Transform and grow your children and youth ministries and programs
Now I’d like to outline for you one possible process for transformational growth. This is a four step process. In step one, you develop a compelling vision and set measurable goals based on that vision. Then steps two and three run concurrently. In step two, you build the infrastructure to support a growing program. In step three, you pluck some low-hanging fruit to build enthusiasm among families, volunteers, and lay leaders. In step four, you have patience and hold on for at least five years.
Let’s look at each one of these steps.
Step one: Develop a compelling vision
I have served in eight different Unitarian Universalist congregations as a religious educator, an interim minister, and a parish minister. These congregation ranged in size from the 3,000 member Church of the Larger Fellowship, our online congregation, to a 25 member church. Eventually, I noticed that each of these congregations had approximately the same vision for its programs and ministries for children and youth. And finally I wrote down this shared vision in the form of four big learning goals. Here they are:
(1) We want children to have fun and feel they are part of a religious community.
(2) We want children to gain the basic religious literacy expected of informed citizens in our society.
(3) We want children to learn the skills associated with liberal religion, skills such as public speaking, singing, meditating, basic leadership skills, interpersonal skills, etc.
(4) We aim to prepare children to become Unitarian Universalist adults, should they choose to become Unitarian Universalists when they are old enough to make their own decisions. To this end, we help children to become sensitive, moral, and joyful people, people who have intellectual integrity and spiritual insight.
I wrote down these four goals, and began presenting it to parents and guardians of children and youth. They immediately understood these goals, and more importantly they liked them. These goals set forth what they want for their children: to have a supportive place to grow up; to learn some basic religious facts; to gain some basic skills; and to grow up to become good human beings, the kind of good human being we like to imagine Unitarian Universalists are.
Lay leaders and volunteers also like these goals, not only because that’s what they want for our Unitarian Universalist kids, but also because these goals are specific and measurable. Let me take a moment to show you how each goal can be measured.
The first goal, having fun and being part of a religious community, is easy to measure: you track attendance as a percentage of total enrollment from September through May; if your average attendance is 50%, parents are probably dragging their kids to your programs; if you’re at 70%, kids are having fun and they are the ones demanding to go to your programs so they can see their friends and have fun. When you tell volunteers that you are measuring the success of the program by this means, they are more likely to allow time for fun and games and they will incorporate time for kids to talk about their lives; and I have found this means that not only do volunteers start having more fun, but you better meet children’s pastoral need to talk about their lives and have a caring adult pay attention to them. Finally, when you tell your lay leaders that having fun and building community is your first goal, because if kids don’t show up you can’t teach them anything, they understand it immediately, and offer total support.
The second goal, gaining the basic religious literacy expected in our society, is more difficult to measure. We stopped doing assessment in Sunday school many decades ago, and these days we rarely take the time to develop appropriate assessment instruments. However, in the absence of adequate assessment instruments, I have substituted a curriculum grid that outlines which topics we expect a child to go through over the course of their Sunday school career, up through the coming of Age program. It’s a sort of checklist of what we’re going to teach kids; it’s not perfect, but it’s adequate.
The third goal, learning the skills associated with liberal religion, things such as public speaking, singing, meditation, basic leadership skills, interpersonal skills, etc., gets measured about the same way that the goal of religious literacy gets measured. However, these skills can get addressed outside of Sunday school time. For example, assuming your kids are in the first fifteen minutes of every Sunday service, you can teach singing skills by making sure the first hymn comes from a small group of half a dozen hymns and songs that kids will learn by singing them over and over again, week after week. Teenagers can be recruited to serve on committees, with appropriate mentoring. Specific skills can also be incorporated into specific programs: decision-making skills are part of the Our Whole Lives program for grades 7-9; public speaking is part of the Coming of Age program; and so on.
The fourth goal, aiming to prepare kids to become Unitarian Universalist adults, can be measured at the completion of the Coming of Age program. You ask Coming of Age graduates if they want to become pledging members of your congregation, and expect about 50% to sign the book. Then you track participation of high school aged teens in congregational life until graduation, aiming for a 40% rate of continued participation. It is worth noting that right now we lose something like 85% of the people who grew up as Unitarian Universalists; retaining 40% of our kids into adulthood is actually an ambitious goal.
It’s worth noting here that if you set these as your four big educational goals, and if you’re focused on growing your program, you will probably have to let go of some cherished and beloved programs. For example, even though I have been very active in district and continental youth ministry since 1995, I no longer am willing to put time and energy into our district’s Coming of Age and youth programs, even though I miss district youth ministry a lot. First, I have found that district programs attract less than 25% of all our congregation’s youth. Second, my experience has been that district programming rarely meets the second and third of our big goals. Third, I’ve never seen district youth programs result in growth; in fact, it’s usually the opposite. Even though I’ve been deeply committed to district and continental youth ministry since 1995, growth takes a lot of time and energy and I can no longer justify putting time and energy into programs that don’t produce the results I say I want. I bring this up as just one example of how adopting a compelling vision can force you to give up cherished programs and ministries; there are many, many others.
On the other hand, when you present these four big goals as your vision for what kids will get out of your program, everyone — including the kids — responds positively. Kids are happy, even though they may complain, because they feel a sense of purpose, and because they like to know when they’ve achieved mastery of something. Parents/guardians are happy, because they know what they’re going to get. And volunteers and lay leaders are happy because they feel a strong sense of purpose.
Any questions about the compelling vision?