Joy Berry: Collaboration Needed–Challenges in Religious Education at the Raggedy Edge of Grace

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It may be that when we we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

~Wendell Berry, The Real Work

When I can’t figure something out, I start asking other people for their ideas. As I’ve gotten older, I realize that a willingness to be open to collaboration is a hallmark of (growing) wisdom and maturity! We don’t have to go it alone in solving the big problems–in our own lives, in our families, communities, or the world. That’s something I think we get right in Religious Education: kids learn in our classes and activities that we are stronger, smarter, and more likely to solve a problem together.

The thing I’m having trouble understanding is how we move through some challenges in Religious Education. We are beyond blessed in so many ways. Our strengths? A supportive senior minister who gets the value of the ministry of faith development, and a senior staff team who sees RE as central to the larger mission of the church. An RE staff who are committed and work as a team to orchestrate the communication, supplies, recruitment, and logistics needed to keep a big program’s parts running together. Beautiful, well-curated spaces that are energizing and welcoming. A budget that allows us to offer great projects and resources to make activities truly engaging and creative. Smart, open-hearted children and youth who surprise and inspire me and their teachers each and every Sunday. Families who show up again and again to make it all worthwhile, offering their helping hands and great ideas to help make Sundays sing.

Then there are the numbers.  We combed through them this year to assess the right number to “certify” with UUA. They give instructions to count enrolled and regularly attending but non-registered children and youth. We counted 205 in our faith development family, up 13.25% from last year’s numbers. Our nursery is bursting at the seams and parent covenant groups have multiplied.

So, what’s the problem? Even with all this, we are struggling to recruit Sunday morning leaders for our youngest age group, Spirit Play.  It takes 12 volunteer leaders total to run both the 9:15 and 11:15 program for K-3, with another 12 leaders committed to showing up to lead 4th-12th grade classes. (A bit of of historical context about our program: I was delighted to learn when I began this job in the summer of 2014 that the RE committee had worked diligently to create a new approach in Spirit Play to respond to recruitment challenges. The plan was to get volunteers throughout the year on a date-by-date basis, rather than ask for a yearlong team commitment.) We asked families to make a “cooperative commitment” to help out 8 times a year in the SP centers, join a 4th-12 grade team, or help with tasks like hospitality, special events, greeting, and clerical work. Many, but not all, have done so. The unintended consequence of this decision has been two years of hours spent in weekly recruitment emails and phone calls, often still looking for leaders on Wednesday or even Thursday, the end of the RE workweek before our Friday/Saturday sabbath. Having faith that it will all fall together, again and again, is tough–though it normally all works out.

A couple of times this Spring we have needed to plan an alternate activity when we didn’t have volunteers in sufficient numbers to offer our normal Sunday morning experience. We made it work, but it wasn’t easy or fun. And that’s when I realized we need to come together to find sustainable solutions.

Trying my best these last two years to make the program I was handed succeed has been a series of technical fixes. Switch this for that, start a new class, try a different recruitment communication strategy, take in feedback and try new things suggested by parents.

I have become increasingly convinced we need a paradigm shift instead of a technical fix-an adaptive solution that reflects where families are and what they need, rather than attempting in vain to try to make them fit our expectations. A shift in congregational thinking that raises awareness of the unique needs and blessing families bring to church, and a consideration of how we can ALL collaborate and support this foundational ministry of lifelong faith development.

This is our congregation. It is a whole church family. We must consider each of the stages in the lifespan in our ministry as we covenant together and commit to “how we do church.”

In supporting our elders, we recognize their unique spiritual and physical needs and attend to them as best we can, building supportive networks and opportunities for  their experience and wisdom to guide us.

In order to have such elders in 20 years, we need to support and intentionally include those in mid-life, often sandwiched between caring for both young adult children and ailing parents, and also, often, taking key leadership roles in the congregation.

To have committee leaders and board members and worship leaders and connectors and pledgers in midlife, we have to intentionally welcome and engage young single adults with their unique competencies and energies, meeting them where they are. And we must consider families with parents in their 20s and 30s and 40s. We want to facilitate and sustain their connections to church. Most of them say they are here because of their children and youth, so excellence in our RE programming is essential.  

And to help those parents connect and build their own faith, we have to be willing to share the blessing and the work of faith development for their children and youth. A parent who can’t worship or lead or deepen their faith because they are constantly being asked to teach their own children is a parent who isn’t getting “sticky faith,” who isn’t exploring and questioning and being challenged to grow as a Unitarian Universalist in the way we affirm as essential for every other demographic.

If we can’t support parents’ connections and spiritual well-being because they are always needed in RE, where does that leave us? We send some parents (the very ones, incidentally, that made and keep their RE commitments and more, to make up for those who don’t) home on Sunday with an empty cup and no oxygen mask-even though we know full well they must also serve as their own children’s primary faith development guides throughout the week.

Church, for these parents, isn’t a chance to catch a breath and remember their best selves and reconnect to others in a similar place in their faith journey, to meditate or light a candle, to recenter and go deeper. Church can become instead one more fraying thread in the raggedy, unraveling grace of their lives, one more email to read or ignore for sanity’s sake, one more request for time and energy they just can’t meet, because the demands of caretaking and work and school and multiple schedules leave them completely wrung out. 

And then we wonder, frustrated, why they only come to church twice a month or less; why we can’t get 20 or more parents every Sunday to help us teach their children and youth.

Is there a better way? Join me, senior minister Rev. Mark Ward, congregants from every stage in our church family, and many parents in collaborating on the program of faith development we want and that we can support at UUCA. Our visioning conversations around family ministry and RE continue, in potluck gatherings on the last Saturdays in the next few months: March 26, April 30, and May 28, from 5-7 pm in Sandburg Hall.