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Today has been one of the best Black Friday’s I’ve ever experienced–and I didn’t set foot in a mall! Instead, I went to church: Unity Church-Unitarian in Saint Paul, where we celebrated the culmination of a year-long process to explore the source of our cultural and spiritual discontent around the Christmas season. A group of about ten people at Unity has been meeting roughly two times a month since last January under the guidance of Bill Doherty, professor at the University of Minnesota and member of Unity Church-Unitarian. Our group, known as the UU Christmas Reclamation Project, has taken as our mission to generate ideas and practices that our community might embrace in order to reclaim Christmas. And the first fruit of that effort was made manifest today at Unity during an event called “Feeding the Spirit on the Feast Day of Consumption.” To find out more, check out this video from KARE 11, the NBC affiliate in the Twin Cities.

Church instead of shopping on Black Friday as parishioners reclaim the season.

And to round out our Black Friday experience, my wife Julia and I finally got around to watching What Would Jesus Buy? Definitely worth putting on your Netflix or Blockbuster queue.


Here’s the latest PowerPoint presentation and script from the Mid-America District Staff group’s series of “Ten Good Ideas About….” This one’s on adding another service. The presenters were Nancy Heege, Prairie Star District Executive (and blogger: Nancy’s Views of the Landscape), and the Rev. Lisa Schwartz, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka, Kansas.

Ten Good Ideas about Adding a Service

Charles Arns’ six reasons to consider adding a service:

  1. A new service will minister to more people
  2. A New service can help reframe your message to reach new kinds of people
  3. A new service allows for change while retaining the familiar
  4. A new service will help break the normal life cycle of a congregation
  5. A new service will activate inactive members
  6. A new service will help your denomination survive.
  7. What’s missing from Charles Arns’ list? A new service will help relieve overcrowding.

And now, 10 Good Ideas about Adding a Service:

  1. Check with worker bees first. Consider whose work will be affected (the RE Committee, Worship Committee, staff, etc.), and discuss the plan with them early – before presenting it to the congregation. Don’t underestimate the importance of the minister’s commitment. It will take a considerable amount of her/his energy, and s/he must be not simply resigned to the process, but actually passionate about it. Staff members must be enthusiastic about this idea and should be consulted, along with the minister, before going to committees and other lay leaders.
  2. Tally the costs. Look at the budgetary impact: how much will this cost? (Include additional costs for child care, paid musicians, even candles/gel for the chalice, maybe getting your custodian there early; sometimes, but not necessarily, the speaker’s honorarium will increase.) It’s important to compensate your minister and staff adequately for the new work that will be required for the planning and carrying out of the plan. Be sure they know you appreciate their efforts – give them praise, and give them more money!
  3. Pick new times. Rather than leaving one service at its current time, pick two completely new times. Then it won’t seem like you have one “real” service and a new service for “those other people.” If your current service is at 10:30, don’t simply add another at 9 o’clock. Instead, have your services at 9:30 and 11, so that everyone has to make a new choice about the time they’ll attend.
  4. Do a trial run. If there is a lot of resistance, do a trial run – perhaps a seasonal new service during a highly attended time of the year. [ The Worship Workshop: Creative Ways to Design Worship Together by Marcia McFee, paperback, 2002 ] One church tried their trial run during the spring – Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday, and the Sunday after Easter. It took some planning to ensure that there were enough church school teachers, ushers, greeters, coffee servers, musicians, and so on. The staff and volunteers learned lots and then went on to add a second worship service the next fall.
  5. Make a commitment. But wherever possible, commit to the new service for 2 years. You can make minor tweaks in the first months, but mostly give the new stuff time to work. Plan a survey and re-tooling process towards the end of the first year; then try out your new insights during the second year. (By then you should have so many new people, it’s clear to even the most rigid nay-sayers that one service is no longer practical.)
  6. Be intentional. Plan for the people you’re trying to attract – if your target group is different from your current members, the new worship service may need a different format, different music, etc. Some congregations now have midweek services with a significantly different format.
  7. Recruit some pioneers. Consider recruiting some “pioneers,” a dozen families or so, who will commit to attending the new service and help populate it for the first year or so.
  8. Discuss it thoroughly. Hold lots of “town hall meetings” to draw out folks’ concerns and questions. Make sure the Worship/Program committee meeting doors are flung wide open during the planning process. Even personally invite some who you know to be resistant. Arn suggests “sowing seeds of discontent” to point out that the status quo is NOT meeting our needs, no matter how some folks have sanctified it.
  9. Board makes decision. Ultimately, though, have the Worship/Program committee make a recommendation to the Board; have them vote on the 2 year plan.
  10. Provide community. Be intentional about planning community activities for all, and lots of small group options. The single biggest fear I heard expressed was, “But I won’t be able to see all my friends at church any more.” Question whether that’s the primary purpose of a UU congregation – is that our mission? Also point out that no one can have meaningful interactions with everyone in the room in a single, large service (or potluck, party, etc.) Also, being intentional about seeing your friends for lunch, movies, walks in the park, or whatever, can be really beneficial to the friendship!

How to Start a New Service: Your Church Can Reach New People by Charles Arn, paperback, 1997. Cost $14.99 paperback.

Adding Worship Services: A How-to Manual online from the UUA, 2004

PowerPoint by John P. Chandler on adding a service: adding-a-new-worship-service

So here’s the scoop on what Kerri Meyer, DRE at Unity Church-Unitarian, and I covered in our workshop last month at the LREDA Fall Conference in Albuquerque. Basically, we built on the work of James White, author of the book on intergenerational religious education, which is aptly titled Intergenerational Religious Education. We recommended to all of the participants in the workshop that the find this book (which could very well be somewhere on the shelves in their congregation’s RE office) and read it. Or buy it and read it if they can’t find it. I personally owned a copy of this book for about five years before I actually sat down and read it–and my response was, “Why the heck haven’t I read this book before now?” It really is the number one resources for learning about how to do intergenerational religious education (or, as I prefer, multigenerational faith development).

If you don’t have the time to read White’s book, the next best thing is to check out this article by John Roberto: Best Practices in Intergenerational Faith Formation [PDF]. The article is basically a “best parts version” of White’s book. Here, then, is the heart of both the article and the book. According to Roberto, “James White identified four patterns of relationships that shape the four components of an IGRE learning experience. Briefly summarized, these patterns are:”

In-Common Experiences. Intergenerational religious education begins with a multigenerational experience of the theme that all the generations share together. In-common experiences of generations are usually less verbal and more observatory than in the other three elements. In this pattern there is something “out there” or “over there” for us to see or do, something that equalizes the ages. Thus, at the same time and place and in a similar manner, different-aged people listen to music or sing, make an art project, watch a video, hear a story, participate in a ritual, pray together, and so on. In-common experiences for the most part remain at what Jean Piaget calls the “concrete operational” level, where all can learn together.

Shared experiences are absolutely critical for building IGRE. They are the stuff by which other patterns of relationships are built. To the point, Fred Rogers, of television’s Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, makes the case for what is prescribed here when he asks rhetorically, “How can older and younger people respond to each other if they have no experiences together?”

Parallel Learning. Parallel learning is the second major IG relational pattern. With it the generations are separated in order to work on the same topic or project, but in different ways at a “best fit” development, interest, or skill level. Some of the developmental levels we are talking about are cognitive, psychological, physical, moral, valuational, and so on—all the ways that make people different and special.

Though age groups may be separated, each one is focusing on the same learning task or topic. One of the major criticisms of IGRE is “the tendency to view equality or persons across the age spectrum with uniformity of experience,” with that experience only from the vantage point of the child. By engaging in parallel learning, however, this IGRE shortcoming is avoided.

Contributive-Occasions. The third pattern of learning is that of contributive-occasions. These occasions are often the step after parallel learning. What is involved is a coming together of different age groups or classes for the purpose of sharing what has been learned or created previously. The joining or rejoining becomes a contributiveoccasion where separated pieces to a whole are added together for everyone’s benefit.

Contributive-occasions are more participatory than the other three patterns. If the contributions come from a previous period of parallel learning, the last part of that parallel learning would have been concerned with how to communicate acquired insights or behaviors to other age groups. By engaging “in mutual contribution” to one another, IG learners discover that the educational whole is great than the sum of its parts.

Interactive Sharing. Interactive sharing is the fourth major pattern in IGRE relationships. It is a distinctive style or way of learning. Here persons are provided with an opportunity for interpersonal exchange, which may involve experiences or thoughts or feelings or actions. At its best, interactive sharing facilitates a “crossing over” to hear and respond to another’s perspective.

In an ideal IGRE program or event, all four of the patterns of relationships will be enacted. People come together and have an in-common experience. Then they break to separately investigate the common subject at a level appropriate for their highest learning abilities. They come back together to present their insights and work in a shared program. Finally, different generations interact with one another, giving and receiving in the exchanges. In the latter case the participants are sharing, reflecting, debating, and dreaming from the side of the other but for their own edification. (From James White’s Intergenerational Religious Education, pages 26-30.)

I’ll reveal how Roberto ties all of these together in a single event soon.

An honest response to the two questions I posed in my previous post (“What are we trying to accomplish here?” and “How do we know we’re accomplishing it?”) wouldn’t require a test for the children and youth in a religious education program. Rather, it would require a test of the entire congregation. Testing the children and youth reflects a no-child-left-behind mentality, where the quality and the content of a program is measure by the performance of the individuals involved in that program. This emphasis on the individual is a continuation of the “child-centered” religious education model that was the norm for most of the twentieth century in Unitarian Universalist (and mainline Protestant) congregations. The answer to the first question in a “test the children” scenario would be something like, “We’re trying to teach children about world religions (including Unitarian Universalism) and what it means to be an ethical person.” It seems to me that for a long time, these were the kinds of things we thought we were teaching our congregations’ children and youth.

What I’m looking for is a way to see how well a congregation is engaging children and youth in the Unitarian Universalist faith and how well a congregation is doing in allowing children and youth to be full participants in the practices of their religious community. And I have two suggestions on how we might measure that. First, for children twelve and under, I would submit that their identities as persons of a particular faith (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, etc.) depend upon the faith of their families. And if we want the children to be engaged in Unitarian Universalism and be full participants in the practices of their congregation, then the way I would measure that is by counting how many families in the RE program are actually members of the congregation. If one or more of their parents aren’t members, then it’s a good sign that the family isn’t fully engaged in either the faith tradition or the practices of the congregation, or both.

Does this mean that only children whose parents are members of a congregation should be allowed in RE programs? Not necessarily. But there should be some pretty strong incentives for parents to be involved. Many, perhaps most, congregations have requirements that a parent needs to be physically present in the building while their child is at Sunday school. Of course this doesn’t mean that the parent is actually involved in the congregation, and it certainly doens’t require that they’re a member. But it’s a start. Another strategy would be to charge families who are members of a congregation a nominal RE registration fee, and charge non-members a LOT more. At Unity Church-Unitarian, for example, pledging families are charged $30-$35 per children to enroll in the RE program (it’s free if a parent volunteers to be a teacher). Non-pledging families are charged $200 for each child. I personally would change that so pledging members where charged the lesser fee. And the only parents who would qualify for free registration would be members. I’m a strong believer in having only members teach Sunday school.

My test for evaulating whether or not we’re accomplishing the same things with youth (engaging them in the faith tradition and the practices of the religious community) would be the same. I would want to know how many youth who had completed the children’s portion of the RE program (through Middle School OWL and Coming of Age) had actually become members of the congregation. What’s more, I would want to know how many parents of those children are still members of the congregation. My goal here is pretty straightforward: to know that an RE program is retaining a majority of the children as Unitarian Universalists by sampling the membership rates of families and youth. The first sample is when a family first attends. The second sample would be after Coming of Age. And the final sample would be when a youth turns 18.

How does sampling like this constitute a test for the entire congregation? Because it seems to me that only a congregation which thoroughly engages entire families in the faith tradition and religious community is going to be able to make a case for membership being important. That means thinking in terms of more than just age-segregated  Sunday school. Which is partially what my presentation (with Kerri Meyer, Unity Church-Unitarian’s DRE) at the LREDA Fall Conference a couple of weeks ago was about. And I’ll definitely write more about that next week.

This fall, for or the first time in many, many years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach Sunday school. Back when I was a religious educator on the congregational level, I had plenty of chances to actually teach. And teach I did–from preschool through adult education, I taught ’em all.  But once I started working at the district level, the opportunities disappeared. That is until this year, when the combination of having a three-year-old son and a 4:30 in the afternoon service at my home church combined to offer another chance for me to teach preschool. So, for the last few months I’ve been one of the co-teachers for Henry David’s Spirit Play class at Unity Church-Unitarian in Saint Paul. I have to say that I’m really loving it–for a couple of reasons. One, I do miss teaching Sunday school on a regular basis, and two, I believe that time spent at church should be family time, so being a teacher in H.D.’s class gives me a chance to spend a little more time with him.

Getting back into the RE classroom has also raised a couple of new questions for me. One question is, “What are we trying to accomplish here?” Another is, “How do we know we’re accomplishing it?” These questions might sound familiar to anyone who’s had to come up with definite goals for themselves in their work place (something we’re taking more seriously here in Prairie Star). They’re the kind of questions organizations need to ask themselves, too. And here’s the thing–now that I’m actively teaching again, I’m beginning to wonder what we really are trying to do in our RE classroom. My wonderment comes more from the second question than the first. I have no idea how we would get a sense of whether or not we’re actually accomplishing anything specific in our classrooms. To be sure, we’re doing all of the things UUs try to do for their children: expose them to the sources of our faith, give them a moral grounding, even teach them a thing or two about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. But that’s all starting to sound a little mushy to me right now, especially when I think in terms of measuring outcomes.

I mean, this would be easy if we had something like a final exam for our children once they reached middle school or high school (think of Jewish children having to read Hebrew for their Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah). But that runs against the notion of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. A more accurate measure might be to actually figure the percentage of youth who are still part of a congregation at a specific time in their lives, say, ninth grade. Do we really have any idea how many of our preschoolers actually stick around long enough to complete a coming of age or OWL program? And while those figures might be useful (if we could ever get them–right now I know of no congregation that keeps track of those sort of things), I’m afraid that we might be measuring the wrong thing. We would still be looking at individual involvement, which is how we’ve pretty much measure everything in our movement. We count heads (or souls) as our basic unit of measure.

Quiet Please "Testing"

Quiet Please

So I’m looking for another kind of test to help us measure whether or not we’re actually achieving what we hope to in our Sunday school classes. And I’ve got some ideas. But before I share them, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject. What do you think we should be looking for to test whether or not our Sunday school programs are doing what we hope they’re doing? And while you’re at it, just what the heck are we trying to do in our RE programs?

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