The author, Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson-Doyle, based this article on research conducted during a 2013 sabbatical from The Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford (IL).
In recent years, two innovations in congregational life have added depth, creativity, and connection to worship and learning in our churches. One of these is known as "theme-based ministry." Each month, the congregation has a theme. This theme is explored in worship, newsletter columns, and small groups. Example themes include words like Truth, Forgiveness, Creartion, Hope, Brokenness, and Gratitude. There are two basic approaches to theme-based church; some congregations use a three-year rotation (The Tulsa Model) while others use a different set of themes each year, centered on that year's meta-theme (The Rochester, NY Model).
The advantages of theme-based ministry are many. Most importantly, the themes are an opportunity to go deeper into life's essential questions. Instead of the shallow "variety" that is so typical of our hyperactive culture, we slow down and focus on things that matter. We have one conversation for the whole congregation, working against our tendency to form cliques in the church. It improves the opportunity for advance planning with music and other staff, and makes the minister’s work more efficient.
The second major innovation is the workshop rotation model for religious education. (Many Christian churches have been doing this for years). In workshop rotation, each rotation (usually a month long) has a "central story." The children learn the story through a different workshop each week. So, for example, you might teach the Passover story by enacting the story in a drama workshop, creating a mural of the Red Sea in an art workshop, and making unleavened bread in a cooking workshop. Other types of workshops include movement/games, nature/science, computers, film/A/V, music, and writing.
Logistically, the children are divided into age groups. Each group has a "guide" who stays with them as they rotate. The guide builds relationships with the students, handles behavior, and leads the ritual opening and closing activities. Each workshop has a workshop leader, an expert or enthusiast in that area who will teach each lesson three or four times, making small adaptations for age differences. Over the course of a year a church will usually have two or three guides per age group. You could have as many as 36 workshop leaders (9 months x 4 weeks a month), but usually there are fewer, as many leaders will repeat the role and some months will have only three workshops because of children's chapel, multigenerational worship, or multi-age activities. Workshop leadership can be a great way to involve more adults in religious education.
The workshops are more engaging than traditional curriculum. Students learn the essential stories of the tradition. Workshop leaders grow as teachers, with the opportunity to improve the lesson each week. When done well, workshop leaders themselves are creating lessons out of their passion and experience. The differences between guides and workshop leaders can help maximize people's gifts.
One can see how these two innovations—themes and workshops—can be used together in a synergistic and powerful way. By selecting a story that goes with the theme, a congregation can ensure that the whole church —all ages—is learning and living the same conversation. The staff collaboration on selecting the story and developing its meanings can be enlightening for the minister, educator, and musician.
So far, only a few of our congregations are doing both themes and workshops, but many are looking at adopting such a method. At this writing, The Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford, IL, where I serve, plans to begin. As I have prepared for this change, here is what I have discovered from other ministers and educators about what they have learned.
With this overview in mind, it can be helpful to see examples.
As I’ve begun planning for the coming year in Rockford, I’ve brainstormed many ideas. A theme on Failure will use as its central story “The Leaky Bucket,” a well-known Chinese folk tale. Possible workshops include an art workshop that decorates buckets to use as flower-pots, a science workshop that uses a fun experiment to test a hypothesis, so students learn that “failure” can still be scientific progress; a gardening workshop where students plant bulbs, only some of which will come up in the spring. The actual workshops we use will depend on which volunteers step forward.
When a congregation uses a central story from the Jewish or Christian tradition, they should look to Rotation.org for lesson ideas. Click on the “Lessons and Resources” button, and scroll down for workshops based on stories from various biblical texts. These are great resources that congregations can use. Browsing through these workshops will also give congregations ideas for workshops they can do with other stories.
Sometimes, the publishers of children’s books will have already created activities based on a story. For example there is a website with quilting guides for children to use with “The Quiltmaker’s Gift,” by Jeff Brumbeau, you can find quilting guides for children. Every congregation has quilters and, with these resources, they can easily lead a workshop for that theme. There’s a website with ideas for using Eric Carle books. A quick on-line search will often turn up ideas. But, remember, the key is for the congregation’s lay leaders to take ownership of the idea. Sharing what others have done is a way to spark the imagination, not to prescribe an approach.
Those congregations that are doing both themes and workshops are finding it to be a transformative and deepening experience. Their work feels more purposeful, and both children and adults are growing deeper in faith. As more and more congregations explore these methods, we will continue to learn from our own experimentation and the wisdom of our colleagues.
Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Johnson-Doyle
The Unitarian Universalist Church
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Last updated on Tuesday, July 22, 2014.
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