Written by Connie Larkman
A congregation of 650 people with 500 active members is pretty impressive, no matter what your faith tradition. At Old South Union Church in Weymouth, Mass., those numbers describe not the church, but the size of the youth group!
Old South Union Church, with 475 members and an average worship attendance of 250, has been growing and nurturing this community ministry -- where all are welcome -- for decades.
"It took 30 years to grow a small, existing youth group from a handful of church teens into a large youth group that is open to ANY teen and now draws hundreds from the local and surrounding communities," said the Rev. Jennie Barrett Siegal, the church's senior pastor. Only 1 in 10 kids in the youth group worship at Old South Union Church, and many are not part of any faith tradition.
She credits her predecessor, who first planted the group, and the volunteers who have nurtured it over the years with the success of this "crazy, awesome ministry. The love of many advisors and in particular of Rev. Terry Martinson helped this youth group through highs and lows, and the love and dedication of our current advisors and the support of the Old South Union Church family will continue to make this youth group successful."
Right now, the group has 50 advisors working with the young people, many of whom got involved as members when they were teenagers.
"I believe that the staff has been able to keep the youth group strong and viable because most people had prior involvement with the youth group as members," said Michael Pearson, one of youth advisors who started as a teen. "By having the memories of why youth group was great for us, we are able to remember and try to create the same type of experience for the current youth group kids, even though the technology and social issues may be different from when we were a part of youth group."
Keeping them involved and focused, Youth Director Steve Flaherty said, takes consistency and honesty. "Just like any relationship that we build in life, we need consistency with our teens and our advisors. We ask that our advisors commit to being at youth group for our teens each week and not simply when it is convenient for them. We also remind our advisors that they don't need to have all the answers or even the right answer, when teens ask questions about love, God, the future. It's OK to tell them that you don't know or that you have the same questions, too!"
But just think of the logistics. The teens, from 12 to 18, meet on Sundays, split into three groups. Seventh and 8th graders meet from 4 to 5:15 p.m., 9th graders meet from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m. and the 10th, 11th and 12th graders meet from 7:15 to 8:45 p.m.
"The whole church has to be behind a youth ministry of this size — or of any size — in order for it to succeed," said Barrett Siegal. "Our youth group has priority in our building on Sunday evenings. We turn down requests from outside groups who want to use our building during those meetings. Through the respect we show for teens and the safe space we create for them here at Old South Union Church, we can communicate God’s love without saying a word."
Programming is chosen and created by the church's Youth Council, a peer-elected leadership group from each grade that meets with Flaherty to work on meeting topics, programs, parties, drives, dances and any concerns that may arise.
Oh, and then there's the big events -- like ski trips, or camp. This summer Old South Union Church sent 400 campers (who earned their spots based on attendance at youth group) and 80 staff to Camp Cody in Freedom, N.H., for a week -- that's 10 bus loads of kids and vans of gear!
"We don’t send kids to camp," said Barrett Siegal, "we take over a camp!" And while the preparations go year-round, she says the payoffs are immense. "We start working on our camp program and logistics for transportation, moving stages, dietary concerns, nurse staffing, advisors training and more the day we get back from camp each year." There are monthly meetings and important partnerships with other UCC youth groups, and "each year there is an opportunity to learn from diverse experiences and to grow in the Spirit."
"An amazing example of this occurred at camp this year," Flaherty said. "One of our small group programs focused on self-esteem and confidence. In order to have this discussion stand out, we asked for advisors and teens to anonymously share secrets and post them on a board for all to see. We had hundreds of teens and advisors share their struggles, some tragic like depression or identity questions, and some more humorous like fake teeth or passing gas in public. Through sharing these stories, we built a common bond, and later in our program, EVERY teen and adult at camp put a sticker on their chest stating something they LOVE about themselves and another on their back stating something they DO NOT love about themselves. When we left small groups and all got together for lunch that afternoon, with stickers and with anonymous secrets posted for all to see, the love and support was amazing."
"It's the most amazing thing in the world to connect with teens and their families," Flaherty continued. "You get SO much back from this work that it is immeasurable."
“Our church is committed to creating safe space for teens to explore who they are and how they can make a difference in the world," said Barrett Seigal. "We certainly want to foster the development of Christian faith, but what we do through our group is about more than that. We are encouraging young people to be leaders — not just in the church, but also in the world. Knowing that we are sending strong leaders out into the world gives us great hope for the future and brings incredible energy to all aspects of our church’s life."
As to how other congregations can plant youth ministry like this one, Flaherty suggests patience, humility, consistency -- and the support and commitment of many. "I would also say that it takes knowing your teens -- particularly this means to me that you have to have females and males, athletes and musicians, introverts and extroverts as advisors. Your advisors are what make the youth group successful, as they are the reason that the relationship with individual teens is strong. Every teen and adult has a story, and it is important for it to be heard. If you don't have someone who is willing to listen and someone who understands how important that story/life is, then you're not serving them."