Portrait of a religious education program

This is a portrait of the religious education program at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), where I am the Associate Minister of Religious Education. While I focus on religious education for children and youth in this portrait, I also look briefly at religious education for adults.

While this is way longer than the average blog post, nevertheless I thought some of you might be interested in reading this portrait — both to see what another religious education program looks like, and as an example of one approach to describing religious education programs. I wrote this portrait based on questions asked by Dr. Mark Hicks for the course “Religious education in a changing world.”

(References appear at the end of this post.)

History and origins of the religious education program

The current congregation succeeds an earlier Unitarian congregation in Palo Alto. The earlier congregation had roots going back to the missionary work of Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes in 1895. The congregation both called its first minister and built a building in 1906. The congregation held its last services c. 1929, and the congregation’s assets were finally transferred to the American Unitarian Association (AUA) in 1934 (Niles, c.1951; Lee, c.1991).

From 1906 through about 1920, the Sunday school was an important feature of this earlier congregation. In the July, 1915, issue of The Pacific Unitarian, Rev. Clarence Reed, then minister of the Palo Alto church, wrote about the congregation’s “outdoor Sunday school.” Opening and closing exercises were held in a graveled court in the center of a garden. Classes met in different places under a pergola. A sand box in one corner of the garden could hold every child in the primary class. Photographs accompanying the article show eight teenagers in one class, and eleven boys who appear to range in age from upper elementary to junior high grades.

The religious education programs of this older Unitarian congregation are now almost completely forgotten.

In 1947, the present congregation began forming, meeting in rented space, and supported by AUA field staff and local ministers. “In the minds of many of our group the chief reason for forming the Palo Alto Unitarian Society had been to obtain liberal religious education for their children.” (Niles, c.1951) However, it took a year to get a Sunday school organized, and for another year the Unitarians ran a Sunday school cooperatively with Palo Alto Friends Meeting.

By 1949, when the congregation (now known as the Palo Alto Unitarian Church [PAUC]) called their first minister, there were 25 children enrolled in the program. As was true of so many mainline church schools in the post-World War II years of the Baby Boom, this enrollment grew quickly. Within five years, there were over 200 children enrolled. By the time they moved into the new campus they built for themselves, they had enrolled 461 children and teenagers, who attended Sunday school in three different sessions on Sunday morning. They needed three sessions because their newly-built campus was only designed to hold about 130 children at a time in 13 classrooms. During these “glory days,” religious education was at the center of church life.

High attendance continued through 1968. After that, as was true for so many mainline congregations at that time, attendance began to drop. In 1971, the congregation hired a full-time minister of religious education, Rev. Ronald Irving Hargis; he was a former Baptist minister who had gotten his Th.D. in 1961 with a dissertation on George Coe. Enrollment had fallen to 250 in 1972. In 1972, the founding minister of the congregation resigned in the midst of conflict. The religious education committee began offering one traditional Sunday school session, and a second session based on the open classroom model. But in spite of innovation, it was impossible to buck the demographic trend, and enrollment bottomed out at about 100 in the mid-1970s. Hargis resigned in 1978.

Since then, children and youth religious education enrollment has generally hovered between 60 and 125. The youth group has struggled along, with some years when average attendance appears to have reached ten or so high school age teens, and other years with an attendance of zero. Under Director of Religious Education Edith Parker, overall enrollment rose somewhat in the 1990s, fluctuating between 80 and 140. Under Parker, attendance rose enough that the Sunday school had to reclaim some rooms which had been converted to the sole use of adults. But generally speaking, religious education programs for children and youth lost their central importance in the congregation’s life.

When Parker resigned in 1998, the congregation decided to hire Rev. Til Evans as interim religious educator, to help them discern whether they should return to having two ministers, including one minister of religious education. The congregation’s attendance was growing at this time, and had added a second Sunday morning worship service. The congregation decided that they needed a second minister to continue growing, and called a minister of religious education in 2000. However, enrollment in children and youth programs remains under 100, and although the congregation remains generally committed to having two ministers, since 2000 the congregation has experienced financial anxiety as they try to fund two ministers.

[In addition to the cited sources, for this capsule history I drew on religious education files and archives going back to the 1950s, conversations with lay leaders, ministers, and long-time members of the congregation, and my own personal observations and knowledge.]


In 2009, a new minister of religious education (MRE) was hired, and at that time the parish minister began supervising the MRE; prior to that, the MRE and the parish minister were co-ministers. Beginning in 2010, with an average annual attendance of about 190, the congregation accepted recommendations by consultant Alice Mann and began trying to move intentionally towards a program-size organizational structure. At this time, the parish minister was made head of all paid staff.

The details of this reorganization are still being worked out. However, the general outlines are clear: the congregation’s membership elects the Board of Trustees; the Board of Trustees supervises the parish minister; the parish minister supervises the MRE; the MRE supervises the RE assistant and the child care workers. The parish minister is called by the congregation, and the MRE is hired by the Board with an open-ended contract. The MRE shares responsibility for the overall children and youth program with the Children and Youth RE Committee (CYREC); CYREC is directly accountable to the Board. The MRE shares overall responsibility for the adult religious education program with the Adult RE Committee (AREC); AREC is directly accountable to the Board.

Paid staff for the children and youth program includes the following: full-time MRE; quarter-time RE assistant; five child care workers each Sunday for infants and toddlers, and for older children after Sunday school.

Volunteer staff includes the OWL coordinator who organizes OWL for gr. K-1, 4-6, and 7-9 (and who is an ex officio member of the CYREC); 4 to 8 OWL teachers per year, depending on which units are offered; a Family Choir Director; 4 senior high youth advisors; approx. 30 Sunday school teachers for pre-K through gr. 8; 3-4 Coming of Age program leaders and mentors as needed; 10-12 volunteers for the annual spring project; 3-5 summer Sunday school volunteers; 2 parent discussion group leaders; 6-10 volunteers who take on special projects during the year. All these volunteers are supervised by the MRE, although the OWL teachers are jointly supervised by the OWL coordinator and the MRE. There are also 4 leaders for the new affiliated chapter of the Navigators scouting program (not all of these are part of the congregation); these volunteers are supervised by the Navigators charter committee, which reports to the Board.

At the end of each calendar year, RE enrollment is reported to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) as part of annual certification. For the purposes of certification, a young person is considered enrolled in the Sunday school or youth group if (a) parents/guardians fill out a registration form; and/or (b) the young person attends at least three sessions between August and December. Only about three quarters of regular attendees have registration forms on file.

Average attendance for the entire congregation is also calculated for annual UUA certification. Attendance totals for CYRE programs include children, youth, and adult leaders. For the 12 months from June, 2012, through May, 2013, total CYRE attendance (including summer Sundays) was 55.5 persons. In that same period, monthly average attendance was highest in February, 2013, with over 80; since there are typically about 18 adults counted during February, the average number of children and youth averaged about 60. Attendance was lowest in June and July, 2012, with about 21 persons; with about 8 adults present in these months, there were about 13 children.

We have less precise attendance data for adult programs. Adult programs are broken up into fall, winter, and spring sessions. Offerings include multi-session courses and one-time events. Generally speaking, something over 50 unique people attend adult classes each session. AREC is currently working on getting more accurate attendance information.

Educational philosophy and goals

Children and youth religious education:

The general philosophy of religious education in the children and youth programs is a combination of essentialism and progressivism, with hints of two other educational philosophies.

Essentialism is slightly more important than progressivism. “Essentialist educators stress academic excellence, the cultivation of the intellect, and the transmission and assimilation of a prescribed body of subject matter. The discernment of truths from this perspective is possible through the use of careful observation and reason.” (Pazmino, 1997) In this predominantly humanist congregation, the use of reason is valued very highly, and both parents/guardians and the wider congregation want to instill critical thinking skills in children. At the same time, the congregation wants to instill knowledge of our and other religious traditions in our young people. A common feature of Sunday school classes is the presentation of a traditional religious story (e.g., one of Jesus’ parables, Buddha’s birth story, a Navajo creation story), followed by a conversation in which children and adult leaders talk about how the story has elements of truth, and elements of fantasy.

Progressivism is a close second to essentialism. “Progressivism fosters the development of reflective thinking for social problem solving, democratic relationships, and growth. Progressive educators strive to enable students to learn how to learn in order to adapt to a changing world.” (Pazmino 1997) In our congregation, young people are introduced to democratic processes through direct participation, at first in their classes, and and when they are older in the wider congregation (e.g., teens currently serve as worship associates, and one teen was recently elected to the Board). Young people are also introduced to various social problems, and invited to participate in addressing some of those problems in age-appropriate ways.

The Our Whole Lives (OWL) comprehensive sexuality education course are based on the older About Your Sexuality course, which was grounded in an existentialist educational philosophy. Something of an existentialist philosophy continues to permeate the OWL offerings, i.e., that humans are capable of making choices that help define who we are.

The district youth programs of Pacific Central District are rooted in romantic naturalism, which values individual freedom and self-actualization. At times, this educational philosophy has colored some youth programs at UUCPA.

The CYREC has adopted four broad educational goals, which are stated as follows in the annual prospectus, or brochure: “At UUCPA, we have four big goals for children and youth: (1) We want them to have fun and feel they are part of a community. (2) We want them to gain the basic religious literacy expected in our society. (3) We want them to learn the skills associated with liberal religion, skills such as public speaking, singing, basic leadership skills, interpersonal skills, and so on. (4) Finally, we want to prepare them to become Unitarian Universalist adults, should they choose to become Unitarian Universalists when they are old enough to make their own decision.” (UUCPA 2013)

The educational goals may be linked with the two main educational philosophies. The second goal clearly reflects an essentialist philosophy. The first, third, and fourth goals emphasize participation in a democratic congregation, and thus probably reflect more of a progressivist philosophy. However, the fourth goal is influenced by Westerhof (1976/2000), who arguably is influenced by an essentialist philosophy.

Adult religious education:

There are no stated learning goals for the adult religious education programs. However, the AREC does divide classes into several categories — e.g., Unitarian Universalist principles and traditions; World religions, spirituality, and life stances; Life, work, and play; Peace and social justice; Women’s issues; etc. — and perhaps this provides some insight into the goals for adult religious education in the congregation.

There is no special educational philosophy that grounds adult religious education, but the programs appear to be most strongly influenced by existentialist, progressivist, and essentialist educational philosophies.

Actual observations of the program compared with stated intentions

Learning for children and youth takes place in the following settings:
— Coming on to the campus Sunday mornings
— Attendance in the first 15 minutes of the worship service each week; or attendance of several intergenerational services during the year
— Sunday school classes
— Social hour, including special events or free play during and after social hour
— Evening youth programs, including OWL for gr. 7-9, Coming of Age (CoA) for gr. 8-10, and senior high youth group (SHYG)

In all these settings, I observe learning experiences that are aimed at working towards the first educational goal, having fun and feeling part of a community. In conversations I have with the CYREC and with volunteer teachers, we regularly talk about how important it is for children and youth to have fun; their families have many other options to fill up their already full schedules, and if they’re not having fun they are not likely to stick around long enough to engage in any learning. Equally importantly, I observe learning experiences that are moving children and youth towards feeling they are a part of a community. “Check-ins,” during which young people get to share a little about their own lives, are a feature of most classes and groups. Most adult volunteers enjoy spending time with young people, and many are intentional about building appropriate and meaningful connections with young people. Adult leaders are trying to facilitate meaningful connections (i.e., build community) between the young people, and between adults and young people.

The second goal, gaining the basic religious literacy expected in our society, is still a work in progress. This goal primarily gets addressed during Sunday school classes, and while volunteer teachers are quite good, curriculum materials are often dated and inadequate for this goal. Children are introduced to some of the key religious characters and stories, but when compared to the religious literacy outlined by writers such as Beal (2009) and Prothero (2007), the introductions are superficial and incomplete. I see little evidence that religious literacy is part of programs for high school youth.

I observe more learning experiences which aimed at achieving the third goal, learning the skills associated with liberal religion. For example, children attend the first fifteen minutes of the weekly worship service, and while they experience little more than hearing announcements and some music, listening to a brief reading, seeing the flaming chalice lit, and singing a hymn, some learning does take place. The first hymn is generally chosen from a list of ten hymns that we want children to learn, and indeed the children have memorized some of those hymns; more importantly, the children learn what it is to sing in a group setting. The announcements, while boring, help prepare the children for the boredom that is inherent in the democratic process. In evaluation sessions, some children have reported that they enjoy “daydreaming in the service”; given the overly busy lives of many Silicon Valley families, this should count as learning an important religious skill.

Other experiences which may help children learn the skills associated with liberal religion include: “check-ins,” during which they can learn the basics of giving and receiving pastoral care and support; intergenerational events such as social hour, in which children learn what it is like to be in a community with multiple generations (not an ordinary experience for many children); etc.

There does appear that some progress is being made towards having youth achieve the fourth learning goal, “preparing them to become Unitarian Universalist adults, should they choose to become Unitarian Universalists when they are old enough to make their own decision.” In April, one teenager became a full member of the congregation so that he could be elected to serve on the Board (those on the Board must be members of the congregation). Other teenagers participate in the wider life of the congregation in various ways. However, about half of all long-term attendees of the Sunday school drop out of congregational activities when they reach high school.

Recruitment, training, and support of instructors

In adult RE programs, the AREC recruits people, often to teach specific classes that have been requested. Sometimes persons volunteer to teach a subject they are passionate about. There is little training for adult RE instructors; the MRE is available for consultations, but teachers rarely consult with the MRE. Support for instructors primarily takes the form of publicizing the classes, and providing such logistical support as reserving rooms and AV equipment.

In the children and youth programs, volunteers are recruited by the CYREC. Volunteer teachers are required to attend a mandatory safety training. There are optional teacher workshops offered monthly during the Sunday school season. The MRE does formal and informal coaching and consulting with volunteer teachers. There is a good deal of support for volunteer teachers: common supplies are available in each classroom, art supplies are organized for easy access, rooms are generally set up for Sunday school, curriculum resources are supplied and support for modifying or developing new curriculum is offered; etc. Much of the orientation of new teachers takes place within teaching teams; almost all teaching teams have at least one, usually two or three, experienced teachers who can help orient new teachers. In the few cases where an experienced teacher is not available for a teaching team, the MRE provides ongoing informal coaching and orientation.

Challenges for religious education programs at UUCPA

(1) Occasionally, the congregation still looks back to the glory days of the Sunday school in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This institutional memory sometimes gives some congregational leaders the mistaken impression that if we could just do things the way we did them back then, we’d have just as many children today. I believe this is playing out right now in the expectation that UUCPA could have a large children’s choir. During the 1960s, there were about 30 children in the children’s choir. This was when the congregation had up to 600 children enrolled, and with a current enrollment of 100, that would translate to just 5 children — which is about the number of children who have participated in the current children’s choir. Yet many congregational leaders have a real sense of inadequacy when only 5 children sign up for the children’s choir. Looking back to the glory days can lead to feelings of inadequacy if there are not 600 children enrolled.

More often, however, the congregation perceives the religious education programs in the 1980s and 1990s as being normative. These were small programs that did not require much space, and did not need many teachers (teachers in those decades would often teach every Sunday, one teacher per classroom). This perception tends to set expectations that would keep the religious education programs small.

The combination of expectations that keep programs small, with feelings of inadequacy when looking back to the glory days, is a major challenge.

(2) The congregation allegedly experienced unspecified clergy sexual misconduct a generation or so ago. Whether or not these allegations are true is less important than the fact that within UUCPA the allegations seem to have aggravated the more general distrust of professional clergy that has grown up in the wider society in the wake of widely publicized clergy sexual abuse. In addition, the truth of the allegations of misconduct at UUCPA have never been addressed openly, and and this seems to contribute to a congregational culture that avoids open conflict. This avoidance of conflict can make it hard to get buy-in for major decisions, e.g., widespread buy-in for the decision by congregational leaders to follow consultant Alice Mann’s recommendation to “add the next 50 people.”

(3) The biggest challenge is that the congregation has been stalled in the pastoral-to-program size transition for about two decades. The transition probably began in the mid-1990s. Even though the membership rolls showed over 400 members in the early 1990s, attendance was low enough in those years that everyone comfortably fit in one service. But by the mid-1990s, attendance rose enough to require the addition of a second service. A capital campaign c.2000 failed to raise enough money to build a new worship space, although it did support extensive building renovations. The parish minister resigned in 2001. Just prior to this, the congregation decided to have both a parish minister and an MRE (for the first time since 1977) in order to produce growth. But the hoped-for growth did not materialize; overall attendance continued to hover between 150 and 200, and membership continued to drop. In the last two years, attendance has pushed above 200, while membership dropped to 249 as of December, 2012; as of the end of FY 2013 total pledge income is up, total number of pledge units is down — there is no definite trend, and stalled transition continues.

This stalled pastoral-to-program transition affects most areas of congregational life, but it especially affects communications, organization, administration, and expectations of how staff should prioritize their time. The CYRE programs are under continual pressure to be a growth engine, yet organizational infrastructure to support growth is often lacking.

The culture of religious education

Upper middle class culture and ideals dominate congregational life. Careers, busy-ness, and educational and financial achievement are all valued highly. Most adults are overscheduled, as are most teens and many children. There is often an expectation that religious education should help contribute to achievement, e.g, children should learn meditation so they can manage the high-stress lives they are being prepared for. Open exhibitions of strong emotion, e.g., crying in worship services, are frowned upon.

The congregation is predominantly white, with whites comprising about 85-90% of those present on Sunday mornings; by comparison, the surrounding census tract is about 65% white. However, while racism is undoubtedly present, the Bay area ethos of racial tolerance seems to moderate racism significantly. Classism appears to be a stronger influence than racism in UUCPA. Curiously, the congregation appears to be less welcoming to LGBTQ persons than to persons of color; even though the female senior minister is married to a woman, there are few out lesbians in the congregation, and fewer out gay men.

The congregation is being run by what Bowers (2008) calls the “modern worshipper,” generally persons over 50 who are in what she calls a “modernist” mindset. Some of what Bowers describes applies to UUCPA, e.g., “But while the cultural environment has progressed, the modern worshipper continued to function the same way and grew increasingly frustrated as they began to realize that they were not getting the same results. The positive reinforcement of attracting the younger generation had been withdrawn.” (Other writers have commented on the same basic phenomenon, using different terminology.) As a result, many aspects of congregational life are run by and for the modern worshipper, while those under 50 may feel their needs are neglected.

In the past two or three years, the culture of religious education has changed in one way that now challenges some of the achievement-oriented upper middle class culture. Based on its educational goal to “have fun and build community,” the CYREC has put more energy into creating a culture in which adults and children are invited to relax and socialize. A number of families now report that they spend one and a half to two hours at UUCPA on Sunday mornings: the first hour spent attending worship services and religious education programs, and the rest of the time simply hanging out. To foster socializing, the CYREC hosts a monthly brunch (waffles and whipped cream, fruit, hard-boiled eggs) to encourage people to linger. On other Sundays, the CYREC hosts other fun activities — Hallowe’en costume parade, making Valentines for residents in the elderly housing next door, Maypole dancing, blowing soap bubbles — again, to encourage people to linger.

In addition, the CYREC sometimes meets for dinner in a member’s home, so they can model the kind of social connections they want to encourage. The MRE encourages Sunday school teachers to pay close attention to the educational goal of having fun and building community, and assesses progress towards that goal by tracking attendance in each class; the MRE lets classes that have a high attendance know how well they are doing.

[Revision history: 10 June 2013, fixed several typographical errors and a few other minor errors.]


Beal, Timothy. Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs To Know. Harper Collins, 2009.

Bowers, Laurene Beth. Designing Contemporary Congregations: Strategies To Attract Those Under 50. Pilgrim Press, 2008.

Lee, Donna. “History of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church.” Essay in church files, c.1991.

Niles, Alfred S. “The Early Years of the Palo Alto Unitarian Society.” Pamphlet published by the Palo Alto Unitarian Church, c.1951.

Pazmino, Robert. Foundational Issues in Christian Education, 2nd ed. Baker Books, 1997.

Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know and Doesn’t. Harper Collins, 2007.

Reed, Clarence. “The Outdoor Sunday-School.” The Pacific Unitarian, vol. XXIV, no. 9. Pacific Unitarian Conference, July, 1915.

UUCPA. “CYRE Brochure.” On the Web site: “Children and Youth Religious Education at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.” http://paloaltocre.wordpress.com/cyre-brochure/#fromamre accessed June 6, 2013, 6:27 p.m. PDT

Westerhof, John. Will Our Children Have Faith? rev. ed. Morehouse Publishing, 1976/2000.

3 thoughts on “Portrait of a religious education program”

  1. A very thorough and insightful assessment of RE at UUCPA. Now what shall I and we (participants at UUCPA) do with it and about it. I think I’ll start with acceptance of the truth I perceive in this post.

  2. Bill, I’m also asking myself — What shall I do about this? I have to write a final paper for this class, and I’m thinking that’s the question I’m going to address.

  3. Dan, I appreciate your thorough review of the history of religious education in our UU community. Bill, I support the idea of discussing Dan’s paper at a Board meeting, including urging all board members to become familiar with it. In addition, let’s work with Dan to consider what to do next.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *