Starting an Adult Program
Starting or Reviving
How do I get an adult religious education program started or revived?
Consider a typical scenario: Several years ago, there was an adult program that many people enjoyed; but for one reason or another, there is no longer such a program. Course offerings in the past were based on whatever volunteers wished to offer, representing an interesting, but hodgepodge approach. New members have joined the congregation, they and others are asking: How can we revitalize adult religious education programming?
A first step is to talk with your minister or religious educator and with people in the congregation who have led or taken part in adult offerings in the past, as well as with those who have expressed interest in starting or reviving a program. Inviting people to share ideas, experiences, and hopes for adult faith development programming is a way to build interest and enthusiasm and to begin to identify potential volunteers who can help make such a program happen.
Whose job is it anyway?
The management of adult programs in Unitarian Universalist congregations varies widely. Sometimes, a minister or religious educator assumes primary responsibility; sometimes a committee (variously named Adult Programs, Adult Enrichment, Adult Religious Education, Programs and Activities, or Adult Spirituality); at other times, an individual is appointed or simply assumes responsibility.
If you determine that adult faith development programming in your congregation will be overseen by a lay person or a group of lay people, or by a religious professional in collaboration with lay leaders, begin by identifying one or several individuals who have energy and interest to pursue adult faith development programming. Invite them individually to share their wisdom, their talents, and their leadership skills with the congregation in this way.
Once you have identified and engaged the individual or group who will oversee adult faith development programming, invite them to work with your lay and professional leadership to define the scope of their responsibility and to make sure that parameters and reporting relationships are clear. Important questions to ask include: Who is responsible for determining the offerings and engaging presenters or facilitators? Who is responsible for publicity? Who is responsible for operational support of the program (building use, set up and clean up, etc.)? Who is responsible for evaluating the program offerings? To whom are those who oversee adult offerings accountable?
I am interested in coordinating adult religious education, but I don't know a lot about the subject.
You do not have to be a professional educator to understand the basics of adult development and learning. Adult learning is an ongoing activity; it is often accidental and an outcome of some other activity. By contrast, adult education is a planned activity, often having specific short- or long-term objectives. Adult religious education is a set of planned activities that enable people who share similar religious values, sense of spirituality, or a similar faith stance to work together for spiritual awakening and faith development—religious growth.
Adult learners come with experience. They ask questions. Some Unitarian Universalists are skeptical and challenging; others are goal-oriented. They may be looking for spiritual growth and a sense of connection, not only with other people, but with the mystery of being alive. They may be eager to figure out how they can help to bring more love and justice into the world. Most adults make commitments to particular types of learning that has relevance in their lives. They are voluntary learners who are self-directed and highly motivated under the right conditions. They seek particular kinds of information and experiences to supplement what they already know.
How should I begin thinking about the planning process?
There are several levels of planning. A good place to begin is with the congregation's mission statement. If the mission (or vision) statement has been reviewed or revised within the past 3 to 5 years, it no doubt reflects the current identity and priorities of the congregation. Notice whether there is a particular focus that might be a guiding point. For example, each word of the following concise mission statement from the Community Church of New York suggests several themes for adult religious education: "Creating a caring, diverse, antiracist, spiritual community."
If the congregation's mission statement is out-of-date, or less focused, you may wish to take the opportunity to write a mission or vision statement for adult faith development and to come to agreement on some goals for the program. Having talented people within the congregation who wish to lead programs is not enough reason to start an adult religious education program; the program must arise from and contribute to the mission and the ministry of your congregation.
Once the mission and goals are sufficiently defined, consider conducting a simple needs assessment in your congregation to determine what kind of offerings interest people in your congregation. Although this can be done informally by asking for input from lay and professional leaders and from congregants, the assessment will be a more inclusive if you use a more formal process—a written survey or focus group—to determine the perceived needs of congregants. If appropriate, a survey might be inserted in the Sunday Order of Service, or given to each congregant as he or she enters the sanctuary on a particular Sunday.
Once you have determined what kinds of offerings are of interest in your congregation, your adult faith development oversight group should consider the question of balance in your programming. Ask if your program includes:
- Opportunities to be introduced to new ideas and experiences
- Opportunities for people to tell their own stories
- Opportunities to deepen understanding of Unitarian Universalism
- Encounters with wisdom from the sources of our living Unitarian Universalist tradition—direct experience, words and deeds of prophetic people, the world’s religions, Jewish and Christian tradition, humanist teachings and the guidance of reason, and spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions
- Communities of care, support, and concern
- Engagement with ethical and moral questions
- Calls to faith in action, working within the congregation and in the wider world to build communities or justice and love
- Spiritual experiences which inspire, transform, and sustain
A comprehensive adult religious education program should include offerings in several areas and can be rotated over time.
Another area of planning involves who will facilitate the programs and workshops, engaging people in the learning process. Identify people with proven facilitation skills and invite them not only to lead programs, but to mentor others so as to build a cadre of good leaders and facilitators.
What program formats shall we offer?
It is important to consider that learning styles may be as varied as the number of people in a given group. Some respond best to visual learning while others learn through auditory senses, and still others through kinesthetic approaches. Some may prefer an intellectual approach while others prefer an experiential approach. Some people are reflective learners, while others are concrete thinkers. Some will prefer a formal presentation, while others prefer a less-formal structure. Try not to restrict your offerings to classroom lectures, but include reading and discussion groups, worship and celebration, field trips (e.g., events that lead to cultural exploration and cultural critique), reflection on issues leading to social action, and opportunities for service or witness.
How do I recruit facilitators?
If your congregation is not already in the habit of collecting information such as interests and skills from new members, you may wish to encourage such a practice. This is a good way to begin an assessment of who is already within the congregation that may have something valuable to share with others. Alternatively, include a question about skills and knowledge in your needs assessment. You may also make an announcement in the church bulletin or in the worship service. Once you have identified those who will facilitate, consider what supports they will need in order for the experience to be a good one both for them and for the group. Do they need training? If so, who will provide it? Who will support them if concerns or issues arise during the course of a program?
What are good practices to keep in mind when planning adult religious education?
- A job description and a system of accountability for paid or volunteer coordinator and/or adult faith development oversight committee
- Intentional creation of links between congregational work (e.g., board and committees) and adult spiritual growth/development
- Inclusion of faith in action projects that encourage community involvement
- Community-building activities and programs
- Offerings for people at all levels of commitment to Unitarian Universalism as well as all ages and stages of adult growth and learning
- Different time and length offerings (from a few hours to multiple weeks)
- Child care or concurrent children’s programming
- Training for facilitators
- Food … for the body and soul