The youth resolution and the Obama generation

I have made it a point to avoid Unitarian Universalist youth and young adults politics long these many years.

  1. Even when I was a teen, I thought youth groups were boring.
  2. If you dare criticize the acronym-heavy youth and young adults, you can expect to be condemned by them, or as often, by one of their Boomer surrogates.
  3. I have better things to do than mess with self-serving organizations.

But something needs to be said, and this is going to hurt a bit.

Plainly, I was glad to hear of the recent central defunding of youth ministries. Nothing quite replaces an over-weaned sense of entitlement than cutting the purse strings. So the logical response? Fund raising? Meetings? An alternative being organized? No: a resolution. And hand-wringing, as usual.

I don’t know what bothers me more: the Humphrey-era politics of the resolution or the Eighties-era identity politics full-disclosure bios of the organizers in the right-hand sidebar. At least the biographical blurbs show that one (perhaps both) of the organizers are too young to have come by this political model naturally. Unless the YRUU or CUUYAN owned a time machine. This only adds to my curiosity about its non-youth advisors or how inbred their political culture is.

The biggest story about youth in the United States today is their widespread support of Barack Obama for president. Do I need to draw parallels between the difference in organization, tone and rhetoric? Compare. Contrast. Discuss. Entitlement is out.

Or to connect a couple of the dots: self-empowered people don’t organize to get a resolution passed. Self-empowered people create institutions that create the desired goals, often with strong allies, and the resolutions are blessings at the end of the process. This leads to the next set of accomplishments with a larger and more “establishment” resource base.

So a friendly word: drop the resolutions and your grandparents’ politics and prove that you can respond to the criticisms levied against Unitarian Universalist youth and young adults. Until then, I’ll continue to believe that Teh Youth are nothing more than crybabies.

19 Replies to “The youth resolution and the Obama generation”

  1. My very first ministry (at the age of 25) was for a UU campus ministry, and I routinely found the young adults who were raised UU to be the most infuriating people to work with. They mocked other young adults who were somewhat more straight-laced in their appearance and politics, but who were nonetheless sincere seekers of liberal religion. I remember quite painfully a young Arab-American student of Syrian Orthodox Church background, who they mocked for his conservative clothing and interest in the Bible. They succeeded in driving him over to the Unity Church.

    The young adults I met who were raised UU very frequently had open hostility towards the congregations that were funding their retreats and cons. And their worship of their own youthful age was downright idolatrous. By their own estimate, nobody was as liberal, spiritually insightfull, or prophetic as they were. The local congregations (and any young adult who spent time in them) were described as conformist and fake. I now think that I was lucky when my district de-funded this campus ministry. At the time I felt betrayed, but in hindsight I see that it was a kind of mercy-killing.

    I now work in youth ministry for a church outside of the UUA, which has a Universalist theology. What I have begun to find is that all healthy youth ministry is local, congregational, integrated beyond its age cohort, and self-empowered. My youth frequently lead worship services for the whole congregation, and do so in ways that are both genuine to who they are, and true to a vision of a congregation where all members are equal (youth and adults are not competing for supremacy). They choose to speak at congregational business meetings, and recently voiced concerns about our camp program. Our youth choose to do service projects in a local soup kitchen, and have been inspired under their own initiative to raise money for peace-making efforts in Palestine. Our youth freely mix with the adult population of our congregation, are treated with respect, treat others with respect, and have little desire to wall themselves off. In June we will travel to DC for an urban ministry project, and the 9 participating youth asked 5 of their adult friends from the congregation to also participate. By being a single body, we are living the unity that so many UU’s speak about, but so few of us truly practice.

    I will celebrate the day when I see UU youth and young adults living this kind of unity, instead of behaving in “tribal fashions”, and grasping for some dubious endorsement from Beacon Street. The big secret is that you don’t need the blessings of the UUA headquarters. Organize effective ministry in your home congregations, and organize effective networks beyond these congregations. And if it truly is healthy, people will come, and folks like me will feel a need to even donate money and volunteer labor. The power is already yours.

  2. Scott, you’ve really hit on this very well, I think.

    If youth and young adults want to be empowered, they should raise their own money, train their own leaders, and build the power they need to be real players in the organization as a whole. Engaging other people’s self-interest is how the rest of us have to go around getting empowered; youth and young adults can’t have it both ways be saying they want to be empowered, but without any regard to others’ self-interest. Candid conversations about self-interest are the only honest way to relate to people. Where are those conversations happening?

    The problem with our youth and young adult programming — by and large — is that it’s an extra-concentrated version of what plagues the UUA as a whole. There’s an idolatry among us/them which we either fail to recognize, or recognize only long enough that such self-awareness can be added to the triumphalist litany of Things that Make Us Better than Other People. Exceptionalism is our species of sin.

  3. Hey Derek,

    My youth group is a lot like yours and is based in the suburbs of DC. (And much closer to the youth you describe than the youth Scott describes.) If there’s anythng you need in DC, or if you’d like to get together with some local youth and tell them about your project while you’re here, let me know.



  4. Self-empowered people create institutions that create the desired goals, often with strong allies, and the resolutions are blessings at the end of the process.


    I remember a hilarious meeting of the statewide board that funded our UCC/Disciples campus ministry a couple of years ago. They were voting about whether to become ONA (Open and Affirming — of LGBTs, for those who don’t speak congregationalist jargon fluently). There was much hand-wringing on the part of the middle-aged, straight, white people on the board. Their denominations weren’t all on board, so could they in good conscience vote yes? They themselves were a little conflicted — was it really ok? Could the board make the radical (*sigh*) step of affirming that gay people are human beings? (*double sigh*)

    I raised my hand and asked how many of our constituent ministries were themselves openly pro-LGBT. It turned out *all of them* were.

    And without further ado, the board voted courageously to lead our collection of ministries into the future by lamely voting in a resolution to do something we were already doing without their help.

    It’s no wonder mainline campus ministry is so dysfunctional. The greying “leadership” is about thirty years behind the times.

  5. I have been too busy with family issues to do much with this topic, hoping someone would be able to write what I thought instead. Glad to see you do such a better job that I would have.

    It does bear repeating that if this is such an important issue, why aren’t folks fund raising?

  6. h sofia @ 7 — I had a great experience as a Unitarian Universalist youth. We were integrated with the congregation, the associate minister was our youth advisor (and he was mentally healthy and not entitled, nor inclined to let anyone else be entitled). I’ve also had good experiences as an adult advisor, in local congregations where the youth not only attended youth group but also served on committees, taught Sunday school, and made financial contributions. And I had a pretty good experience as a young adult UU as well (although the older Baby Boomers were extremely adept at ignoring those of us born in the 1960s). I think part of the problem is that there is a noisy minority of youth and young adults who get listened to simply because they’re noisy — there are lots of good, solid youth and youth ministries out there, you just don’t hear from them.

    And Scott — not all UU youth are crybabies — most of the UU youth I’ve done ministry with over the past decade are great kids. I think the bigger problem, as you’ve hinted at, are the older adults, what you call “Boomer surrogates” (though they come younger than that), who use youth to push their own agendas.

  7. Hafidha, don’t get discouraged. Growing up UU was _awesome_. The issue under discussion here is a little separate–it’s just that sometimes the district/national young UU conference culture can be toxic. I mostly stuck to my local congregation and benefited tremendously from the upbringing it provided.

  8. @Dan. The situation hurts responsible, and even vulnerable, youth and young adults. But I think crybaby covers the reputation of their putative leadership pretty well. I’ll not withdraw the assertion.

    @h sofia. Things might be better in a decade and a half or more when the youth part of the dysfunction would come into play. But choose your local affiliations wisely. Which makes me think, where are the local leaders in correcting the Association-level dysfunction. Perhaps they gave up long ago? I’ll defer on this one.

  9. Thanks to everyone for what they’ve shared here! I’ve been so burned by my local UU experience that it’s left me bitter towards most everything religious at the moment, which is unprecedented for me. I feel much more spiritually lost than I did when I joined with the UUs just out of college. Not that I regret the past five years, but most of the lessons learned have been about the good intentions that pave the road to hell.

    Scott, I think you’re pretty dead-on in your observations of the resolution-happy politically heavy us-and-them environment of the UUA and its youth culture, in contrast to the actions of the self-empowered people that change the world. But I’d like to take it a bit further, because it still seems to me that the UUA was founded by the same kind of self-empowered people supporting Obama today. So what went wrong?

    It seems to me the problem is that, much as resolutions are rightfully blessings at the end of the process, institutions and their authority are likewise epiphenomena of the real world-shaping efforts. The major failing of the old-school liberal mentality seems to be its belief that the institutions themselves would continue cultivating the process, and democracy would keep them on task.

    But, much as you can’t help the environment *merely* by becoming head of the EPA, you can’t help religious seekers merely by winning an election in the UUA. It takes a deeper wisdom and good spirit to keep the institution and the work it represents running. And in the end, the good work chugs on through the sheer force of human good will, and it’s up to democratic institutions to keep up with that or be abandoned.

    What I see happening in the UUA is that they’re stuck in a downward spiral: the folks with the real power to change the world don’t waste their time fighting petty electoral struggles for denominational affirmation. But this simply cedes more electoral power to those for whom denominational affirmation is inappropriately important, making it an even bigger waste of time.

    Sure, this is a problem in any religious denomation, but usually there’s some larger common spiritual identity to help guide and sustain those communities through such all-too-human power struggles. But the UUA, with its overwhelmingly secular framework, seems to have cut to the chase in a single generation. As they say, the idea became an institution–Unitarian Universalism became the UUA–and the youth were taught how to be in good standing with the institution rather than how to carry on the idea.

    One of the things I love about Obama is that he doesn’t seem to be calling us to join an institution or party, so much as he’s calling us to be our better selves as a nation. Instead of demanding pride in the current American institution, he points us toward an idea of America we can be proud of again. He doesn’t make it about passing the right rules to fix the institution, but rather about doing the good work to carry on the torch of the idea. And that’s why he gets the massive following.

    I had to walk away from my local UU institutions because the politics were simply overwhelming; it’s gonna take a lot of time for me to heal enough to feel comfortable committing myself to any religious institution. But the whole experience has made me much more keenly aware of the religious ideas that are most important to me, the things that drive me to action even when I’m massively outvoted and unsupported. Obama taps into those “unitarian universalist” sentiments at the core of my being; too bad the Unitarian Universalists couldn’t.

  10. Bravo to Rev. Jack Ditch! Are there more ministers like you out there?

    I am a Senior Youth Group Advisor, and am also suddenly finding myself in the midst of a youth programming meltdown. A story not as told is the sudden decline in district-based youth programming, especially (shudder) in the home UU territory of New England. I, too, have found more excitement and empowerment at an Obama rally than at any GA or Continental-based youth program I have ever seen.

    What happened? We do not have the same youth as those who lead the merger of the U and the U. I see self-absorbed brats content to toss about endless acronyms, whine about being oppressed because they like to kiss girls AND boys (cry all the way to Brown when Daddy pays full tuition? Please…), and decline any true offers of leadership. I even heard two youth once argue about whose church was more historic (but I knew they were BOTH wrong, because neither had Channing’s candlesticks!) There are exceptions, of course, but they are father and fewer each passing year.

    This, of course, is part of a much larger problem. For a faith supposedly compatible with the five smooth stones of liberal religion, where is our continuously revealing revelation? We have been content to wallow about in a post merger adolescence, never having the guts to commit to anything resembling a faith. We just cobble together little bits of this and that into an unwieldly Frankenfaith (sure other faiths have done it, but at least with some semblance of elegance). We are made up of atheistic college professors, New Age repressed middle-aged lesbians, and some token people of color whom we fall all over to push into a guest preaching stint in the hopes that nobody will notice how bloody white we are.

    And we expect our youth to be more than whining ineffectuals?

    (Yes, I realize there is a certain irony here as I am whining. I can handle criticism.)

  11. As a college student and a 3rd generation UU, I’m questioning where the whiny crybaby label is coming from and who the kind of adults who’d post such stuff on a blog really think they are. I’ve read chalicechick’s blog for a while, especially her posts about her youth group, she has nothing but good things to say about the youth she advises.
    Yet, there is a Senior Youth Advisor who seems to believe that the youth he is supposed to be advising just whine. I say that in every religion you are going to have your self-righteous adults, youth and young adults…in any society and any fraction of a community. I point to the youth who mobilized heavily in support of Hurricane Katrina victims INCLUDING the Winchester UU youth group. Let’s also point to local youth groups who work within their communities to help out those less privileged than they are. And then let’s look at the youth groups who don’t really do anything except cater church functions. You know what’s behind all those groups? Adults. Different kinds of adults. Supportive adults, authoritative adults, and crybaby adults. Overprotective parents and hippie parents, atheists and deists, rich AND poor parents…so whose fault is it when the youth become stagnant?
    Especially when purse-strings get cut? Yeah, youth and young adults could and maybe should create their own institution…but there’s no real point to. I mean, why? For independence, revolution, change? None of those would come about in a new institution. What kind of religion refuses to support their youth? THEIR CHILDREN?
    And yes, I’m playing into your stereotype of “Attacking” except for the fact that no one can escape criticism and there have been other people who have attacked UU youth without real premise. Yeah, so the youth could rebel against the UUA and the UUA would deserve it. But these aren’t the 60s, and the “Baby Boomers” ya’ll have been attacking are actually your ages. They are the folks born in the 50s, 60s, and 70s who look at todays youth and say “I see self-absorbed brats content to toss about endless acronyms, whine about being oppressed because they like to kiss girls AND boys (cry all the way to Brown when Daddy pays full tuition? Please…)”.
    Were any of you involved in Continental Youth Programming? Continental Young Adult programming? I know a few names above mine were. Was it horrible? Did you leave feeling like all the youth you worked with had no intelligence and worked solely on emotion? Because when I bridged out (recently), I left feeling like I had accomplished something…I had learned, taught and experienced spirituality, friendship, and commitment. I learned how to speak in front of a crowd and I learned to speak knowing my opinion might be disregarded. Sure, some of the structures were messed up…but there’s a whole class of youth and young adults who feel the need to become ministers, DREs, Sunday School teachers and youth advisors. And if anyone deserves the title of an “agitator” ministers and pastors deserve it along with a bunch of other positive adjectives…

  12. Bravo to Rev. Jack Ditch! Are there more ministers like you out there?

    I’m a Universal Life Church minister; they’ll ordain ANYBODY. Which really takes the need for denominational affirmation out of the picture completely; you might find me doing something lousy just because I’m an imperfect human being, but you won’t find me doing anything lousy just because my church expects it (let alone because a church pays me to.)

    There are some super crappy ULC ministers, and some mediocre ones like me. But if you want to find the best ministers, you need look no farther than the best of your friends and family, for a healthy religious relationship works pretty much the same as healthy friendship and family, and the best friends and family manage to do it without any ordination at all!

    Many would lament the lack of quality control in the ULC, but I find these are often the same folks that revel in passing resolutions and otherwise casting judgment from their board rooms. For quality control, I recommend getting to know people as human beings, but this is far too time consuming and fraught with all the risks of human relationships for folks just looking to hire a pastor. And so, they get what they look for in abundance–people looking to be hired as pastors, willing to jump through credentialing hoops to get the job. But when it comes time to fire up self-empowered voluntary ministers to do the kind of work that only pays in love, they come up short.

    I don’t mean to tangent the rant about UUA youth into a rant about UUA ministers, but I see the same threads weaving through both. Each group proclaims their liberalism loudly while acting as insular, self-selective and self-righteous as their conservative equivalents, and there are plenty of churches across the political spectrum that exceed them in openly embracing all people, regardless of their flaws, out of reconciliatory love.

    Across religions both eastern and western, I’ve found that the wisest teachers encourage us to see ourselves in others and show them the love and forgiveness that we show to ourselves. Thus I say, UU youth would do well to see all youth as UU youth; UU ministers would do well to see all ministers as UU ministers; UUs would do well to see all people as UUs. Serve the world as if you were serving your own denomination, for only then will you be able to build a denomination that serves more than itself.

    In building themselves an institution with the power to credential and make resolutions regarding their religious identification, the first generation of UUs gave themselves exactly what they needed to avoid doing this. It’s not that I think they’re irredeemable merely by virtue of being an institution, it’s just that I don’t see anyone in a position of insititutional power pushing them in that direction. That might change at any time, but I ain’t holding my breath.

    And one final caveat, just cuz my words have been rather harsh: I’m as guilty of these things as the UUA, for sure. Were I a better minister, instead of running away, I’d be heaping them with praise for the good things they do manage to accomplish, since (like most religions) they’re full of good people. So take this all with the grain of salt you might take from someone talking about their ex-boyfriend: I’m talking about why my relationship with them went bad, not trying to hold myself as better than them. At worst, they were simply enablers of an addiction I’m presently fighting to overcome, and I’m harsh on them only because I gotta be harsh on myself.

  13. Bart – I’m 34, which hardly makes me a boomer who complains about whining brats. My negative opinions about the larger youth and young adult UU culture are born out of 2 years working for a UU district’s campus ministry programs (beginning at the age of 25), and 3 years as minister of a UU church in the Mid-West.

    I do hear you saying that no group is immune to self-righteous individuals, and that not all youth are like the ones I have talked about. I agree that this is absolutely true. However, I have found the larger culture of UU youth and young adult organizations to be dominated by unhealthy personalities enamored with their own superiority. For me it truly was a bad experience. Because there are many good youth, when I do youth and campus ministry, I keep it local, and no longer engage the larger dysfunctional system of UU youth and young adult organizations. Because I value the many excellent youth and young adults I’ve known, I do not want to network them with a larger system that has had such a negative effect on my opinion of liberal religion.

  14. What I have read here really got my fires going so to read my somewhat lengthy response do head over my blog. But just let me say I for the most part totally disagree with what I have just red here.

  15. Bart, I’m glad you commented. I do have to say, on the UUA level, my few direct experiences with the institution have been been more than a little disempowering. Shockingly so. I’ve been stunned by how easily it seems to happen. So much protectionism and lack of creativity. The same old words, over and over. I enjoy working with other young adults, and youth, esp. the ones who’ve been de-institutionalized or never exposed to it.

    I don’t think YRUU was the problem. I hope it will re-emerge as something else, because it was rife with problems, but I also wish the UUA would re-emerge as something else. But I don’t know what adults expect of the youth and young adults, except to be spitting images of themselves. Well, much of the time, they are.

  16. Going back to one of Scott’s original points of comparison with Sen. Obama’s mobilization of a movement-focus, I’d yearn for a healthy way to unleash the youth as a 1000 different churches in a 1000 different ways organic church planting movement. But I never hear this, not even from the youth who ought to be dreaming. They have bought into the myth, as stated above, that creating new “institutions” can only look and mean and be one way and they don’t, rightly, see the point of that without understanding that church, like campaigning, can be different from what they are used to. The ones who I suspect will understand the places where Scott and Derek, and I think I, are coming from are just the ones who could do it. Those who are too tied in to their UUA default mode and don’t see the liberation opportunity, won’t.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.