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Considering Religious Education When Adding a Service
Considering Religious Education When Adding a Service

One of the key challenges in adding an additional service is providing religious education for children. What is needed, what will be offered, and how it will be done are large questions that need and deserve special consideration. The process of determining the answer to these questions runs parallel to questions about the style, nature, and structure of the additional worship service itself. If the religious education component of an additional service is not well thought out, then the worship service will have limited success regardless of how good it is in and of itself. Furthermore, often the squeezed and cramped conditions of the religious education program are what initially drives the need for an additional service long before the adults in the worship space know that a problem exists. 

Every religious education committee struggles with the perennial questions:

  • What kind of education do we want to have here?
  • Which age groupings suit our needs best?
  • How many young people should we have in each class, and therefore how many teachers do we need?
  • How can we make efficient use of our rooms?

These questions remain as additional services are added to the programs of the congregation. Some congregations find that offering duplicate religious education programs is the answer, whereas others find they need to change at least the age groupings. Some find that older youth won’t attend an early service, whereas others discover that critical mass means that a
particular group is offered only once a Sunday. Some congregations offer full religious education programming at one service and either alternative activities or multi-age programming at the other services. At a minimum, childcare for the youngest children should be offered at all services to make it easier for young families to attend; however, the optimal decision is to have something for all children at every service.

Here are some tips:

Assess the Needs

The first step in deciding how to handle the religious education program when an additional service is added is a needs assessment. The task force should ask the religious education committee to do this assessment for its programs for both children and youth. The following are some things the religious education committee will need to look at carefully:

  • What are the current attendance patterns?
  • Where is overcrowding most severe?
  • How many children are currently registered in each age group?
  • Who do we anticipate drawing to the additional service?
  • Do we need to rethink how classes are set up?
  • Do we have enough registrants now, at the existing service time, to fill two
  • sessions of the same class? Does space exist for a second session?
  • ow does the current situation affect our goals and vision?
  • How would an additional service affect our goals and vision?

With this information, the task force can ask the religious education committee to propose a rough plan for the additional service. This plan should include these details:

  • What classes will be offered during each service?
  • Will the classes be duplicates of each other or will different programming be offered?
  • Will there be a limit on the number of children who can register for a particular session?
  • What activities will be available for children who are present for both services on a given day (for example, children of choir members)?
  • Will children and families be allowed to switch back and forth between the various service times and religious education classes?
  • What happens if the registration is not balanced between the two services?

One of the greatest fears of religious education committees is that families will not cooperate in the change, especially if there is no room for them at their preferred time, or if the programming for their children is offered only at one time and it is not the most convenient time for the family. Although some people inevitably will leave the church over such issues, this resistance and anger often can be reduced by involving parents and families in the process early on.

Communicate with Stakeholders

Working along with the task force charged with putting together the plans for moving to two services, the religious education committee surveys its constituency. The survey can focus on nuts-and-bolts kinds of questions (“If we offered X and Y, which would you prefer?”) or on comments and responses (“Here’s our proposed plan. Would it work for you?”). This surveying can be done through written surveys, small group discussion, open town meetings, or a combination of these methods. Surveying the young people, rather than only their parents, may provide surprising insights and ideas. The religious education committee should listen openly to the concerns without becoming defensive, invite feedback and additional ideas, and provide information to the parents and young people so they know what to anticipate both in the decision-making process and when the changes are implemented.

Adapt Using What You Have Learned

After developing the final schedule of classes, the religious education committee should map out what the program will need to succeed. For example, the committee may find the need to revise registration forms and procedures, create a better record-keeping system, acquire more copies of the curricula for teachers, discover ways that teachers from various sessions can cooperate and collaborate on lessons, find more teachers, change the structure of teaching teams, increase the number of aides, or develop good plans for how supplies and class projects will be handled (shared or separately) across the different religious education program times. 

Throughout this process, communication with the parents and the whole congregation must be ongoing and clear. Needs and proposals should be clearly stated. The biggest hurdle in preparing to have two sessions is the fear of a split congregation, and the task force and the religious education committee must keep it in mind throughout the process. Not only does this fear affect the adults; it also affects the young people, who are afraid that their best friends may end up in a different class and they will be left alone with young people they either don’t know or don’t like. In planning and implementing an additional service, it is essential to remain open to, and aware of, these feelings and to plan events that will both address these concerns and bring the congregation (young and old) together throughout the year. Some committees might find it helpful to have special sessions with the young people to talk about the changes, hear their concerns, and get their suggestions as to what might work best for them. 

Coordinating the schedule of events for the whole congregation becomes increasingly important when multiple sessions are offered. Some areas that need particular focus are teacher orientation and training. In addition, events that formerly occurred after services (for example, a luncheon for parents, student graduation, or holiday decorating) can no longer be scheduled in the same way, unless only one service is scheduled on that day. The need for advanced planning for these changes cannot be stressed strongly enough.

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For more information contact conglife@uua.org.