What is a Con? Cons, short for Conferences, are gatherings of Unitarian Universalist youth or young adults from many congregations, usually for a weekend of immersion worship, workshops, and crazy fun. Cons are incredibly important in the faith development of so many of our youth, and are a deeply loved part of UU Religious Education culture.
Why should youth go to a Con? The main reason I think they are important for our youth is for them to form connections to Unitarian Universalism that are larger than the local congregation. We can tend to be very isolated in our little congregations, but how likely is it that our youth will stay put in the same community that they grew up in once they are adults? In all likelihood they will move somewhere else, and if they are to continue in their UU faith they will need to join a new congregation. That new congregation will be different – perhaps profoundly different – from the one they grew up in.
Cons are also different from the local experience, and the relationships formed at Cons can be bridges for our youth. I’ve seen graduates of our youth programs who were headed off to another town for college find friends right away because they knew other youth through Cons who were also going to that college. I’ve also seen that youth who went to a lot of Cons or other immersion Big UU experiences (GA, DA, leadership school, etc) are more likely to connect with the congregation in their new town when they move away from home.
Similarly, the Young Adult groups and Cons can be a vital place of support for young adults who have just moved off on their own and don’t have a support network yet, and can be an important bridge when the culture of their new congregation doesn’t seem very young.
This is why it is a priority for me to get youth to Cons whenever we can – this is why I spent my weekend chaperoning middle schoolers to a Con for the last three days.
But here’s a personal confession: I don’t enjoy Cons, myself. As a bit of an introvert and a quiet/reflective type (and a morning person who is decidedly NOT a night owl) I can find them overwhelming and exhausting. There are ways for introverts or morning people like me to adapt and cope (quiet cabins, there being an early and a late worship, etc), but there is an important distinction to be made. Cons are not Retreats. I LOVE retreats. I love the quiet. I love the slow and intentional pacing that emphasizes lots of time for introspection. That is not what I experience at a Con. Cons are great for extroverts and night owls and folks should know that when they are sending their youth. Not that an introvert can’t have fun at a Con – they can – but the organizers and planners and the chaperones should be thinking about ways for those introverts to connect while still honoring their own need for quiet.
Just as worship will never meet everyone’s needs perfectly all the time, these immersion experiences won’t either. That’s why we need a mix – a mix in our worship services and a mix in the immersion experiences we offer. Cons and Retreats, assemblies and demonstrations, witnessing and pilgrimages – we need to offer all of that to our youth (and adults!). And we need to try things out that aren’t necessarily our perfect cup of tea. I attend the Cons and take youth to Cons, even though it is not always just right for me. And I get something really good out of that, both as it stretches me and as I find unexpected moments of fun and connection or even of Grace. Similarly, extroverts who love Cons should also try the quiet of a Retreat or the sometimes dull-seeming routine of a traditional worship service, because they will experience both growth and possibly surprising moments of enjoyment.
There really is a big world of UUism out there, and youth (and adults) should be experiencing as much of it as possible.