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. Continue reading “Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 3”

Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 2

First post in this series.

Transform and grow your children and youth ministries and programs

Now I’d like to outline for you one possible process for transformational growth. This is a four step process. In step one, you develop a compelling vision and set measurable goals based on that vision. Then steps two and three run concurrently. In step two, you build the infrastructure to support a growing program. In step three, you pluck some low-hanging fruit to build enthusiasm among families, volunteers, and lay leaders. In step four, you have patience and hold on for at least five years.

Let’s look at each one of these steps.

Step one: Develop a compelling vision

I have served in eight different Unitarian Universalist congregations as a religious educator, an interim minister, and a parish minister. These congregation ranged in size from the 3,000 member Church of the Larger Fellowship, our online congregation, to a 25 member church. Eventually, I noticed that each of these congregations had approximately the same vision for its programs and ministries for children and youth. And finally I wrote down this shared vision in the form of four big learning goals. Here they are:

(1) We want children to have fun and feel they are part of a religious community.

(2) We want children to gain the basic religious literacy expected of informed citizens in our society.

(3) We want children to learn the skills associated with liberal religion, skills such as public speaking, singing, meditating, basic leadership skills, interpersonal skills, etc.

(4) We aim to prepare children to become Unitarian Universalist adults, should they choose to become Unitarian Universalists when they are old enough to make their own decisions. To this end, we help children to become sensitive, moral, and joyful people, people who have intellectual integrity and spiritual insight.

I wrote down these four goals, and began presenting it to parents and guardians of children and youth. They immediately understood these goals, and more importantly they liked them. These goals set forth what they want for their children: to have a supportive place to grow up; to learn some basic religious facts; to gain some basic skills; and to grow up to become good human beings, the kind of good human being we like to imagine Unitarian Universalists are.

Lay leaders and volunteers also like these goals, not only because that’s what they want for our Unitarian Universalist kids, but also because these goals are specific and measurable. Let me take a moment to show you how each goal can be measured. Continue reading “Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 2”

Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 1

This is part one of a presentation I’ll be giving tomorrow at the annual meeting of the Pacific Central District of Unitarian Universalist congregations. As you will see, growth is not rocket science; growth is all about patient attention to detail. I think you will find this presentation to be quite different from other Unitarian Universalist approaches to growth: it’s kind of geeky; it’s not exciting; it lacks sexy jargon terms; and it’s all about management and administration. However, since the exciting, sexy, theological approaches don’t seem to be working all that well, maybe you should check out my approach….


We’re going to talk about transforming and growing your programs and ministries for children and youth. And my emphasis is going to be on growth. I believe that there are many families who would love to have their children participate in our programs and ministries for young people, and wee need to make room for them in our congregations. Furthermore, research by the Search Institute shows that regular participation by youth in a religious congregation correlates with a decrease in risky behaviors such as substance abuse; therefore, by having more kids participating regularly in our congregations, we are literally saving lives.

If this is not the workshop you were expecting, feel free to leave now or at any time without embarrassment. I only want you to be here if you want to be here.

And if you want to ask questions, please write them down (legibly). I am going to post the entire presentation online, and I want to include your questions online. I will stop periodically during this workshop to take your questions.

How to measure growth

If you really want to grow your programs and ministries for children and youth, the first thing you have to do is figure out how you’re going to measure growth. More often than not, you get exactly the kind of growth you measure for. This is so important that we’re going to take fifteen minutes right now to go over this. Continue reading “Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 1”

The Condom Song, from India

The parent of one of the teens in our OWL comprehensive sexuality education curriculum sent me a link to “The Indian Condom Song,” written and sung by Kanagunti Venkatesh. The song is in another language — Hindi, perhaps? — but there are English subtitles. The chorus is translated as follows:

Never forget me I am Nirodh.
I am the condom friend ever useful to you.
I am made in different colors with fragrance.
I am sealed with lubricant.

Mind you, it sounds much better in Hindi. My favorite line is: “No need to feel shy use one with a smile.” And there’s that catchy call-and-response tune, along with great dance routines with seven guys and three dancing condoms (a pink one, a blue one, and a yellow one). Hey, what are you waiting for, watch the video:

Wouldn’t it be great if we had an American Condom Song? Yeah, I know it’s unlikely to happen, given the unwillingness of Americans to talk openly about condoms. But maybe there’s someone out there who will be inspired to write and perform such a song.

Quaker Checkers

Back in 1985, the Unitarian Universalist Peace Network published a Sunday school curriculum called “Peace Experiments.” One of the things I liked best in this old curriculum was a board game called “Quaker Checkers.” It’s simple, fun, and challenging enough to be worth playing more than once. But I can find no reference to this game on the Web, except as a listing in a manuscript archive in the Swarthmore College library. Since the game explicitly states that it is not patented, and that’s it’s OK to copy and/or improve it, I decided to publish a PDF version here:

Click for a printable PDF.

Plenty of irony

I had an unusual weekend: I spent much of the weekend actually teaching. On Saturday, I spent five hours teaching 7th and 8th graders in our faith-based sexuality education course. On Sunday, I spent an hour teaching first and second graders in Sunday school; another hour with our vanishingly small youth group; a third hour training canvassers for our annual pledge drive; and two hours leading a writing group. Over two days, I had ten contact hours.

This was an unusual weekend because as a minister of religious education, I’m often lucky to get ten contact hours a month. Most of us religious education professionals act more like school principals than schoolteachers; we are supervise a set of programs and ministries, but the volunteer teachers are the ones who have most of the contact with children, teens, and adults. And often there’s a pretty close correlation between the size of a religious education program and the amount of teaching done by the religious education professional: the smaller the program, the more teaching a religious educator can do; the larger the program, the more the religious educator has to be concerned with administration.

Irony abounds in the field of congregationally-based religious education. Many people go into the field and become religious educators because they like teaching, only to find that once they are working in a congregation they do very little teaching, and indeed have very little contact time with young people. Many congregations want a religious educator to “grow their program,” and they like to hire a candidate who has an M.Ed., or experience as a schoolteacher, and then they don’t understand why their program stays small when they hired such a great teacher. And congregations tend to judge their religious educator’s job performance more on if that person is “good with kids,” and less on what really matters: whether that person can manage volunteers, keep a master calendar, play congregational politics, develop a flexible administrative infrastructure, and maybe do some fund raising on the side.

I’m one of those fortunate religious educators who likes the administrative tasks as much as the teaching. That’s a good thing, because our children and youth programs grew 24% in attendance in 2011, and if the growth continues in 2012 I will be doing less and less teaching and more and more administration. Though there will still be plenty of irony to fill my days, because I’ll still be someone who went into religious education because I wanted to teach.

The story of Demeter and Persephone, part 1

I’ve been putting together some stories for liberal religious kids, and I’m working on a version of the story of Demeter and Persephone, as told in the Homeric Hymns. I’ve taken the translation by E. G. Evelyn-White (Cambridge: Harvard, and London: William Heinemann, 1914 — now in the public domain), and simplifying it somewhat for upper elementary and middle school kids — but retaining the somewhat archaic flavor of the translation, and retaining some of the Greek epithets (“rich-haired Demeter,” etc.). Here’s the first part of the story:

Rich-haired Demeter, goddess who strikes awe in the hearts of all humankind, the goddess of the wheatfields, goddess of farming and agriculture—Demeter had a daughter named Persephone.

Once upon a time, trim-ankled Persephone was playing with the daughters of Oceanus. They roamed over a soft meadow on the plain of Nysa, gathering flowers: roses, crocuses, beautiful violets, irises and hyacinths, and also the narcissus. Gaia, mother Earth, made the narcissus grow at the will of Zeus, the ruler of all the other gods and goddesses. All-seeing Zeus, the god of loud thunder, had decided that Persephone was old enough to be married. It was his will that the narcissus should grow in the meadow, to attract the attention of Persephone. The narcissus is a marvellous, radiant flower—a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and is smelled most sweetly, so that all wide heaven above and the whole earth and the sea’s salt swell laughed for joy.

When Persephone saw the narcissus blooming, she was amazed, and reached out with both hands to take the lovely toy. But to her surprise, the wide-pathed earth yawned open there in the middle of the meadow. Out of the yawning hole rode Hades, Son of Cronos and brother of Zeus, god of the underworld, Host of the Many (he was called “Host of the Many” because he ruled over the underworld, the land of the dead, which meant he was host to all the many people who had died over the centuries).

Hades caught up the reluctant Persephone and carried her away. Continue reading “The story of Demeter and Persephone, part 1”

OWL dollars

We’re running the Our Whole Lives (OWL) comprehensive sexuality education program for grades 7-9 here in the Palo Alto congregation, and today we did the second session, which includes an activity known as the “Values Auction,” where the youth bid on values like being honest, living a good life, etc. The curriculum suggests that you use play money from a board game such as Monopoly — but you also need $300 in play twenties, which is more money than most board games give you. So I made some OWL dollars.

Since I’m sure other people running the OWL program run into the same problem, I figured I’d post the OWL dollars online here as a PDF. You print out the whole sheet, then trim each OWL dollar to exactly 2 inches by four and a quarter inches (it goes really quickly using a paper cutter). Each sheet has ten OWL dollars, so you need one and a half sheets per participant. It’s a big file, so it may take a while to open.

Sheet of 10 “OWL dollars” (3.9 MB PDF file)

Three safe predictions for 2012

Allow me to make three safe predictions for liberal religion in 2012. Here’s a summary of my three predictions:

1. Baby Boomers will continue to run most liberal religious congregations to suit themselves.
2. Liberal congregations will continue to focus more on short-term financial goals than on long term ministry and mission goals.
3. Fewer kids will be part of liberal religious congregations.

Now on to my reasons for making these predictions: Continue reading “Three safe predictions for 2012”

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 7

3. This year, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) reported the fourth year of decline in religious education enrollment in congregations. This decline came after a couple of decades of steady growth. Worse yet, 2007 marked the highest number of births since 1961, at the height of the Baby Boom, which means we should be seeing an increase in the number of kids in our congregations.

Why is the fourth straight year of decline a good thing? Because now this is a trend that can’t be ignored, nor dismissed as a statistical aberration. Congregations are going to have to face up to the results of years of nibbling away at the infrastructure for religious education — cutting hours and salaries of religious educators, giving away religious education office and storage space to other age groups, deferring maintenance on classrooms, neglecting to place parents in leadership positions, and treating children and youth as a burdensome expense rather than as a central part of the congregation’s mission. And the UUA is going to have to face up to the results of cutting staff positions, producing uninspiring curriculum and other resources, not having parents in positions of leadership, andand treating children and youth as an extra expense rather than as a central part of our shared mission.

Not that I am silly enough to believe that congregations and the denomination are actually going to change their behavior, and begin treating children, youth, and their families as central to our reason for existence. But at least congregations and denomination can no longer pretend that they care about kids — no longer can they cover over the fact that they’re trying to make liberal religion into an over-55 community.