Religious Exploration at UUCWI
Where are the Kids?
Although there are many young families on Whidbey Island, the vast majority of these live in North Whidbey (Oak Harbor) due to its naval base and the amenities that exist to serve that population. Without access to hard statistics, it is nonetheless apparent that the scarcity of island jobs means that many families with young children are best served when their parents have shorter commutes which usually means that they choose to live off-island. Although we have a beautiful Waldorf School in Clinton (for grades K through 8), their total enrollment hovers around eighty students.
The enrollments in the South Whidbey Public Schools in May 2017 were:
Grades K through 5: 543 FTE
Grades 6 through 8: 326 FTE
Grades 9 through 12: 441 FTE
When this congregation was founded (twenty-five years ago), we attracted a relatively large group of children including typical attendance between four and ten youth at weekend meetings of a youth group that called itself WESSIT (Whidbey’s Education Search for Spiritual Teenage Truth). Rene Schlangen ran the program from 1994-1998. After 1998 the youth program declined in numbers. Inthe early 2000s we had typically only one or two children in Sunday school. During the past ten years in our current building, which has three RE rooms, we hired a series of RE directors several of whom had large families. For a few years we held a “movie night” for youth that attracted half a dozen, although Sunday attendance by these youth rarely exceeded three. Despite these investments, Sunday school attendance has rarely exceeded half a dozen children. Last year the board made a controversial decision to cease hiring a paid RE director.
We are fortunate to have several members of our congregation who are enthusiastic about interacting with youth and, in the 2017-2018 church year, we have two members of the congregation who have been willing to work in a somewhat ad hoc manner with any children who show up at services. There are at least two children who come irregularly. We have no Sunday program specifically for youth.
However, this year, for the second time, UUCWI is sponsoring an OWL program for teenagers. The two faculty are members of our congregation. Eleven youth are enrolled of whom two are the children of members; the others are drawn from the community-at-large. The OWL program was also taught in 2015-2016; five students enrolled, one of whom was the son of our RE director. In the summers of 2012 and 2013, a member of our congregation offered a summer math camp (for no fee), which was well attended by children in the community, none of whose families became UUCWI members. In previous summers, a member of our community offered group music classes for children (for no fee); these too were well attended by community members, none of whose families became UUCWI members. One of our previous RE directors instituted a First Friday Game night that drew in members of the community but has been discontinued and has not produced any additional families with young children in our congregation.
Our congregation remains very divided about whether we need to offer a better program or whether, regardless of what we do, we are not likely to attract many families with young children. The demographics are daunting, and not helped by overall trends in declining church attendance by families with children. Yet we are concerned that a congregation that grows older each year and consists largely of retirees may not be sustainable. It is a perplexing and frustrating problem.