Ministers: Get to Know YAs
UU ministers can have a tremendous impact on relationships between young adults in our churches. At a recent gathering of First Year Ministers, our staff sat down over lunch to chat with a few of these ministers who wanted to talk about young adult issues in depth. Our discussion included familiar themes about how to be more welcoming to young adults or how to connect with young adults in our congregations, and one thing that quickly emerged was that ministers can easily skip over a powerful and cost-effective first step: get to know the young adults in your congregation.
It’s so easy! As a minister, you probably already have office hours or get coffee with other members of the church, just invite some young adults to have the same conversations. Agree to attend one outing or meal with the young adults in your congregation each year. It doesn’t have to be a huge program commitment, because just demonstrating that you care enough about young adults to make time for us communicates so much about the church and who is welcome.
The simple act of having a conversation one-on-one can help our congregations move past a lot of obstacles that hinder our ability to do better young adult ministry. Because young adult ministry is so diverse, church leaders have to develop relationships with the younger folks are in our congregations to understand what would be a meaningful way for them to be involved in the church. The needs of young adults can range from campus ministry to small group ministry to family counseling and everything in between, and they can also shift over time. At the UUA, we often get emails from ministers or staff members that start out “I have some young adults every Sunday and I want to start a gr0up for them, what should I do?” Our response always starts by politely inquiring whether these young adults have actually been talked to, or whether assumptions are being made about what they want or need.
This brings up the second reason why relationships between young adults and ministers are important, which is that it can help break down the stereotypes and “otherness” that plague so many interactions with young adults. The experience of being overwhelmingly accosted or completely ignored at coffee hour is commonplace for young adults, and is often accompanied by questions like “So where are you in school?” or “When are you planning to have kids?” A relationship with a minister both helps young adults know that someone cares about who they are and also sets the tone for other adults in the church.
Finally, relationships with ministers can be strong anchors for young adults going through turbulent transitions. I often suggest ministers meet with youth who are graduating and bridging into young adulthood. Periodically checking-in with the young adults who grew up in your congregation keeps that connection alive, such as through short conversations when they are home for summer break, rather than letting it wither away over time and distance. The payoff from maintaining this kind of connection can be immense over time if we manage to hold onto another born or raised UU instead of adding to our dismal retention figures.
So what are you waiting for? Start small. Once this spring, you might decide to promote a brunch for young adults (with child care available!) that you will attend. Or seek out a young adult you often see but don’t know very well, and set up a time to talk to get to know them a little better. It is just as much a core part of your ministry as any other pastoral, justice or governance issue, and no act of reaching out in love is too small to matter.