Small RE programs, pt. 6

Read the whole series.


This session, we opened with a reading from an old Unitarian book titled The Little Child at the Breakfast Table, a collection of 31 daily readings for Unitarian parents to read to their children at the breakfast table. (You can download the entire book, or read it online, here.) I read the introduction by the editors, William and Mary Gannett, where they explain the purpose of the book. They say in part:

Are not many mothers and fathers today vaguely longing for some kind of “household altar,” fitted to our own time and feeling? A few of these may like to try our simple way. Not a return to the old form of “family prayers,” but some custom akin to it is needed, — greatly needed, if conscious reverence be a quality as worthy of culture in ourselves and in our children as truthfulness and kindness.

While many of the readings now sound dated to our Unitarian Universalist ears, some of the readings could still be read aloud by parents to their children between age 5 and 10 (see, e.g., p. 16). I suggested that this kind of resource would be a great help in trying to reach some of the big outcomes we identified. For example, if one of our desired outcomes is to help UU kids become UU adults, this kind of simple activity could help move towards this outcome by making Unitarian Universalism and UU values become a part of everyday life. Unfortunately, The Little Child at the Breakfast Table was put together in 1915, and it won’t work for us today. But if enough of us start thinking about it, I’ll bet we could assemble a similar book for 2009 UU kids. (I’ve collected a few such readings here, but this is a bare beginning.)


We talked about our teaching portfolios. One participant said that this didn’t feel like a portfolio — all she had in her portfolio was a small collection of teacher evaluations from her sample lesson. I agreed — that’s not really a portfolio — but I said I hoped that this would be the beginning of a larger portfolio. Other teaching evaluations and self-evaluations could be added to this portfolio, and it would also be possible to keep a teaching diary (like the teacher’s diary in Exploring Religion with Eight Year Olds) which could become a part of the portfolio.

I also suggested that we could all think about teaching as a kind of spiritual practice (“if,” as one participant said, “we are intentional about it”). When we teach, and when committed volunteer teachers teach, our teaching can provide us with spiritual growth and transformation. This is the essence of a teaching ministry — a teaching practice that helps the world, but which also transforms you.


Next, we turned to the thorny question of how we could bring all this back to our congregations. How do you get a congregation to use outcomes to drive their religious education programs? How do you begin to get people to think of what they do in Sunday school as a teaching ministry? — how do you start building a community of teachers?

We talked over a number of ideas. And we all agreed that there is no one answer to these questions. Congregations can be very resistant to change, and a head-on direct approach (“Hey, let’s change and start doing outcome-driven religious education rather than what we’re doing now!”) can lead to people digging in their heels and resisting any and all change. One participant said she’s going to invite the RE Committee to her house, cook them dinner, give them a glass or two of wine, and start a discussion on what we want our kids to get out of religious education. We all liked this idea (though it won’t work in all of our congregations). Other participants talked about implementing bits and pieces of some of the ideas we’ve covered in the workshop. Two participants talked about taking key decision makers out to lunch, and just talking over these ideas.

This launched me into a discussion of systems theory as it applies to congregations. I said that congregations are not linear systems; they are complex non-linear systems, made up of interlocking feedback loops (some of the ground-breaking work on systems theory was done by Jay Forrester). This means that a cause-and-effect approach to problem-solving probably won’t work; in fact, trying a direct approach to implement change often leads to short-term change, followed by a swing backwards, and eventually settling down to the previous status quo.

I also talked about applying family systems theory to congregational systems. (A general introduction to this is How Your Church Family Works by Peter Steinke.) After introducing some basic concepts of family systems theory, especially the concept of relationship triangles, I said that it can be impossible to change a whole congregational system. But what we can do is change ourselves. The only problem with changing ourselves is that as we change, often the congregational system wants to maintain the status quo, and there will be a lot of pressure on us to go back to the way we were before we started to change. But we can work through that pressure by managing our anxiety, and continuing to maintain our personal movement towards personal growth.

In other words, one of the ways to change a congregational system is to change ourselves. (Obviously, I’m assuming that our personal change is in a positive direction, that is, we are personally moving towards greater health.) One way to change ourselves, in the context of this workshop, is to continue to work on our teaching practice. As we personally change and grow as teachers, this can send ripples through the interlocking feedback loops of the congregational system, and perhaps turn the system towards positive change.

I said that we can also change ourselves by concentrating on outcomes. Once we know what outcomes we want to head towards, it becomes much easier to prioritize our time. For example, if we want to work towards the outcome of having UU kids grow up to become UU adults, counting magic markers in the religious education supply room becomes a lower priority than inviting key decision makers over for dinner and a conversation about big-picture questions. I also pointed out that overwork (a constant problem for religious educators) can be a way that the congregational system tries to maintain the status quo by keeping the religious educator from spiritual growth and transformation.


To end this workshop, I asked each participant to reflect on the following question: What (if anything) was most transformative for you in this workshop?

Here are snippets from the participants’ responses:

  • “The reminder that religious education can be so much simpler,” and that it is possible to go to a deeper level.
  • “That I can help shape the program whether it grows or not.” [In other words, while numerical growth is nice if it happens, small churches can’t count on numerical growth; but we can have excellent religious education even without numerical growth.]
  • “To be told, not just that our religious education programs can be based in outcomes, but also to know that here are four good outcomes.”
  • “The idea which I find very liberating is that you can have these outcomes, and have very simple ways to get there…. Just the idea that we can lay out a yearly outcome or goal, the simplicity of that is very freeing.”
  • “The breadth of the outcomes.”
  • The teaching evaluation process and “some of the wisdom that comes out of that process” which helps us to get to a deeper level.

So ended this workshop — which the participants suggested should actually have been called “Reinvigorating Your Religious Education Program.”

1 thought on “Small RE programs, pt. 6

  1. Lynn Medley

    Thanks for the blog review of the sessions, Dan. They are very helpful, both from a review standpoint and from seeing what you thought was the most important. I am delighted to find so many references and resources. And all of this as you are moving. Thank you.

    You had asked me to comment on the small-but-powerful idea of setting a goal of a certain number of “contacts” to make per student per lesson. The definition of a contact is, simply, giving a student your undivided attention for a brief period. It may involve speaking to them, or even asking them a pre-determined question to see if they have gleaned a specific bit of information, but in the RE context, simply listening to them or observing them with undivided attention for 15-20 seconds will be a valuable contact.

    This is an idea that comes from the special education world, and has as dual goals in that setting: 1) knowing specifically per student what you intend him or her to get from a lesson and 2) checking-in with that student to see if you are on track to getting them there. Obviously, our RE lessons may not be this individualized (but wouldn’t it be nice!). My suggestion in our class at Ferry Beach was simply to, as a teacher, set a realistic goal of how many contacts you plan to make per student per class — 1 or 2, perhaps — and to make sure you do so (you might even have a spot on your attendance sheet to check off how many contacts you made!). The practice of making individual contacts makes student assessment clearer, and building this concept into teaching gears activities in the planning stages towards outcomes.

    Until next year!

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