The last eighteen or so months have required us to put many things on hold including trips, celebrations, and all kinds of personal and professional plans. One that has been most difficult to reckon with for many congregations has been the need to postpone plans for Our Wholes Lives (OWL), our flagship comprehensive sexuality education program. The challenge of when and how to offer OWL, particularly the Junior High School module, is, in some congregations, creating tension between educators, parents and youth as we seek the “right way to do OWL.”
As we adapted to new ways of gathering it become evident that certain kinds of relational conversations were unsuited for zoom or other virtual rooms. A program like OWL requires a willingness to learn, grow and share conversations that require deep trust and vulnerability – the very things that are MOST difficult to build virtually. Add to that the overwhelm our youth have experienced, many of them attending virtual school for the better part of a year, and it seemed that a pause on OWL was the best (and sometimes only) option.
Also paused has been facilitator training which typically requires individual trainers to travel, stay in hotels and be in close quarters with a group of up to 20 people whose personal commitment to COVID safe practices is unknown. It’s a risky endeavor, particularly for some of our trainers who might be at higher risk even in the best of times.
As we are trying to return to something that resembles “normal,” the question of OWL continues to arise without a clear path forward. Some congregations lack the physical space for social distancing, some don’t have the necessary trained leaders and some are working with families with younger (unvaccinated?) siblings or immunocompromised family members.
I don’t have an easy answer for the challenges we face except to call us back to three of the core values of Our Whole Lives: Responsibility, Inclusivity, and Consent.
What is our responsibility to prioritize the safety of our families, facilitators, trainers, and, most of all, our youth?
Is our decision on when to offer OWL inclusive? Who might we be excluding if we offer while COVID restrictions remain in place and variants with the potential for increased risk lurk?
If our congregation considers offering Our Whole Lives this fall, how are we modeling consent, again with families, facilitators, trainers and youth?
If you are in a period of discernment regarding OWL, I encourage you to consider one more value that isn’t explicitly part of OWL but is part of our covenant as a faith community: how can we extend grace and compassion to one another: ministers, staff, volunteers, parents and of course our youth, as we seek a faithful answer? We all want to do the right thing but sometimes putting Our Whole Lives on hold is the right thing.
Here’s some great guidance for discernment, planning and alternative programming from our UUA and UCC Our Whole Lives Program Associates:
- Framing Conversations About Restarting OWL Programs, July 2021 (YouTube), with CB Beal, Candace Woods, and Tina Lesley-Fox
- When You Can’t Do OWL…Do This(PDF)
- “Taking Flight” FAQ For Our Whole Lives Programs Interrupted by Covid-19(PDF)
- Don't Do Our Whole Lives Online
- OWL Taking Flight Webinarsand How to Support OWL Programs During COVID