I spent last week at the Ohio Meadville District’s Summer Institute, a lovely multi-generational camp held at Kenyon College.  Unitarian Universalists from the all over the district (and beyond) spend a week there in intentional community.  We have historically given our children and youth a lot of latitude and freedom at this event, but recently the volunteer planning committees tightened up some of the rules and policies to align with recommended Safe Congregations practices.

The rule changes surfaced the perennial tension UUs have in the balance between freedom and responsibility.  Freedom tends to gets the most press and elicits the most passion, especially since the tumultuous 1960’s.  Authority is treated with suspicion, and sometimes with outright contempt.  Responsibility can be a spoilsport, a bummer–as outdated and curious as buggy whips and button hooks.

Rumors flew that the new rules were imposed by “those in authority.”  The youth articulated their desire for “more freedom” in the Youth Vespers they presented to the community. Their theme emphasized that the adults should let them make their own choices and learn from their mistakes.  The topic heated up and petitions started to circulate.

After that Youth Vespers, as I was heading back to my room, I saw a older grade-school-age child climbing on a 15 foot tall sculpture.  I went over, saying to him “Hi!  I’m the grumpy adult that is letting you know that it is both against the rules and dangerous to be up there.”  He politely descended.  At that point a younger child–maybe 7 or 8–rode up on her bicycle and asked, “Were you at Youth Vespers?”  “Yes, I was!” I replied.  She then said, “Didn’t you get the message that you adults need to back off?”

When I told this story to my college-age son, he replied, “It sounds like they should be heading for the Island of the Lord of the Flies.”  I laughed, but because his statement hit a little too close to home.  When our congregations lose their way, when covenant and mission are displaced by factionalism and inertia, we repel the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd that we should be attracting.

This story at the OMD Summer Institute had a happy ending.  Skilled leaders arranged for an open discourse for all of the youth about the new rules and how they were developed.  The reasoning of the youth planning committee was shared, understood and affirmed.  Those involved trusted the process and the process worked.

My experience reminded me of the importance of articulating what makes any particular community Unitarian Universalist.  I believe we need to intentionally yoke the values of responsibility and freedom as interdependent equals.

I was also reminded that making time and space for good process is essential even when it might seem redundant and inconvenient.

About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.
  • Mark Bernstein

    Great post, Renee. What a powerful story. I would add that making time for good process, including listening patiently and objectively, is essential when we as adults feel threatened or undermined.