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Teaching in Faith: Providing Tools to Support and Sustain Volunteers
By Tracey L. Hurd, Ph.D.
One of the best ways to affirm our ministry with children and youth is to illuminate the complex and wonderful ways that teaching in a religious education program is a faith-development experience for those teaching. Working with children and youth, teacher-leader-facilitators grow in faith and in community. While some find teaching to be a spiritually moving and nourishing practice, others need tools to frame this view.
How can we help shape the process of working in our Unitarian Universalist (UU) religious education programs with a lens of lifespan faith development? There are many ways. A Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) survey of religious educators revealed that congregations are using many innovative methods to support and sustain teachers, by nurturing the ministry of working with children and youth. Many religious educators feel torn between needing to provide pragmatic assistance (curriculum, supplies, information about programs) and wanting to provide prophetic program leadership that highlights teaching as a rewarding faith-development experience. In the survey, some religious educators said that they simply didn't do enough. But the many small and sure steps being taken in congregations present a firm foundation for our future. In our ministry with children and youth, we grow in faith as individuals and as a community.
We can provide tools that illuminate teaching as a nourishing practice of faith development. Here are some things we can do:
Frame the experience of teaching or leading as a faith-development experience.
- Make teaching mission-centered. What do we want our children and youth to know by heart? What is the mission of this program? These are big questions for any faith-development program. And they are linked to the congregational question of, "Why do we gather here?" If we approach teaching/leading our children and youth from a mission-centered perspective, we are more likely to stay true to the premise that all participants, teacher/leaders and children/youth, are learning, growing, connecting, and exploring together. We are more likely to think first about what makes being together in a religious setting unique, and we are more likely to lead with our hearts.
- Claim religious hospitality as an important aspect of faith-development programs. Hospitality includes welcoming the stranger, in any form. The stranger can be a person new to the congregation. But the "stranger" can also be within—it can be an aspect or a new part of us that we have yet to realize. As we learn and grow, whether we are old or young, we can use the skills of hospitality to welcome the stranger within. We can replace fear with love and stand more ready to transform and nurture our souls. We practice hospitality with others, and become more ready to summon that lens to others, including ourselves.
- Intentionally include teacher faith development into the plans for religious education. State the premise that teaching is a means of spiritual and faith development in orientation meetings and/or materials. Emphasize growing together in faith as a shared goal for teacher/leaders and the children/youth participating in the program.
- Provide simple guidelines that lead volunteer teachers to deepen their experience. Help them see how the connections made to each other in a religious setting are a critical part of the "curriculum" and mission of the faith-development program. One religious educator poses the following questions, to both frame and evaluate the program/session, for those teaching in her religious education program:
- To what extent has this teaching experience deepened your relationship with one or more child/youth?
- To what extent has this teaching experience deepened your relationship with one or more other adult?
- To what extent has this teaching experience deepened your sense of belonging to this community?
- To what extent has this teaching experience given you new knowledge or insights about your faith?
Support volunteers by providing tools through which they can illuminate their teaching as a faith-development experience.
Provide experiences that affirm that teachers in religious education programs engage in "doing faith" with participants—including training on classroom worship tools such as chalice lightings, the sharing of joys and concerns, meditation, and for some congregations, prayer. Teachers who feel prepared to lead children/youth with these tools of our faith will be more likely to "own" them, make personal meaning of them, and explore them with children/youth.
- Engage volunteer teachers more fully in ministry by providing additional materials and/or sources they can access to prepare for teaching. One religious educator provides 3 centering questions for teachers for each session. For example, for a session on the story of the Good Samaritan, the religious educator might pose the following 3 questions:
- What questions does this story raise for us as individuals?
- How does this story relate to our Unitarian Universalist faith?
- How can this story be helpful to us in our congregation and/or church school communities?
- Send letters to parents/guardians that apprise them of what's happening in religious education. This helps create community connections for volunteer teachers with the parents of the children/youth in their care.
- Offer forums that nurture connections between teachers, where they can reflect together on their teaching/leading in relationship to their faith development. Many religious educators follow up with individual teachers via e-mail. Others engage teachers in small-group ministry, just for teachers, where growing in faith through ministry to children/youth is a focus. Still other religious educators provide monthly breakfasts, where volunteers connect to each other. All of these forums are opportunities to support and illuminate teaching as a venue for adult faith development.
- Provide teachers with materials, programs, information about child and youth development, health and safety procedures, group management advice so that they feel prepared to focus on the process of being in relationship with the children/youth they teach over "coverage."
Sustain teachers by enfolding them as integral members in the ministry of lifespan faith development.
- Claim and emphasize teaching children and youth as a central part of congregational ministry and congregational life.
- Provide ways for experienced teachers to nurture less-experienced teachers, engaging experienced teachers to be "Team Support" for newer volunteer teachers. This process is mutually enriching to new and seasoned teachers/leaders.
- Provide ways for volunteer teachers/leaders to influence programming by provideing an online form for ongoing teacher evaluation of programs. Other religious educators solicit feedback from teachers weekly or monthly. Making teachers' experiences and reflections part of the cycle of lifespan faith programming decisions affirms their centrality to the relational process of growing in faith.
- Reflect together, during planned and informal venues, on what we learn spiritually, ethically, morally, and religiously in our work with children and youth. Together we grow in faith.