Family Ministry and Westside’s Legacy
By Cameron Young
Last Sunday in the pulpit, Tanner Trask, aspiring minister and Westside’s board president, asked our congregation, point blank, what its legacy might look like. As a relatively young church which hasn’t witnessed much in the way of generational transition, the topic may still seem somewhat abstract. What will our legacy be on the community? On the world? On the future of Unitarian Universalism?
Unitarian Universalism is often characterized as a “faith of converts.” Most folks who identify as UU were not raised UU. More so, most of the children we raise as UU do not remain UU. In fact, by the UUA’s own assessment, only 12.5 % of adults in our faith are those who were raised in it, a number that is astronomically lower than most other religious denominations in the United States, both liberal and conservative, Christian and non-Christian. This further convolutes the subject of legacy, yet underscores its importance. To earnestly think about legacy in a Unitarian Universalist context, we must fundamentally prioritize the children and youth (aka the leaders) of forthcoming generations. Imagine the profound growth our faith would experience, both numerical and incarnational, were we to double or possibly even triple those numbers. Imagine the transformative justice those people, having been nurtered with UU values, could create within and outside of our walls! What can we do to help accomplish this? Two words: family ministry.
While many factors play a role in denominational retention rates, research suggests that the most significant indicator to whether or not a child will remain in their faith of origin is not necessarily the programming they grow up in, or the congregational culture, but rather the level of engagement the parent has with the faith. This makes perfect sense, as parents are their children’s primary religious educators. They are always the first to get the “God questions.” Because we are a faith of converts, we find that many parents don’t feel equipped to articulate matters of spirituality and Unitarian Universalism to their kids. Because of this, they often turn to the church. While the church exists as a supporting entity for this work, the message, first and foremost, must come from the parents themselves. Sustainable and effective models of family ministry will empower our parents to do just that.
Westside has already taken significant steps to commit to its legacy by supporting family ministry. Three examples of this are:
- Highlight it in our mission statement. “Westside Unitarian Universalist Church makes a positive difference in the lives of our members, our families, and the world at large through supportive relationships, religious and intellectual exploration, and social action.” By explicitly committing to “families,” in its mission statement, Westside is showing that family ministry is at the core of what we do as a congregation.
- Fully fund our Religious Education program. This is something we often take for granted, but there was a time when this was an active debate in the congregation, and RE was often the first to be mentioned in possible cuts during times of financial scarcity. It should be noted that family ministry is not just supported by Children’s RE, but Adult RE as well. Parents have to get their foundation somewhere, and ARE has offered programs to help in this regard, including the Building Your Own Theology course and Layne Craig’s Anti-Racist Parenting class both offered within the last two years.
- Take bold steps to support multigenerational worship. I’ve been overwhelmed and pleasantly surprised that our support to include children and youth in all of our worship has been nearly unanimous, as that is not always the case when other churches take similar steps, but this is the type of radical inclusivity our faith calls us to adopt. The lasting implications of our kids getting this experience with worship are countless, but among other things, they offer more opportunity for shared experience between children, their parents, and the larger congregation.
Additionally, here are some steps I think we can take (or are in the process of taking) to expand our support:
- Create a better educational framework for the “converts” at Westside. By this, I don’t necessarily just mean the theological and intellectual facets of Unitarian Universalism. I think the leadership of our church has a lot of that foundation already. I mean our stories of origin. As a congregation, we need to know the stories of the Sharps in Nazi occupied Europe, the USC, and the origins of our chalice symbol; of Frances E.W. Harper as our children presented in service earlier this month; of Emerson’s Divinity School Address as our Coming of Age youth have gotten to hear about in Boston. Our kids get these stories, but not so much our adults. The recently developed Faith Development Task Force has made it a primary goal to discern which of these stories are integral to Westside.
- Continue to live out our mission by supporting our families. We must foster an atmosphere that’s inclusive to parents and families. Little things like accepting that the sanctuary might be slightly noisier, or offering childcare at events, or accepting and normalizing breastfeeding anywhere the parent might feel comfortable, or understanding that parents of young children may have different time commitments and constraints (especially in this era) than the norm, or knowing that single parenthood is one of the most challenging undertakings of the human experience and practicing compassion accordingly, or simply being friendly to children and youth, or…. (get the picture) go a long way.
To paraphrase the video we showed of Raffi Cavoukian during our summer service on The Children’s Church, “If we make things [church] work for children, they will work from the bottom up.” Could we make it to where Westside fully embodies that value? What a legacy that would be.