Challenge for Change: Envisioning Vital, Empowering Programs for Children and Youth

Children and Youth Engage

Last spring, UUSM launched an outreach and visioning effort to preface the arrival of our new director of Religious Exploration and our 2019–20 Religious Exploration programs for children and youth (CYRE). As a foundation, a Lifespan Religious Exploration Task Force conducted a survey to current and former registered CYRE families; receiving 20+ responses. This was followed by an impassioned, extended workshop attended by members of the LRE Task Force; members of the UUSM Board of Directors; active CYRE parents; and many members of the congregation who have taught CYRE in the past.

The survey covered families’ motivations for joining RE (as well as barriers to attendance) and asked respondents to call out specific programs to make recommendations. The overarching reason parents gave for why they wanted to bring their children to LRE was to experience shared values. The UU seven Principles bring us together to be part of something bigger than ourselves and our extended family, a community that encourages personal growth and social responsibility.

Some parents requested less classwork on Sundays and increased social justice activities (e.g., field trips to the food bank and animal shelter); overall a more experiential program. Several respondents called out the Our Whole Lives (OWL) lifespan sexuality education program, which enjoys enthusiastic support throughout the church and a strong volunteer team.

We know from weekly headcounts that CYRE attendance has steadily declined since the change in ministers in 2016. The parents surveyed confirmed that sparse attendance breeds further decline. Some envisioned the CYRE program as a space where kids and teens build community amongst themselves

UUA-facilitated workshop

On June 2, Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, from the UUA Pacific Western Region Congregational Life Staff, facilitated the 6-hour CYRE workshop. Thanks go to the entire LRE Task Force for organizing the survey and the workshop (including lunch!): Beth Brownlie, Kelly Hatfield, Nick Henning, Teri Lucas, Eileen McCormack, Erik Paesel, and JoAn Peters.

About 45 congregants came together to collaborate on a new vision of what our RE program could mean for children and youth. But most of the discussion centered on where we are currently, and what our strengths and needs are now. The group spent a lot of time sharing gratitudes and disappointments for what the program has been over the past 3 years.

At the end of the workshop, shared priorities emerged along with terrific ideas for what the CYRE program could look like. These goals will shape the program under Director of Religious Exploration Cleo Anderson, and inform the leadership of our incoming developmental minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Kalendae.

What is our story?

Our role in relating the seven Principles forms the basis of the CYRE program and activities. The workshop explored UUSM’s current assets and needs, initiating an outpouring of gratitude and clear expressions of where needs have not been met.

The OWL program and the strong corps of RE teachers and volunteers who love our children well were named two of the greatest assets of the CYRE program. Our exemplary and well-maintained campus, space for kids with different abilities and needs, and the congregation’s financial support were also highlighted.

Social justice activities that welcome children were highly valued, as was exploration of different faiths. But the latter brought out a pain point: some attendees felt that lessons on appreciating a diversity of religious views aren’t always practiced by the congregation. Some youth have had negative experiences at church; the church has a strong and vocal cohort of aging members; and the current collapse in CYRE attendance – these are all barriers to a successful and enjoyable program.

A clear need was expressed for more children and youth, and more-committed children and youth. The workshop group envisioned a program rich enough to draw in and retain kids. Specific suggestions included a higher level of evangelism along with marketing and outreach; more inclusion of children and families at services, particularly at the beginning of services; and helping kids to feel empowered where social justice issues are concerned.

Fortunately, UUSM does have dedicated families who remain excited about and committed to CYRE, as well as a small pool of congregational families whose children do not currently attend regularly (potential attendees). The congregation as a whole does see the need for relevance in the lives of the next generation.

Lift every voice and sing!

After taking stock, the group was asked to envision the future of our CYRE program. Numerous images coalesced into seven.

What would a wildly successful Religious Exploration program for children and youth look like?

  • Kids are excited to participate; enthusiasm.
  • Kids are leaders in our community.
  • Kids are practicing the seven Principles outside of church.
  • Kids are inspired to find meaning in life and live lives of meaning.
  • Kids are connected to each other.
  • Kids have tools for dealing with conflict and difference.
  •  UUSM has a whole-congregation commitment to children and youth.

In implementing the CYRE program and living the life, what are our most heartfelt priorities? The group consensed strongly on kindness.

What values are important to our CYRE program?

  • Community
  • Inclusion
  • Kindness; compassion; empathy
  • Respect; openness; listening
  • Respect for diversity and diverse beliefs

New directions?

This final part of the workshop explored individual and group commitments and strategized some next moves. There was such a wealth of suggestions, the remaining participants were invited to write down specific ideas.

The LRE Task Force will work with volunteers and staff to plan active, engaging programs, now and throughout 2019–20. The new DRE and minister will be encouraged to experiment with Sunday services to engage children and youth. We will seek to support parents and teens, as their need is as great now as it has ever been. The congregation will be asked to engage, as much as possible, in multigenerational programs.

UUSM leaders and RE volunteers are inspired to seize opportunity from crisis, and they seek to communicate strategies and shared priorities to the congregation at large. Beyond the congregation, they plan to continue outreach and to emphasize opportunities for families in the upcoming website redesign. Finally, UUSM’s new DRE and new minister bring the enthusiasm of youth, and will add fresh perspectives to our “challenge for change.”

 – Eileen McCormack and Erik Paesel
with thanks to the entire LRE Task Force

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