Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 3

First post in this series.

Step two: Building infrastructure

Now let’s go on to the next step, building the infrastructure to support and sustain a growing program. (Remember that step two runs concurrently with step three, which is picking low-hanging fruit.)

If we’re going to adequately support growth of programs and ministries for young people, we’re going to need at least five essential elements. Let me list the five elements I think are essential:

(1) Money, from $1,000 up to $1,500 per kid. Money mostly goes to pay for staff time, and some goes to supplies.

(2) Volunteers, about 1 adult volunteer for every two kids. This includes both volunteers who have direct contact with kids, and those who do support work.

(3) Physical space, about 25 square feet per kid.

(4) A good enough program. We don’t need a supercalifragilisticexpealidocious program, you just need one that’s good enough.

(5) Pretty good plans in place to come up with more of the above when you begin to grow.

Now let’s look at each of these five essential elements.

First, money. If you have a year-round average attendance of 100 children and youth, I would expect you to hire a full-time experienced staff person. In the Bay Area, the total cost for salary and benefits for that full-time staff person will be about $100,000. That person will also need administrative support, in the form of approximately a half-time equivalent staff person, and a modest program budget of two to five thousand dollars. Thus, the total cost to the congregation will be on the order of $150,000, or $1,500 per kid. (Remember that your total enrollment will be around 200 kids, and your peak attendance will be probably come close to 200 on peak Sundays.) If your congregation is in an area that is less expensive than the Bay Area, you might get away with paying less per kid.

You can, of course, try to save money and pay your religious education staff person less. This has been the typical strategy of Unitarian Universalist congregations, and as a result the average tenure of a religious educator is on the order of two and a half years. I would suggest to you that turning over your religious education staff person every two and a half years is not wise. First, staff job searches are expensive, both in actual costs and in time lost due to getting a new staffer to become maximally effective. Second, every time you turn over a staff person, you tend to lose some families. So don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Suck it up, and expect to pay $1,500 per kid.

And there’s another obvious point to be made here: If you grow your program, at some point you will have to increase staff time. It would be wise to have a funding plan in place before this happens.

(2) Second: one adult volunteer for every two kids. You should have four teachers or youth advisors in each teaching team, with about ten kids in each class or group. You have four on each team because you need to have two adults with every group of legal minors for safety reasons, and most adults have busy lives and cannot commit to being present each and every week. In addition to that, you will have other adults serving on the Religious Education Committee, and volunteering to provide program support in other ways.

Now that you know how many adult volunteers you need, you should begin to see that volunteer management is going to take up a great deal of your time. The quality of your volunteers is the key thing that determines the quality of your programs and ministries, so you will want to find the best people to serve, and when you find them you will want to keep them. To do this, remember the volunteer management cycle: recruit — train — support — recognize. And remember that the volunteer management cycle actually begins, not with recruitment, but with support. When your current volunteers feel adequately supported, not only will they perform better, but they are far more likely to sign up to volunteer again.

(3) Third: 25 square feet per kid. When you cram too many kids into a space that’s too small for them, you begin to get behavior problems, which results in lowered attendance. So you really don’t want anything less than 25 square feet per kid.

If you want to grow, it’s good to have a plan in place on how you can add physical space to accommodate growth. Here’s how you can add space without building a new building: Add another session of Sunday school. Use non-traditional spaces for classrooms, including minister and DRE offices. Clean up a room filled with junk to create a classroom. Rent spaces nearby.

The space you use for classes and youth groups does not have to be dedicated classroom or youth group space, but in my experience it does have to look like it belongs to the congregation. In every case that I know of where a congregation rents out rooms to an intensive user such as an outside school or a community group, such that the space looks like it belongs to the outside school or community group — in every such case, the congregation’s program for children and youth has been in long-term decline. The space has to look like it belongs to your congregation, and that your congregation welcomes kids.

(4) The fourth essential thing that you need is a program that’s good enough. It almost doesn’t matter what that program is, as long as it helps progress towards the four big goals we talked about earlier. I hear religious educators debating the relative merits of traditional Sunday school curriculum books, “Spirit Play,” the workshop rotation model, the junior church model, and so on. I don’t think it matters that much. You don’t need the newest, most spectacular, whiz-bang program; you just need one that’s good enough. If your current program is just good enough, keep it; don’t bother looking for a super-duper program.

Having said that, I do think that it is important that your program makes sense over time. That is, your program should account for what an individual kid is going to learn starting at birth and going through at least age 18. This is what we call vertical curriculum integration. At the most basic level, vertical curriculum integration makes sure you don’t repeat the same lesson or topic over and over; I still remember the child who said mournfully, “I don’t want to make dioramas of a Palestinian village; We did that last year, and the year before that, too!” At a more sophisticated level, vertical curriculum integration guides a child through a series of age-appropriate structured learning events so that the child gains a coherent body of knowledge over the course of their childhood and teen years. In short, the actual curriculum books or programs that you use are less important than the overall structure.

Most congregations lose 75% of their kids by the end of the Our Whole Lives program for grades 7-9, and/or by the end of the Coming of Age program. This suggests to me that the typical youth group program is not good enough. Many youth groups spend most of their time just hanging out with one another. While this kind of program works for a minority of teens (say 25% of them), I have heard back from the other 75% of teens who consider this to be a boring waste of their time. A decade ago, I watched as Jessica Rubenstein built the youth group of Winchester Unitarian Society in Massachusetts up to 80 teens — this in a congregation with an average attendance of about 200. In talking with her about what she did, she mentioned that in direct contradiction to the conventional idea of youth empowerment, where the youth run the program themselves, she mostly ran the program; and she said the youth preferred that. My congregation in Palo Alto is almost exactly the same size as Jessica’s congregation; we still run my youth group on the principle of youth empowerment, and we’re lucky to get ten youth showing up on any given week.

Do not underestimate the power of a good enough program. You do not need a stellar program, but you do need one that makes sense over time, and give s a sense of purpose.

(5) Fifth: a plan of what to do if you begin to grow. Where will you get more money? How will you retain and attract volunteers? How will you get more physical space? I have already talked about how you might answer all these questions.

Have you begun to notice how much of what I’m talking about relates to administration and management? I spent fifteen minutes talking about how to measure the size of your program. Now I have just spent another fifteen minutes talking about building up an administrative infrastructure that will take care of money, volunteers, physical space, a good enough program, and planning. Creating a transformative, growing program is not rocket science; in fact, conceptually it’s pretty simple. The hard part is having the patience to follow through on the administrative tasks year after year.

This will bring us to step three…. but first, any questions about building an adequate infrastructure?

And now on to step three….

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Note: Points 1, 2, and 4 are adapted from from Mark DeVries, Sustainable Youth Ministry.

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