Crossing the Bridge: UU Young Adulthood

Shows hands of UU young adults in a circle

Hey there.

It’s been a while since I asked “Where have all the youth gone?” Since that post, I’ve had many conversations on the subject with Unitarian Universalist (UU) youth, current young adults, and older congregants. I received many comments on the post itself and from friends on Facebook. I’ve also written a paper on the subject for a class and attended a young adult conference.

I promised many people that I would publish my paper, The Disconnect Between UU Youth and Adults, on this blog. Just click that pretty orange link and you’ll have all twelve pages of it. Fair warning: the language is academic in nature since it was written for a class.

After attending Kalamazoo Con 2014 with other young adults, I realized that UU young adults don’t have a good way to connect with each other. There are many of us out there but it’s easy to feel isolated. To combat isolation, I started a new group on Facebook called UU Young Adult Connections. If you’re a UU young adult or thinking about becoming one, please check out the group. You can request membership to join.

The feedback I’ve received confirms that this topic touches the hearts of many. I plan to continue discussing UU young adulthood on this blog. If you have a story you’d like to share, please let me know and we’ll talk about getting it posted. Just shoot an email to

[EDIT]: Photo credit goes to the lovely Elise Massicotte!

[UPDATE]: This paper was selected as co-winner for the Rowland A. Sherrill Prize in Religious Studies at IUPUI in March 2013. Learn more about the prize here.


15 Responses to “Crossing the Bridge: UU Young Adulthood

  • Thank you for aharing your thought provoking paper. I am a youth group advisor, and perhaps the issues you talk about our why I often enjoy my experiences with the youth group more than with the general congregation. I was just commenting the other day on how strange it is that in some ways my relationship with church members is so intimate, because I bring my most intimate self to church, yet without the underlying bonds of love and connection one expects in an intimate relationship (the feelings created by the magic pool to use your term). It leaves me so often feeling hurt and vulnerable in church conflicts.

    • Ruth Hinkle
      4 years ago

      You’re welcome! My experience of church as a youth was very connected to bringing my intimate self, something that seemed lacking when I transitioned the adult congregation. Also, Sharon Hwang Colligan used “magic pool” first. I want to make sure she gets credit where it is deserved.

    • Ruth Hinkle
      4 years ago

      Hi Mila,
      Thank you for your response! I think you hit on a really important point in this whole conversation. What does it mean to intimate (or vulnerable) in a church setting? How do churches support such intimacy and make sure it isn’t abused? This is something youth communities sometimes do really well. When conflict occurs at a conference, we can bring people back to the covenant they created and remind them that this community is important. In all the years I helped staff conferences, I can’t remember a single time when bringing the group back to the covenant didn’t work. Even in large groups, we were able to create a safe space for intimacy. I’m not sure that congregations think about safe space when they create worship and community.
      Thanks again,

  • Tom Cranston
    4 years ago

    Hey, can I become a UU Young Adult ? I want to drop forty years and become a Young Adult UU again. (just kidding) I’ll be 66 in April.
    Seriously, I was just thinking, I got married to my wife when I was 22 and she was a UU. I started attending church at 1st UU Church in Detroit when we move back to metro Detroit when I was 24. I attended pretty regularly ever since. (First at 1st UU and then BUC in 1987.) How was I different from today’s young adult UU’s ? HHHmm?

    • Donald O'Bloggin
      4 years ago

      Tom, I don’t think you were, but I find in these discussions we’re failing to make an important distinction about which groups we’re talking about:

      What Ruth writes (and I’ve not read all of it yet), and many of the other things written about being a “UU Young Adult” come from a place of being a UU Young Adult who grew up in or were youth in our faith. That’s often (usually) a very different thing than being a UU Young Adult Convert to our faith.

      I was raised and taught (by you and others) that in UUism, our UU communities are made better and we are our best selves when our UU communities and the leaders of those communities are engaged with each other, authentically support each other, and have a shared vision for our wider UU world and the way we (together) interact with the wider world. That is the core message of youth empowerment as it applies to our religious institutions.

      What we often call our UU YA Culture is an extension of that same message.

      So what do our congregations lack that UU YA’s seek? Any feeling of being part of a larger whole, both religiously and institutionally.

    • Ruth Hinkle
      4 years ago

      Hey Tom! Thanks for the response. Donald pretty well captured my response to your question. There is a decided difference between being raised as a UU and coming into UUism as an adult. And I don’t know that you were different from today’s young adults except that there seems to be a generational divide over preferences of worship style. Young adults, and particularly ones raised as UUs, are seeking a worship style that feels less like a lecture and engages emotional centers. You’ve been to many youth worships, Tom. What strikes you as different between those worships and the ones that happen at congregations? The first thing that jumps to my mind is that emotional vulnerability strengthens the experience of a youth worship but is less relevant in more traditional style services. Just a thought.

      Thank you for your response, Tom. I am glad that I had the opportunity to get to know you as a con-goer. Thank you for being such an outstanding adult at youth cons. It sounds like an easy job, but I’m quite certain it isn’t.

  • Bob Throne
    4 years ago

    Greetings Ruth, I am the ‘New Start Consulting Minister’ for the Schuykill UU’s … very part-time; long retired after two decades of ministry, more than three since becoming a UU. I saw your FB post & followed the link to your paper which I found fascinating.

    You are on to something with the “Magic Pool’ concept, along with the others.
    There are, however, a couple other factors that bear heavily on attraction and retention of young adults.
    One is structural: both the size of the congregation and the time restraints need to be factored in. Creating spontaneous, interactive worship for 90 or 180 or more people who have only a few hours a week is much more complex. People in their 30’s & 40’s (or older) have usually settled into a more structured life style with serious demands upon their time. Those with infants and early school age children will need to get home for feeding, naps, soccer, etc. Jobs, ball games, laundry & lawn mowing, and all manner of other demands and interest must be taken in to account. Most of the ‘magic pool’ experiences you point to have emerged in smaller sized groups with much more time, and flexibility with that time.

    The other factor is a ‘stage of faith’ matter. You are likely familiar with Fowler’s paradigm:

    Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
    Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief.
    Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular statement.
    Most of these people are still very much “seekers” but have winnowed down the paths / directions of their journey. And they are often more comfortable experiencing the thinking and style of someone who has taken the time to sift through the vast possibilities of religious / spiritual experience and intellectual learning and the/aology.

    That said, it is clear that there is a shift in expectations and life-style well underway that require thoughtful, responsive experiences. The best summary of this concern lies in Fred Muir’s Berry Street Lecture of 2012. You can find links to it and the responses to it off the UUCA page here
    It is well worth the time to read through it if you haven’t already. There are ways to speak more authentically and effectively to people of wide generational and life-style circumstance. It begins with genuine commitment to inclusiveness and some readiness to stretch one’s comfort-zone. Using more, and more varied, music in worship is the most obvious way. Drawing upon more varied liturgical practices (though probably not calling them by that term) is another .. meditation, chants, drums, open response elements (though these are tricky time-wise), etc. Another way is The “Soulful Sundown” model of service developed in Tulsa, as Tyson Nuss notes on your FB page. There is a reason the old “hymn sandwich” survives .. it is because it already incorporates some flexibility. And also, because people facing the daily demands of modern life still yearn for the comfort that comes from a familiar experience. A great many congregations have found that a varied array of small group experiences are helpful .. speaking to both emotional and intellectual needs. If you have noted the SchUU Facebook page you will see that even while new and pretty small that they have several varied opportunities where smaller groups can create the ‘magic pool’. Including acknowledging that the time spent in teams and committees to get things decided and done is a part of spiritual development in itself. And we take some pains to relate it all in our bi-weekly worship .. it is a challenge but well worth the effort and I admire what they are undertaking immensely.

    I readily acknowledge that we UU’s have a long, long way to go in speaking to the needs of young adults and the culture of the 21st century. As your journey unfolds, I encourage you to keep up your creative efforts and your out reach. Hope these sketchy thoughts are useful to you. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to further reflect upon these matters.

    In the faith,
    Bob Throne

    • Ruth Hinkle
      4 years ago

      Hi Bob,
      I’m sorry it took me so long to reply to your comment. I appreciate your thoughts on this matter. It’s absolutely true that congregational size and resources are an essential part of how young adults can or cannot be supported well. And I agree that a sense of routine and familiarity is important for most congregants. The question is how can congregations maintain some of what is familiar but also supplement with things that support young adult needs and desires. How do we reconcile the different worship needs that seem to divide on generational lines? (Though I know many adults who are looking for a more experiential worship style that incorporates emotional growth in addition to the usual intellectual stimulation.)

      I am familiar with Fowler’s paradigm although I would argue that those who are raised in UU churches experience these stages slightly differently. In my coming-of-age program in middle school and in curriculum’s in high school, we were actively engaging in the fourth stage. Because UUism is not doctrinal, there are relatively few beliefs that we can hold onto as “Truth.” We were encouraged to construct a statement of beliefs and then to re-examine often. Even if we weren’t completing a curriculum specifically on this kind of self-reflection, our discussions in Sunday school lent themselves to critical self-reflection. Of course, each youth is committed differently to this reflection.

      Thank you again for taking the time to write your thoughts out. This gives me much to think on.

  • As a young adult that was raised UU, I find this paper to be the best explanation of what I’ve experienced. I don’t attend services because that community, or “Magic Pool,” just isn’t there for me. Unirondack has been the “Magic Pool” for me.

    • Ruth Hinkle
      4 years ago

      Thanks for the response, Leah. I’m sad that your experience was similar to mine but I’m glad my paper gave you something to reflect on.
      Best wishes,

  • Jan Hutslar
    4 years ago

    Your paper was so well-written and your passion for UUism and the personal connections made there inspiring.
    I was not surprised, as I have been a DRE for 11 years and love youth worship. I am, though, somewhat distressed at the truth of it. I am planning to enter Divinity School this fall to pursue UU ministry and I want to make a difference and a place for all ages. I take your concerns (and mine) with me to try yo bridge that gap myself.
    Thank you SO much. Don’t give up on us!
    Jan Hutslar
    Canton, NY

    • Ruth Hinkle
      4 years ago

      Hi Jan,
      Thank you for your response! I too am distressed by the truth of it. Until I experienced it myself, I did not see it a potentially traumatic experience. I’ve learned that my experience is so very common and that saddens me. As someone who grew up as a UU, however, I want to thank you for your work as a DRE. My religious education has informed so much of the direction of my life and it is something I will never lose. And even though I have experienced loss, I do not discount the hard work of my mentors and religious educators.
      I promise I won’t give up,

  • Thank you for taking the time to thoroughly think through this problem, and then to share your diagnoses. I discovered the “Magic Pool” (what a wonderful description!) of Unitarian Universalism at the congregation in my college town – with only 40 people attending every Sunday and a healthy mix of welcoming townsfolk (whose average age, it must be said, was a few decades lower than the standard 60-somethings that have shaped so much of our faith) and college students. When I returned to my parents’ house after graduating, I found the absence of a young adult presence in my home congregation isolating. I stopped attending, and felt the lack not only of the “Magic Pool” but a weekly, communal expression of faith. Only recently – with a few more post-graduate years under my belt – have I begun attending and feeling welcome in the church. I’ve joined committees, begun teaching RE, and becoming friendly with other members has made a large difference. But I still miss the “Magic Pool” and the openness of search-driven worship. (It doesn’t help that we’re in the process of renovating our building, so far too much of our Sunday mornings is literally focused on our dwelling place.) I hadn’t been able to articulate before exactly what drew me to my collegiate fellowship and what I am still searching for today. I now know better, and perhaps can help to awaken my congregation more to the needs of its (so very few) young adults. So, thank you!

    • Ruth Hinkle
      4 years ago

      Thank you for your comment, Kate! Like you, I got engaged in the church as an organization (on the Committee on Ministry) and it became my entry into a sense of welcome. I think it’s sad though that it takes that kind of commitment to feel part of the organization. I wonder if visitors, especially returning ones, feel the same way. I’m glad my paper gave you the opportunity to reflect on your own experience.

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