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Taking a Small Risk for Big Growth

Posted by Bart Frost // November 25th 2015 // Future of Faith, young adults, youth // 6 comments

How Smart Congregations Grow Members

"Youth membership is important so that they can benefit from the full rights and responsibilities of membership and full inclusion in the covenant of their spiritual community." – Gregory Boyd, UUA Trustee and Religious Educator

“Youth membership is important so that they can benefit from the full rights and responsibilities of membership and full inclusion in the covenant of their spiritual community.” – Gregory Boyd, UUA Trustee and Religious Educator

This summer at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assembly, our Youth Media Volunteers interviewed a number of youth about their personal histories with Unitarian Universalism. As I reviewed their footage, something stuck out to me. Almost all of the youth said something along the lines of “I’ve been a member since I was two,” or “My whole family has been members since my parents got married in our church, before I was born!”

Our interviews at General Assembly reminded me that membership is more than just signing a book and making a pledge. Being a part of a community is about relationships, it isn’t about signing the membership book and serving on a committee. The youth interviewed expressed a more comprehensive understanding of membership, a membership model of belonging and personal ownership of the community. What does it say about our congregations and their relationships that those who grow up in them aren’t considered members until they sign “the book?”

Youth membership isn’t a new conversation; the UUA Commission on Appraisal examined membership in our congregations 15 years ago. So what are the obstacles to youth membership in congregations?

The three major obstacles that congregations bring up when talking about youth membership are minimum age limits, concerns about maturity, and worrying about dues related to membership numbers.


“[One] reason I think youth membership is important is we (youth) begin our journey toward independence by establishing a spiritual home beyond “my family’s church”. Youth are able to instead say “my church”. Becoming a member helped to validate the many years that I spent in RE and many hours I have given back to our faith. I spent 6 hours at a membership class on my birthday to be able to call myself a member of my church. To be able to sign the membership book at my church was one of the most validating experiences I have ever had.” -Andrea Briscoe, General Assembly Youth Caucus Dean 2014-2016

Many congregations have a minimum age limit for membership, some because they mistakenly believe the myth that you have to be 18 years old to vote on financial matters (check out Appendix B in the Commission on Appraisal’s report above) and others because that’s what their by-laws say. I recommend that youth are offered the opportunity to join the congregation upon completing Coming of Age or turning 15, whichever comes first. If they choose not to become a member at that time, they should be offered the opportunity at least once a year. If an adult can join the congregation after a “New UU” class, then youth should be able to after an equivalent program. Remember, our young people grow up attending religious education classes and by the age of 12 are better versed in our theology than many of the adults in our congregations (sometimes even their parents).


“At the end of the day, being a member allows one to more fully and wholly engage in the community, and encourages bonding across generational divides, providing opportunities for learning and mentor-ship on both sides of the age spectrum.” Jeremy Ritzmann, Smart Church Consultant, UUA Southern Region

As for the concerns around maturity, our survey of youth who visited the UUA last year showed  that youth were very in touch with the “behind-the-scenes” of their congregations. From ministerial transitions to money woes, our youth care about what’s going on in their community. Who wouldn’t want someone that cares deeply about their congregation to be a member? If you are concerned that the youth in your congregation aren’t mature enough to be members, ask them what membership means to them. As Carey McDonald points out in a post over on Growing Unitarian Universalism about treating membership in our congregations as a spectrum, church engagement and relationship is something that builds up over time. As the relationship between the church and the individual deepen and strengthen, the next steps will become clear and their commitment to the congregation will deepen.

Lastly, the dreaded money question. An increase in members usually results in an increase of dues, that’s true. Financial contributions are also difficult for many youth and emerging adults, and pledges keep the lights on and the furnace or AC blowing. And yet, how are you cultivating generosity in the children and youth of your congregation? Many congregations that hold a Children’s Chapel take an offering just like in “adult” church. Is the youth group supported by the budget of the congregation? It’s a fact that when we give, we want to see our money being put to good use. If the value isn’t visible to the youngest people in your congregation, then something’s wrong.


Amelia Manning, former Co-Chair, UUA Nominating Committee

Amelia Manning, member of First Church of New Orleans and former co-chair of the UUA Nominating Committee, joined her congregation when she was 11 years old after discussing with her mother the reason she had to hang out with the other children in a classroom during a congregational meeting:

I was indignant and asked why I couldn’t attend. She told me that they were going to be voting on an important issue and because I was not a member I couldn’t vote. “What do you mean?” I said. “I’ve been coming to this church since before I can remember. I even help teach the Sunday school classes every week. Of course I’m a member!”

My mother explained, “Of course membership is about giving your time and love and energy to the well being of the church. Being a member is about giving in all the ways you can, and a part of that is to give financially as well.”

I reminded  her that I was 11 and had no money to contribute even if I wanted. We discussed what I got out of going to church and being a part of the community. My mother said if I was serious about becoming a member, I would need to think about how I could reciprocate everything I got out of it back to my congregation. I thought long and hard about it before I decided I wanted to make the step and give as much as I got. I pledged 50 cents per week to start, which was half of my allowance and that was a huge deal for me (at the time).

Now, as a young adult, I struggle every year towards increasing my pledge by 1% each year, and my goal is to reach a full tithe at 10% one day once I get a more sustaining job. For now, though, I give what I can and appreciate my faith community to the fullest.

Amelia started by pledging a mere 50 cents a week. $20.50 a year only paid a fraction of the yearly electricity bill, but to Amelia it was a significant gift and one that made her feel good as a steward of her congregation. Fifteen years later, she chaired the annual stewardship drive and increased her own pledge significantly. Amelia is also committed to increasing her personal pledge and to give as much as she can. If we remember that our ministries last lifetimes, we can expect that we will reap a greater return for taking a $100/year loss for four years on a youth member, in both financial and leadership growth.

Our faith calls us to risk faithfully, and on a risk scale of “Grumpy McGrumpyPants feels a little bit more grumpy” to “the complete and total destruction of your church” encouraging youth membership in your congregation is a no-brainer.

Honestly, what is there to lose?

Next Steps:

-Check out your congregation’s bylaws and research your state and local laws

-If bylaws prevent youth from joining, ask why! If the answer is anything other than “State law says…”, change them!

-Further reading: Commission on Appraisal Report: Belonging


About the Author

Bart Frost is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries at the Unitarian Universalist Association.
6 Responses to “Taking a Small Risk for Big Growth”
  1. Bill Clontz says:

    As good a discussion as I have seen in quite some time on youth membership: thank you. I especially appreciate the discussion of pledging; it’s only a problem if we make it so. Expecting a pledge, however small, is a gift that I stills a lifetime habit, says you are a real member, not some sort of youth affiliate, and underlines that we all have the opportunity to support as members, each gift being important.

    • Bart Frost says:

      Thanks for your comment, Bill!

      We don’t tend to think of giving or gratitude as something that needs to be taught and practiced, but it is a skill like any other!


  2. Steve Caldwell says:

    -Check out your congregation’s bylaws and research your state and local laws

    -If bylaws prevent youth from joining, ask why! If the answer is anything other than “State law says…”, change them!

    If state law prohibits youth membership, would it be possible to challenge this under existing state or federal RFRA (religious freedom restoration act) laws? One could argue that this isn’t consistent with our 1st, 2nd, and 5th principles.

    Some states laws permit voting youth membership and other states don’t permit voting youth membership. If there are no negative outcomes happening due to youth membership in states where it’s allowed, this suggests that there is no legitimate secular reason to outlaw voting youth membership in states where the law prohibits it.

    • Bart Frost says:


      I am not a lawyer, so I am not the right person to answer your question.

      It’s an interesting thought though.


  3. Michelle Lee says:

    Excellent points to consider here. Thank you.
    This bit, though… I know people need to hear and understand this bit,
    “If we remember that our ministries last lifetimes, we can expect that we will reap a greater return for taking a $100/year loss for four years on a youth member, in both financial and leadership growth.”
    But it still annoys me. Aren’t we in covenant with our children? Didn’t we promise during a child blessing or a teacher recognition or RE startup to … what???
    No matter what your age or contribution or -gag- future potential might be, my intention is to be in covenant with you UU folks NOW.

    • Bart Frost says:


      I whole-heartedly agree, which is why I ended on leadership growth (and should have included faith formation). Churches and congregations are places where people of all ages can explore their spirituality and faith. By encouraging them in to the congregation through membership, we are encouraging the personal growth of our younger members and showing that we will continue to support them on their journeys.


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