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Deepening Our UU Faith through Theme-Based Ministry

General Assembly 2014 Event 241

Unitarian Universalists (UUs) are experiencing deeper connections between worship, religious education and other aspects of ministry through the integration of monthly themes, such as Forgiveness or Gratitude. Ministers and religious educators from several congregations and Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) staff Rev. Sarah Gibb- Millspaugh and Pat Kahn share their experiences and tools to help get started.


  • Rev. Matthew Johnson
  • Sheila Schuh
  • Rev. Jan Taddeo
  • Kathy Smith



PAT KAHN: Good afternoon. We're going to go ahead and start because I have 2:16 by my watch, which might be fast, but—This is program number 241, Deepening Our Faith through Theme-based Ministry. So I hope that's what you came for.

My name is Pat Kahn. I'm the children and family programs director for the UUA's Faith Development Office. And it's my pleasure to work with my wonderful colleagues on a subject that's near and dear to my heart and obviously to theirs, because they're here. I wanted to just say before we get started—what just happened to my PowerPoint over there? I'll go figure that out next.

Before we get started, the workshop is being video recorded. And after GA, the video recording will be on the UUA website, as will the PowerPoint. And I want to say this now—and I'll try to remind you later—at the end when we have questions, because it's going to be video recorded, you need to say your name and where you're from. Because then we'll contact you about getting a video release from you. So before you ask a question you will say your name.

We will pause for about a minute or so after each of our presenters so that you can sort of absorb for a second. And also so that if there are any questions that you have for that particular person, you can jot them down. And then when we have questions at the end you'll know who to address that to. I guess I should also say, if you're asking a question at the end you will need to use the microphone that's in the center. And just as a reminder, you'll need to say your name.

We're going to get started with our first presenter, Reverend Jan Taddeo from the UU congregation of Gwinnett right outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Jan.

Rev. Jan Taddeo

JAN TADDEO: Well while Pat is working on our video I will tell you a little bit about who I am, how I came into this. I am a third year minister. I was ordained in May 2011, and I'm at my first congregation outside of Atlanta.


JAN TADDEO: OK? We covered all that. OK.



JAN TADDEO: I was brought in in part because they really wanted someone who would build a bridge between the front of the church and the back of the church. Someone who would explore ways to engage in multigenerational ministry. Theme-based ministry has given me—us, together in our shared ministry—a lot of ways to explore that. And it's been an evolving process in these three years.

The next slide. In the first two years I started out initiating the concept of themes right from the beginning. Because I think of worship as an ongoing conversation and that there should be a thread that ties each service to the next. And themes help us to do that really well. And as a new minister it gave me some really clear things to be preaching about starting out, and that was helpful.

We worked together with—the worship associates and I chose our themes. And that first year everything was really about worship. And I didn't think too much about how to incorporate it into our religious exploration program until some of the RE facilitators were asking me, well what's it going to be about this time? Because I want to try and bring that into the class.

And so I started really doing more to give them a heads-up about what we were doing and giving them more ideas of how to incorporate it into their programs. And I did a weekly RE newsletter for the teachers, that they could get some inspiration for themselves. Because they were missing some of the worship services. And I intentionally went and met with them and discussed theme-based stuff as well as what was going on for them in their work.

In the third year we introduced the concept of an annual theme. So next slide. And what we came up with was "Touch the Earth, Reach the Sky." And this was really helpful in a lot of our fundraising and a lot of our activities throughout the church year. We used it to think about our canvas, we used it to think about our annual auction. It was just a lot of fun to look at that.

We actually created a big huge mural and had everybody's hand prints on it from the ground up through the trees and up into the sky. And that sits at the back of the sanctuary. And it has this really creative display of hand prints.

We also, in that third year, changed the structure of our RE and our worship to integrate the worship and the religious exploration programs more thoroughly and to create a more multigenerational ministry. We did more multigenerational worship and more RE after the services. And then we were able to really tie the themes into one another more intentionally.

In that third year an example of that was our pageant, which we developed through the course of about two months. We worked on the pageant—people worked on it during the service sometimes, sometimes they worked o it after the service. We got people of all ages engaged in building sets and costumes and scripts. There were all ages doing the pageant. It was certainly not limited to shorter people.

We also—in the worship services—we had an advent theme. And we had an advent poem that tied through the entire course of five weeks of worship, including the Christmas Eve service, that someone in the congregation had written, and the children wrote, and the teens had looked at and examined and parsed out for meaning. That was a lot of fun.

And through the spring we did a keyhole garden, which you can see a picture of there. It is now overflowing with eggplant and squash and all of that. We started the project of rebuilding our labyrinth, which will get completed in the next fall as part of our next theme-based ministry. And that's one of our little helpers there carrying her brick to help rebuild the labyrinth.

These were done during the themes of ecology, sowing, and metamorphosis. So it ran across three different themes, and it threaded through that whole part. And the worship services integrated it, too. We built a terrarium that sits in our worship space as a representative of the internal garden of who we are. And the external garden is who's on the outside—how we're serving the greater world.

Also in our third year we started the Words of Wisdom. These are daily devotionals that were created by two volunteers, one from our worship team and one from our faith development team. And each day one of them writes a 300-word devotional on our theme. They're wonderful and inspiring, and it's an incredible commitment of their spiritual energy. And they find it very rewarding.

They also get contributions from a few other people in the congregation, and every now and then I'll give them something. But mostly they're taking care of that. And you're welcome to go check it out. A couple of them have been featured on the UU blog list.

In the coming year, on the next slide, we're trying even more new things. This time the minister, the worship associates, and the religious exploration associates work together to select the themes. And we've started with our annual theme of where do we come from, what are we, where are we going.

We're coming to realize that our congregation really wants more of what it means to be Unitarian Universalism. What is our history, what are we now, how do we talk about who we are? And we're working on our long-term vision this year. So where are we going is a big piece of our conversation.

The monthly themes are—we borrowed from John Buehrens's book co-written by Rebecca Parker, A House for Hope. And then we added in a bunch of other themes that relate specifically to areas in our space, in our buildings and in our grounds. Including the labyrinth and the wash rooms. Really fascinating conversations about that one. And that's my dog walking the labyrinth.

We're excited about that. And the next one—we're changing the Sunday morning structure completely. We're moving our worship service from 10:30 to 11:00, making all of our worship multigenerational, and 10 o'clock will be religious exploration, with a modified version of workshop rotation. Because workshop rotation is usually something done in large congregations. Ours is a relatively small, mid-size congregation.

So it's a modified version in which the rotations are one class of children, one class of teens, one class of adults. And they'll rotate through our mission statement themes, which are curiosity, courage, and compassion, in which they'll explore all of our sources. They'll explore their own spiritual growth—the courage it takes to go deeper into your own understanding of your spiritual journey—and the faith in action, the compassion that we live out in the world, and incorporating the themes.

So a big piece of this, and a very exciting piece for us, is that we're incorporating our green sanctuary projects into that so that all ages are involved. It's kind of hard to fill it in on the form for green sanctuary because it's so much a part of worship and religious exploration and faith in action that it doesn't fit in a box. It's all integrated with congregational life. And our RE committee is starting to think of themselves not so much as committee members but really religious exploration associates, people who are really committed to what it means to create a religious exploration program for all ages.

We'll continue our Words of Wisdom. And on the next screen, the other thing we're working on is we are revamping our website—rebuilding and creating a whole new website, basically—that is going to incorporate a little bit of the 21st Century Faith Formation and Fahs Collaborative ideas. And I invite you to go to Fahs Collaborative, to go to those places to look those up, what that means. But in other words, looking at ways to create a website that meets people where they are in different stages of their life and different situations that they're in in their journey.

And then also working on an app, smartphone app, that people can take with them through their lives. And through the week they'll have a place they can go for a daily chalice lighting, a bedtime prayer, the grace, those kinds of things. And they'll also be able to access our Words of Wisdom blog.

And the last slide shows the themes we've had over these—what will now be--four years. So you get an idea of the kinds of themes we've used. They didn't want to use the ones that other churches were using. I presented them to them and they said, oh those are great. And some of them are in there, but they really wanted to put together their own themes that fed on one another. Thank you very much.

AUDIENCE: Who are you?


JAN TADDEO: Who am I? Jan Taddeo.

Kathy Smith

KATHY SMITH: This minute for you to collect your thoughts is actually really convenient for the speakers. Thank you. And I am reminded—Matthew reminded me as we are looking out—that this looks somewhat like a Sunday morning, with several seats available at the front, many seats available in the middle, and a lot of people at the back wondering where to sit. So I would like to invite you to scoot—if there's a seat in the middle—please feel free to scoot in so that someone who comes in later has a seat on the edges. Or if you'd like to come to the front there are seats available in the front couple of rows also.

My name is Kathy Smith. I am the director of religious education for children and youth at the Community UU church in Plano, Texas. Ah, our first slide, thank you. Our church is a midsize church. It is 215 members, give or take. 100 children and youth registered, which means that like most religious educators I see about half of those on Sunday mornings. Anywhere from 39 to 55-ish children on a Sunday. With attendance of about 100 to 140 souls in the building every week.

I am a DRE who's been at it for seven years now in a couple of different places. I've been at this church—I'm finishing my fourth year. I work with a minister who's been at our church for eight years and has been in the profession for 17.

We are a fairly traditional-looking church when you look at us. We run a religious education program on Sunday mornings concurrent with the worship service. Our worship service follows the Protestant hymn sandwich, if you will. We look on the outside like a very traditional program.

A couple of years ago the minister asked to move his worship services, or planned to move his worship services, to follow a monthly theme liturgical calendar. And when we talked about it we thought it would be a really good thing to provide a holistic liturgical framework to engage the entire church, all ages. Which is when we moved to thematic ministry, both in worship and in religious education.

So two years ago—oh my that didn't come out well. Sorry. You may look on the Tulsa, Oklahoma web page for this slide, which looks much better on their web page than it does on my PowerPoint slide. But this is the calendar that we follow.

It's a three-year rotation that runs through a number of religious themes, everything from faith and death to unity and diversity to God, creation, mercy, roughly themed to the liturgical calendar in terms of holidays. It runs for nine months. In the summer the minister and the worship associates put together a different type program.

Religious education runs a summer program that is themed to something for the summer. A couple of years ago it was Hogwarts, this year it's evolution. It doesn't tie to thematic ministry yet.

Our religious education classes focus on the monthly theme. As you look at those, some of them are probably a little bit more applicable to all ages. Some of them are really hard to translate to preschool and kindergarten. And yet there is benefit, I think, to having everybody talk about the same things, even if it's on a very, very simple level.

AUDIENCE: Can you speak up?

KATHY SMITH: Speak up. Goodness gracious, I can do that. So a little bit about the nuts and bolts of how we do what we do. The worship services start with all ages in the sanctuary, except for nursery and preschool.

The message for all ages is generally a story. Sometimes it's a meditation, a poem, or a song. I use slides or reader's theater or sometimes puppets, sometimes a spirit play type story. Occasionally a wonder box type story. All with the purpose of engaging the entire congregation, not just the children.

Next slide. The last Sunday of the month is a children's chapel. Instead of religious education I take the kindergarten through seventh graders into a classroom and we do a 45-minute worship service that is age-appropriate for K-7. The eighth and ninth classes and high school go ahead and have their regular class.

All of the other Sundays we have age group classes, and I run seven classes. As I said, very traditional looking. And all of the lessons in the month will be based to the theme except for Coming of Age and Our Whole Lives, which of course have their own agenda and curriculum.

How are the lessons structured? This one is—we did a monthly theme on love, if I'm recalling correctly. And of course it was February, which happened to coincide with Standing on the Side of Love. And so we themed our initial lesson to Standing on the Side of Love, with each class doing a part of the project which then tied together as a whole.

Keep on moving, Pat. There we are, there's the bulletin board that came from the whole thing. And then the next two or three lessons will carry through the theme, going in depth age appropriately, through activities or experiences. And then the children's chapel comes at the end of the month and offers a child-centered worship experience that gives us a chance to talk a little bit more about any questions that may have come up.

A couple of things that I do for the whole congregation—every week in the weekly email I do a this is what's coming up this week, age-tailored for each class. This is our lesson, this is what we're going to do. And then the weekly bulletin has this is what we did, here's a question you can ask your child. And I've actually been told that a lot of the families, they use my questions, which is so exciting. And sometimes the adults talk about the questions, which I also find really happy making.

And then the next series of slides is similar. This is the stewardship of our community lesson. We have a community garden on our back 40. And we were able to tie it in with lessons and experiences for all of our age groups. One of the benefits of this is that it allows everybody in the church to experience the same idea in different ways that they can each engage in.

These are the adults. This is our little people. And this is one of our middle age range classes. They were all able to plant and talk about stewardship using the metaphor of gardening.

You may ask, how do I come up with religious education lessons. Most of them are coming from existing curriculum. Thank heavens for Tapestry of Faith and the fact that it is searchable and hopefully later this summer will be even more searchable by theme.

I also use some existing lessons from curriculum. Our church has an enormous library of curriculum going back 20 years. If I can't find what I want in Tapestry of Faith I will pull it out of another lesson.

Oftentimes I will take one lesson and repeat it across the different age ranges so that they will be doing the same thing or the same idea with a different application as they get older. I really think there's a value to repeating the same core set of stories over and over again. Once every three years is really not too often to hear the parable of Jesus the sower or to talk about what life would be like if we all lived by the theories of stone soup and contributed to our communities. Or to talk about the golden rule and what it really means in our lives.

Yes, I keep a computer record. No, I'm not ready to share my lessons. Sorry. And at the end of the three-year cycle—we are two years through the three-year cycle—we will have a set of lessons which we will then repeat again. Our expectation is to do a three-year liturgical theme so that both worship and religious education rotate through on that cycle. And next time through I'm going to refine the lessons that I have this time. It is a growth and learning experience for all of us.

And so I wrapped it up with a photograph of our kids. And thank you. Thank you so much for paying attention and coming to our workshop. Again, my name is Kathy Smith, and I'm with Community UU Church in Plano, Texas.


Sheila Schuh

SHEILA SCHUH: Good afternoon. I'm Sheila Schuh, the director of religious education at First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York. We are a large congregation of over 1,000 people and about 280 to 300 children and youth. I'm going to start with the top 10 reasons why you will consider theme-based ministry. If that's what you're here for I'm hoping to sell you on it.

This is not David Letterman's top 10. It doesn't go in order. So I'm just going to mention the things that I've found over the years—I've done it for five years now—the reasons why I still do it and I'm committed to it.

First of all, list positive energy and the engagement of volunteers. Coming in in an RE position where they were volunteering parents every other year for a full year, there's lots of burnout and drag. In this model volunteers come in—this is a theme—they're excited about it and the energy is really positive.

Tailors to the congregation, your own traditions, your history and mission. You've heard some of that already, about how you can use the themes to weave in some of your own stuff. Worship for you, which is developmental engagement and the whole experience. So in our programming we have worship at each level, from kindergarten through youth group. And then the adults of course.

Cross-generational ties and family, including parenting. So in our model the theme that the children have for their morning is also the theme that's in worship. And so that's what our hope is, is that we have those questions that parents can ask their kids about the theme.

The congregation as a whole. So if I see somebody walking around with a pink streak in their hair and it's the month of color, I know that person is doing some work on their own, in their own group on what the theme is. And then in humanity. I feel like it's important that whether you're five or 95 that the themes we choose are hitting you at some spiritual place and that they do connect us all in the wider human family.

This ties the seasonal to the spiritual. Also it's creating a kind of liturgical calendar for our church. In terms of the themes that are chosen are chosen in mind with both what's happening culturally and also in the environment and in nature. So I feel like it does resonate on some levels every year.

The themes offer a base for creativity and curiosity. As you know, we UUs are full of ideas. And so it does help us to narrow that container a little bit. And then from there we go out, instead of having people all over the place.

For me this is an important one—stretches your spiritual focus in a direction you may not have considered. So you may be comfortable with evolution as a theme for the month of whatever—January or February—but not so comfortable with vulnerability for a whole month. So it does force you to spiritually sit with each theme. And also developmentally, what is that like for a child versus was it like for somebody who's aging. Very different. And it really makes you sit with it.

Economies of scale. And a large church model that we have—and we also have a partner church—economies of scale is especially important. It allows us to share information, resources, sermoning—everything across the board with our partner church. And so in that way economies of scale—themes are a great tool in that collaboration.

The spiritual connection with the DRE and others for programming and for pastoral care. This may seem like a small thing but it helps me not to be just principal administrator. But also because I'm doing worship and my directors are doing worship with children and youth, it helps pull that spiritual energy to deepen that relational life. We don't have set classrooms. We're talking about groups and worship. And so it is a very different kind of relationship when you worship with the children that you're serving.

Also it invites leaders to a deeper level of internal work. So that's also something that I found over the years, that it forces me as the Director of Religious Education—and it will force the ministry of music, in his own way, or the ministers in their own way—to really sit with those themes for the whole month. And to work on how's that hitting me and how do I bring myself to church knowing that work is still going on in myself. OK. That's the top 10.

A little bit about our church. First Unitarian, our mission is listening to your deepest self, opening to life's gifts, and serving needs greater than your own. This is what we're running right now—Worship on the Theme. Three adult worship times, three K through fifth times. So we have RE at the same time of worship. And we're having all these separate age groups have their own worship and their own small groups.

So for me, I run the theme-based K through five workshop adventure program. And that is a theme-based workshop rotation model. The adult spiritual development is on the Soul Matters sharing circle, which is developed by our previous minister, Scott Taylor, who is still developing those packets.

And we are running now 30 group on Soul Matters. We now have teen Soul Matters. And then we have various groups that have adopted the themes for their own media, like an arts group that's on a theme for Soul Matters.

In terms of our media, we have a monthly reflection from the minister on a theme. We have all my program newsletters, so pre-K newsletter, the K through five newsletter, the junior high spiritual survivor newsletter, the coming of age newsletter, and youth group newsletter. Those all have the theme in it tied to our mission. So Listen, Open, Serve and how's the theme related to that goes out to every parent if you have a child in that program.

The summer all-church spiritual assignment—so we have a theme for the summer as well, and the whole church has a spiritual assignment including kindergarten on up. And summer RE—I developed those sessions based on the theme as well, for our RE programming in the summer. And something you may not know but usually our staff chooses a reading or something to center ourselves on the theme when we get together each week.

OK. The most fun that I wanted to bring to really is about the organic growth and to be mindful that when you choose to do the themes to have that listening ear to how things want to change in your programming. And so I brought some of mine to share with you, when you do the themes, how it can start to infiltrate other areas of your programming.

So these are examples of what has happened over the five years that I've done this programming in terms of worship. For example, the theme in the greeting. So normally in church you'd have a time of greeting. It's very general. But for me, in the children and youth ones, we have it tailored to the theme. So right now I would ask you, since this is the month of praise, turn to your neighbor and say an affirmation such as, how lovely are your, and then give them some word of praise.


OK. OK, I'll bring it back in.


I see that it's very effective for you to—so you see how easy it is to simply give a little bit of direction and the theme comes right out of people and their humanity. It's very easy for kids, if they have a focus, to share something about the theme and even just like that in the way that they greet each other.

The next thing that has grown in our program is mindfulness training across the ages from pre-K through youth group. And one of the things that we have integrated into the worship service is mindfulness breathing. And it's a very simple thing for the younger children, in that builds over time.

In this case we tie it to the natural world. Because my fear is that kids are losing that connection with body and the environment. And so we do our mindfulness breathing relating body, environment, and the theme.

So if you'd join me in just a second—if you want to center yourselves for a second—I'll just show you what that's like. So since this is the month of praise I would like us to take just a moment to focus our attention on the fact that even though we are in this humanly-built building, that our bodies still require the praise and glory of the trees outside of this place. We need it for our breath, and we need it for the air that we breathe that feeds our bodies.

So for the children I just do the simple mindfulness of calling to mind the trees in your mind. And then we just sing three times, breath in. And take a breath. And then, breathe out. Breath in. Breath out. Breath in. Breath out.

So even a child who is five years old can do that. And it's a way for us to have the theme and bring out some of those deeper parts of what our faith is about with them.

Time of inquiry is one of my funnest things about worship. It's a time that worship pops, and it's a way to have kids think outside the box of the culture. This is a time when I ask them a question such as, OK, so say this pair of glasses has Google Glass or say it's a gratitude glasses. If you want Google Glass, think about the benefits of that. Think about the benefits of if it was a pair of gratitude glasses.

I ask the kids this question—what are the benefits of having a pair of gratitude glasses that if you put them on you would be able to see at all times the gifts around you. So if it is the month of praise, do think Google Glass, where you could look up the internet on your eye, would be more helpful or do you think having a pair of gratitude glasses would? And talking to them about hmm, how's the culture influencing the way that you see the world, the way that you're grateful for the things you have, et cetera. Do you get that?


SHEILA SCHUH: OK. Reflection with the mission—so any time that there's wisdom that's shared, we always reflect on it through the theme and through our mission. So if a guy's complaining all the time in the story that we've chosen and then he finally is redeemed, then I'll ask the kids, what does it have to teach us about praise. As a UU living in the world how do we open to life's gifts? That's one of our missions.

And then ties to the rites of passage, we have now our rites of passage at each juncture of programming—coming of age, bridging—all of those are theme-based on whatever the theme is that they occur in.

OK, so moving on. Whoops—there we go. Those were all worship pieces. And I'm just going to quickly go over some of the small group pieces.

The small group pieces are—in my programming K5 I've now switched from using themes, modalities in rooms—so the theme happens in worship, like praise, and then you'd go into a room of art, music, dance mini world, which is really like spiritual play or social action—now the sources are our six rooms. So you'd hear the theme in worship and then you go into a room—like the thinking cap lab is about humanism, or you go into the guru gym, which is about world religious traditions and teachings, or you go into the superhero city, which is our prophetic deeds of men and women. So each of the rooms represents one of the six sources that the kids will rotate into.

The themes cross over into skills and action-based challenges in our spiritual survivor program, which is our program for six through eighth graders. So they may be doing a unit on the Herd Challenge and the worship would be about—say for example voice is the theme of the month and then they would be going out to do voter registration. See how that all ties together? Yeah.

Teen Soul Matters—this year our teens advocated for themselves and wanted to get on the Soul Matters sharing circle themselves. And so the teens now are on the Soul Matters packets. And the summer, our activities, I already talked about that.

And our junior high drama group also did a review this year on one of the monthly themes, which is kind of fun. All their poetry and music and stuff that they wanted to do were around that.

Coming in the next year—I just piloted, this year, parenting as a spiritual practice, which combines the mindfulness training elements that we are working with our children and youth on and also nonviolent communication for our parents, and gratitude practice. So all those three elements.

And the parents asked me at the end of the year, can we have more theme stuff included in that. So that's going to be really exciting. Parents in that group also are seeding another group of parenting Soul Matters on theme.

And our COA program—one of the things I'm pushing for is an individual spiritual plan around a stumbling block that a child or youth would have and how it relates to our mission. And then say, for example, one of your things as a 14-year-old is patience. You have none of it. So you could use that as your core thing that you're going to work on all year.

And you're going to work on that through the theme with a mentor every month. Pretty cool. I'm loving that idea. I hope it happens.

And one of the other things I'm hoping to do at some point is to have some of this texting, and more manual stuff that people can get through their technology, on theme throughout the week. So it'd be easy with our parents—our parents actually ask me for that. Like, can you send me—because there is a mindfulness education program developed for adolescents called .b, which we're integrating. You can .b someone on your phone, which is period b, which means pause and breath.

And so we're integrating that this year. And I'd like to share that with some of the parents. Same idea, you can text each other.

The other thing that Scott Taylor and I are going to do is—for those of us who are on the first Unitarians themes, the sharing circle, I think there are 50 churches now—he'll be creating folders for each community's RE pieces so that we can dump our material in there. And I'm promising to dump mine in there for anybody who's on the sharing circle. Thank you.


Matthew Johnson

MATTHEW JOHNSON: I'm Matthew Johnson. I am the senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rockford, Illinois. We're a mid-size congregation in the industrial heartland. 360 adults and 100 kids registered, which means we have about 35 to 40 each week on average, sometimes a lot less depending on the weather. When it's 20 below our children are not present.

You've heard some about themes. And we just finished our first year with themes. And I heard about themes for the first time about five or six years ago from a visit to Unity Unitarian in Saint Paul, which has five themes that the children work through each year and also monthly themes for the adults. They're not aligned to each other. But I liked the idea of the monthly theme for the adults and the way that that connected the congregation.

The congregation I serve—I've been there six years—has a lot of clicks, as a long-established congregation often does. How do we get people to be having the same conversation? And themes really was attractive in that way.

And then I heard from Scott Taylor—who we've heard mentioned already, now the director of congregational life at the UUA and was the co-minister at First Unitarian in Rochester, New York—a couple of times in a workshop about themes and about the way that it can connect within the congregation and to other congregations doing the same themes. And I was thrilled. Brought that back to my leaders who put it in our strategy plan that we were going to do it. And we were excited about doing it. So themes was part of it.

At the same time we were having another conversation about why workshop rotation model. Our feeling was that the sequential curriculum—we do this this week and then we do the next lesson the next week, which builds on that—wasn't working well for us. For some of our kids it felt like a lot more school, where there were already pretty schooled.

Our attendance is erratic. That's probably weather, that's partly people have soccer, which is Sunday morning one weekend and Sunday afternoon the next. It's partly that we've got kids of divorce who are with us every other week. And so we couldn't do that sequential thing very well. And I'm seeing a lot of heads nodding.

And we wanted to get more of our volunteers involved without saying you've got to do a whole year. Which felt like—some people wanted that but others it was too much of a barrier. So we thought, let's do workshop rotation. Let's have one lesson that we repeat multiple times and with different age levels. And let's do it together with the themes.

So I had a sabbatical coming up, which was helpful. So I spent some time thinking about how we do this. And I talked to some of these folks and others across our association about people who were doing both themes and workshop rotation on the themes, which there were not that many of two years ago. And there are more every year.

So I wrote a memo about that, which I wound up sharing with Pat and others, which you can find on the UUA website. If you go and if you click--

AUDIENCE: They'll get a link.

MATTHEW JOHNSON: They'll get a link in the resource material. Excellent. So you can find it there pretty easily. And it lays out a little bit about the thinking about how that works.

And I spent some time looking at themes that people were doing, different aggregations. And trying to figure out what were theme clusters and how might that work in religious education and what would be helpful.

So we decided to go and do it all at once, despite the advice we got from some—start with worship and build up. We just went all in. So we did our own themes last year based on our mission. The end of our mission is to inspire people to transform our world from inhumanity to love.

And so we asked, how do you do that. So we had verbs for each month—dream, fail, give, wait, change, question. Words like that about the things we would do. So I preached on the theme or our intern did, three to four Sundays each month. We did the small groups based on the theme. And in religious education we did themes.

So the preschool curriculum—this was pretty easy. Our director of religious education chose stories that worked with the theme, little lesson, then the kids played. But they were picking up the theme ideas and talking about it.

Junior high did neighboring face. They were not on the theme. Senior high would do some of the sessions on theme. What I particularly loved is when I would hear back that they had decided to all bring in their favorite piece of music on that theme or their favorite story about that theme. They began to own it a little bit.

In elementary we did two to three workshops each month. Two times a month we did a younger elementary and an older elementary. And we had the different modality with rooms. A think room; a move room, which was drama and action and dance; and a make room, arts and crafts and things like that.

Let's see. Yeah, so an example—what did we do? How did we actually do this? So our theme for February was honor. As we transform our world we will honor. So we had one workshop on Rachel Carson and honoring the earth. And so the kids learned about ecology and how that works and how we honor the earth through environmental action.

We had a workshop on yoga that was about honoring your body. And we had a workshop on—we have some former Marines in our congregation, and they agreed to do a how to fold the flag properly workshop, which our kids really enjoyed. And what does that mean, about honoring veterans?

And so it was pretty easy to figure out things to work with that theme that would be appropriate. In November, which was give, we planted bulbs that come up in the spring to give to the earth. We talked about animal partnerships. We had a biologist who did some lessons on symbiosis with our kids.

And then we used the story for November—one of the stories was The Quiltmaker's Gift, which some of you probably know. And so they had a quilting workshop to talk about that and read that story. Those are examples.

So we'd just done it for one year. And we learned a lot by going all in on doing it. The main thing we learned is that we loved it. The congregation enjoyed it a great deal. And they really liked doing it. Heard great feedback from people about the way that that integrated.

People who were more engaged got more out of it. So the ones who were in a small group doing the theme we were doing and talking to their kids about it really had those conversations. But if they weren't participating they maybe missed it a little bit.

But it was our first year. So we're counting on that organic attraction, as time goes by, to draw more people into it. And we're already seeing that begin to happen.

Next year we're not doing our own themes. We're doing First Unitarian's themes. We're doing the Soul Matters themes. I've convinced five other congregations in our local cluster.

So we'll be doing pulpit exchanges with each other. We'll be sharing resources. So not just this national sharing but the local sharing that will happen within these congregations, all of which are much smaller than ours. So how we can be a resource and connect with them.

One thing I thought originally is that we were going to have a central story. I saw this in Tulsa and in Saint Paul, where they would start with a children's chapel or the kids would only be in the beginning of worship once a month. And they'd have a central story. And so the story for November is going to be The Quiltmaker's Gift. And we're going to tell the story, and then each week we're going to talk about the story in different ways. And we started out with that idea.

But our kids begin every week in the service. And I thought, oh I can retell it. I can tell it one time one week, and the next week we'll do it in a drama. And then we'll do it from another—that didn't work.

We gave up that pretty quickly. And we would tell different stories each week all related to the theme of that Sunday and for the theme of the month. But we didn't try to do that, learn one story as much as we had originally planned.

We didn't do children's chapel last year. And that was something we were really missing to get the kids through worship to explore the theme. So we'll be doing that once a month, which means we'll be cutting down the number of workshop rotations that we'll be doing. Which will make it easier for our volunteers.

We still have the problem with erratic attendance. That did not go away by any means. Over time we want to do more multi-age things. So that children's chapel will help with that, bringing different age kids together as well as across multiple generations.

And then the piece about collaboration with other creations is the part that I'm most excited about and the way that we can share these resources with each other. So we're just beginning. It's a real culture of experimentation, trying it out, being willing to see what works. But so far the congregation and the kids are loving it. But we're definitely adjusting as we go.


Sarah Gibb Millspaugh

SARAH GIBB MILLSPAUGH: So I'm going to talk to you about content for theme-based ministry. I'm Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, and I am the faith outreach strategist at the UUA right now. I've also worked as parish minister. And my work is developing and curating online content for worship, for spiritual growth, and for seekers with the UUA.

So I'm curious, how many of you are using theme-based ministry now? OK, how many are planning to implement it? OK. We have a good amount. How many want to implement it but no plans yet? OK, great. So you'll be looking for content. How do figure that out?

There are a lot of different sources for content. You can go ahead. We have some of the congregations that are providing theme-based ministry content. And some of them have been mentioned already.

All Souls in Tulsa is one of the first congregations that developed theme-based ministry. And they have the website where they list their programs. All these slides will be available online afterwards. So you don't have to get everything down perfectly, unless you want to access it right away.

Also Rochester, New York First Unitarian has Soul Matters, as was mentioned, Sheila's congregation. First Universalists in Denver has Touchstones and several congregations are involved in using the themes from Touchstones. Anyone here using that? Yes, we have a few. And Touchstones, like Soul Matters, includes some small-group ministry as well as the themes.

And also Church of the Larger Fellowship has monthly themes. Is anyone using their themes for their congregation? That's another option to explore. And they publish material online, and they worship based on those themes online as well.

Many of you, however, have your own themes, Jan's congregation or my old congregations. We don't want to just adopt somebody else's cycle of themes. We want to come up with our own. And it's a great way to get people involved in the leadership of their own congregation, involving your worship committee in what themes are you going to cover.

So let me give you some resources that can help you find content based on any given theme. One of them is the Small Group Ministry Network. And this is a collaboration of congregations and individuals all across the country. is the website.

And it's an independent group, and congregations can join with an annual fee. But you can also access the website without the annual fee. But you really ought to join and become members to help out.

But this website has thematic small group lesson plans. I did a little clip of some of them that started with F—faith, faith and commitment, faith in action, family—these are all lesson plans for one hour small-group ministry sessions submitted by congregations. And you can use them just as they are or adapt them to your theme and your people.

We also have resources on, and I'm going to go over each of these a little bit. There's Worship Web, which is, and that has tons of resources for worship on lots and lots of different themes. We also have Tapestry of Faith, which has been mentioned. And I'll just say a little bit.

Tapestry of Faith is a lifespan curriculum, children through adults. There are so many different sessions, so many different parts of it. I would say more than 50 different programs in all, give or take.

And hundreds of stories are part of Tapestry of Faith. And most of those stories are online. Some of them are in the toolkit books published through the bookstore. But all of those stories are on a variety of themes. And then the lesson plans are on a variety of themes, for children, for youth, for adults.

We also have print-based resources for theme-based ministry. Go back a couple. The UU World Online, the UUA Bookstore, and Beacon Press. Those are a little bit harder to access because you have to know what's in the book in order to find it.

So let me talk a little bit about Worship Web here. Let's go, yeah there we go. This is the front page of Worship Web currently. And if you want to search Words for Worship, you can type in a keyword word there and hit Submit.

And Worship Web has hundreds of openings and closings and chalice lightings, prayers, sermons, stories, and more submitted by UUs, ministers, laypeople alike. And it is useful for worship on a whole bunch of themes. So let's go forward, I think. Yeah I mentioned Tapestry of Faith. Let's go forward one more.

So let's say we want to find resources on change. So let's start out in Worship Web. We want to find resources on the theme of change. And we type in "change" and we get a search here. And it's a little bit hard, actually, to find this.

So you come up with your search results, and it yields these top results. One is a responsive reading about change—hey, that's relevant. Another is a meditation about time, which is not really relevant, but the word "change" was in it. The other is an offering call on the theme of creating change, which is relevant.

Another one is a litany for Christmas, not relevant. A prayer for the service of a ministerial installation, not relevant. A meditation that is kind of relevant, and a flower communion meditation that just uses the word change is not relevant at all. I want to let you know this will change.


But before I show you how it'll change let's do a Tapestry of Faith story search on the word "change." So we put "change" in the Tapestry of Faith story search box and we come up with lots and lots of results. Two pages. All of those stories include the word "change" in them. It could be change your clothes or spare change. And they're all good stories, but none of them in those results come up as a really suitable time for all ages on the theme of change.

Let me show you one more thing. In Worship Web there's also—and in various corners of there are also really great resources. It's like a little gold mine, but they're hidden.

This is a link on Worship Web that goes to a huge database that the reverend Paul Bechel put together of children's books that are available in the library or in bookstores that are related to UU themes. And he lists what the theme is, what the title is, the author, and a synopsis.

And so if you're looking for that, that's not even going to show up in your search on change. It's just going to show up you if you happen to look up Paul Bechel's storybook resource list, which he was so kind to share with the UUA. So that will also change.

And then we have the UUA Bookstore website, where you can look up children's storybooks. But you can't really look up the theme of change unless that happens to be the theme of the whole book. So then you would need to order the books, browse through the collections of books, find stories on change. Which can work. I have done that a lot.

But what will change is that tags are coming. How many people have used tags in searching on content online? Yes. We are going to have thematic tags throughout that are enabled by moving to a new infrastructure for our website. It's a new content management system.

And we're already at work adding thematic tags to Tapestry of Faith, to Worship Web, and to that storybook list that I showed you earlier. In fact anything on will be able to be tagged with this new system. So this is coming later in the year. We're on our way there.

But what will happen is if you go up and you click on the theme of change, then only things that are actually on the theme of change will come up. So it kind of separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of what you're really looking for. If you're looking for something on the theme of aging, you will get that and not just anything that talks about aging.

So let's go forward here. Yes. So it'll make it easier to find what you seek. And it can be used throughout So UU World articles, for example, can be tagged with the same themes. So you can look that up and find what you need there that might be relevant for your theme-based ministry.

So providing these resources is just one of the ways that the UUA staff work to help our congregations be more vibrant and have more meaningful ministries. And there are so many ways that our congregations—in networks and in teams and by creating and sharing their resources—also help creating vibrant congregations and meaningful ministries.

And part of the vision of all of this that I'll just say a little bit about is for us as Unitarian Universalists to learn how to show who we are online, not just tell. So we have a lot of material online, on and on our congregations' websites, that say, we are a place that speaks to people of many different beliefs, of many different backgrounds.

And we can say that and we can say that and we can say that. But someone's not going to really get it until they see some of the ways that we can go deep with people who have a lot of different backgrounds. How we can really speak to those common themes that humans deal with and live with. And then they can experience it and really get that more. And perhaps be coming to our congregation sooner than they would have if they had just read what we do.

So some of my work this year is really working to show in the parts of our website—and my hope is to also empower congregations to do this as well, to create resources that congregations will want to replicate that really show who we are. And that involves featuring theme-based content on on a regular basis.

So some of the ways you can help—not only implementing this in your congregations and really ministering to people in wonderful ways through it. But you can also contribute your writings to Worship Web. We have a form on Worship Web for anyone to submit and share their writing.

It has to be your own original writing. It can't be some copyrighted work that you've adapted. That can get problematic. But something that you are able to give permission and have the copyright to to share.

And you can also encourage other people to submit to Worship Web. If you hear someone in your congregation give a delightful prayer or reading that they have developed or a great reflection for the RE newsletter or anything like that is spiritual and wonderful. Please encourage them to share it with us through that. You'll not only be helping people right around you but you'll be helping UUs all over the world. Thank you.



PAT KAHN: So you can see way I was so excited about this workshop. Because there are a million ideas and great experiences just with five people sitting up here. And all of you will hopefully be contributing to that as well.

I do want to say a special thank you to Kathy Smith and Sheila Schuh, who have been participating in the tagging process of Tapestry of Faith. And it's really exciting. So this would be the time if you have questions to come up to the microphone. Say who you are.

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