Making changes

Major changes may go smoothly, but they are never easy.

This year, our congregation decided to start Sunday school a month earlier than our usual start date. Since 1950, we had started Sunday school classes in the middle of September. Back in the 1950s, that’s when the local school systems began a new school year, so it made sense for Sunday school to resume at the same time. But this year, in 2013, classes in the Palo Alto Unified School District began on August 15. If we were to follow the pattern of past years, we would have had our first day of regular Sunday school classes on September 22; but it simply didn’t make sense for Sunday school to open more than a month later than the public schools.

So this year, we had our intergenerational ingathering service on August 18. The choir came back from its summer hiatus on August 18; and the Sunday school resumed regular classes on August 25. That also meant that Amy, our senior minister, and I, as the minister of religious education, had had to return from our summer breaks a couple of weeks earlier than usual, on July 22.

Now in theory, moving the start of the congregational year back a month is not all that difficult. We started planning months ago, we paid attention to details, and really everything has gone surprisingly smoothly. Yes, there have been some people who forgot that the congregational year was going to begin a month earlier; yes, there have been some minor annoyances for everyone; but on the whole, we have had almost no real problems.

But that doesn’t mean it has been painless. From my perspective, I realized that for the past eighteen years, I have counted on having the Labor Day holiday as a cushion, in case I needed an extra day to prepare for the opening of the congregational year; I had no such cushion this year, and I could have used it; I’m pretty burned out right now. From the perspective of families, I’ve received a few plaintive email messages from parents saying that they didn’t realize Sunday school was starting so soon; this makes me feel terrible.

And I know from experience that every time you make major changes in a congregational system, you will run afoul of unexpected effects (some of which remain hidden for months) for the next ten to twelve months. Sometimes it’s a cascade effect: one small thing is affected, and that results in two other small changes, which result in even more small changes.

If there is a theological lesson to be drawn from this, it is that everything is connected, often in ways of which we have little or no awareness.

If there is a practical lesson to be drawn from this, it is that even a positive change, one that is widely supported, can be difficult to implement. Which makes me think: No wonder it’s hard to grow a congregation.

4 thoughts on “Making changes”

  1. Whoa, burned out before September even rolls around? I hope you find some respite here and there.

  2. Well, not burned out, just a little toasty. And the good news is that for once I get to actually take Labor Day as a holiday! So all in all, I think this is a good change.

  3. Jean, my congregation in Palo Alto provides year-round services and Sunday school. But the reality is that Sunday school attendance drops off significantly in the summer, when many families are engaged in various school vacation activities. So our summer Sunday school program is far more low-key, more like summer camp than school.

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