In these times of increased family overwhelm and decreased religious participation, congregations often find themselves needing to revisit the foundational assumptions of their programs for children. The old "Sunday School" model just isn't working like it used to in most places. These resources, developed and curated by the UUA Pacific Western Region, offer ways to frame and construct your ministry to our youngest Unitarian Universalists and their parents/caregivers.
Understand the Trends in Family Participation
Why are the old ways not working any longer? Is it that we don't have enough staff? The right staff? Enough volunteers? A big enough budget? Is it because of Sunday morning soccer, or parents who just aren't committed enough? Congregations can sometime go in circles arguing about these questions and wondering "who's to blame" for the decline in children's participation. "If only we could do X, we could have a thriving program again like we did X years ago!" But the forces that are affecting family participation are multiple, and mostly, they come from beyond our congregations. Learning how to respond to societal trends and learning how to create engaging "sticky" ministries with families and children is not simple. Yet, to live in to the power of our calling as Unitarian Universalist congregations, it is necessary.
While she was on the UUA's New England Regional staff, Kim Sweeney wrote The Death of Sunday School and the Future of Faith Formation (PDF), which lays out these trends and helps us understand why our old strategies are no longer working as well as they once did. New England Region also published a study guide for staff discussion (PDF) of the Death of Sunday School, which can engage your leadership in some out-of-the-box thinking about family ministry. Additionally, Karen Bellavance-Grace's Fahs Fellowship paper, Full-Week Faith, begins by outlining some of the trends and issues in religious education that affect congregational participation.
Re-envision or Rebuild Your Program for Children and Families
Your Pacific Western Region has two programs you can offer in your congregation to help you re-envision and rebuild religious education:
- Visioning Workshops: these five-hour workshops can be led by PWR staff or consultants. They guide congregational leadership and stakeholders in exploring how trends have affected their congregation and begin to build a framework for meaningful family and children's ministries grounded in the mission, vision, and identity of the congregation. Contact Annie Scott for more information.
- Parental Focus Groups: these discussions of one to two hours engage parents in talking about their deeper needs and motivations, as well as their challenges, in participating in religious community. Notes are taken and results can be used by leadership to develop new programs. Contact Annie Scott for more information.
- Watch a Webinar and Discuss Together: view these archival webinars from the Pacific Western Region to get conversation going. The Death of Sunday School: Trends and Changes in Religious Education by Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh (October 2017) and Just a Few Kids: Creative Strategies for Congregational Engagement by Revs. Sarah Schurr and Sarah Gibb Millspaugh (February 2017.)
Explore Different Models of Doing Religious Education
If Sunday School is dead, what do we do? Congregations where the age-segregated Sunday morning model stopped working, or never worked, are trying a variety of ways to reach families. Here are some models emerging in Sunday School's place:
- Full-Week Faith: equipping families for faith development at home with a strong linkage to what happens on Sundays.
- Family Worship: a short worship service designed for wiggly people. Families with children under 10 participate together.
- All-Congregation Worship: changing the norms of Sunday morning to include people of all ages throughout the whole service.
- Multi-Age Community Service: opportunities to serve, reflect, and deepen faith with children, youth, and adults together.
- Multi-Age Religious Education: workshops for ages 7 and up that engage Unitarian Universalists in meaningful learning and community building.
We are all experimenting together and learning together: what Karen Bellavance-Grace calls "experi-learning." And as she says, we can't fail, because even if our experiments don't work like we hoped, we learn something. We Unitarian Universalists are all learning together how we create meaningful ways for people of all ages to engage and grow. We at the UUA are so grateful you're on the journey with us.