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New Paradigms in Lifespan Faith Development

General Assembly 2003 Event 3034
Presenters: Gail Forsyth-Vail, Rev. Elizabeth Strong, Rev. Helen Zidowecki, and the Youth of the North Andover Congregation

A panel of religious educators spoke about the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) new curriculum development project and about the idea of using the Small Group Ministry with children and youth.

The New Curricula

Rev. Elizabeth Strong, the Religious Education Consultant for the Mass. Bay District of the UUA, spoke about the new RE curricula. Strong described the "new paradigm" of Unitarian Universalist (UU) RE like this:

"The paradigm shift is from a focus on the information we expect from curriculum to personal spiritual engagement with it. It is a shift from information obtained from curriculum to forming a personal relationship to it. Thus the change from the department of Religious Education to the staff group of Lifespan Faith Development."

The Essex Conversations is a book which contains essays by over 30 religious educators. Through their conversation about core UU beliefs and the components of UU religious education curricula, this book helped crystallize the paradigm shift.

An advisory committee working with the new UUA Lifespan Faith Development staff group suggested that curricula be UU, not just about UUism, and that it be faith-based. The new staff group wrote this statement of UU philosophy:

  1. The purpose of religious education is the transformation of our selves and our communities through spiritual, ethical, and faith development. It is a lifelong process of meaning making inherent in our humanity.
  2. Our spirituality calls us to be in relationship with the Transcendent, to engage our best selves, to appreciate life as a sacred trust, to connect with ever-deepening, ever-widening circles of relationship, to witness awe and mystery, and to do justice.
  3. Liberating religious education promotes critical consciousness, and engages us in a process of inquiry, reflection, and action to transform our communities and ourselves. Religious education helps us see beyond our own limitations, and in this way, is inherently anti-oppressive.
  4. In the context of Unitarian Universalism, religious education facilitates activities of meaning making, spiritual growth, religious identity, and ethical development. It is the responsibility of the entire covenanted religious community, as learners and teachers, to create, support, and engage in these activities for individual and communal transformation.
  5. As religious liberals, the Sources of our Living Tradition offer rich content and context to explore. As we seek to be faith-keepers, we celebrate the people, ideas, events, and heritages that identify and define us.
  6. We are guided by our Principles in creating relationships of trust, inclusion, affirmation, and participation in our learning communities.

The new curricula will include many new ideas, including these: worship modules; multiple learning formats; small group ministry; social justice opportunities; cookbooks of suggestions for how to adapt curricula; encouragement to add your congregation's specific traditions; music, art, drama, and dance resources; audiovisual and computer study guides; graded lessons; and resource guides around themes. The new curricula will consider many types of diversity, and will try to provide many types of guides to go with new curricula. Presenters stated that "We must involve parents and the whole congregation in the RE enterprise."

"We are going from bible-centered to child-centered to UU-principles-centered to faith-centered," said Strong. "This programming incorporates what came before to provide new opportunities for putting together life experiences to understand our faith development and our religious tradition."

Small Group Ministry for Children and Youth

Gail Forsyth-Vail, Director of Religious Education or North Parish Unitarian Universalist in North Andover, Massachusetts, described how her congregation uses Small Group Ministry (SGM) effectively with children and youth, replacing traditional RE curricula. They knew they had a problem, said Forsyth-Vail, because of the difficulty of recruiting teachers; people didn't want to volunteer because they themselves had only a cursory knowledge of what they were teaching. The RE Committee looked at their goals for RE, and found that they were looking for a sense of connection, development of faith when life is tough, and a toolkit of skills. They wanted to raise UUs, not just ethical people.

At the same time, the adult RE group was looking at SGM, so the RE Committee decided to try the same thing. What if we put the curricula back on the shelves? What if we don't know on Thursday what we'll be doing on Sunday? The congregation was ready to go with the new plan.

Every Sunday starts with a worship service for children and youth, followed by SGM with the children divided into age groups (grades 1-2, 3-5, and 6-8). The adults facilitate rather than teach. Each SGM starts with check-in, so everyone speaks. Then they reflect on the worship service, in verbal and other ways. The younger groups may play and talk, play games, create role-plays, or process the ideas in other ways. The SGM segment always includes a "carrying our faith into the world" component—an ongoing social justice project or a simple goal (be nice to your brother, or getting enough sleep). RE ends with appreciation, wishes, and closure.

The North Andover church does intergenerational services once a month for about 30 minutes, after which the children leave for SGM sessions.

The results have been excellent. The adults are more relaxed about connecting. The program turns on a dime when world events intervene. Children and adults share together; what a gift to hear an adult talk about attending their first funeral, or an adopted child talk about her experiences with adoption. Adults are the primary pastoral care givers to these children and youth. Adult can let the minister or DRE know when a child needs pastoral care.

New UUs tend to stay with their kids for many weeks. Forsyth-Gail found that they stayed through the worship service to find out what we were telling their children, then left at the beginning of the SGM part to rejoin the adults.

What about parents who want their kids to learn specific facts and stories about Bible stories and world religions, asked the Rev. Geoffrey Rimositis. Forsyth-Gail responded that this new method trades breadth for depth. Each story is chosen very carefully. Public schools teach more about cultural diversity and evolution so we don't need to cover that; instead, we need to give our children and youth the experience of examining their own reactions to religious stories and question.

Forsyth-Gail has written a practical guide called Adapting Small Group Ministry for Children's Religious Education.

Rev. Helen Zidowecki, Religious Education Consultant for the Northeast District, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Acting Director of Religious Education for Church of the Larger Fellowship starting August 2003, also encouraged congregations to consider using SGM in RE. Why should SGM be only for adults, she asked, when its characteristics are so relational?

Zidowecki spoke about how SGM has changed her approach to RE. Typically, the questions used in SGM discussion focus on how participants relate to stories rather than on learning the specifics. The learning is from the impact of the story and the dialog rather than specific content. UUism doesn't have a set body of knowledge, Zidowecki said, so we have some latitude in content. We can focus on spiritual development for a lifetime.

UU RE has moved from an instructional model to a community connection and relational model, which Zidowecki calls "relational RE." She replaces lessons with session plans, classes with groups, and teachers with leaders. Each leader is a participant, too, and shares in the dialog. Preparation focuses on thinking about the leader's own reaction to the topic. Curriculum writing focuses on the experience of the individual rather than on the group. A SGM model gives greater latitude in how to group participants, not just by age. Groups that cover several years allow participants to learn from each other. Arts and crafts enhance the dialog, rather illustrating the learning&mdas;it's a reflection of one's own reaction to the story. Myths and wisdom stories are a major resource.

In small congregations such as those in the Northeast district, said Zidowecki, mentoring is about interactions on a personal level. UUs already use mentoring for Coming of Age programs, but we can use it for the very young all the way up. Mentoring is about sharing in small groups if not one-to-one, and SGM can provide a way for an adult to mentor a group of children.

For more information, find out about SGM at Zidowecki's website or read her paper "Relational Religious Education: the Small Group Ministry Model."

Programming that Empowers Youth to Carry Faith into the World

Several youth from the North Parish Unitarian Universalist of North Andover, MA, spoke about their experience with SGM. Elise Forcino reported that SGM was about meeting interesting people and having meaningful discussions with no "homework." She asked her congregation why youth who had come through the Coming of Age program and joined the church couldn't join a SGM group, and became a member of the first intergenerational SGM group.

Heather Vail liked the way that older youth work with younger youth, helping in the Junior Youth classes and modeling an interest in a commitment to UU spirituality. Membership in the Youth Adult Committee teaches youth how to get things done in committees and how to influence what happens in the church. YAC members are far more likely to attend Sunday morning church.

Christine Middleton reported that when the U.S. went to war with Iraq, the congregation held a peace vigil that inspired her to organize a vigil each week for junior youth to adults. It was less about changing the world and more about coming together to share hopes and fears about this time.

Daniel Brosnan attended a three-day youth leadership institute that created a service project to benefit the local community. They chose a project with meaning to them: teen pregnancy and domestic violence.

Reported by Margy Levine Young; edited by Lisa Presley.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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