Adult Religious Education Key to Forming Bonds
Everyone knows that many people seek out a church because they want religious education for their children. But adult education or adult faith development is just as important. It’s not only the way that people learn about Unitarian Universalism, it’s how they meet other members of the congregation and begin to feel connected.
When Teresa Radermacher visited First Unitarian Society (1,315 members) four years ago in Madison, WI, she followed the adult education path. She took a New UU (Unitarian Universalist) course, then one on world religions and one on personalities of the Bible, and then one on financial planning.
“I met people and they introduced me to other people and my relationship just grew,” she says. “That led me to volunteer as an usher, and then I was asked to help coordinate a minister’s installation ceremony. I feel like I’m really a part of the congregation now.”
If you have a strong adult education program you know about the power of these programs. But if yours is just getting started or is struggling, here’s advice from the experts.
Perhaps the most important element, says Rev. Kelly Crocker, minister of religious education at First Unitarian in Madison, is a strong Adult Education Program C ommittee, one that meets monthly to recruit volunteers and plan the schedule. Each committee member is also liaison to several volunteer instructors, helping them with logistics for their course, such as photocopying and supplies. Says Crocker, “We have found that it is extremely important to assist our volunteer teachers to insure that their experience is an enjoyable one so that they will want to teach again.”
Take a survey, says Crocker, of what courses people would like and what times work for them. Use this same survey to invite people to teach. FUS (First Unitarian in Madison) has courses each semester in these areas: Hebrew and Christian scriptures; world religions; ethics, theology, and justice; Unitarian Universalist history and heritage; and personal spiritual development.
Timing is also important, Crocker adds. “We try to have classes at varying times—one-day Saturday offerings, four-to-six-week evening classes, weekly daytime opportunities, and occasional Sunday afternoon programming.”
You say you can’t do programming at the level of a 1,300-member church? The new UU Church of Blanchard Valley in Findlay, OH (32), offers two adult education programs, a Sunday morning book discussion (one was Karen Armstrong’s History of God) and a Sunday evening group that focuses on current events.
“We don’t need a committee,” says Karla Sasse, congregation president. But Blanchard Valley does have a great leader in Dick Kern, a retired history and religion professor who leads some sessions and suggests some topics. “Without his talent and dedication we’d be in a much different situation,” says Sasse. Moral: If your congregation can’t muster a committee, find one dedicated person and support them.
Rev. Betty Jo Middleton has helped plan religious education programs (she prefers “adult faith development”) in eight congregations and has written a book, First Steps, to help adult coursework committees. Her advice: Think about others.
“In my experience,” Middleton says, “people who plan adult religious education do it very well for themselves. But they don’t always consider the interests of other possible participants.”
Most congregations have four or more categories of courses, she says, including: Unitarian Universalism and other religions; social issues; arts (craft-type courses); and social events.
At First Unitarian Church in Toledo, OH (350), Rev. Lynn Kerr is minister of religious lifespan education. Many of the twenty or so courses offered annually are held from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. Sunday, the same hour as children’s religious education, preceding the morning service.
The biggest challenge, she says, is to prepare the fall schedule of classes in the spring so that people can plan their fall schedules around them. There is a training for all leaders of adult religious education in late summer, for new as well as seasoned folks. After each course is completed, attendance and quality are evaluated. Participants are invited to fill out critique forms. Make sure course titles are positive and inclusive and watch out for instructors who may be faltering, Kerr advises.
The UU Community Church of Glen Allen, VA (215), has thirty-six classes over a year’s time in six categories: exploring social issues, exploring earth-based religions and our natural world, foundations of UU faith, exploring spiritual practice, life skills, and creativity.
The program succeeds because ministers have made it a priority and put energy into it and because committee members are dedicated and well-connected throughout the church, says Beith Burton, chair of the adult religious education committee.
“The lessons we learn in these courses nourish us individually, give us frameworks for making political, social, and economic choices, and help us to find our place in the congregation,” she says. “The program also provides a way to let members and friends share their gifts and gives us a chance to celebrate those gifts.”
Rosann Geiser, adult education chair at Fox Valley UU Fellowship in Appleton, WI (409), said the adult enrichment committee begins planning in January for fall courses, soliciting ideas through the newsletter and the Sunday order of service, then reviewing the evaluations of last year’s courses. Each member of the committee is responsible for contacting several course facilitators and helping them develop the description and other details of that program. Progress is reviewed monthly and a final lineup of programs is ready in May.
Don’t forget to have fun, reminds Crocker: “Adult education programming is one of the best ways to get connected to your spiritual home, make relationships that can last a lifetime, broaden your knowledge, and enrich your life all at the same time. When you view adult education from the perspective of offering opportunities whereby people can change their lives and deepen their spiritual lives, your work becomes amazingly rewarding.”
Most UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) districts have a lifespan religious education consultant who will be happy to help you.
First Steps: Planning for Adult Religious Education (1994) by Betty Jo Middleton. This can be ordered from Alphabet Soup, 703-549-4951; 203 West Glendale Ave., Alexandria VA 22301-2452; $18 including shipping.