There are times when our youth group is busy pursuing a more just world, or going deep with ideas and spirituality, or seeking to be of use to others in the world. And then there are times when we just get together and have fun! There’s a balance to it all.
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.
Ready or not, here it comes. “It” is of course, a new school year. The kids in my life (even my own homeschooled kids) are all making transitions this week: new schools, new classes, new teachers, new schedules, and of course all the new stuff that they need to do all those new things.
The church year follows the school year, and so we are in a transition here as well. My congregation is in a big transition at the moment, welcoming a new Interim Minister and going into a church year where we may do some things in new ways.
And the Religious Education program is in a time of transition as we try a brand new experiment for our Elementary grades – a new program I am calling Labyrinth Learning. What is Labyrinth Learning? It is a mixed grade (1st-6th) program. Labyrinth Learning has developed from the inspiration of the Way Cool Sunday School, Workshop Rotation, and Multiple Intelligences models of Unitarian Universalist Religious Education. It is a model that utilizes different learning styles so that children can self-select for what is best for their own learning, and generally emphasizes the experiential and relational nature of religious education and faith formation. And it is something brand new that we are creating for ourselves – so this is bound to be a transition and a grand adventure!
Other things will be new too: Coming of Age on Thursday evenings, a new rite-of-passage program for 6th grade, a 7 Principle program offered at our earlier worship service, and small group ministry model for high school youth group.
Are we ready? Mostly. The pencils are sharpened, the new bulletin board displays and posters are getting done, the volunteers are trained, the shopping list is in my purse, the registration packets are in the mail.
The transition is both scary and exciting. There is the unknown: how will it go? Will I make new friends? Did I put too much on my plate/schedule or is this just right? But there is also the satisfaction of newness: those spiffy classrooms waiting for the kids, those new backpacks, those empty binders waiting to be filled up. I love those signs of the new year about to unfold. I treasure that row of sharpened pencils and the potential they represent. What we will make with them? What will we learn? What fun will we have?
I cannot wait.
I’ve been listening to the audible edition of The Fault in Our Stars. You may be aware that this is a hugely popular book, with a movie version currently in the movie theaters. But did you know that this story is almost perfect for engaging young people in theological conversation? That this is a very UU friendly novel?
As I listened to the book I kept thinking – yes! this! we should talk about this! And, knowing that many of our congregants (probably ages 11-99) are reading this book, here is a discussion guide I put together for it:
A Discussion Guide for Unitarian Universalists reading
The Fault in Our Stars,
by John Green.
Created by Sara Lewis, CRE
Director of Lifespan Religious Education
Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation
- Death is a natural part of life. Unitarian Universalist minister, Forrest Church, wrote: “Death is not a curse to be outwitted no matter the cost. Death is the natural pivot on which life turns, without which life as we know it could not be.” What does a novel about death reveal about the truth of life?
- The Reverend Forrest Church died of cancer, and wrote a book called Love and Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow. He had a lot to say about death, and you can see excerpts here: http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/riddle/session6/sessionplan/stories/157217.shtml
- Do you think the author of The Fault in Our Stars would agree with the Rev. Forrest Church about death? Why or why not?
- Rev. Church says “religion is the human response to being alive and having to die”. But in The Fault in Our Stars neither Hazel nor Augustus turn to religion to explain their dying – why do you think that is?
- What is the significance of the words Always and Okay for the characters? What do those words imply? How do they relate to a comfort with uncertainty? Which word are you more comfortable with?
- How do Hazel and Augustus differ from other teens, other than that they both have cancer? Could they have been the way they were without being sick?
- What is the significance of The Imperial Affliction to Hazel Grace and why is she so obsessed with it? Is there any book that has that much importance to you? Why?
- Is Hazel’s and Augustus’s relationship deeper than most teenage love stories, or is it just compressed because they are short on time? Were they foolish to fall in love? Why or why not?
- Hazel and Augustus visit the Anne Frank house when they are in Amsterdam. How do their lives-cut-short compare to Anne Frank’s life-cut-short? Anne Frank’s diary revealed what many adults believed were unusually deep thoughts for someone her age, and Hazel and Augustus also have unusually deep thoughts for their age. Is it because they will die, or do you think everyone has deeper thoughts than we give them credit for?
- Augustus fantasizes about big ways to make his life count, or to make his death count, by saving other lives or some other grand gesture. In the end, he cannot fulfill that wish. For some people, Universalism means that God loves us all, no matter what, or that Love is for us all, not to be earned. What would Augustus have thought of that message? Would it have made it easier for him?
- The title of the book derives from a line of Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves” – meaning that it is not fate at fault. Why choose that line, and why reverse it? What is John Green saying about fate? And does he present fate as determined by some force or as random?
- At one point in the book, Hazel asks her father what he believes. He says he doesn’t know what he believes, that he thought being grown up meant you would know but it doesn’t. Is this a Unitarian Universalist sentiment? Is it possible for this to be a comforting sentiment in the face of death?
- The author once served as a chaplain in a children’s hospital, and afterward said that he now saw life as utterly random and capricious, yet that randomness did not rob life of its meaning. How is that possible? Can life be both random and meaningful?
- This book is about young people trying to live their lives, even though they know they are dying. How is this a book that could inform your religious or spiritual understandings? Did it inform your understanding of the meaning of life? How? Why or why not?
- What do you think about the “hero’s journey” narrative of terminal illness? Are cancer patients heroes and inspirations to us all? How can those who are not sick best help and remember those who are? Does remembering someone ultimately matter, and why do we all seem to hope that we will be remembered after we die?
- As a Unitarian Universalist, was your personal theological understanding changed at all by this novel? Explain.
If you want it as a pdf: A Discussion Guide for Unitarian Universalists for The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
In her marvelous book, Full Circle: Fifteen Ways to Grow LifeLong UU’s, Kate Tweedie Erslev lists one of the fifteen ways as “Sweep Youth into Immersion Experiences”.
What, exactly, does that mean?
Well, Immersion is defined as “the state of being deeply engaged or involved; absorbed”. So an immersion experience will be one that completely absorbs the youth, such that they are fully engaged within it and almost “forget” their everyday selves and lives. I don’t think this can be accomplished in 45 minutes of religious education class on Sunday morning, or even during a lock-in overnight at church. An immersion experience almost always means we go away somewhere, somewhere special and different, and that we spend a lot of time there. Conferences, camps, assemblies, and retreats can all be immersion experiences.
I’ve just returned from one of these experiences – a Friday evening to Sunday afternoon Middle School Conference at a camp, with about 70 middle school youth from congregations all around the Puget Sound area of Washington State. Friday evening the youth were shy, mostly clustered in their congregational groups or with youth they already knew from past years’ Cons, and by Sunday most of them were hanging out with youth from other congregations, fully engaged with the whole group, and now part of a community they weren’t part of before this weekend. The experience of being there at camp was a time apart from normal life, a time to experience themselves as Unitarian Universalists in a whole new way.
And not only is this an immersion experience, but it is also a cross-congregational experience.
In an era in which most people do not live their whole lives in the same town they were born in, it is unlikely that our youth will grow up and stay in our congregation. If they are going to stay Unitarian Universalists, they will probably be joining another congregation somewhere. Establishing relationships with youth (and adults) from other congregations now helps our youth to broaden their understanding of our denomination and to realize that there are other congregations out there that they could seek out someday.
A week ago, when the students arrived at the college in my town, one of the new Freshmen attending our church service approached me and said “don’t I know you from CON?”. She had attended a CON that I attended as a sponsor for our youth, and just that one previous experience helped build a bridge that made it easier to welcome her into our congregation.
So, in this season of Fall CONS, it’s time to “sweep our youth into immersion experiences”. Enjoy!
Last Sunday our high school youth had fun painting posters and Tshirts for the Pride Parade coming up in our town. One of our younger tag-alongs added some fun to the proceedings by opening up a “tattoo parlor” and giving everyone tattoos.
The Pride Parade is a fun highlight of the year for the youth. Why do UU’s like to come out for these events? I’ll tell you why our group likes it – it’s amazing fun and the kind of event where people “cheer for you for just showing up” (our Minister’s way of describing it). We don’t do Pride because we hope it will help our church grow. We don’t do Pride because this is the social action issue du jour. We do Pride because we believe in it and because we love doing it.
And I think it’s the best kind of ministry for youth to do: it’s fun, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it is all about Love, and it is all about Identity and Acceptance (issues that resonate so much with the youth I work with!).
Happy Pride Month to Everyone!
Last Sunday we held both the Coming of Age and Bridging rituals in the worship services. For both rituals, there is an element of me saying good-bye to these kids that I have worked with as a DRE for the last few years. The Coming of Age youth will still be around for four more years of youth group (or not, as some choose not to attend – but they’ll still be around).
But Bridging is very bittersweet. Now that I’ve been doing this DRE thing for five years, we are Bridging young people that were in Middle School when I began. I can’t imagine how strange it will feel once we start Bridging kids that were in elementary school at my beginning! I miss them all, and I’m proud of them, and excited for them, and sad that things must change …. all at once.
I know they’ll find their own path. Sometimes that journey brings them back, for a visit or to stay, and sometimes it doesn’t. But I hold all of them in my heart, lightly. May they be blessed. May the road rise up to meet them, and may the rain fall gently on their faces. May they find that which makes them come alive, and then share that with the world. May they be strong, may they find love, may they be whole.
Blessings on the journey, young ones.
I’m just back from leading a retreat for our Coming of Age youth and their mentors. Coming of Age is a common UU program, although each congregation does it a bit differently. This year I rehauled our program almost completely, but I knew I still wanted to end with a retreat with solo vigils for the youth.
It was a wonderful, thoughtful, and poignant retreat. The space I found to rent was lovely, despite the rain, the youth were really using this time to be thoughtful and introspective, and the adults had a good time together while holding this intentional space open for the youth.
A reading from Coming of Age: a treasury of poems, quotations and readings on growing up that I used begins with: “Coming of age never really ends. It is a regenerative and cyclic process, moving a bit forward, a bit back, seeming more an adult one minute, less so another.”
In other words, Let It Be a Dance We Do. A dance it is my honor to witness and be a part of.