What do youth ministry and an onion have in common? Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary, discussed how an onion is a useful metaphor for an important aspect of youth ministry. When presenting on this topic for a Yale Youth Ministry Institute gathering, she equated the characteristics of the onion to those of a developing youth. Dr. Creasy Dean became fascinated by a colleague’s approach to cooking using an onion and she correlated it to nurturing youth in our ministries. The onion looks very different on the outside, just as youth do. She described how the chef spent time “just loving the ingredient” even before making the stew, beholding its presence and potential. Then, slicing it open, revealed a whole new world inside that at times, had a way of claiming him and bringing him to tears. She believes youth leaders should spend time beholding their youth and recognize they are entirely different on the outside. This offers an opportunity to anticipate surprises on the inside knowing, leaders too, could be claimed with tears. Dr. Creasy Dean admitted that, like herself, many folks want things done fast and mainly focus on the end results. She cautions that this style is not always helpful in youth ministry because we may miss the crucial element that can lead to the awe and wonder God has waiting for us in our youth.
Youth ministry has many moving parts. Certainly now during this pandemic, gathering youth together for an event creates new challenges to spending quality time with youth that may reveal the “inside of the onion”. It is quite impressive though, to witness leaders who are finding ways to connect with their youth. Four Corners Community Chapel UCC, Cumberland, RI, had active youth groups prior to the pandemic, meeting three times a month. Volunteer youth leader Wade Richmond has found ways to stay connected to his youth after the church building was closed. He immediately offered creative virtual experiences including zoom games, scavenger hunts, and Pictionary. A seasoned and passionate youth leader for 20 years, Wade offered incentive prizes for youth sent out after the game events. One trademark activity of this youth group is called “what’s your number?” and opens every gathering. Everyone rates their previous week on a scale of 1 (the worst) to 10 (the best). If anyone wants to explain the reasons behind their rating, they are invited to share with the group. This is a perfect opportunity to “peel back the onion” for a moment and hear what is going on in a youth’s life. Wade commented, “This is always a very special time that often allows me to stop and realize something amazing or traumatic is happening and I make note of this, keeping an eye out for any future concerns. It also gives an awareness to their peers that there may be a sensitive situation happening.”
Wade also relies on parent involvement which begins with clear expectations from the moment a child registers for youth group. “By default, all parents of a child in youth group become part of the parents’ group and are asked to meet periodically to give feedback, offer support, and to keep actively involved as a team.” He communicates with them on a private Facebook page which has proven to be effective. Recently the parent group met by zoom and decided to gather the youth outside at different homes twice a month for activities, weather permitting. Oftentimes youth and parents meet simultaneously yet separately to plan activities and mission trips. One autumn activity planned this month is to paint gourds with kind words and leave them in random places in the community, similar to the kindness rock project.
Another youth group that successfully remains active during this time is at Chapel Street Congregational Church UCC, Lincoln, RI. Volunteer youth leader Miranda Tracey shared a fantastic idea to engage youth for the Halloween season. “Invite the youth to have a zoom Jack-o- lantern carving party! As each youth creates their pumpkin faces, a sentence of a pumpkin prayer is read. So, when the youth are carving out the mouth, they all can say, “Lord, help me to always speak Your words of love and kindness” together.”
Miranda, a creative and enthusiastic leader, encouraged the youth to name their group and “GOD SQUAD” soon became visible on shirts, posters and flyers. When Miranda was asked to begin this youth group 6 years ago, the first thing she focused on was creating an intentional space for the youth. She felt this renovation revealed a lot about the congregation’s support and helped the youth feel valued. Many amazing God centered conversations occurred in the newly created youth space. Miranda points out, "One important learning curve for me during these conversations was learning to LIVE IN THE SILENCE when youth are quiet or non-responsive to a question. It is a very hard thing to do as leaders because we want to fill that awkward moment but eventually one of the youth finds the courage to speak up and it often is quite moving.” Miranda and her team established several great ways to communicate with the youth over the years using Snapchat, sending a monthly newsletter to the parents, as well as a personal invitation to each youth by snail mail. The God Squad group holds an overnight retreat to plan their calendar events and activities. Many of the events are intergenerational enabling youth to build relationships with people of all ages in the congregation.
Another impressive youth group event took place in spring 2020. They had a brilliant idea to have a “traveling car wash” as a fundraiser. Several small pods of parents, youth and relatives traveled with buckets, sponges, and soap and washed cars of the congregation at their home using their hose & water. Miranda commented, “It was a fun day! We all wore masks and kept a safe distance from each other…we remained hopeful and accomplished a great thing!”
Many youth have built long lasting relationships with their youth leaders and their church communities. These impactful connections by committed leaders such as Wade Richmond and Miranda Tracey, strengthen youth discipleship to follow the ways of Jesus. Influenced by these experiences, many youth return as adult leaders. Many are active in education, social justice, etc. Youth leaders recognize that during this time, they must stay connected to youth and creatively find ways to connect with them. These opportunities are crucial. Like the onion, once the layers are removed, they are exposed and the awe and wonder of each as a child of God is revealed.
Many youth resources and UCC youth opportunities can be found on our SNEC website as well as many informational webinars for youth leaders.
Kristin is the Minister of Faith Formation for Children & Families at the Southern New England Conference.