Transform and grow your RE program, questions

Below are the questions asked by participants in the workshop “Transform and Grow Your RE Program,” a workshop I led at the Pacific Central District annual meeting on April 28, 2012. (First post in this series.)

Questions about tracking attendance

(1) Under “policy governance,” should religious education [RE] attendance numbers be shared with the Board? (every month?) — the congregation? — or just the executive team?

I don’t think it matters whether you’re using “policy governance” or any other kind of governance, I believe we should share attendance figures as widely as possible. In my congregation, I report RE attendance every month to the Board, key staffers, the RE committee, and the Committee on Ministry. Attendance figures for the year always go in the annual report, which goes to all congregational members. I also sometimes report attendance to parents/guardians and volunteers.

One key strategy for transforming a congregational system is building in as many positive feedback loops as possible. Positive feedback loops are those ways that people learn how things are going, and that they receive good feelings when things are going well (negative feedback loops are destructive communications like malicious gossip, triangulation, scolding, meanness, etc.). So as a general principle, I say we should be building lots of positive feedback loops all the time, especially with crucial metrics as attendance figures.

(2) Can we see a sample of the spreadsheet you use to track enrollment and average attendance?

Here’s a PDF of our Excel attendance spreadsheet for April, 2012, at the UU Church of Palo Alto: REAttendSample.xls

Unfortunately, I cannot share the spreadsheet we use to track enrollment, as it contains the names and birthdates of legal minors.

(3) How do you calculate average attendance for programs that meet other than Sundays of those that attend more than one program on Sunday? — how about intergenerational services?

I don’t have a good answer to this question.

What I do is to calculate average Sunday morning attendance, and then report Sunday evening or other attendance separately (e.g., our children’s choir has some members who do not come to Sunday school). I base my calculations of average attendance solely on Sunday morning attendance.

But if you have, for example, a Sunday evening youth programming, I don’t think Sunday morning attendance alone is adequate.

Questions about programs and ministries

(4) Have you tried some sort of attendance for kids to attend RE? For example: special event for kids who attended X number of times in a year?

No. Some families have little control over how often kids come due to custody arrangements, and kids themselves have often have little control over whether their parents will bring them on Sunday mornings or not. I feel it’s not quite fair to the kids to give prizes for something they have little control over.

(5) What are the religious skills parents are hoping for?

Meditation: lots of parents are teaching their kids meditation anyway, and we can reinforce that for them (and I like to connect meditation with the Transcendentalists, especially Thoreau and Emerson).

Public speaking, especially for older kids: the public schools no longer do much with this.

Singing: since the public schools have gutted music programs, any kind of music learning is popular with parents.

Leadership development: of course, many programs aim to provide this; but they do so because it’s popular with parents.

Civic skills, including both institutionalism and social action: parents want this, and there’s no better place to learn these skills than in a voluntary association.

And there are many other such skills. Listen to what your parents are saying, and they’ll tell you many more.

(6) How do kids get the idea they’ve “mastered” religious literacy and skills?

Ideally, we would develop good assessment instruments so kids would get timely and accurate feedback about their progress.

However, you can do a lot in Sunday school classes. Try having a closing circle at the end of every class, where you go around the circle and ask each kid what they’ve learned, or where you ask the group to reconstruct what they did in class today (you can coach them). Once kids get the idea that they’re actually supposed to remember things, they start trying to remember what you’re teaching them, and they become able to repeat it back to others, e.g., to their parents on the ride home.

Also, you can make expectations clear to everyone. Tell everyone what your four big goals are, and you’ll see parents and kids wanting to reach those goals themselves; and they will know when they’ve reached the goals, and when they haven’t.

(7) How do you work towards retaining youth as Unitarian Universalists when they become adults?

Well, first of all, we know what we have been doing hasn’t been working. So we should be prepared to try something other than what we’ve been doing. Since we know we lose most of our kids between grades 7 and 12, we will want to look very hard at the programs and ministries we have for those ages. Obviously, too, we need to pay attention to the 18-25 age range as well.

Aside from that, I don’t have any firm answers. I will say that I don’t think it’s enough to have people who grew up as Unitarian Universalists and who might still call themselves Unitarian Universalists, but who aren’t regularly involved in some kind of Unitarian Universalist religious community that provides an ongoing accountability and discipline that leads to continued spiritual and religious growth. I’ve seen lots of people who say, “I’m a UU but I don’t belong to a congregation [or to anything]” — and who are, in terms of their religious development and evolution, stuck back in adolescence. It’s really hard to make religious progress on your own; a very tiny percentage or persons can do it; so nearly all of us need the support, accountability, and discipline of a religious community to make ongoing progress.

A resource I did not mention at the workshop is the book Will Our Children Have Faith? Revised Edition by John Westerhoff (Morehouse Publishing/ Anglican Press, 1976/2000). Though somewhat dated, this book continues to be very useful.

(8) Re: religious literacy — What do we UU say human beings need to do to be “saved”? — i.e., to become whole loving human beings in harmony with ultimate values.

We’re Universalists, which means everyone is saved, whether you want to be or not. And I’m not trying to be flippant or snarky; this is a fundamental part of our belief structure. The old Universalists used to say, “God is love.” We need to realize this all over again.

Something I did not say at the workshop, but should have said: This, by the way, does not preclude the necessity of continuing to work on our religious and spiritual growth. The great Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou pointed out that we can become alienated from the good (from “God”, from love), and by so doing create a kind of living hell on earth for ourselves. According to Ballou, a big part of the reason for being religious is to keep ourselves from being in hell here on earth.

(9)What is your opinion on singing children out of the service? Does it make them feel kicked out of welcomed?

“Singing the children out” might work in some congregations, it might not work in others. But here’s a general principle: we need to listen carefully to our kids, and listen openly and non-defensively. So I was in one congregation where the adults “sang the children out” using the song “Go now in peace.” And I learned that the kids made up their own words for this song: “Go now eat peas, Macaroni and cheese,” and then a couple of lines that I don’t remember precisely but that were unpleasant, and showed that the kids really didn’t like being “sung out.”

Obviously in this case what the children were learning when they were “sung out” was not what was intended by the well-meaning adults. If the kids are getting something that wasn’t intended, then it’s time to stop whatever the practice might be. We need to pay attention to what kids really are getting out of our programs and ministries.

In our congregation in Palo Alto, we have the kids leave during the final verse of the first hymn. It’s just a convenient time for them to leave; there is nothing intended one way or the other. So the kids don’t have any feeling about it; it’s just the time they’re used to leaving the service.

(10) How do you incorporate special needs children in a small staffed program?

As much as I hate to say it, I think you have to be realistic about what you can offer in your congregation. When you’re in a small congregation — and for my money, anything less than an average attendance of 1,000 is a relatively small congregation with limited resources — you don’t have the resources to meet everyone’s needs. If you have a deaf child in your program, and you provide an ASL interpreter, that expense is going to limit you from providing other services to other kids.

Having said that, it is possible to provide good programs and ministries to kids with less demanding special needs (learning disabilities, ADHD, etc.) You can read Sally Patton’s book Welcoming Children With Special Needs: A Guidebook for Faith Communities.

Something I didn’t say at the workshop but should have: Years ago, I went to a workshop in Mass Bay District. It was presented by a congregation that had developed a successful ministry to deaf people. Both deaf and hearing people in that congregation told us that you can’t have a successful ministry for every kind of disabled and able-bodied person. If you’re going to provide ASL interpretation, stick to that, and don’t also try to provide comprehensive ministries to blind people as well. And I later learned this in other contexts, e.g., incorporating persons with serious mental illnesses into your programs and ministries can take a lot of resources.

Something else I should have said at the workshop: UU congregations can be really great places for kids with mild to moderate learning disabilities. We don’t care if kids can’t read, so they can succeed in Sunday school when they’re not succeeding in regular school.

(11) What are examples of alternatives to a traditional youth group program?

If you want to expand and improve your youth ministries, the person to learn from is Jessica Rubenstein, youth minister at the Winchester Unitarian Society in Massachusetts. Winchester Unitarian has an average attendance of about 200 people, which is not very big, but they have a youth program that includes 80 teens. So go take a workshop with Jessica.

I do remember having an email conversation with Jessica, and she said that she does not really use the typical UU concept of youth empowerment, where the youth run the program pretty much by themselves. Her experience was that the youth were just as happy to have adults who would do a lot of the planning and support work. This is not to say that the youth didn’t have a lot of input into the program; it’s just adults did more. This tallies with my experience: while a few youth love the opportunity to run things completely by themselves, more youth are simply frustrated by this approach.

Another great example of a youth program: Some years ago when I was serving in Lexington, Massachusetts, we had a youth group with an attendance of 20 to 25, in a congregation with an average Sunday morning attendance of about 200. Follen Church, the UU church down the road in East Lexington, was about the same size as my church, but they had 40 to 50 youth showing up. I asked the then-MRE, Emily Leite, how they got so many youth. She said that they had alternating programs. One week, they’d devote the whole youth group time to check-in; they next week they’d have a structured program of some kind. There were some youth who came to the unstructured check-in but not to the structured programs; some who came to the structured programs but avoided unstructured check-in; and some who came every week. I thought this was a nice compromise.

(12) What do the teens at the Palo Alto church do on Sunday mornings? (It wasn’t clear to me whether “youth circle worship” was abolished or what.”

I’m not going to abolish “youth circle worship” or any other ministry or program that is adequately serving even a minority of persons. If it’s a tiny program or ministry, I may not be able to devote very much in the way of resources or volunteer time to it, but I’m not going to abolish it.

Having said that, the Palo Alto youth group has been in a boom-bust cycle for decades. Two years ago, the youth group was doing pretty well. Today, it’s down to two youth, both of whom are very involved with non-church activities on Sunday morning, so the youth group doesn’t really meet any more. On the other hand, the middle school youth are currently booming — we have 20 kids enrolled in the Sunday morning middle school group, and another 15 enrolled in the OWL class (with some overlap between the two groups).

One thing worth mentioning: when I first arrived in Palo Alto in 2009, the first youth group meeting had a dozen or so youth and three adults (two advisors and me) in a room that could hold 9 persons (based on 25 square feet per person). I tried to get another, larger room for the youth group to use, but I was unable to get this through the congregational bureaucracy in time. Not surprisingly, within a month average attendance had dropped to seven or eight, which was about the comfortable capacity of that room. The youth group never really recovered from that moment. This confirmed for me once again how important it is to have enough space.

I also have heard from several youth who do not go to youth group because they were bored by it (they told me this in no uncertain terms!). We’ve been using the typical UU youth empowerment model, and these youth thought it was a waste of time. These youth probably represent half of the youth associated with our congregation. The key thing here is to listen closely to the youth and their parents: if we can listen non-defensively, and without preconceptions as to what is the “correct” way to do youth ministry, they will tell us what works for them and what doesn’t.

I believe that the best approach is to have multiple ways that youth can get involved in the congregation. If you don’t have a lot of volunteers or resources, I’d look at the model used by the Follen Church, described above. We’re probably going to try something like that in Palo Alto next year.

Also, we are currently working with the book Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries. We will be following his advice for building up our infrastructure to support our youth ministries on a sustainable basis. I highly recommend this book.

(13) Have you tried integrating small group ministry approaches into your program?

Yes, though not formally. What I suggest to Sunday school teachers is that they have an opening ritual where they light a chalice; then have time for check-in (“say one good thing and one bad thing that’s happened to you in the past week”); then have some kind of structured content, probably a story; then process the story through acting it out, drawing it, discussing it, etc.; then having unstructured time for fun; then having a closing circle. This structure looks very much like what adults do in small group ministries.

(14) Talk about improving the quality of the programming so kids really want to come.

This was answered in some of the previous questions. But really, the important thing to remember is that you only need a program that’s good enough. You can have the best program in the world, but if you don’t also have $1,000-1,500 per kid, one adult per two kids, 25 square feet per kid, and plans in place for possible growth, I would expect kids won’t want to come.

(15) What programmatic changes have you made that have led to the greatest growth?

See above, answer to question 14.

Also, volunteer management is crucial — remember the volunteer management cycle of recruit, train, support, recognize. If your volunteers are happy, they will transmit that happiness to the kids, and the kids will want to keep coming back. Once again, the program only has to be good enough.

Other topics

(16) Would you please describe in more detail your process for how many times you “track” or “interview” families? What I mean by this is what do you make sure to do when new families first come to your church — then when do you follow up with them — then when do you ask them to pledge?

When new families first come into our congregation, you do with them what you’d do with anyone else: make sure to introduce them to someone like them. For families with children, that usually means introducing them to another family with kids of the same or similar age. (I’m assuming that you’re already doing the obvious things: making sure every newcomer is greeted and gets crucial newcomer information, making sure your congregation has a culture of being open and kind to newcomers, making sure that you have a good enough program and adequate infrastructure in place, etc.)

Ours is a small program — only about 100 kids enrolled — so I can follow up with every family at least once a month. I do that informally, just making sure that I talk to everyone as much as possible.

As far as pledging, I make sure to get names and contact info of new families to the canvass committee, and to the finance committee. They mostly do their job, and when they don’t, I bug them.

(17) What is your RE staffing: paid teachers or clergy, volunteers.

I didn’t adequately answer this during the workshop.

As far as paid staff goes, you will want to spend about $1,000-1,500 per kid, and most of that will be on staff costs. As to how to divide that up, that’s up to you. To state the obvious, the more paid teachers you have, the fewer hours you can pay a director of religious education (DRE) or minister of religious education (MRE). To further state the obvious, your DRE or MRE will probably be spending a great deal of their time on volunteer management.

As far as volunteer staff goes, you already know you need one adult for every two kids. If you want to pay some of those adults, that’s fine, but you’ll still need one adult for every two kids.

In terms of my personal opinion, I don’t see how the typical congregation can afford enough paid teachers to come up with one adult for every two kids. I’d be more willing to invest my money in a DRE or MRE with good volunteer management skills — or invest my money in training the current DRE or MRE in volunteer management. But that’s just my opinion.

(18) My first instinct was that growth was a good thing. After walking with the congregation for one year, I have found that we barely have volunteers to run programs for more children. How do we create the structure to make room for growth?

It ain’t easy. Growth takes work. Growth takes patience. You have to keep working on it for years before you really make progress. But keep working the volunteer management cycle — recruit, train, support, recognize — and the more that volunteers have fun serving in your program, the more of them you’ll get who are willing to return year after year.

Something I didn’t say in the workshop but should have: My ideal is to have a volunteer pool consisting of half parents/guardians, and half non-parents/guardians. I also aim for half men and half women. When I achieve both those goals, things go more smoothly. Also, I aim to support volunteers so they will stick around for at least a decade. Volunteering in a religious education program is hard work for the first two or three years, and then it starts to get really fun after that. You want to hang on to volunteers long enough for them to have a lot of fun.

(19) Comment: Send birthday cards to youth who are transitioning into young adulthood to let them know the congregation still loves them.

What a great idea! We send birthday cards to every kid enrolled in the program, up through about age 19. Now that you say this, I’m going to keep sending cards to kids through age 21.

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