Engaging Younger Generations in Your Congregation–Who Gets To Vote?

When I served congregations as an Minister of Religious Education I had regular discussions with Middle School Youth Coming of Age participants about the requirements for membership in Unitarian Universalist Congregations. I always sent pledge materials to our High School students too. These were just two ways I could begin the conversation about what is required of individuals when they join a congregation.

I have to admit I had a motive. I worked with the High School youth group. There was nothing to compel them to be there each week. I wanted them to decide that part of being a congregation member meant that you showed up. I wanted them to decide they had a responsibility to the rest of their community.

We always had lively discussions. One particular group decided that to be a member

  1. You showed up every Sunday.
  2. You brought your children to Sunday School every Sunday.
  3. You pledged 3 – 5% of your gross income.
  4. You contributed to the community by volunteering, inside and outside the walls of the congregation.
  5. Adults attended worship each Sunday as their Religious Education.

The only thing we had to discuss in depth was the pledging. They thought it was unfair to require a contribution since not everyone had money, until we discussed a percentage of income. I could see their minds working on how much of their income they could contribute.

Then one of the youth asked, “Can we join, can we become members?”. The by-laws stated that at age 16 or upon completion of an approved Coming of Age Program, youth could become members. So I told them Yes.

When we had completed the Coming of Age Program, those youth who decided to join the congregation participated in the joining ceremony on a Sunday Morning. The ceremony was the same one we used with all new members. We said our words of covenant together.

In the weeks that followed the ceremony I had two questions from these youth. “When do we get our permanent nametags? “And “When will I receive my pledge form?”

These young people were full and recognized members of this congregation. They knew they had a voice and a responsibility. They had to show up, pledge, volunteer, and continue their faith development. They attended worship services. They would and will go on to be leaders in the congregations in the communities of their future. This congregation opened itself to the youth as full members and in a profound way the youth taught the congregation what it meant to be a member.

I cringe when I see congregations cut youth and young adults from their membership rolls because they cost money. I cringe when I see congregations discourage youth and young adults from joining because they will not be there that long. These young people are both our future and our present. We need their leadership now. To cut youth as members or discourage membership because of money and mobile lives sends them the message that they do not belong. They are unable to play leadership roles in congregations because they are not members. They cannot be leaders in the larger denomination if they are not congregational members. I would venture a guess that the youth and young adults that choose membership in congregations grew up in congregations and know how to be leaders. They have been taught how to worship, plan an event, conduct a meeting, the joy of conflict, to articulate their ideals and most important, how to be a Unitarian Universalist living their faith in the world. Why will they join later on in life when we do not let them fully participate now?

Teaching individuals how to be members of our congregations is one of the most important things we do. We tell them what is required. We teach them how to participate in our communities and we train them to be leaders. Our faith desperately needs our youth and young adults. They know how to be members of our congregations and we can let them lead us.

To learn more about Unitarian Universalist Ministry with Youth and Young Adults: http://www.uua.org/re/youth/index.shtml

For more information about the UUA’s Annual Program Fund: www.uua.org/giving/apf

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