15 Year Review - Adult Support
It is seemingly paradoxical but nonetheless true that to sustain a genuinely empowering youth program, there must be a high level of committed and competent adult support. It then follows that to sustain this level of adult support, the adults themselves must be supported. This is one of the greatest areas found by this committee to be in need of improvement.
The most essential level of adult support is the
work done by youth advisors. However, the task of supporting youth
advisors cannot be adequately addressed without an understanding
of the need to reinforce adult involvement on all levels. Ministers,
religious educators and church board members must be encouraged
in their support of youth through education and recognition for
youth programming successes. At the other end of the spectrum, the
volunteers who provide support by driving youth to conferences or
helping in the kitchen must be acknowledged not only explicitly
but also in implicit ways such as expense reimbursement and sharing
of responsibility. Only by striving to spread an ever-wider adult
umbrella over our efforts to empower our youth will Unitarian Universalist
youth programming be protected from the destructive effects of generational
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Youth advisors are the adults working on the front lines of youth programming. The local youth group advisor not only makes the greatest commitment but often is putting his or her whole self on the line to serve youth. The beginning advisor who expects his or her new role to only entail showing up on a Sunday morning or evening and making a couple of phone calls during the week soon learns that this is not like teaching Sunday School. Most advisors find themselves committing more and more of their time and energy, not from the expansion of duties as much as from the specific relationship that must develop between an advisor and the youth in order for the experience to be meaningful.
For many adolescents, the youth advisor is the first adult figure they have encountered who offers a non-parental, non-authoritarian relationship. What the youth needs from this adult, and what the sensitive, committed advisor naturally provides, is someone who will be a mentor, role model, lay minister and friend. In the Youth Advisor's Handbook (page 6), Shell Tain writes, "Who you are with youth is far more important than what tasks you perform." What the beginning advisor soon discovers is that being who you are in a meaningful relationship with youth will lead you to, in the words of one advisor, "assume a lot of risk and responsibility, and stretch yourself spiritually and personally in ways that make you vulnerable." As an institution, it is unfair to ask people to do this without also offering them ongoing guidance and support.
The following sections discuss in more detail some
of the specific areas concerning youth advisors that have been found
to be in need of attention.
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In 1993, the UUA Board allocated $8,000 to the Youth Office to sponsor a $10,000 continental program for training 20 people from across the continent to be leaders of advisor training workshops. These leaders were then available to be brought in by the districts to lead weekend advisor trainings. While local and district advisors who have had the opportunity to attend these trainings speak well of them, their total numbers seem to be few. In general, the overwhelming message from advisors is a need for more training, more often with more information on more specific issues. The 1997-98 UUA budget includes $8,000 for another continental training of advisor training leaders.
There is clearly an association-wide need for a fuller and more broadly disseminated articulation of youth empowerment. Advisor training is an ideal forum in which to promote this philosophy. In fact, many of the issues cited by advisors indicate a need for help in sorting out the youth/adult power balance. Questions were raised about how far to let things go before asserting authority (Forbid climbing trees? Or only forbid climbing high voltage telephone poles?), guidelines for personal disclosure (How much should one reveal of one's personal life?) and clarification of appropriate boundaries (to hug or not to hug).
Also cited in discussions, however, was a need for accompanying training in human relations, adolescent development and psychology, and skills for dealing with the emotional/psychological problems of youth. An advisor on the on-line mailing list states about his local group, "Our youth tend to have a high incidence of broken home lives, drug use and other risk behaviors. Some training in how to recognize danger signs and provide basic levels of counseling would be of immense help."
Advisor training content needs to clearly differentiate the specific needs and challenges of junior high age youth groups. In view of the fact that this is often the most difficult age for which to attract adult volunteers, it is particularly important that these adults are provided with training and support appropriate to the pre-adolescent age group.
Finally, a critical area in need of further development is the promotion of safe congregations and sexual ethics. Since the mid-1980s, the UUA has put increasing focus on issues of clergy sexual misconduct leading to training programs and efforts at increasing awareness among congregation members. This work has been done to great beneficial effect, constituting something of a revolution within our religious movement.
However, this work has been applied to youth advisors as if they are an extension of religious education teachers. To raise awareness of sexual ethics among youth advisors, attention needs to be given to how the challenge of maintaining sexual boundaries between adults and adolescents is different from adult to adult boundaries and adult to child. Being that adolescence is by definition a process of coming into sexual identity, youth are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation on many different levels. And given that youth are developmentally and physically so close to adulthood, even the most well-meaning adult can find it difficult to establish the appropriate personal boundary. The "Code of Ethics for Persons Working with Children and Youth in UUA Sponsored Programs" (see Appendix E) was designed to provide a safeguard against adult-to-youth sexual exploitation. But advisors need more explicit help in navigating the many gray areas of sexual boundaries and the wide-ranging and complex issues of personal safety between youth and adults.
Any reevaluation of advisor training must also look
at problems of promotion and accessibility. The Youth Office reports
that the trainings are not requested or attended as much as they
had hoped. Yet advisors in the field seem to be clamoring for more
training. This contradiction needs to be resolved.
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Along with adequate training, it is essential that advisors have access to ongoing support. Many Unitarian Universalist adults have little awareness of the intense level of problems our youth can bring to their youth group. Depression, suicide, rape, drugs, anorexia, bulimia, parental abuse, the effects of divorce and the death of friends are all too common experiences for even our own teenagers.
An advisor from the Mid-west states, "At my church, when I said something about 'being there' for the kids, an older member of the congregation said, 'Be there or be square. Be here now.' Not very helpful when you're dealing with youth depression, suicide, incarceration, etc. I feel that many adults in the congregation would prefer to just not know."
Clearly, these circumstances also have the potential for putting advisors at risk--emotionally as well as morally and legally--which is a significant factor leading to advisor burn-out. To adequately support advisors who are committed to serving youth with whatever problems they may bring, an institutional standard needs to be promoted whereby local youth advisors are connected with a designated resource person capable of clinical pastoral consultation to provide them, on an ad hoc basis, with ministry and counselling supervision.
A system of advisor support and supervision must also include a clear understanding of who the advisor is accountable to (the Director or Minister of Religious Education, the Parish Minister, the Chair of the Religious Education Committee, etc.), a method for performance evaluation and feedback, and procedures for removing inappropriate adults. Some advisors advocate an institutional standard of regular rotations of service (e.g., two advisors serve alternating two-year terms, or advisors being required to take a year off after three years of service).
In 1994, Youth Council established a guideline stating that continental youth advisors must be over 25 years of age, but that individuals between the ages of 21 and 25 could serve as "junior advisors" under the mentorship of an over-25 advisor. On the district and local levels, there is confusion on how to apply this standard and concerns that junior advisors may need more or a different type of training and support, as well as questions as to the wisdom of allowing junior advisors at all.
Finally, any discussion of youth empowerment is bound
to have as its subtext, whether acknowledged or not, a myriad of
questions around issues of adult legal liability. Over and over
again, on questionnaires and in interviews, advisors expressed a
need for more information about their legal liabilities. To truly
promote leadership in youth it is essential that matters of legal
liability and accountability are thoroughly explored and understood
by all concerned adults. Otherwise, liability anxieties will linger
in an insidious, unstated manner and will have the potential to
subtly undermine any efforts at genuine empowerment of the youth.
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There appears to be a serious communication gap between the continental and district levels of YRUU and the local churches. Advisors repeatedly complained about not getting information and not having access to resources, or getting too little of it and getting it too late. At the 1996 General Assembly Advisor Hearing, the advisors expressed a poignant mix of relief at suddenly connecting with so much information, along with irritation at having had to labor in isolation for so long. They were careful to say their inability to get information was not for lack of trying. This communication problem may be a symptom of underlying philosophical and practical separations between religious education and youth programming. An oft-cited example was of youth resources reaching the DRE's desk and never making it into the advisor's hands.
One way to address this communication gap is with
more district level support for youth advisors, such as a district
Youth Programming Consultant who is charged primarily with the job
of supporting and training youth advisors, along the lines of the
emerging district Religious Education Consultants. But the development
of a strong and comprehensive advisor networking and advocacy organization
is another critical component for fostering better communication.
Such an organization would provide a forum for sharing information
and resources, as well as give voice to youth advisors as a constituent
body within the UUA. A potential model for this is the way that
LREDA has served religious educators, taking into account the differences
in professional status. According to the "YRUU Policies and Procedures
Manual" (p. 28), theoretically, an advisor network already exists,
but this "network" is more intended than actual since, without an
organized body or continued support, it offers limited benefit to
youth advisors laboring in isolation on the local level.
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The Ministry With Youth Renaissance Module is a youth ministry training geared towards religious educators and ministers, many of whom are experiencing their first opportunity to focus solely on the needs of their congregation's youth. When it was first presented, it was heralded by participants as the "best module" they had taken.
The Ministry With Youth Renaissance Module was the first training forum to introduce the "Five Components of Balanced Youth Programming" developed by Eugene Navias and outlined in the Five-Year Review Committee report. The Religious Education Department could also consider adding to the curriculum the more recent program model on the "Five Steps to Building Community". This "Five Steps" model has been used to great benefit in the Leadership Development Conferences, and can help religious educators know what their youth advisors will be exposed to when they attend LDCs and advisor trainings.
The Ministry With Youth Renaissance Module serves
a critical need in broadening general adult support for youth programming.
In addition to being updated and made more accessible to religious
educators, we would like to see it actively promoted to ministers
and lay leaders. We believe that education about ministry with youth
is an important educational component for our ministry and we hope
that eventually all ministers will participate in this training
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- Recommendation: That the UUA Board establish a task force to examine and make recommendations on youth advisor training and support for the purpose of reinforcing adult involvement in youth programming (especially on the local level); that this task force consider: advisor training (especially in regard to fostering youth leadership, adolescent development, healthy personal boundaries, and junior high advising), the development of clinical pastoral consultancy and the creation of an advisor networking and advocacy organization.
- Recommendation: That each district board encourage its local congregations to provide their youth advisors with a designated resource person for clinical/pastoral consultation; that the Youth Office and Department of Religious Education include this recommendation in advisor training and Ministry With Youth curriculum.
- Recommendation: That the Ministry With Youth Renaissance Module (which is geared towards religious educators and ministers) be offered at UU-related seminaries, be commended to the Department of Ministry and the UU Ministers Association for continuing education, and be considered for inclusion into the Extension Ministry training.
- Recommendation: That each district board make a thorough
review of its mechanism for supporting youth advisors.