by Bethany Russell-Lowe (Millennial) and Sharon Wylie (GenX)
This past March, we attended a gathering of UU ministers, a time for us to rest together, to worship together, and to learn together. During a collegial discussion about the future of church in an increasingly secular world, the idea arose that the work for our congregations—not just those of us in the room, but the work for Unitarian Universalism as a whole—that the work for our UU congregations to ensure our survival is to make the transition from the leadership of the Baby Boomer generation (those who are around the ages of 60 to 80) to the Millennial generation (those who are between the ages of the late 20s to early 40s).
Why isn’t the work to transfer leadership to GenX (those who are in their 40s and 50s), the generation in between Baby Boomers and Millennials? Just in terms of numbers, GenX is much, much smaller than the generations that come before and after them. According to Pew Research, the population of Generation X is about 70% of the size of Baby Boomers. GenX CAN’T step into all the roles and positions that Baby Boomers have filled because there just aren’t enough of them.
On top of that, there are some BIG cultural differences between Baby Boomers and Millennials. We know this, right? Social media likes to exaggerate the so-called “fights” between Baby Boomers and Millennials. But the world HAS changed pretty dramatically in just a couple of generations, and the world that Millennials grew up in included the internet, email, and cell phones, along with the harsh realities of the climate crisis, economic volatility, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Their lives and how they see the world are very different from those of the generations that precede them.
For us to transition the leadership of our congregations to Millennial-age people, then first and foremost, we need to have Millennial-age people in our congregations. We don’t have data about the ages of our congregants across all of Unitarian Universalism, but at Sharon’s congregation, they estimate that just 6% of their congregants are Millennials, compared with almost HALF who are Baby Boomers, and 25% who are Generation X.
If congregations like this are to survive and thrive, we need to do much, much more to reach and serve people of the Millennial generation.
Bethany is a Millennial, and Sharon is GenX, and we hope that together, we have some good information to share with our congregations about what Millennial parents would like our congregations to know about them.
We also asked some questions in an online group of UU parents, so we have some feedback and quotes from a wider circle of people.
So here we go: 10 things Millennial parents want our UU congregations to know:
MILLENNIALS ARE DIFFERENT FROM OLDER GENERATIONS
1. Millennials grew up in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic world. 39% of Millennials are racial or ethnic minorities, compared to 18% of Baby Boomers (Pew Research). That’s more than twice as many, and the generation following Millennials (GenZ) is almost half racial or ethnic minorities. To these generations, arguing about the statement that “black lives matter” is archaic. For Millennials, a multi-racial community isn’t an aspiration, it’s who they are. One of our online parents noted, “[we] will absolutely call you on it if you are trying to navigate white supremacy within the congregational system by avoiding talking about it.”
2. Millennials are seeking spirituality, and church isn’t the only option for meaning-making. Casper ter Kuile, a researcher out of Harvard University, explains this well. He says: “We aren’t young people who hate religion. It’s a growing group that feel like they have been left behind by religious institutions.” ter Kuile points to the places where Millennials are creating spiritual community. He mentions peer support groups for grieving 20-, 30-, and 40- somethings, CrossFit, and Afro Flow Yoga as three places where Millennials are finding space for meaning-making and community.
There is a joke among some UU ministers, that in order for church to be relevant in the lives of Millennials, we have to be better than brunch. Because brunch is a Sunday morning alternative to church.
3. Multi-platform is mandatory, not optional. The world has changed. Millennials have always had more comfort with technology than those who grew up before the internet existed, but the pandemic has demonstrated that everyone is able to learn these technologies when they need to. No more pretending that it’s too complicated. (Sharon’s congregation has multiple people in their 90s using zoom, so age is no disqualifier!)
This is particularly important to parents. As one online parent noted: “Remote participation options for things like committees might allow for my participation when otherwise I just cannot manage one more thing I have to drive to.”
MODERN PARENTING IS HARD
4. Climate chaos is impacting parenting.
From Rev. Bethany:
Many of us are choosing to not have children because we cannot ensure that the Earth will be inhabitable in their lifetime.
If we decide to have children, we are agreeing to live alongside the fact that we might not be able to leave an inhabitable world for them. We are raising them to be prepared for this world.
We want church to be a place where we can explore the existential questions of our time: How do we raise healers, restorers, communicators? How do we raise kids that become adults who are part of the solution, not the problem?
We are not only seeking your advice. We are seeking your companionship, because we know you have, or had, these questions, too.
If you were raising children during the Cold War, or Vietnam, or another existential crisis, how did you grapple with the fact that the future was so uncertain? How are you feeling about our own part in bringing about climate chaos?
5. Childcare is really, really expensive. In Pima County (Arizona), it costs a median of $12,500/year for full-time childcare for an infant, and $9,700 for full-time preschool. Those figures are between 13.7% and 17.6% of median income in the county.
In San Diego County (California), it costs a median of $19,000/year for full-time childcare for an infant, and $13,500 for full-time preschool. Those figures are between 14% and 20% of median income in the county. (Find your local rates here.)
Many people pay more for childcare than they do for rent or mortgage.
Since 1990, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that childcare costs have risen 214% while the average wages have only risen 143%. Childcare costs have gone up 40% in many cities since 2020, when the pandemic forced many teachers to leave the profession.
It’s not about the lattes or the avocado toast. The cost of housing, and childcare, and everything has increased disproportionately to the increase in wages. Even those Millennials and Gen X’ers who consider themselves “middle class” are struggling to make ends meet, especially if they are raising kids. If they are pledging $25 a month to church, that might be a stretch for them.
Know that when Millennials ask their congregations to pay for childcare, they ask knowing exactly how expensive childcare is.
6. Modern parents are raising their children during a mental health crisis. As hard as the pandemic was on all of us, among the hardest hit were families with young children, who were suddenly expected to manage and oversee their children’s schooling on computers at home. The pandemic has had devastating impacts on learning and socialization. Anxiety and depression in children has escalated, along with suicidal ideation. This comes at a time when there are not enough health care providers to meet the demand.
This means that parents are living with enormous challenges and stressors. Making time for church on Sunday mornings takes a substantial effort. It can be a challenge for parents to volunteer their time in some area of church life because there may be at-home emergencies that pop up, impacting a parent’s ability to show up for a scheduled meeting or volunteer commitment.
This is an area where the congregation has to have realistic expectations. We’re here as a community to support each other, not to be another burden on an already overwhelming to-do list. Let’s be gentle with each other, forgiving of each other, supportive of each other. The time we take to check-in with each other at the start of a meeting may be the most important part of the meeting! The things we hope to achieve as a community aren’t nearly as important as the support, care, and love that we’re here to offer each other.
HOW WE TREAT MILLENNIALS
7. Millennials sometimes feel invisible in our congregations.
From Rev. Bethany:
We are already showing up. And we’re already here.
Until I was pushing thirty, nearly every time I walked into a new UU church, I was directed to the youth room for the teen gathering. Since I come with a toddler in tow these days, now, I’m directed to the nursery.
Even if I was a teen, and even if I was in search of the nursery, what I want when I walk into a church is to be seen. To be welcomed. To be asked “What brought you here?” “What are you seeking?”
When I’m directed somewhere other than the sanctuary, when I’m assumed to be a decade younger than I am, it doesn’t make me feel welcome.
What if you assume that we are already here?
If you started looking for us, you’d soon learn that we’re likely to scope out your church before bringing our kids to it. If you want our kids, you have to welcome us, first. We’re not willing to bring our kids to (yet another) environment where they won’t feel welcome. We test out your welcome, and bring our kids when we have trust that they will be welcomed as they deserve to be.
Look for us. Approach us. Introduce yourself. Ask if we’ve met before. Ask us what brought us here. Ask what we liked about the service. Offer to show us where the coffee and tea are. Or give us a tour of the campus. Show us where the nursery is, and show us your favorite corner of our sacred space. We are here for ourselves, not just our kids.
From Rev. Sharon:
I’m not a Millennial, but I did start attending a UU church when I was 32 years old. Congregants were so excited to welcome us “young” people that my husband and I joked about people jumping out of the bushes at us. Everyone wanted us to come to their committee meetings, but we just wanted meet and get to know people, not join a committee.
For years, older congregants assumed I was new to the church, even though I had been a member for quite a while. It’s strange to somehow feel hyper-visible—like everyone is watching you because being in your 30s at church makes you young—but somehow also invisible, like you were never treated like a real congregant.
8. Millennials in our congregations are ready to take on leadership roles. Because in their eyes, what we are doing and how we do it need to change. Those two things go together: Millennials are leaders and things need to change!
This can be a struggle in church life because current church leaders are usually looking for the next leaders who will step in and continue doing things the way they’ve always been done. But that’s not likely to happen. Innovation happens in every generational shift, and Millennials’ comfort with technology means they are eager to experiment with technology that makes organizing simpler and faster.
We know this can feel like a tender subject to our congregants who WANT to step back from leadership roles but feel there is no one to take their place. If you can’t pass it on, sometimes the work is to step back, and let it go. Let your thing flounder. Leave it to the next generations to figure out what to do.
9. BUT! Millennials in our congregations are not going to run the Religious Education (RE) program. Previous generations may have sought religious community for their children, but Millennials are coming for their OWN spiritual development. The world is a hot mess (literally), and Millennials need support and spiritual nourishment for facing the challenges of our times. If we want to attract and keep Millennials in our congregation, we need to provide the support and programming that they are looking for, not expect and hope that they will provide their own programming for themselves.
10. Our congregations need to recognize that children are congregants. This is an area where the online parents had the most comments. Their words:
- Stop insisting that children be quiet, inside AND outside.
- Children are casual and playful and joyful – let church be their home.
- Please connect to the children as real people. They need more adults who care about *them* specifically. They all need more adult attention. Please, pretty please, listen to whatever their current passion is (YouTuber Pokémon dinosaurs, I don’t care) because I have already listened to this approximately 36 hours a day for the last year and please I just want to drink my coffee.
- Some kids have invisible disabilities and what you might think is bad behavior (or a bad kid) is just part of who and how they are in the world.
- And if you give us dirty looks because our kids are being kids, we won’t be back.
SO WHAT’S TO BE DONE?
We know that some of the information we’ve given here is a little complex:
- Welcome Millennials and “see” them, but don’t be so hyper-welcoming that it gets weird.
- Know that Millennials are leaders who want things to change, but they are also exhausted and can’t provide all their own programming.
It is up to congregational leaders to find the balance needed to genuinely welcome younger generations and follow (and support!) their lead.
But some of the needs that Millennial and Gen X parents have, as well as guardians of all generations, are not so different from our own needs.
People of all generations want us to be more bold and visible in our justice work.
People of all ages want to explore what shared leadership and collaboration look like.
People of all ages want to challenge “the way we have always done things.”
People of all ages want to be recognized and celebrated for who they are. They want genuine connection and to relate to people of similar and different interests. Some of these people, just happen to be shorter and under the age of 18.
People of all ages benefit when we use and improve our capacity for multi-platform church. When we make meetings virtual or hybrid—in person and virtual—people of all ages benefit. Some can hear better, others can see better. Some can attend from wherever they are – the soccer game or the trip across the country – and everyone can benefit from the use of the mute button.
Making space for younger generations to take on leadership in our congregations, to welcome them into our communities, makes more space for people of all ages to thrive.
With the religious landscape in a time of upheaval that began even before the pandemic, there are predictions that two-thirds of all religious communities—including UU congregations—will close in the next 10 years. If we are to survive this grim prediction, we need to create the conditions for people of all ages to thrive in our communities.
UU congregations can avoid, or at least delay, this decline if we can shift to being places where people of all ages feel welcome, and where people of all ages can take over new leadership.
ONE FINAL NOTE! GenX congregants have a crucial role to play in guiding the transition to Millennial leadership. GenXers have been called chameleons, bridge builders, and translators between Millennials and Baby Boomers. Their leadership in our congregations is critical to pave the way for Millennials.
Remember that Unitarian Universalism has much to offer in this era when disconnection, loneliness, and feelings of powerlessness abound. The world needs us more than ever, and it’s up to us to rise to meet these demands.
And finally, for fun: GenX welcomes Millennials to aging: