It’s a common question I hear from congregational leaders right now. It’s not just your congregation! There are far fewer children attending our congregations right now. Between 2020 and 2022 certified RE enrollment dropped by about 39% nationally and in our region. Adult membership dropped only 6-7% in the same period. This precipitous decline follows a long steady decline in both RE enrollment. (2018-2022 <1% decline among adults and 17% for children and youth. For a discussion of the demographics leading to this decline please read The Death of Sunday School (PDF))
Why? What does it mean?
The pandemic has been deeply disruptive and traumatizing for many and this is continuing for families with children. Right now the resurgence of RSV, flu, and other illnesses along with COVID-19 continues to disrupt life including keeping kids home from daycare and school and leading to challenges with employers and fears about full pediatric ICU's. We are so so tired. What families really need is a break!
For children and youth, they change far more in 1-2 years than adults. Our middle and high school youth are almost different people than they were before the pandemic. If they lost the thread of community and peer connection in their congregation, it is hard to rebuild that. Especially if they feel anxious or self-conscious.
For adults with children at home, the pandemic upended the community of care we depended on to help us raise our children. My colleague Rev. Michelle George Yates is the Minister of Lifespan Faith Development at First Universalist Rochester in Rochester New York. Like me, she is raising young children. Last spring we were talking about how hard the pandemic has been for us and realized in so many ways families have been starved of community.
Many congregations long to go right back to the way it was before the pandemic. Families are asking for that too! We want OWL and Coming of Age. We want regular Religious Education classes. And. Then even when congregations can find enough volunteers to run these programs, families aren’t showing up.
Michelle and I realized it’s like… if you’ve had a stomach bug for a week and have only been drinking fluids, you can’t eat a five course meal. You have to start with things like rice and toast. You might want the five course meal, but it isn’t going to go well.
Similarly, it might help us feel normal and safe to open the church newsletter and have it look like everything from before happening again. But these programs might be too much for our exhausted families and burned out volunteers. And if those programs aren’t what people need, pouring staff and volunteer energy into them serves no one. In fact, it saps morale and energy.
Celebrate what’s working – If your OWL program launched and is going well, that’s great! And re-think what isn’t. The way to move through this time is to keep serving our people as best we can. More will keep coming back. New families will come. What draws people in is that vibe of good things happening; not the full program listed in the newsletter.
What Could Congregational Life for Children and Youth Look Like Now?
Very little feels normal. Most congregations and religious professionals wonder what’s even possible now. A lot of people feel dispirited. But there's also lots of hope and wonderful things happening. Here are some of the threads I hear from the stories of what is working:
Center play and connection. This is far more important than curriculum or classes. There are many moments of learning and faith development that emerge from play. Sharing. Caring for each other. Apologizing and repairing relationships. Exploring creativity. We can be present and attentive to these moments of possibility even when we haven’t planned for them. Sunday School was first started to provide education that children weren’t receiving. What many of our children lost for almost two years and still aren’t receiving enough of is free play and connection especially in multigenerational community.
Let kids be kids. Give them puzzles to play on the sanctuary floor. Welcome their noise. Welcome their disruptions. Tell their parents it’s okay. Kids are out of practice in performing the way adults want them to perform. And that’s ok. For exhausted families to feel welcome, they need to know they can just be at home in your congregation and it’s okay for their kids to be kids.
Liberate your congregation from unhelpful expectations of children’s behavior. Don’t make anyone sit criss-cross applesauce and keep their eyes on the lessons. We already know that different people listen in different ways. Some bounce. Some doodle. Some are not ready to listen and need to curl up in the corner. Give everyone—adults and children—sensory bins. This shift will be helpful all kids, especially neurodivergent children and youth. And actually, it may feel liberating for adults too as we shed more layers of our internalized ableism.
Lean into the benefits of less is more and “less prep, more presence” (adrienne maree brown). Fewer volunteers may make some programs harder. Volunteers may not have the time for complex preparations. Your staff may have too much on their plates to help. There may be weeks where there aren't enough volunteers for regular classes. This could be seen as a setback—or maybe it’s an opportunity. What about a fall clean up day and jumping in leaves? For now, wherever possible, find what needs less planning, is more flexible, and centers fun and connection.
Balance between multigen and volunteer led. There’s a dynamic balance between volunteer led programs that free parents to be without kids for a little while and whole congregation activities that are fun for all, build relationships across generations, don’t require as many volunteers, but do require parents to pay attention to their children. Check on the balance of this in your congregation.
Notice all the places faith formation is happening all the time. Notice them. Name them. A few weeks ago in the little congregation I attend, toward the end of a multigenerational service, two five year olds noticed the play room at the back of the sanctuary had three wasps. They came to me with the emergency. We found a board member who listened carefully to the kids and asked them to show him what they noticed. A little later another member found a ladder, and someone else volunteered to hold it, and two adults and three children trooped around the outside of the building to solve the mystery of how the wasps were getting in. The kids also found a dead snake which they showed everyone and we talked about. These children were taken seriously, were treated as part of the community including having responsibility for the safety of that community, and had one of those mysterious encounters with life and death. Faith formation right there, no planning needed. And then they all played a wild tag game with their new friends that none of them wanted to end.
These things may be hard for some of your long standing volunteers. They may remember days of lessons and curricula and (most) children behaving in the ways they too were raised to behave. There were wonderful, glorious, life-saving, and life-affirming moments in these classes. Your volunteers may have their own grief in all the changes to name and move through.
In November the UUA and UUMA had a webinar supporting neurodivergent children and youth. Four very experienced religious professionals shared a range of liberating wisdom and concrete tools to create a welcoming environment for people of all neurotypes. And I believe we need this wisdom now more than ever. The webinar was for religious professionals, but is available to all including your volunteers. You can access this presentation and others in the series through the UUMA store.