Joy Berry: Change as the Only Constant

JoyBerry-blog

Six months in the saddle here as your Lifespan Religious Educator, and we have done so much! I wanted to use this half-year mark to report to you on a few of the most salient of the LRE program’s accomplishments, challenges, and goals. One of the members of the RE staff remarked today that we have had a lot of change since I arrived, so I thought I should speak to that. Change is truly the only constant in life, and yet it’s hard to not feel a little anxious about it. I once heard that people spell change “L-O-S-S.” I also heard, though, that what’s in the bottom of God’s pocket is change. Here are some of the changes we have experienced this year in Lifespan Religious Education.

The Wonder Box: I love having the opportunity to be with the entire congregation once a month during Time for All Ages. It is one of my favorite parts of this calling. It is a great joy to craft a telling that has meaning and is appealing to people young and old. Thank you for the smiles, the laughter, and the comments you have shared about this precious time we spend together, teaching our children and youth what shared worship is about.

Spirit Play: Our younger kids have enjoyed the shift to a more hands-on, interactive program in Spirit Play. 15-20 minutes of deep engagement with one of our faith stories, including wondering questions, turns out to be the perfect amount of direct teaching time for little ones. After that time, they are free to explore and process the story through participatory and active play in the Drama, Science, Art, Music, or Contemplative centers. We’ve had lots of help from adult volunteers who don’t normally teach, and we’ve encouraged folks to share their talents and interests with us so we can help craft activities that are meaningful for all. What’s working? The mixed age groups (particularly K-3), the emphasis on each child’s active, creative processing of the shared story, the carefully curated rooms as centers. In particular, the Contemplation Center has been a huge success, allowing children and adult leaders alike to have an unscripted experience with the many contemplative activities found in the room, at their own pace.  Adults regularly report that they want to teach there every Sunday! What is challenging?  The move away from teaching teams for this piece of the program had some unintended consequences. We hoped to take the burden of teaching off the small number of folks who normally are recruited for teams (teaching all year), but may have erred on the other side; teaching in teams has some real benefits. First, it’s more likely to be a ministry when you are working with people you know. Next, knowing your space, your team, and the kids increases one’s own comfort and competency as a teacher, and reduces last-minute cancellations that require RE staff to fill in. Our solution? We will be recruiting for center teaching teams: a team of eight folks who love working with each particular center, who can call on each other when a sub is needed at the last minute, and who can establish norms of consistency and expectation in the space, while building bonds of mutual respect and affection with kids and between team members. A second challenge we have noted is that our 4th and 5th graders, particularly at 11:15, were not as engaged as we had hoped. The reality is they are ready, after 3-5 years, to take the valuable groundwork laid by years of Spirit Play stories and experiences and to form a peer group in a bounded space they can call their own. They feel like big kids, and they need us to recognize their progress in spiritual and emotional development at this age, when we know they are ready to start grappling with big questions and learning in a more structured way. Our solution? Anna Olsen and Latt Foster, both veteran teachers, stepped forward to lead District 45, in a classroom of their own! (I’m please to note Katherine Murphy will be joining them in the new year.) We started the year with six or eight 4th/5th graders attending – as of last count we were up to attendance of 15 – so the change is working for the kids in question and their families!

Junior Youth Group: A brand new group has formed this year for 6th-8th graders. Parent- and youth-led, this group is finding its footing and making decisions about what it whats to be and do. For now, a core group is having fun and making plans for a social justice activity in the Spring. I believe the fellowship and bonding made possible by a extracurricular group like this will help unify the kids and solidify the identity-building process that church should be for this age group. Being a Unitarian Universalist because your parents say so isn’t cool, at this age – but when young adolescents are supported by our faith community to explore values-based activities and have fun together in a way that is at least partially self-directed, they are more likely to see themselves as UUs. I am excited about this BIG change and hope to see the group thrive and grow in the future.

Senior Youth Group: We recognized early in the year that 10th-12th graders and their teachers weren’t having fun. That’s a big problem, when we UUs have a hard enough time holding onto our youth as they grow up. We did a major reboot a few weeks into the semester, aligning our activities and lessons with a handful of goals like FUN, community building, and service. We decided to give our fabulous advisors more creative freedom and to use the lens of Youth Empowerment and a Small Group Ministry approach, rather than a one-size-fits all curriculum plan. Several weeks later, everyone is enjoying the process a lot more, and youth feel a sense of pride and camaraderie in their efforts toward the Food Donation Drive and their current planning of the Youth Sunday service on February 15th.

That’s a lot of change! I hope (and I’m a person of faith, so I believe) that all this change will add up to real profit for the program and its constituencies. We have other programs and classes, of course; they just haven’t seen as much change this year as the ones listed above. Feel free, always, to reach out to me directly with any questions, comments, suggestions, or words of encouragement! I can be reached at dlre@uuasheville.org.

Thank you all for your support of our work in lifespan religious education here at UUCA. Remember, all we teach is Unitarian Universalism, everything we do is faith development, and the congregation is the curriculum. Keep the faith!