off relationship pathways, creating a stratified community instead of the interconnected web we envision.
The good news is that we can push past this, again by stretching. We can lead religious education classes with faith, enthusiasm, and conviction. We can make a habit of greeting children and youth by name, sitting with them at coffee hour when we could choose to sit elsewhere, and playing a board game with them at our annual fall retreat, just as we might with any other congregant. In fact, these are all things our teens require of youth and adults who attend their events!
“But I’m not comfortable with children!” you might be saying, and if you are, I ask you to pause for a moment and consider: is there a single other group at our church you’d feel comfortable singling out that way? Would you say, “I don’t talk to anyone over 60,” for example? So I encourage you to stretch. Push past your discomfort and relate to our young people not as a demographic, but as individuals. Listen to them. When they speak of aspirations or frustrations, ask yourself, “How can I support and empower this person? What information can I offer that will help them move forward?” Then ask them if they’d like company on the path.