Goal-focused children and youth ministries

Let’s reimagine children and youth ministries for the mid-twenty-first century. What would a new vision look like?

Have fun and build community

Let’s reimagine children and youth ministries as a place where children and teens build community.

Let’s co-create ministries where kids learn how to do community by doing community. In this vision of our ministries with kids, it’s not a program separate from the rest of a congregation, it’s central to the congregation. Children and teens learn leadership skills that allow them to move into leadership roles in the congregation. They learn caregiving skills that allow them to reach out in pastoral ways to other persons. They learn how to engage in social justice together, and with responsible adults, through social education, social service, and direct action that reaches out to policy makers. Instead of preparing children and youth for doing religion in the future, adults engage with children and youth to do vital meaningful ministry in the here and now.

A proven way to build community among children and teens — among persons of all ages — is to have fun together. So as we reimagine our ministries with kids, we’ll take fun seriously. Having fun and playing together will become central to these ministries, and by extension to our entire religious community. This fun might include playing together, doing theatre and music and art together, eating meals together, and so on.

Many of these fun activities may seem like they don’t need a schooling framework to support them. However, we may find a schooling framework is useful. We have a legal and ethical responsibility to maintain certain kinds of safety for persons under age 18. A schooling framework can provide useful support to carry out these legal and ethical responsibilities — as long as we remember that the schooling framework must be both child- and youth-centered, and goal-focused.

Hone skills associated with liberal religion

Let’s reimagine our children and youth ministries as places to hone certain skills.

Some basic skills have long been associated with liberal religion. With our commitment to democracy, liberal religious congregations are natural places to teach and learn skills associated with non-profit leadership. (This is true for both kids and adults. For example, a past president of the California League of Women Voters told me that she learned how to do nonprofit leadership in her Unitarian Universalist congregation.) As we reimagine our children and youth ministries, we’ll think about how to teach kids basic leadership skills so that beginning in middle school they can start moving into congregational leadership roles — committee members, Sunday school teachers, members of the Board of Trustees, website co-managers, and so on (and these are all roles that I’ve seen teens successfully fill in my congregation).

One of my religious education mentors, Prof. Robert Pazmino, said that our goal should be to have a young person on every committee in the congregation — and that if we did so, we’d have to reimagine congregational governance in a positive way. Vote a teen onto the board of trustees, and it will invigorate the board while reminding board members that ongoing board development is a necessity for all board members (adults, too). Move a young person onto your congregation’s environmental action committee, since kids are the ones who are going see the worst effects of environmental disaster. Allow youth to become full voting members of the congregation, then either train them to navigate Robert’s Rules or come up with a more transparent way to do democratic process. Thus children and youth ministries should be a path to full participation in all the messy details of democracy.

Liberal religion has a long history of teaching interpersonal skills (knowing how to relate with family, with peers, and with persons beyond the family), and intrapersonal skills (knowing how to reflect on oneself and on one’s actions). Our congregations do more than the currently fashionable trend to “empathy education” — we also do practical interpersonal skills like making meals for people who are sick and writing cards to people who are grieving.

Liberal religion also has a long history of educating kids in basic group singing. When people sing together (even when we don’t sing particularly well!), something known as “entrainment” happens, where heart rates synchronize, which can positively affect human social interactions. Other lively arts have similar effects. So as we reimagine our children and youth ministries, we’ll want to include plenty of opportunities for full participation in various lively arts — including full participation in leading worship.

Learn the religious literacy needed in a multicultural democracy

Let’s reimagine children and youth ministries as a place to build religious literacy.

If we’re going to understand our neighbors in our multicultural democracy, we need to know more about them than the color of their skins, what languages they speak, and the foods they eat. Religious traditions and cultural traditions are intertwined, and religious identity is a key part of many people’s cultural identity. This includes those people who claim no religious identity at all (religion can even include such “secular” commitments as your job).

Understanding how religions shape us is an important part of understanding different cultures. It’s well known that most public schools in the U.S. do not adequately cover religion, in fear of violating the First Amendment injunction against state-supported religion. This means that our children and youth ministries are crucial for teaching our kids about the religions and religious identities of others. The American Academy of Religion has a set of excellent guidelines for religious literacy for gr. K-12 that can guide our teaching and learning in this area. (P.S. Most U.S. college graduates also need some basic religious literacy training, so we might want to start using the American Academy of Religion religious literacy guidelines for college graduates, too.)

Prepare UU kids to become UU adults, if they decide to do so

Finally, let’s reimagine our children and youth ministries as a place where UU kids can prepare to become UU adults, when they reach the age where they are capable of making their own decisions about their religious identity.

Our religious tradition is quite clear that each person makes their own decision about whether to become a Unitarian Universalist. This means that no one is actually born into Unitarian Universalism. You might be born into a Unitarian Universalist family, but it’s up to you to decide whether you want to continue as a Unitarian Universalist.

Sometimes, we Unitarian Universalists misinterpret this part of our religious tradition. I have literally heard Unitarian Universalist adults tell kids, “Now that you’re a teenager, we expect you to go away, and not come back until you have your own kids.” And I know teenagers who interpreted this to mean, “Go away, we don’t want you.” A first step in retaining our kids is to make sure we provide a place for them in our congregations through their teen and young adult years.

But we also lose our kids because we often do a poor job of preparing kids to become full members of our congregations. People are not born knowing how to participate in congregations like ours. We have to teach them.

Our children and youth ministries need to be places where we educate our kids how to be part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. We need to teach some basic skills: how we govern and fund ourselves; how we manage our local religious communities; how we coordinate with other Unitarian Universalist congregations. We also need to explore our shared values, our social justice commitments, and our hopes for how we will behave to one another.

(Actually, we often do a poor job of preparing adults to enter our congregations, which means that many Unitarian Universalist parents are poorly prepared to educate their children on how to become members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. This may mean we have to improve how we prepare our adults to become Unitarian Universalists, too.)

What is this, anyway? Religious education? Faith development? Sunday school? Something else?…

Sometimes our ministries with children and youth look like summer camp. Sometimes it looks like a children’s museum. Sometimes they look like the local children’s library. Sometimes they look like a maker space. Sometimes they look arts programs. Sometimes they look like scouting programs. Sometimes they look like small group ministries. Sometimes they look like racial justice and social justice. Sometimes they look like worship services. Sometimes our children and youth ministries might even look like a class, as with such key programs as Our Whole Lives sexuality education classes.

We also encourage children and youth ministries to spill over into the family, and the family to spill over into children and youth ministries. We’re not trying to separate children and youth from anything.

Is what we do schooling? Maybe yes, maybe no. It’s most definitely NOT traditional classroom schooling. Our children and youth ministries don’t look like school because we don’t do testing (though we may do other kinds of assessment, often as a group), and we avoid the factory model of schooling. But our children and youth ministries sometimes do look like school because we have adult leaders, and we have special safety rules in place for persons under age 18. And our children and youth ministries often do look like the kind of schooling as envisioned by progressive thinkers like Maxine Grene (Diversity and Inclusion), bell hooks (Teaching To Trangress), and Maria Harris (Fashion Me a People).

To paraphrase John Dewey, another progressive educator, our kind of schooling is not preparation for life, our kind of schooling is life itself. We learn by doing. We learn democracy by doing democracy. We learn self-knowledge by exploring our own selves right here and now. We do social emotional learning in real time, in real groups of people. This is not schooling or education that’s removed from real life — this is full participation in life in this present moment.

Using the curriculum on this website

The curriculum guides on this website are designed to help you fulfill this vision of children and youth ministries. These curriculum guides will be most helpful in children and youth ministries that look more like schooling (Sunday school, day camps, Coming of Age programs, etc.).

To help those new to teaching, the curriculum guides include fully scripted lesson plans. However, experienced teachers may prefer to create their own lesson plan. Experienced teachers will find useful teaching resources, along with stated educational goals and objectives to guide them in their creation of their own lesson plans.

If you’re a new teacher, a useful analogy might be thinking of curriculum guides as if they were musical scores. New teachers are like musicians who want a score with their part fully written out. Experienced teachers, on the other hand, are like musicians who only need a lead sheet that shows the basic melody and harmonic structure from which they can improvise.