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.
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?