Joy Berry: The State of Lifespan Religious Education

JoyBerry-blog

It’s hard to believe, but the last day of Lifespan Religious Education (until Fall) is approaching. Last Sunday marked the perennially popular and deeply moving Coming of Age service, when 9th graders shared their credos (“what I set my heart to”) after a year of discernment in a supportive class with both teachers and mentors to guide them. This Sunday, May 24, our classes celebrate the end of the year with feasts and ceremonies to close out a year of thinking, learning, singing, dancing, contemplating, questioning, and growing together.

The RE annual report is done, but I thought I’d use this time to hit the highlights of the year in RE. Let me say first and foremost that I am so grateful for this year and this congregation. I have enjoyed myself immensely, despite some formidable challenges, and can honestly say I am lucky to be working in my dream job. Thank you for the opportunity to do what I love, surrounded by competent, affirming, inspiring, passionate people.

I came into the position in July 2014 with a brand new RE approach all planned out by the previous DLRE and LRE committee (though not fully recruited for). It was a progressive shift, needed for its pivot toward hands-on, multi-age teaching and learning, a divine and elegant idea. The devil was in the details: We recruited for a total of 200 roles in this year’s RE lineup, a daunting task that led to much concern and collaboration between the DLRE and LRE committee. By year’s end we agreed that the experiment had yielded clear results: it was working great for the kids, but not so well for the adults in charge.We determined that we could return to team-based leaders in the new program without sacrificing the radical shift so loved by those involved. Teams, we believe, are key in helping adults covenant together and deepen their own growth while teaching and leading children and youth.

We learned that we have a blossoming group of 4th and 5th graders who were ready for their own class and needed time and space, as big kids, to leave Spirit Play and the younger children behind. They got their own classroom and a solid team of teachers and began the more structured, guided, dialectical approach to our arc of faith development that we know tweens and teens are ready for, while maintaining a learning environment that encouraged movement, process, and creativity.

We began a Junior Youth Group for 6th-8th graders, with a goal of strengthening bonds in this key age when interest and connection to church can sometimes level off. We learned that we do have a core group that will benefit from such socializing and community building, though we are still in conversation about how to manage the time such a group requires without volunteer leaders.

We had a successful year in Coming of Age, and a truly memorable Credo Service. The CoA class now turns its attention to the Boston Heritage Trip, happening June 13-17. Group leaders Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, Brett Johnson, and DiAnna Ritola will serve as guides for the fun and fellowship and learning that the trip traditionally provides.

10th-12th grade programming is in a state of transition. We recognized a few months into the year that no one was having fun, and made substantial changes, but knew a sea change was needed. Next year’s program will focus on youth leadership and empowerment, with an emphasis on the active process of bridging youth into congregational life and roles. To that end, incoming 10th graders, who have just finished CoA, will collaborate with older youth, the DLRE, and the new RE Coordinator (who is receiving training in youth program development) to develop our new approach.

Adult RE is being transformed into a program that is consistent with the arc of faith development used by the DLRE to provide continuity and clarity for children and youth programs, and that reflects our mission and the spiritual needs of the congregation. A pillars approach will be used in the coming year, so that we have balance and integrity in our adult offerings. In particular, “foundational” classes are being developed – UU 101, if you will–that can serve to bring adults, who often have no experience in UU RE, up to a baseline of knowledge about our unique theology, heritage, and current day work in the world.

The LRE committee is being retired, as most members’ terms were ending this June. In its place, we are developing several small “vision teams” to think deeply and clearly on specific tasks and facets of the program–OWL, CoA, Spirit Play, YRUU, Adult RE, for example. These teams will allow three-four people to collaborate with the DLRE and RE coordinator to ensure excellence in our program. Virtual (teleconferencing) meetings and work by email will reduce the onus of “committee work” that keeps people from engaging deeply in the areas they are most competent and passionate about. We believe this experiment may build access to RE and increase a sense of ownership and engagement with the larger community.

We end the year with over 200 registered children and youth. We have an RE staff that works well together and manages the balancing act in RE of the profoundly mundane and the daily sacred with a healthy dose of laughter and spiritual maturity. We have managed to do substantial renovations, both aesthetic and structural, in RE spaces, and to creatively use our space when new classrooms are needed.