Friday, June 29, 2012

Forming Unitarian Universalist Identity

I have been reflecting a great deal on the importance of worship in our children's lives.  I wrote this article for the July Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists newsletter.  This summer we are embarking on a journey of All Ages Worship throughout July and August.  We are also trying a 6 sessions of a "second-hour" of faith development for all ages.   I know that without a regular presence in worship we will continue to lose our youth. I know that my own daughter learned early that she was not wanted and nor should she want to be in worship.  This does not bode well for her desiring to stay within our faith community when she is an adult.

Forming Unitarian Universalist Identity
WUU Newsletter July 2012

This summer WUU has embarked on a journey of all ages worshipping together each Sunday through July and August.  This is not an easy journey and the way is not clearly marked.  Yet it is through being in, participating in and experiencing worship that we all learn to be Unitarian Universalists.

Let’s think about this together for a moment; what is the most common shared experience in our faith community?  It is worship and for some that is the only experience they have in our faith community.  For most adults it is the primary way they learn to become a Unitarian Universalist.

We have heard the story over and over again, “I visited a UU congregation (meaning I attended worship) and I knew I was home.”  Maybe this is your story.  The primary way people connect with each other is during and after the worship service.  The experience is deepened by orientation, small group ministries, taking a class or participating in a social justice project.  Becoming a Unitarian Universalist is deepened even more when we choose to join in the work of our faith community – becoming a member of the Sunday Morning Team, joining the grounds committee, teaching a class, becoming a worship associate.

Yet it all begins with the worship experience.  If we are to provide an environment where our children and youth learn what it means to be Unitarian Universalist, then they need to be in worship.  It is in worship that they experience the most common shared experience of Unitarian Universalists.  They learn to sing, to share joys and sorrows, to listen.  They learn by watching what is going on and by the example of those around them.  In Children’s Chapel, even though I give them the option to speak their joys and sorrows, most place their stone in water silently – having watched and participated during worship in the sanctuary.

During my graduate studies I took a class on Religion and Popular Culture and we watched a video that documented the world of snake handling Pentecostals in Appalachia.  There services lasted more than an hour and children of all ages were present with their families. I was struck by how the children were included in the worship service and how they began to follow the example of the adults – copying their actions.  The children were being formed in the faith of their families, not by learning about it in a class but by participating in it with their parents. Isn’t our faith just as worthy of passing on to our children?

Ours is a covenantal, relational faith. We are bound together by the community we make together and the promises we make to each other.  We have found a place here, Unitarian Universalism is good news to us.  Don’t we want to share and pass on that good news to our children?  Don’t we want them to be formed in a faith community that cares for them, supports their search for truth and meaning – giving them tools for the journey?  All of us worshipping together is a way that we pass on the best of who we are to our children.  They learn to live in covenanted community by being a part of it.

I hope all of you will participate in this summer experience by welcoming our children. Invite a child to sit with you as a worship pal, a worship mentor and spiritual guide so that our children find faithful adults beyond their own parents.  By embracing this experience we just might find that we all gain more than we imagined and come away more spiritually fed.

I close with the words from Antoine de St.-ExupĂ©ry, from the reading “Generation to Generation”: “Let us build memories in our children, lest they drag our joyless lives, lest they allow treasures to be lost because they have not been given the keys.  We live, not by things, but by the meanings of things.  It is needful to transmit the passwords from generation to generation.”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

When the Work Breaks Your Heart

Yesterday was one of those days where my work as a professional religious educator just all caught up with me and my heart was just breaking. Now this is not entirely surprising. It is June, a time when we transition from the full church year calendar to the summer schedule and, at the same time, planning for September begins.  By this point in the year religious professionals are tired, counting the days until vacation and study leave begin.  For others who are transitioning it is even more exhausting as they are saying goodbye, packing and getting ready to begin somewhere new.

For me yesterday the heart break came because it feels so hard to get Unitarian Universalists, particularly those who are not parents, to see our ministry with our children and youth as important, as critical to our congregational lives.  As UU's most of our congregations send our children out to separate space during worship, bringing us together in multi-generational community only occasionally.  When we gather a workshop or gathering that relates to faith development (religious education) many see that as something only for the parents.  Recruiting volunteers to teach is the hardest job and requires a tough skin to be told no or more commonly just ignored.   One is ignored both by parents and by the adults without young children. Sometimes I feel like I am apologizing for asking at all instead of inviting them to the great privilege of spending time with our children and youth.

While things are definitely shifting in many places within Unitarian Universalism, the old cultural model of a 1950's Sunday School where parents teach, children are rarely seen and whether or not our children remain UU throughout their lives is not seen as very important, continue to hold on.  Adults with grown children often feel like they did their part, they taught when their children were young and today's parents should do the same.  There is a continued attitude that children don't need to be or belong in worship and therefore they are sent out sometimes after a few minutes in the worship service or sometimes they are not in worship at all. This attitude is not just among those without young children at home, many parents don't want their children in worship either.  Maybe this is the one hour a week they can devote any time to their spiritual lives and the pressure to keep children quiet and well-behaved is just too much.  Even today the question of whether part of the task of our faith communities is to raise life-long Unitarian Universalists is on the table.  While among religious professionals this has shifted it is still a somewhat radical thing to say when we want our children and youth (and our adults) to be life-long UU's.  It is certainly radical to talk about creating multi-generational communities that worship and learn together.

My heart breaks because I love our children and youth - and I know others do as well. I know the people in my congregation who love teaching - those with and without children.  I loved having one of our high school youth this year who embraced fully the task of teaching and did it with joy.  Those are the days of hope and joy in the work.

And when I can't get people to say yes, when the teaching schedule goes unfilled and the workshop unattended, I just want to cry.  It is easy to go to a place of thinking that UU's just don't care about their children and youth.

I know people care, I know our congregations care and I know that if I asked them that question they would say they care.  On one level we all know faith development is important.  I know also that telling a story that people don't care is neither helpful nor true.  Yet it is also dangerous to fall into the story that people care and that there are good reasons why people don't volunteer, don't show up etc.  At some point our care has to translate into action.  It has to translate into people showing up.  So yes we as UU's do care about our children and youth and the question maybe is do we care enough to change?  To give our time? To find new ways that work for this new world in which we find ourselves?

Connie Goodbread a UU District professional says "Faith Development is all we do, Unitarian Universalism is all we teach, and the congregation is the curriculum."  What would our faith communities look like if we lived that out? Would my long-held dream of a line of people outside my door ready to volunteer to teach our children, youth and adults appear?  Would we place faith development at the center - not just a program to keep our children and youth occupied while the adults worship? Would we take seriously the nurturing and fostering of each person's soul - to grow a soul as William Ellery Channing said?  Would we risk failing if it meant trying something new, something bold? Could we learn from what didn't work (not just say well we will never do THAT again) and be willing to try something bold again?

Today I begin again. I remind myself why I love this ministry and why it is so important.  Yet I know my heart will break again.  There will be other days when the work is lonely and hard and I wonder why I keep doing it.

So I close with these words from Wayne Arnason:
Take courage friends
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
Take courage,
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.