Spring: not quite here yet

It seemed like there was a lull in the rain, so Carol and I walked over to the neighborhood supermarket to buy some dinner. On the way back home, the chilly damp wind blew fine raindrops at us. “It’s cold,” said Carol. “It can’t be more than forty degrees,” I said.

When we got back, I checked the weather forecast: it’s supposed to dip down into the thirties tonight in San Mateo; there’s a possibility of snow down to the two thousand foot level tonight and tomorrow, and there’s even been a report of snow on Grizzly Summit in the Berkeley Hills, which is a mere 1,750 feet high. We won’t get any snow down where we live, but if the fog lifts tomorrow we might be able to see snow on the mountains across the bay.

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Notes from study leave, pt. 3: small group management software

I’ve been thinking about ways to improve administration of Sunday school, and I’ve been dreaming of software that would allow me to track attendance and visitors, get reports from teachers online or via email, allow parents/guardians to see what Sunday school classes have been doing, etc.

I started out looking at Sunday school management software, but it all seems to be focused on merely tracking attendance and providing Bible lesson plans. Blah. Then I began to realize that my Sunday school classes are really more like small groups than traditional Sunday school classes. (When I say “small groups,” I don’t mean the usual Unitarian Universalist interpretation of small groups:– closed groups with the goal of deep intimate sharing. What I mean by small groups has more in common with evangelical Christian small groups:– open, welcoming groups with leaders who are actively encouraged to expand the group; groups which aim to bring persons towards a Unitarian Universalist way of life through learning and doing; groups which aim to encourage leadership growth in both current leaders and participants.)

So I began to look at some of the software packages that help churches manage growth-oriented small groups.

A typical software package

A typical example of such software is ChurchTeams Web-based small group software. ChurchTeams software is Web-based, that is, it’s hosted on their servers. You provide a link to this service through your Web site.

ChurchTeams allows visitors and guests to browse through small groups on your Web site — you can browse by interest topic, meeting location, etc. Guests can sign up for a small group online.

Small group leaders can manage their small group online. They can write meeting summaries (ChurchTeams claims their easy-to-use software gets over 80% weekly return rate on meeting reports). They can update member information in the online database; when they do so, the ChurchTeams software sends an email notification of this new information to a church administrator, who can then input the information into the main congregational database. Small group leaders can also make sure group participants get email notification such as meeting reminders, and copies of meeting reports. If I think about Sunday school teachers and youth advisors as small group leaders, I would think about sending email reminders to parents about Sunday school class, and then sending out meeting reports so the parents can know what went on in Sunday school.

ChurchTeams software also supports children’s check-in kiosks — you know, those things megachurches use where you check in your child at a terminal that takes your photo and prints out a security label that matches the child with the parent/guardian. ChurchTeams also allows teachers to text parents, so that if your kid melts down in the middle of the megachurch worship service where there are 3,000 people in attendance, you get a text telling you to come down right away. Not really a feature I’d need to use very much, but it would be a neat feature to have for our nursery staff.

This sounds like a real topnotch premium product, right? And it comes with a topnotch price, too. For a database of 151-500 people, the annual subscription is $400 plus a one time startup fee of 6-month subscription. That would be $600 for the first year — which is way too much for me to want to pay out of our small religious education budget, considering the limited number of functions I would actually use. Having said that, if my congregation were truly committed to growth through small groups, I could probably convince people that this would be an excellent investment for the whole congregation. But since my church is following a classic mainline Protestant model of church growth — advertising, putting people on committees, doing satisfaction surveys, etc. — I don’t think I’m going to convince anyone else to spring for this big an annual fee.

Other packages

Of course there are lots of basically equivalent products out there. I looked at ConnectionPower, which apparently offers similar functionality in their Web-based church management software, butI couldn’t easily find pricing information on their Web site, so I don’t know how competitive they are. CongregationBuilder appears to have fewer features than ChurchTeams (no online reports, less flexibility about contacting members, etc.); it’s also a lot less expensive — about $240 a year for our size congregation — but the lack of online reporting just wouldn’t make it worth my while.

I also looked at a non-Web-based software package, Excellerate church management software. You buy this software package and install it on your own server — it’s not hosted on their server. Small group leaders (or Sunday school teachers) can still do online reports, though — they simply log in remotely to the server you set up, through a link you place on your congregation’s Web site. Excellerate does show some nice graphing functions that allow you to track growth (or decline) in your small groups. Like most of this type of software, “Excellerate small group software can track all of your group details including meeting attendance, topics, comments, number of visitors, and much more”; all of which would of course be incredibly useful for a Sunday school. This database is priced by the number of records you’d use, so for our Sunday school we’d probably pay about $295 — that’s a one time fee, though, not an annual subscription fee as for the Web-based software.

Downsides and problems

The big drawback to using any of theses software packages is that I’d basically have to set up my own database running parallel to the main congregational database. I’m a big believer in nonproliferation of databases; more than one database means that you’re not sharing information the way you should be doing (although the ChurchTeams software does get around this problem by automatically sending that email update to the congregational administrator for inclusion in the main database).

In the past, I’ve run separate databases for my Sunday school programs, and of course I had much better data for my own use, and I also could get exactly the kinds of reports and analysis that I needed. But I finally realized that maintaining my own database for Sunday school meant that I was crippling the overall efforts of the congregation. Perhaps someday I can convince my congregation to switch to a more aggressive data-driven and results-oriented approach to growth; and if I do that, I’ll immediately try to talk the rest of the leadership into using one of these software packages to track small groups (and then of course I’d start using the same software package to pump up my Sunday school programs). Until such a day, however, I’ll be sticking with the same old mainline Protestant approaches to congregational growth and Sunday school management.

One possible litmus test for “UU culture”

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is in the middle of an attempt to cut the state budget, and at the moment he’s focusing on passage of a bill that will end collective bargaining for state employees. This action sparked protests and a Democratic walkout, and for four days now state workers and their supporters have basically taken over the Rotunda of the state capitol building.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I am fascinated by our religious response to this event. For anyone with a union connection, the events in Wisconsin will be seen as a watershed event — indeed, if Scott Walker’s bill passes, what’s happening in Wisconsin could be as important to union supporters as last year’s anti-immigration legislation in Arizona was to those working on immigration reform. But Unitarian Universalists have been basically ignoring what’s going on in Wisconsin; aside from a blog post by Patrick Murfin, I have seen no UU response.

It will be interesting to see how this develops. When Arizona passed anti-immigration legislation, Unitarian Universalists were furious, and a number went and got arrested in protests. However, Unitarian Universalists generally do not show much support when it comes to unions and worker’s rights. If Scott Walker’s bill passes (as it is likely to do), I do not think we will see a massive upwelling of support among Unitarian Universalists for collective bargaining rights.

This, I believe, reveals something about what Chris Walton and UU World magazine have been terming “Unitarian Universalist culture”. While Unitarian Universalists have a strong tendency to support politically liberal causes, they do not support all politically liberal causes equally, and unionism is one cause that gets little or limited support. Because of this, I predict that we will not be seeing prophetic statements from the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association condemning Scott Walker; I also predict that the Standing on the Side Of Love campaign will not start including love for union workers the way it included love for immigrants in the wake of Arizona.

I’m fascinated by the way Unitarian Universalists pick and choose among politically liberal causes, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on why this might be so. Specifically, why don’t we support unionism (with the exception of Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers union, but then maybe that was more about immigrants than about unions)? Is it because our strong strain of individualism is repelled by collective bargaining? Is it because so many of us are members of the managerial class that we tend to distrust unions? Or what? Maybe this will help better define what “UU culture” really is.

Notes from study leave, pt. 2: Web-based education

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how to do more religious education online. I’ve been imagining a kid-oriented Web site that encourages kids (aged 5 through 18) to do religious education outside of that one lone Sunday morning hour of Sunday school. I’ve been dreaming of an interactive teaching/learning Web site that got kids excited about religious education, and drew in their parents as well. What might such a site look like? I decided to do a little exploring and see what was currently available on the Web — are there any Web sites that get me excited and interested?

First of all, if I’m going to do online religious education, I want stuff that is at least as cool and engaging as the Exploratorium’s series of videos on dissecting a cow’s eye — of for that matter, almost anything else on the Exploratorium’s Web site. The best part about the Exploratorium’s Web site is that if you live in the Bay area, you know you can go to San Francisco, visit the Exploratorium, and see that cool stuff in person. The downside to the Exploratorium is that it’s not a place that you want to go every week, so it’s not entirely analogous to what I want to do in religious education. All the Exploratorium really does is to provide a supplement to other educational opportunities; it serves primarily to get kids jazzed up to do science in other venues beyond its walls.

Another great learning Web site is Bre Pettis’ “I Make Things.” Pettis is known online for his short how-to videos, and when I look at the latest topics in his online video podcast, I see that I can learn how to make a robot that will make me a sandwich if I type “Sudo make me a sandwich” into my computer; and I can learn how to count in binary on my fingers (a skill I’ve always wanted to possess though I never knew it until now). Unfortunately, it looks like Pettis has stopped making his video podcasts; the most recent entry is dated March 23, 2009. Pettis’ site interests me because he pretty much does what he does on his own — he’s not a huge educational institution like the Exploratorium — and I think an individual Unitarian Universalist congregation could do something almost as good.

Turning to Web sites that are specifically designed for doing religious education online, most (not all) of the Web sites I’m finding are far less interesting. The best one I’ve found so far (and it’s pretty darned good) is TMC Youth. “TMC” stands for “The Mother Church,” the central church for Christian Scientists. Like many religious groups based in the United States, the Christian Scientists have seen their revenues shrink in the past few years; nevertheless, they still have pretty deep pockets and it shows in this Web site. It’s a well-designed site, with a variety of media — audio podcasts, videos, online Sunday school lessons, online student chats, and more.

I expected some of the big megachurches to have Web material aimed at kids, and they do. Saddleback Church, for example, has fairly extensive resources for junior high kids on their Wildside: Church for Junior Highers Media Center. There’s not a lot there, though — a registration form for camp, a few videos (including one titled “Exposed! Understand God’s Plan For Sex”), and that’s about it. Not nearly as interesting or deep as the Christian Science site. (Their page for children has almost no material, and is not worth visiting.)

Willow Creek Community Church has more interesting online material for kids. Their site for junior youth, Elevate: Church for Jr. Highers, is obviously focused on convincing kids to participate in small groups, but it’s done well, with interesting videos and references to dodgeball and mission trips and so on. This isn’t exactly online religious education, but it does what it’s designed to do — make you want to be a part of this church community. I was pretty impressed.

Obviously, megachurches are focused on serving their own church community; equally obviously, they have the will and the resources to do things that our entire UU denomination can’t take on. But creating a Web site like TMC Youth for Unitarian Universalism is well within our reach, even with the scanty financial and human resources we have in our tiny little denomination. Seeing the TMC site makes me wish that we had taken the money and effort that went into the “Tapestry of Faith” curriculum, and put it into something like this truly kick-ass religious education Web site. Oh well.

It did make me feel better when I took a look at other online Sunday school Web sites that are less well done. Take, for example, Simply Christian’s Online Sunday School — after fighting the clunky interface and looking at the old-fashioned stuff they have, it’s hard to believe they want me to pay to subscribe to their service.

Somewhat more interesting is Sunday School Sources: Free Bible Lessons. There’s some pretty cool resources here — but this is not a site that is aimed at kids, it’s aimed at Sunday school teachers who need lesson plans, bible trading cards, and things like that. (Take a look at this printable page of Bible trading cards — dude, I so want the Satan trading card — and check this out, Cain is about to bash Abel’s head in!) This is still pretty low-budget, and something like could have been well within the reach of Unitarian Universalism. But here again, like the “Tapestry of Faith” curriculum, this site is nothing more than old-school Sunday school resources placed online.

Other cool-looking Sunday school Web sites are hidden behind a pay wall. I liked the look of Spark Online. If you’re going to do old-school Sunday school, something like this would be fabulous: teacher scheduling takes place online, teachers can download lesson plans and resource materials, and they can even watch short videos on how to prepare a given lesson. Parents can stay in touch by looking at what their children learn online, and they can register their children online. (Their program can be adapted to a workshop rotation model of Sunday school, and if I were going to administer a workshop rotation Sunday school, with its high administrative load, I can’t imagine doing it without something like this.) This isn’t a kid-oriented interactive site, but it looks pretty good nonetheless.

Another Web site that combines a more traditional approach to learning with some pretty good online resources is REonline, a site based in the United Kingdom. In the U.K., “religious education” doesn’t necessarily mean Sunday school, it can also mean passing on knowledge about religion and educating for religious literacy; in the U.K., religious education can and often does take place in the regular school system. Though they are traditional and not interactive, I like REonline’s resources for students, which provides a curated set of links to other informational Web sites. Through REonline, I discovered the BBC’s Web pages on religious questions aimed at children — like this BBC page that’s a kid-level FAQ on Buddhism. REonline’s teacher resources page is also excellent, and I’m going to be passing it along to my Sunday school teachers at the Palo Alto church.

Summary: I found a few good interactive Web sites devoted to religious education. But most religious education Web sites seem to be devoted to supporting old-school Sunday school with lesson plans, teacher resources, etc. The only religious education Web site I’ve found that approaches the coolness factor of the Exploratorium’s Web site is the TMC Web site. The best kid-oriented religious education Web site, however, was probably Willow Creek Community Church’s Web site — fun, interactive, and designed to draw kids into actually coming to church.

Notes from a week of study leave, pt. 1

I’m re-reading the Gospel of Mark, in preparation for developing some curriculum materials for upper elementary school. When I can break away from the over-familiarity of the text, it seems like a strange and alien book to my postmodern sensibilities. If I try to read Mark as nonfiction or history I expect plot and rich characterizations; but there is little in the way of a coherent narrative, and the characters are often flat and not entirely believable. If I try to read Mark as a book of religion, that doesn’t work either, because I have come to expect religious books to read like platitude-filled self-help books; but Mark does not sound in the least like Eckhardt Tolle, or the Dalai Lama. If I try to read Mark as a book of theology, I’m also baffled, because I’ve become accustomed to theology written in boring academic prose with lots of footnotes and bizarre quasi-Germanic grammar. So I’m trying to let go of my preconceptions (or at least not cling so tightly to my preconceptions), accept the strangeness of the book, and decide what might be appropriate to present to fourth and fifth graders.

For example, do I want to tell them the story of the dead girl and the sick woman (Mark 5.21-43)? — Jesus is prevailed upon by some grieving parents to restore their dead daughter to life; on his way to see the dead girl, a woman who has been bleeding for fourteen years touches his robe and is healed; Jesus feels the power going out of him when she touches him, and turns around to confront her; then they eventually get to see the dead girl, and she comes back to life.

On the scale of supernatural occurences, this is no stranger than Grimm’s fairy tales and Harry Potter. Certainly it would be great fun to present this story to upper elementary children, compare it to fantastic stories with which they’re familiar, and then decide in what way the story is true. Upper elementary children are still concrete thinkers, but they are able to understand the difference between journalism, myth, fantastic fiction, and other types of stories. Children in this age group would also be able to understand that the moral or message in this story is not simple: the story wants to show us that Jesus is a miracle worker, but then Jesus tells the woman that it is her faith, not him, that has healed her. There’s a purpose behind these miracles, and today’s orthodox Christians will tell us that the purpose is to prove God’s existence to an unbelieving populace, but I think children could also understand that these stories are telling us something about the nature of subjectivity. I’m not sure how the parents of the children I teach would react to this story; many of them understand religion to be something that exists entirely in a plane of objective reality that can be proved or disproved scientifically; explorations of the subjective side of religion can be very touchy in Unitarian Universalist circles.

The story of the rich man (Mark 10.17-31) offers a critique of materialism; in today’s world, it can be understood as a critique of consumer capitalism. The rich man says that he keeps all of the ethical commandments, and asks Jesus what else he needs to do. Jesus replies that he must sell everything and give it to the poor, and then he will have “treasure in heaven.” I would love to present this story to children in the context of an interpretation of Jesus’s teachings in which the “Kingdom of Heaven” is the same thing as the “Web of Life” (this is Bernard Loomer’s interpretation in his booklet Unfoldings); if you are well-to-do, you are doing damage to the interdependent web of all life (human and non-human life), because you are taking more than your share. But this could get uncomfortable if I were to take the next step, which would be to point out that most Americans are rich by world standards; we are not going to have “treasure in heaven,” that is, we are currently doing damage to the Web of Life, simply by being rich by world standards.

In short, Mark is a very challenging book. To present it honestly, so that I’m not doing violence to the text, might be more than I want to do with upper elementary children. That being the case, do I simply say that I’m not going to present stories from Mark to upper elementary children? Or do I present a watered-down version that removes the most challenging bits of the book?

Maps with fine-grained census data

Want to know the racial mix around your congregation? Check out Mapping America: Every City, Every Block, an interactive map produced by the New York Times. The level of geographic detail is astounding, down below census tracts to streets and blocks. Unfortunately, since the data comes from the U.S. Census, the five racial categories are very broad: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, other (the census does take more detailed racial information, but does not provide that level of detail with geographic location).

I looked up the neighborhood immediately around the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, and found it is 59% white, 1% black, 5% Hispanic, 32% Asian, and 2% other; I’d estimate that the racial makeup of our congregation is probably 80% white, 1% black, 1% Hispanic, 17% Asian, and 1% other; I suspect those who actually show up on Sunday morning are probably somewhat more racially diverse. (The neighborhood where we live turns out to be only 12% white, which helps explain why my church feels so white when it’s actually more diverse than most of the Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve been part of.)

Mind you, there are problems with this map. I looked up our old neighborhood in New Bedford, and the map shows people living on the hurricane barrier at the mouth of New Bedford harbor, which is absurd. The underlying data are probably fairly good, but the graphical presentation should not be construed as showing the exact location where people live.

Spring

The car looked like it had a dusting of very fine snow on it this morning, though it was nowhere near cold enough for snow (and snow happens only once every fifteen years or so around here anyway). When I got closer to the car, I realized that the dusting had a yellowish cast to it, and it was coarse pollen that had clumped so that it looked like snow. This morning I woke up with a headache, and a general feeling of lassitude, and when I saw all that pollen I knew that it wasn’t some imaginary malady — it was hay fever.

Last year, I blamed the acacias, but a fellow hay fever sufferer told me that the brilliant yellow blossoms of the acacias are not to blame. The acacias bloom at the same time as the pines and some of the oaks, and their bright yellow blossoms are far more noticeable than the discreet green and brownish blossoms of the pines and oaks, so we blame them for our hay fever. But the acacias do not produce anything like the quantity of pollen that the pines and oaks pump out.

Some parts of the Bay Area got heavy rain today; up near Danville, I heard that the rains were so heavy they washed out part of a major freeway. But we have had no heavy rains here in Palo Alto, nothing to wash the air of all this pollen.

Lunar New Year

We were in San Francisco this evening, and headed into Chinatown for dinner. We had forgotten that the Lunar New Year celebrations are still going on.

Walking down Grant Street, we ran into some dragons who guarded by men wearing bright yellow t-shirts emblazoned with the name of a local kung fu studio, and who were surrounded by tourists with cameras and cellphones. Someone set off lots of firecrackers; the smoke filled the street.

There’s a Chinese diner we like on Washington Street, and we went there to get some congee. But even there we unwittingly came across new year activities. Several tables at the diner were taken up with contestants for the Miss Chinatown pageant.

Thanks to Carol for this photo.

Spring in Palo Alto

Today was sunny and warm, almost warm enough for us to hold a committee meeting outdoors at lunch time. The apple trees at the school next door are white with blossoms, a couple of early California poppies are providing little spots of color along Charleston Road in front of the church, and I found this daffodil in full bloom outside the Main Hall.

Quite a contrast from the news we’re hearing from the eastern part of the United States, where buildings are collapsing under the weight of a huge amount of snow. (Personal to relatives and friends back east: yes, we do have an empty bed in our apartment if you want to escape winter for a few days and enjoy spring here.)