Last week, as I began this series of blogs on the work of interim religious leaders and specifically, my work here at Follen in religious education, I wrote about Heritage (coming to terms with history). This week, I continue the series with an exploration of the second interim task: Mission, or “Evolving a Unique Religious Education Program Identity.” It’s often true that programs in churches – and the churches themselves – can be very focused on specific elements, but lose sight of the larger UNIQUE identity that they want to put forward and focus on.
- The areas of the interim leader’s focus, as mission is explored, are several:
- to help the congregation gain a new understanding of itself as a learning community,
- to help the congregation’s religious education community gain self-awareness of its wholeness with regard to learning
- to help the congregation identify its unique RE program identity: strengths, needs, and challenges
- to help the congregation build connections to other groups in the congregation that share part of its ministry with children, youth, and adults
- to evaluate the RE program and its safe congregations policies and procedures.
Well, there’s a lot in this area of engagement, to be sure! When I came to Follen, my observation was that the RE Action Team and I needed to work together to build shared goals for the RE program. There existed a very strong commitment to community and support of one another and friendship – but some of the other key motivators had gotten a little blurry. Over a period of months I am pleased to say that the RE Action Team and I had many deep and meaningful discussions about curriculum, values, and what the ‘pillars’ of religious belief for children and youth should be.
Our conversations included a commitment to offering classes that build a Unitarian Universalist identity – particularly for children in the early primary school grades. There was connection to building support for social justice and UU values (and their intersection) in the older primary and early middle school grades. We all wanted to build understanding of world religions and the ways in which our faith can be lived out in the world for older middle and high school aged youth. There was also clear agreement on offering “Our Whole Lives” for middle schoolers – the values-based human sexuality education program.
There was much love shown for the Coming of Age program that is offered to tenth graders, although less cohesion around how the program was best offered and what the safest and most responsible way to administer the program was. And there was deep love for the congregation’s high school aged youth program, Follen UU Youth (FUUY) which had grown almost exponentially in the last decade. Beyond this, there was a wish to support learning about white supremacy and anti-racism to fulfill Follen’s resolution (“Follen Responds to Racism”) and to address the need for engaged Unitarian Universalists to be allies in the struggle for equity.
As we worked together, we learned how our programs could grow: in order to engage middle school youth fully, a program that would run at least once a month, just for the middle school cohort, needed to be developed, merging social service with pure friendship-building. Some curricula needed to be taken out of circulation and replaced with more contemporary choices that would build learning in the areas we chose to focus on. More timely topics needed to be worked into the FUUY program, while maintaining the philosophy that youth leadership needs to be nurtured and valued. And it became clear that the congregation needed to strengthen its safety policies and practices.
During the first year of the interim period we spent a great deal of time evaluating, discussing, tweaking out values that were important. Part of my work was to find curricula that would work, and for the older elementary and middle school ages, to shape or engage with programs that might improve overall attendance at church and engage youth. This year we introduced “Harry and UU,” based on the popular Harry Potter books of JK Rowling, to the 5th and 6th grade levels, to high acclaim. For 7th and 8th graders, we introduced “D’Oh, God!” – a popular curriculum based on the theology of the cartoon series “The Simpsons.”s. And we worked with a team of parents and educators to reconstitute a middle school youth group that is meeting once a month, mixing service learning and fun, with very strong attendance at nearly each meeting.
The advantage of strengthening the middle school aged-cohort’s offerings is not just seen in attendance now: when these youth have the chance to make connections to one another, and make bonds with the congregation, they are likelier to want to continue to be active in the congregation as they move into high school and beyond. We are adding stepping stones that will, we hope, pay off in the coming years. The Coming of Age program, now using two proven UU curricula with creative input from a group of dedicated lay leaders and others to shape it further, is a vital, safe, engaging program that youth and their families continue to find significant and meaningful.
We focused intently on congregational safety and, through the formation of a task force and ongoing work, the congregation’s attention to youth and child safety is much clearer and the procedures in place far safer than before. There is work to continue, as will be the case for many years to come, but the growth in understanding the importance of proactively safe procedures and congregational behaviors has been significant.
What does the future hold? Although a new religious educator will be at Follen in the fall, the curricula for next year have been selected and identified. The curricula will build on what has been taught this year – changing curricula for variety yet remaining focused on those ‘pillars of learning’ that are so important. The change in early childhood education begun last year – to have a professional teacher offering a UU curricula for PreK-K students, makes a commitment to UU education and values that begins in the early years. More could happen, with vision and commitment; one idea I’ve suggested is that adding the Our Whole Lives curricula created for children in grades 1-2 and 5-6 would further support the congregation’s commitment to safety and to values-based sexuality education. Surely there is no better time in our world for such education than right now.
Another idea I leave with you is that a family worship service or a children’s chapel service on a regular basis would be a blessing and a true faith-deepening experience. With the addition of space to the Follen physical plant, it may happen. What does Follen want to be? What is most important in terms of faith and mission? Let those values inform the faith formation program the church offers – and the possibilities are almost endless!
Deborah Weiner, Interim Director of Religious Education