Religious education staffer: administrator, educator, theological resource?

Based on a conversation with a friend, here’s a question about religious education and the role of the religious educator in a congregation:

Should that person spend any Sunday morning time teaching?

This is one of those simple questions that produces a long and interesting answer.

Years ago, religious education theorist Maria Harris suggested that the duties of people doing religious education in a congregation can be divided up into three main categories: theological resource, education, and administration (see her The DRE Book [Paulist Press, 1976], pp. 1-12). Harris further implied that full-time religious education professionals might be able to carry out all three duties, but part-time staff might be able to carry out only one or two of these duties, depending on how many hours they work. I have found this a useful framework in planning out the duties of a religious education professional, both as a religious education professional myself, and as someone who has supervised a DRE when I was a parish minister.

I started out as a half-time DRE in the 1990s, and when I was hired it was clear that the parish minister was the theological resource, and my primary duty was education, with a secondary duty as administration (the RE Committee picked up the rest of the administration duties). Liberal congregations with ordained clergy can assign the theological resource duty to clergy. Most part-time DREs are hired primarily as administrators, where they are expected to manage volunteers and infrastructure. When a part-time DRE is hired with a primary duty in education, if that person is less than two-thirds time, the congregation must decide who will pick up the administration duties that the DRE will have to give up (and remain within the boundaries of paid hours).

What tasks might a religious educator carry out under the aegis of education duties? Having the religious educator simply teach a class is a waste of paid staff time — if all you’re looking for is paid Sunday school teachers, you can get them more cheaply than by making the religious educator teach. In my first job as a DRE, I quickly learned that when I taught on Sunday morning, what I was really doing was supporting volunteer teachers. If the religious educator teaches as part of teams of volunteer teachers, serving as a master teacher who teaches others how to teach by setting an example and mentoring volunteers, that’s a good use of the religious educator’s time.

Beyond teaching, the religious educator can effectively carry out other educational tasks. The religious educator can visit classes and do structured observation and supervision, lead in-service trainings and pre-service trainings, provide support and assistance in lesson-planning, develop curriculum, search out new curriculum, etc. I have come to believe that the closest professional analogy for a religious educator, as an educator, is with a school principal, or better yet with a headmaster of a small private school. Thus, while I would not expect the religious educator to teach constantly, it might make sense for that person to teach occasionally, just as a headmaster of a small school might do. (In larger RE programs with, say, 200+ children and youth, I would expect the religious educator to teach much less.)

As a religious educator who loves to teach, and who thinks of myself as a master RE teacher, I have to be very careful that I’m not teaching just because I love to teach — any time I’m teaching, it has to be for a larger purpose. So I teach as a way to mentor volunteer teachers, I teach as a way to do non-threatening observation and supervision, I teach when I’m in the process of developing curriculum, I teach to build relationships with volunteer teachers, etc. If all I’m doing is teaching, I’m wasting my time and the congregation’s money. When I teach, I should also be building a culture where teaching is valued as a path of spiritual growth, and as a social justice activity, and as great fun. Therefore, if the religious educator is teaching to take the burden off volunteers, I’d say it’s a waste of time and money that will ultimately weaken the program.

All this raises an obvious question: If a religious educator is going be a master teacher as a regular part of their job, how much time will that take up? For each hour of contact time, I plan on two hours of preparation, and I plan on an hour of follow-up time when I talk with my co-teachers (mentoring, support) and/or write up a reflection on the teaching (teaching diary) that I can then use in future teacher trainings. In addition, as a master teacher I plan on 40+ hours per year of in-service trainings and continuing education for myself, so I can continue to grow as a teacher (thus setting an example for volunteer teachers). Thus, just to be a master teacher, I estimate it can take up four to five hours per week — and that’s exclusive of my other educational duties (training, supervision, support, etc.).

And here’s one last interesting question: Can one staffer effectively carry out all three duties, theological resource, education, and administration? It took me five years and lots of workshops and study to cary out the education and administration duties with some degree of competence. It took me another five years and a seminary education to take on the theological resource duty, and to really learn how to carry out the education duty. If a congregation is willing to spend ten years nurturing a new religious educator, or if they’re willing to pay the salary that I can command with my training and experience, then the congregation can expect one staffer to carry out all three duties effectively. Otherwise, no.

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