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Religious Education, Music Ministries Draw People to First Unitarian Church
Karen Lewis, religious education director for children and youth at Dallas’ First Unitarian, takes the long view about what she does.

“I know that no one is going to walk out the door on Sunday saying ’Thanks for the lesson on Moses,’“ she says, “but we get letters from young people years after they’ve left here. I recently heard from a young woman who just graduated from Brandeis and is volunteering at a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church in Boston, thanking us for what she learned here. Her twin sister is considering becoming a UU minister. So we are, through the years, igniting in our children and teens the fire of our free faith and a recognition of the ways that Unitarian Universalism sustains us in our lived lives. Ultimately, we are making progress in keeping our young people in the faith through young adulthood and beyond. I look out into the pews on a Sunday morning and there they are.”

Almost four hundred children and youth are registered in the First Unitarian Religious Education (RE) program and about 200 attend on any given Sunday. The program is a major reason why the church has grown to 1,100 members.

Lewis says that the program’s success is due in large part to its volunteers and a philosophy that the whole church is responsible for RE.  The program relies on approximately 73 volunteer teachers each year and about a third of those who volunteer have no children in the program. “The meaning of membership here is that we expect all members to be fully engaged,” says Lewis. “We let members know that teaching is a major commitment of time, intellect, and heart and that volunteering in RE is nothing short of relational ministry.”

Lewis has been working to create and strengthen the Family Ministries Network to help parents connect with each other. “The staff has more responsibility in a large church to help people connect,” she said. In this network parent leaders are encouraged to invite other parents to a get-acquainted dinner. Lewis hopes those dinners will be only a first step and that the parents will make other connections among themselves.

RE hallways are decorated with large art pieces, including quilts, made by RE groups from various years. “Kids love to come back years later and see these hanging here,” she said.

Several end-of-year trips are highly anticipated by older RE groups. Service trips for high schoolers have included travel to the Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in North Carolina, where they have built accessibility ramps; work at city missions in Atlanta and the UbarU Retreat and Conference Center, where in the summer of ’09 they will return to begin work on constructing a challenge course. Sixth and seventh graders make annual trips to Heifer International’s working ranch in Arkansas. The ninth graders’ Coming of Age year includes a heritage trip to Boston.

The program has recently turned to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) for much of its curricula and is pleased by what they have found in the beta test versions of newly released lessons. “We use as much of the UUA’s new Tapestry of Faith curricula as we can,” says Lewis.

Teachers are required to attend eight hours of training in addition to providing their consent for a background check. Each teacher receives a 50-page manual covering RE philosophy and issues such as attendance, safety, and how to requisition supplies. Lewis says caring and supportive volunteers are the foundation of the RE program.

Another of First Unitarian’s strengths is its music program. “Music is an integral part of the life of this church,” says Music Director Donald Krehbiel. “Throughout our history this church has employed professional musicians to lead an active program and provide quality music in our worship services.” Though he says they are firmly rooted in the classical tradition, they also embrace other musical genres. This fall they’ve heard a Lebanese drummer, a gospel singer from Tennessee, a classical flutist, and jazz musicians among others. “Members, new and old, tell me that it is the quality of the music that attracts them, at least in part, to this church,” he says.  “My philosophy of church music is that it gives voice to the myriad emotions brought to this space by the congregants through congregational sing-ing and the special musical offerings of various guest artists and our own ensembles,” says Krehbiel. “It is my hope that the music will lift the spirit, provide an opportunity for meditation, and bring beauty and joy into the lives of those who are present. I am more interested in providing well-crafted music that has the power to engage and transform, than I am in music that teaches a specific theology.”

He adds, “In our worship team meetings we talk about the arc of the service; that is the movement and variety of spirit within the service, which begins with praise, joy, and gratitude, moves through remembrance and grief, meditation and prayer, commitment, and ends with joy.”

First Unitarian has a graded choir system. There are three adult choirs (two auditioned) and three for children and youth. The children’s choir director, Cynthia Nott, is artistic director of the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas. Choirs are often the strongest small groups in a church, Krehbiel says. “Several of ours bring food and hold a social hour after each rehearsal.”

The children’s choirs require a six-week commitment and attendance at four of six rehearsals. That solves the problem of parents and children being reluctant to commit to a whole year. “It’s a psychological thing for parents,” says Krehbiel. “They generally end up recommitting after the first six weeks.”

“We talk to the kids about excellence and dedication,” he says. “They understand that they are not giving a performance, but that their music is a gift to the congregation.”

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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