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.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.