Religious Education

Important Statement on Sunday Morning Religious Education from the New England Regional of the UUA:

PAPER:The Death of Sunday School and the Future of Faith Formation by Kimberly Sweeney, UUA New England Region Lead Staff Person for Faith Development.

Video Introduction to the Paper by the author.

From the paper

pg 8

today’s generation of parents, Generation X, is roughly half the size of the Baby Boomer generation, with intense expectations and requirements for volunteerism. The number of volunteers needed to staff these programs has not changed, but the number of adults in this generation has decreased by 50 percent. there just isn’t the capacity to replace the Baby Boomer volunteer base.

pg 9

Oftentimes there is little to no programming that engages the entire family as a family, or that empowers and equips parents for their task as the primary religious teachers of their children and teens. Sadly, many churches blame parents for the situation or have given up on families, “because they don’t come to Sunday worship or the programs we offer, so why bother.”

pg 10:

In New England, the majority of religious educator positions are half-time or less, with many congregations increasingly reducing the hours of these positions. Quarter-time positions maintain the disconnection between children and the rest of the congregation
because there is simply no staff time to align the religious education program with the rest of the church. In effect, the congregation is paying a person to keep young people busy and separate from the rest of the congregation.

pg 13

Roughly 88 percent of adult members come to Unitarian Universalism from other faith traditions or from no tradition at all. The lack of faith development for UU adults is a serious problem, resulting in a high percentage of adults with a tenuous connection to or understanding of Unitarian Universalism. Parents and other adults within a congregation cannot be the guides our children need until they have developed their own spiritual capacity.

pg 22

We have learned that the future of faith formation requires adaptive leadership. It also requires the attention and engagement of the congregation as a whole. Culture shift, embracing new norms, and bold experimentation is too much for a single person to establish alone. Unitarian Universalists have done this work before. Those who came before us saw the need to attend to the religious education of children in ways they had never seen before. Unitarian Universalists can do this work again

pg 22-23

In his book Doing the Math of Mission, Gil Rendle describes three types of leadership conversations: maintenance, preferential, and missional.
Congregations engaging in maintenance conversations will find themselves focused on preserving who they are and what they usually do. This might show up as maintaining a declining Sunday school program for those who show up.
Congregations engaging in preferential conversations will find themselves focused on satisfying the people who are already in the congregation. They will also be searching for ways to keep people happy and unchanged. This might look like a Sunday school model that bases their programming on what people who show up say they want. For example, learning about world religions, more time spent outside, or building a house out of cardboard like we did with the haunted house curricula forty-two years ago! Trying to keep each person happy is never possible, and negates the possibility of planning strategically.
Congregations able to have missional conversations will focus on purpose and the possibility of the future. Missional conversations where people truly say “yes!” create the possibility for the evolution of a church’s relevance, and—in this case—its approach to faith formation.
Unitarian Universalist congregations that have had these missional conversations and have moved beyond the Sunday school model have offered these pieces of advice:
1. Communicate early, often, and in every conceivable way. Preach from the pulpit, include articles in the newsletter, host conversations. People need to feel heard.  It can be important to have intentional conversations with stakeholders, especially those you anticipate will be upset or most resistant.
2. Remember: people aren’t afraid of change; they are afraid of loss. There may be hesitation or resistance in releasing ourselves from the current model, especially if it is the model we grew up with, taught in, volunteered for, or watched children be a part of. This may be the only model the majority of a congregation has ever been exposed to or can imagine. Many congregations have experienced a sense of shame or failure when their Sunday school programs have dwindled or ended.
3. Don’t be surprised if you experience an initial drop off in numbers. Some people won’t have the patience or interest in being part of change or an experiment. Many will come back once the kinks are worked out, or once they see that it “works.”
4. Make a commitment to this journey for several years. Evaluate and make small adjustments as you move along, but don’t make any major changes to your approach for at least two years.
We are in rapidly evolving times, and it is mission critical that we empower one another to face this truth head on. The future of our faith is hanging in the balance.

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Click here to learn more about our adult religious education programming.