Everywhere I turn, conversations about the future of the church and organized religion and even Unitarian Universalism in America are happening. Some believe faith communities are in certain danger of extinction; some believe that it’s only a matter of time, unless we chart a new course. Luckily I still have faith: I believe that people always have been and always will be in need of sacred spaces and experiences, a tribe, and a way to make meaning of their lives.  (And help with the children, forever and ever, amen.) Whether we have the will and the energy to make sure our churches can still do all those things in a world changing beneath our feet is an open question, but a hopeful one.

After all, it’s ours to do, and no one can stop us. Should we decide to focus our energy on making the church more responsive, we could more finely tune “how we do church” to the needs of today’s congregants. We can decide to consider how best to raise our youngest congregants with strong UU faith identity that is more likely to keep them with us, rather than continuing as a faith that replaces those we lose only by welcoming new converts and seekers. We can decide how to help families see our congregations as an essential helpmate in the overwhelming work of raising their children, and where they too, as grown-ups, continue to learn and grow as UUs. My training and education sets my sights on family ministry as an essential element in how we do church that has the capacity to help us live responsively in the now and be ready to adapt for the changes the future will bring.

Recently, 40 adults and many children gathered in Sandburg Hall with Rev. Mark Ward and me to begin a conversation about “what we set our hearts to” at UUCA, particularly in the area we have called religious education. The conversation is ongoing; look for more opportunities to gather, to dream, to conspire about our work and play together. But the heart of why I see such an urgent need to begin that conversation is what I want to share here.

I believe that a new paradigm or way of seeing the work we do in faith development is needed. Sunday morning classes for children and youth, and child care for babies, is no longer enough as we consider what parents and families in post-modern America need from their faith communities.  Although “RE” is still important, I believe that Family Ministry goes further and can help us orient ourselves in faith to a brave new world and the unique responsibilities and competencies that we should be willing to claim and manifest as a faith community.

Family Ministry: what is it? The UUA defines it as a way of seeing what we are called to do in congregations, one that must be defined by individual congregations through a process of discernment. Read more here.

With the firm belief that effective ministry with families involves building a partnership between congregation and home, (we) offer…questions to help congregations become more family-friendly and to help families at home nurture their Unitarian Universalist faith.

The questions asked do two things: both reflecting the unique needs that families have in church and helping us see that families are essential to the growth and vitality of our faith communities–which is why we must start posing the questions the UUA encourages us to ask.

Our visioning process at UUCA began with my belief that we should pivot to a family ministry approach from a strictly “religious education” one. After all, both adults and the children they are raising need faith development, including classes and other opportunities for learning (which happen throughout the church, and not just on Sunday morning). And both adults and children need opportunities to worship, to do social justice, to engage in fun and fellowship together. When we move to thinking about family ministry, we recognize that we are called to integrate all ages more fully in our shared human work of  faith development: in our congregations, in our families, at home, in the pews and the classrooms and at coffee hour–and in the wider community as we work to build the beloved community we dream about. This is all faith formation.

Maria Harris wrote decades ago, in Fashion Me a People (see a synopsis here) about the congregation being the true curriculum in any church. She meant that who we are as a people of faith – through our actions, our inaction, our values, our welcoming and inclusivity (or lack thereof) – teaches more deeply and fully than any one class or program can ever do, especially to our children and youth, who are soaking up and forming identity from all they witness. Connie Goodbread, part of the UUA’s Southern Region staff team, adapted Harris’ idea further, saying.

“Faith development is all we do.
Unitarian Universalism is all we teach.
The congregation is the curriculum.”

This approach means that our ministry of faith development is happening all the time, whether we recognize it or not, and that we as a faith community need to think deeply about how and what we are teaching.

I believe our work in Religious Education ministry in the next few years can and should pivot to Family Ministry:  an approach that sees faith development not as a transactional method through which we give and children and youth receive, but as our central calling, meaningful work for all ages, and transformational for individuals and the whole church.

Family Ministry can more fully recognize and support the whole church family as a joyfully integrated one, with work and learning that happens in both age-graded groups and in multigenerational ones. It can help us begin to see children and youth as a blessing, not units in a program, to which resources must be allocated.  It can lift up the youngest congregants, as not only needing our shared support, but also in a unique position to transform our congregations, reminding us that we are still alive in a world that keeps telling us churches are a dying breed.

Family ministry can also help us see the unique needs of families, who remain the primary religious educators of their children and youth six days of the week–and ask us how we might serve them better on Sundays, so they can do the work only they can do at home. It will help us help them grow in their faith journey together away from church, by focusing on providing more resources and support for that unique role. We can expect them to come back to church on Sundays more energized, more centered, and more committed to the work that can only be done in the place we come together. After all, church is a touchstone that reminds us who we are – and who we want to be. I believe that vision of a new way to keep our individual identity, our local church, and our wider faith alive and vital begins with Family Ministry.

In my upcoming communications, look for a presentation of the ideas, hopes, and challenges we heard from families at our recent RE Visioning night, and be ready to share your own. I hope you will join in our upcoming and ongoing conversations about the future of religious education and family ministry in our congregation.