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This year, our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, and I have been talking a lot about the congregation’s ministry to and with teenagers. He and members of our Children and Youth Religious Education Committee will be leading a town hall-style forum on youth ministry in our congregation next week. Since there’s also been a lot of conversation on the topic among people in our district, at the retreat of the district ministers last week I and a couple of colleagues shared models of how youth ministry looks in our congregations. I didn’t have enough time to talk about all of the programs at UUCPA because they are burgeoning.

A core of our youth ministry–and the part I’m most frequently involved in–is the proactive inclusion of teens in the leadership of the congregation. In the past few years, teenagers have been on the Board, Membership & Growth Committee, and Finance Committee, and have taught Children’s Religious Education. They are responsible for the wildly popular, very well-run Children’s Auction every year during the congregation’s auction, our biggest fundraiser. Rising 7th, 8th, and 9th graders can be CITs in our pilot Ecojustice Camp.

This year, two representatives from the “Purple Class,” early teens, made a proposal to the Board for $250 to install an experimental rain barrel on church property. The Board members listened carefully, asked good questions, and voted unanimously to support the project. In fact, none of this leadership development would be possible without the support of our adult leaders, who are enthusiastic about youth taking on leadership and treat them with the respect of any congregational leader, and accommodate the particular scheduling issues of teenagers. For example, our Board terms are three years, so if a teenager doesn’t come onto the Board until their junior year, they will probably not complete the term. The Board and Nominating Committee are fine with that.

One of the most important and visible leadership roles in the congregation is that of the Worship Associates (WAs): they write and deliver a 3-5-minute reflection, confer with the service leader to help choose the readings and music, play important roles during the service (speaking the chalice lighting words, etc.), and if the speaker is a guest, emcee and coordinate the entire service. The Worship Associate’s reflection is frequently the most meaningful part of the service for the rest of the congregation. This year we have ten WAs, three of whom are under 18. This is leadership development for the teens, but face it, it’s to the congregation’s benefit as they hear the insights of the youth leading the service, and to my benefit as the minister responsible for services. I’m always looking out for good Worship Associates, and these people are good. I have my eye on so many articulate, responsible young people for next year’s Worship Associate team that if I invited them all, we wouldn’t have enough adult representation among the WAs.

Youth ministry also, of course, takes the form of groups and classes especially for youth. A Senior High Youth Group, quite independent in its leadership though there are adult advisers, meets every Sunday night. Our Whole Lives (OWL), the sexuality curriculum that we teach at all age levels and make freely available to the wider community, also meets on Sunday evenings for the 7th-9th-grade level; it’s been so popular that we are planning to offer that level every year from now on. (We need more facilitators, so we’re hosting the upcoming training.) On alternate years, we have a Coming of Age group, mostly composed of 8th graders; this is one of those years, so I’ve led three of their Sunday-evening sessions, including the planning session for their ever-popular Sunday service, coming up on May 17. They articulate their own beliefs in a written credo (Do they believe in God? What are their values? What’s most meaningful to them?) The junior-high age kids also have a Sunday morning program–their curriculum is Neighboring Faiths, where they learn about other traditions through visits and interviews–and many attend both. Youth are welcome in Adult Religious Education classes, something I realize we need to make more explicit.

This July, nine teens are going on a service trip to Belize, where they’ll be doing real, needed work rooted in the longtime relationship one of our members (now a parent of a teenager) has there through the non-profit she co-founded, Teachers for a Better Belize. They will paint one primary school, help install solar panels on another, plant an environmentally-friendly demonstration garden at a third, and stock children’s books in the libraries of several schools; they’re currently soliciting book donations and raising the funds to ship the books and buy the supplies, and they successfully petitioned the Action Council and congregation to make this project the recipient of the 10% of our offering that we give to one justice partner each month (again: congregational support for youth ministry). In the process, they’ll learn about the culture of Belize’s poorest region, where most of the people are indigenous (Mayan in this case), like so many of the Latin American residents of our own area. In recent years, other service trips have taken teens to Los Angeles and New Orleans. One of Dan’s and my goals for this aspect of our program is to fund enough scholarships that travel costs are not a barrier to any teenager who wants to go.

One of the needs we perceive is family-based youth programming: church activities that teens and other family members, especially parents, can do together. Teens need space apart from their parents, and we provide that; but they also need to negotiate the changes in their relationships with their parents, and family-based programming helps facilitate that process. We’ve been thinking about what kind of Sunday evening worship we might create, for example, that would engage parents and teens while they are here for the increasing number of Sunday-evening groups. The Adult Religious Education Committee is looking at supporting this direction by offering more of its programs on Sunday evenings–the parents could go to them while the teens are in OWL, Coming of Age, and Senior High Youth Group.

All of this is a matter of saving lives and saving souls–not from Hell, since we’re Universalists, but from the earthly hell of fear, pain, and meaninglessness. Since long before Palo Alto’s woes hit the New York Times, our congregation has grappled with the stresses that our local culture puts on teenagers. They suffer a high level of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, worry incessantly about school, lose sight of passion and joy, and not surprisingly, report that the stress levels cause them physical pain, chronic sleep deprivation, and missed periods. How can we, as a faith community, ameliorate these problems and offer a counter-cultural alternative to the high-pressure world of Silicon Valley teenagers? We know that a positive peer group, connections with caring adults in and beyond their families, meaningful opportunities to serve the community, unconditional support for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and a religious community where they can search for truth and meaning are all developmental assets that help teenagers thrive. That’s what we’re doing when we do youth ministry.

I know the Town Hall participants and attendees will add more.

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Based on my own experiences, I accept it as a given that rich, lasting relationships can arise through online connections, via social media and the internet. On Sunday I’ll be talking about that and what it says about the nature of community, and asking how we might expand our sense of connection by using these technologies more as a congregation, just as many (almost all) of us are using them more in the rest of our lives.

How do you currently use social networking and the internet that would translate well to congregational life?

I heard a juicy bit of wisdom about religious communities on a radio story about the new release from Rovio, the makers of the Angry Birds video game for smartphones. Naturally, they are trying to replicate their success. Why is Angry Birds so phenomenally popular? The interviewee said that in addition to having “endearing characters,” it follows the formula known to successful game-makers of all types (in fact, the tag line for the board game Othello was almost exactly this): it is easy to learn but hard to master. So you get right into it, and then you want to keep at it, trying to improve, trying to get a high score or three stars or (in the case of a game like Othello) a strategy that will consistently beat your friends’. It makes it hard to put the phone down. I know this well from personal experience.

Definitely good advice for congregations. Getting acquainted has to be made easy enough that a newcomer can join in without climbing a steep learning curve, and there has to be enough depth (theological, philosophical, social) that people have reason stay for years, and preferably, for generations. And, of course, it also helps to have endearing characters.

From taking my car in for its oil change on Friday, I learned something about how to welcome people to a place that’s unfamiliar to them. I’ve never gone there before and it is rather a big sprawling place.  When I went to pick up my car, the service manager, without so much as a question from me, did not tell me the way to the billing desk but escorted me there, told me my car would be driven up to the front door in just a moment, told the person at the billing desk who I was, and gave me a friendly pat on the arm as she said, “See you in three months.” I felt like she was really happy to have my business (paltry though it was, especially for a car dealership whose bread and butter is definitely not oil changes) and I’ll be happy to go back there. So simple. No, I am not suggesting congregations provide valet parking (unless your parking lot is not in sight of your building, in which case you should seriously consider it). I’m saying, since I hope that we are happy to see newcomers and want them to be comfortable and come back, we should take a page from a Toyota dealership and treat them that way.

From donating blood, also on Friday, I was reminded that being able to give is deeply satisfying.  The keys to feeling that way are the knowledge that the gift is within my capabilities and concrete, vivid evidence that it is making a difference. I am never going to go into a burning building to save a life; knowing that I can save a life by giving a pint of my blood gives me the sense of being critically important that I imagine firefighters experience daily. Oh, and a third key was that it was a challenge, not something I could do so easily that it meant nothing. Translation, for us congregational leaders asking for time or money from members:  (1) Don’t ask for so little that the donation requires no real generosity from the giver. Being generous is a wonderful feeling, and they only get it when they’ve stretched.  (2) Don’t ask for so much that they can’t manage it, or they’ll feel terribly discouraged and as if they don’t belong. (3) Have a vision for our congregation, a vision of something of great worth that is realizable only by their donations, and show them the connection.  (If we  don’t have such a vision, we shouldn’t be asking for their money or time.)

From going to the Maker Faire Saturday, I learned that if we lose sight of our deep purpose, people will drift away. I enjoyed it, but it seemed much less focused on what it used to be all about, empowering people to make things, and more on showing them (or selling them) the things others had made. Boo. I can get that at any shopping mall.  I’ve proudly told people that my daughter has gone to every Maker Faire since her birth, starting at age two months and excepting only the year we were in Mexico. If it surrenders much more of its vision, I’m not so sure I’ll care anymore about preserving it as a family tradition.

Ah, the UU blogosphere’s a-popping with things I want to respond to at length, too much length for a comments box. Actually, one I want to respond to is a recent post by James Ishmael Ford, whose Monkey Mind blog doesn’t have comments boxes. I’ll get to that one next. Right now I’m meditating on my Palo Alto colleague Dan Harper’s post “Liberty and democracy in liberal religion.” It touches on a topic I think about a lot: the balance (or, equally, the tension) between individual liberty and the demands of community. My candidating sermon for the first church that called me, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rutland, Vermont, was about this challenge, titled with the words of the Vermont state motto: “Freedom and Unity.”

Dan writes, and I hope he won’t sic Righthaven on me,

[T]he major attraction to Unitarian Universalists for many people in our congregations is that no one can tell them what to believe or do, and this too is enshrined in the bylaws of the UUA, in the claim to a free and responsible search for truth, which is often restated in colloquial terms as “no one can tell me what to believe.” This last attitude is in close emotional alignment with the attitude that the government shouldn’t tell individuals what to what to do with their property.

In close alignment with it, but not at all the same thing. After all, I accept limits on what individuals can do with their property, while insisting on radical liberty to decide what I will believe (I’m pretty sure Dan does too). They are, however, two things we conflate often, and at our peril.

Dan thinks that many of the people who identify as UU theologically but don’t join a UU congregation–there are, by some counts, twice as many of them as actual members of our congregations–stay away because they “find themselves unwilling or unable to submit any of their individual theological liberty to the demands of being part of a democratically organized congregation.” I think this is probably true. Those who do not wish to submit in any way to the strictures of community–I’m thinking of extreme libertarians–will not want to join a congregation, even if they identify themselves as theologically UU.

But I see the congregation as a workshop, as rehearsal space, as practice fields, as a laboratory for the larger democracy, and so I’m focused more on the people who do come to our congregations, and yet who expect that they can pretty much have things the way they want them in that micro-society because of that “free and responsible search” stuff, and of course, that “inherent worth and dignity” stuff. I’m not sure if they are wrongly extrapolating from our freedom of theological belief. It is just as likely that the reason they aren’t very clear on the costs and benefits of different kinds of freedom is that the larger culture has so much trouble accepting a concept such as “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” We certainly don’t get “Your right to pour poison onto ‘your’ land ends where ‘your’ land includes an aquifer that lies under others’ land,” or our environmental laws would be very different. We are a much more civil-libertarian than communitarian society.

The distinction between things that are truly no one else’s business and things that do affect others substantially enough for them to deserve a say (namely, via government) is an essential one to make no matter what kind of society one lives in. It’s one with which our democracy, the democracy of the United States, still struggles. After all, it is not easy to agree on the answers to questions such as “Is whom one marries entirely a private choice, or do others get to restrict it?” “Is whether to carry a pregnancy to term entirely a private choice, or do others get to weigh in?” or even “Do I get to say anything I want to at Annual Meeting, or is some of what’s on my mind so destructive that I should bite my tongue?” That’s why we keep debating them. I don’t think we will ever resolve these questions once and for all, but if we accepted that they are not simple, but arise out of the tension between important values, we could approach them with a lot more clarity. Helping people to do that is very much in the job description of pastors, religious educators, and congregations.

Have we UUs given more attention to democratic structures than to theological liberty? I don’t think so. In any case, we definitely haven’t given them enough attention to make up for the confusion that reigns in a nation that is supposedly democratic but in which the prevailing definition of liberty is still license. No wonder people come into our churches saying “I can believe anything I want here!” and thinking it means “I can do anything I want here.” What are we here for if not to help them sort out the difference?

Tonight and tomorrow our congregation’s choir (and various other musicians, most of whom are congregation members and staff) is putting on a concert, A Nation of Immigrants. The centerpiece is a mass by our music director, Henry Mollicone, a noted composer who is also, this year, a composer-in-residence here at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. Ever since Henry became our music director, he has forged a connection between social justice and music. This piece, Misa de los Inmigrantes, alternates the elements of the Latin mass (here sung in Spanish) with narration, in English, telling the true story of a recent immigrant from Mexico. Another concert a few years ago featured his Beatitudes Mass, which also integrated interviews with real people, in this case homeless people; Henry stipulates that all proceeds from performances of this piece benefit the homeless. Tonight’s concert splits the proceeds between the Day Worker Center of Mountain View and UUCPA.

Music and justice are a natural fit for our congregation, and Henry has helped put them together in other ways, for example enthusiastically generating a list of pieces for a Coming Out Day service in which I requested that all of the music be by LGBT composers and librettists. I’ve been thinking about other ways to use our love of music, and the power music has to change hearts, to take it out beyond our worship services. How about a congregation-based Threshold Choir? Sending small groups to sing or play at hospitals, assisted-living facilities, shelters, or hospices? (As a teenager, I was very moved by caroling with my mom and a few other members of the New Haven Chorale at Yale-New Haven Hospital on Christmas Day.) Creating a group that sings songs of work, struggle, and peace? Creating musical groups whose membership intentionally combines members of the congregation and other groups such as recent immigrants (our area has a zillion), veterans (ditto), or people without homes (ditto)?

Our Sunday morning worship theme for the month of January is “home.”  We kick off the canvass this month as well, so I’m thinking a lot about the idea of one’s congregation as one’s home.  It’s a common enough metaphor, but what does it mean?  It depends on what “home” means.  If it means “comfort,” I’m not crazy about that being a primary quality of any congregation I belong to (and/or serve).    I want it to be comforting, absolutely, when we need to be comforted.  But not entirely comfortable.

Tangentially, but not unrelatedly, I’d like to pass along this New Year’s wish from the blog of a favorite writer of mine, Neil Gaiman: “May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness.  I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art–write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can.  And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”

I wish all those things for myself in 2011, and for anyone who reads this.  And now I am going to turn off the computer, go kiss two someones who think I’m wonderful (the feeling is mutual), and get some sleep in the hope that tomorrow morning I’ll be able to say some words as only I can say them, and so help my dear, beloved co-congregants to live as only they can.

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