Theme-Based Church and the RE Workshop Rotation Model: Putting It Together
Faith Development, Professional Development for Religious Educators

The author, Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson-Doyle, based this article on research conducted during a 2013 sabbatical from The Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford (IL).

In recent years, two innovations in congregational life have added depth, creativity, and connection to worship and learning in our churches. One of these is known as "theme-based ministry." Each month, the congregation has a theme. This theme is explored in worship, newsletter columns, and small groups. Example themes include words like Truth, Forgiveness, Creartion, Hope, Brokenness, and Gratitude. There are two basic approaches to theme-based church; some congregations use a three-year rotation (The Tulsa Model) while others use a different set of themes each year, centered on that year's meta-theme (The Rochester, NY Model).  

The advantages of theme-based ministry are many. Most importantly, the themes are an opportunity to go deeper into life's essential questions. Instead of the shallow "variety" that is so typical of our hyperactive culture, we slow down and focus on things that matter. We have one conversation for the whole congregation, working against our tendency to form cliques in the church. It improves the opportunity for advance planning with music and other staff, and makes the minister’s work more efficient.

The second major innovation is the workshop rotation model for religious education. (Many Christian churches have been doing this for years). In workshop rotation, each rotation (usually a month long) has a "central story." The children learn the story through a different workshop each week. So, for example, you might teach the Passover story by enacting the story in a drama workshop, creating a mural of the Red Sea in an art workshop, and making unleavened bread in a cooking workshop. Other types of workshops include movement/games, nature/science, computers, film/A/V, music, and writing.

Logistically, the children are divided into age groups. Each group has a "guide" who stays with them as they rotate. The guide builds relationships with the students, handles behavior, and leads the ritual opening and closing activities. Each workshop has a workshop leader, an expert or enthusiast in that area who will teach each lesson three or four times, making small adaptations for age differences. Over the course of a year a church will usually have two or three guides per age group. You could have as many as 36 workshop leaders (9 months x 4 weeks a month), but usually there are fewer, as many leaders will repeat the role and some months will have only three workshops because of children's chapel, multigenerational worship, or multi-age activities. Workshop leadership can be a great way to involve more adults in religious education.

The workshops are more engaging than traditional curriculum. Students learn the essential stories of the tradition. Workshop leaders grow as teachers, with the opportunity to improve the lesson each week. When done well, workshop leaders themselves are creating lessons out of their passion and experience. The differences between guides and workshop leaders can help maximize people's gifts. 

One can see how these two innovations—themes and workshops—can be used together in a synergistic and powerful way. By selecting a story that goes with the theme, a congregation can ensure that the whole church —all ages—is learning and living the same conversation. The staff collaboration on selecting the story and developing its meanings can be enlightening for the minister, educator, and musician.  

So far, only a few of our congregations are doing both themes and workshops, but many are looking at adopting such a method. At this writing, The Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church, Rockford, IL, where I serve, plans to begin. As I have prepared for this change, here is what I have discovered from other ministers and educators about what they have learned.  

  1. The importance of the central story. Choosing a story that will engage adults and children for four weeks is vital. The story needs to have layers, ambiguity, and power. It cannot be simplistic, nor so long or complicated that it cannot be learned. Great stories from Jewish and Christian scripture often work well, but of course, Unitarian Universalists will not want to limit ourselves to those sources. Some contemporary children's books will work, but choose carefully. At River Road UU Church in Maryland and All Souls in Tulsa, as at some others, the story is told for everyone at the first service of the month. Sometimes, this is the only service the children attend. There is some concern that telling additional stories in the month distracts from the central story. (One way to address this is to retell the story in another setting, in a different style, and/or from another character's perspective).
  2. Getting workshop leaders is about gift-discernment. This model works best when Workshop Leaders come up with ideas and develop them with coaching from the professional educator. This is not a model where the educator writes or uses an existing lesson plan. The workshop leader comes to the theme and the activity with passion and an idea. Instead of curriculum writers, staff members are coaches and theological and child-development experts.
  3. Rotations. Congregations using the workshop rotation model use a variety of rotations. Some have set spaces and workshops they use almost every month. Most use a few standards (art and drama are common) and add others for different months. One month might add nature, another might be cooking, woodworking, or a justice project. There is no need to set the rotations permanently; instead, the Religious Education team and staff can brainstorm ideas based on the theme/story, and solicit volunteers. Expect surprises! The congregation often has hidden wells of talent, waiting to be tapped.
  4. Youth group. The rotation model is usually used only with primary age children. Middle school often will use a Coming of Age / world religions two-year rotation. But a high school group can easily be part of the theme work. The small group topic created for the theme can be used for the youth. They can then be invited to create their own activities and discussions based on the theme. This modest amount of direction can be just what a youth group needs to thrive.
  5. Resource guide. Congregations using themes in this way often create monthly resource guides (in the newsletter, or replacing it). These guides contain written reflections by staff on the theme. They also contain bibliographies and suggestions for books, articles, music, and movies. These resource guides should have ideas for families to do, learn, and play together. We know that "Sunday School", if it begins and ends on Sunday morning, will not shape the lives of adults or children in ways that are deep and lasting. We need to extend the conversation, and themes with workshops, with a robust "homework guide" can do this.
  6. Lesson format.  Both River Road and Greater Lansing, MI, use the general format of the Tapestry of Faith lesson plans to structure their workshops. The guides handle the opening and closing elements, which take 10-15 minutes, and the workshop part is the main body, 30-45 minutes. This consistency simplifies planning and gives a ritual touchstone for students.


With this overview in mind, it can be helpful to see examples. 

  • River Road: River Road had as its congregational theme “Reverence.” For their story, they used a story from Frederic Muir’s childhood. The three lessons were:

    • Art—Mindful Reverence—Muir’s Larks inspire us to make a block of beauty. Choose a reverent image which speaks to you (from magazine) and then put it on a building block, decoupage and paint as you wish, and then assemble (with velcro on the back) in a large wall sculpture, each rotation adding to the assemblage.
    • Music—Handbells—Why do bells call us to Reverence? RRUUC has tried a number of times to get handbells started with little interest but used them here to familiarize more children with the handbells. The building also has a bell tower without a bell and we tied that all in to the question.
    • Outdoors (Garden)—Where is wonder in the garden? There is a Gardening Committee with a vegetable flower garden here and they led this workshop. They worked their end of the garden and spoke to their own relationship with gardening and reverence.
  • Greater Lansing: For their two-week theme on Forgiveness, Greater Lansing,used two lessons. A drama workshop enacted the central story, “What If Nobody Forgave?” An art workshop taught students how to do calligraphy, and they wrote apologies using this intentional and beautiful medium. (Need more ideas? How about a cooking workshop where students make “humble pie?”)  

Brainstorming and Planning

As I’ve begun planning for the coming year in Rockford, I’ve brainstormed many ideas. A theme on Failure will use as its central story “The Leaky Bucket,” a well-known Chinese folk tale. Possible workshops include an art workshop that decorates buckets to use as flower-pots, a science workshop that uses a fun experiment to test a hypothesis, so students learn that “failure” can still be scientific progress; a gardening workshop where students plant bulbs, only some of which will come up in the spring. The actual workshops we use will depend on which volunteers step forward.  

When a congregation uses a central story from the Jewish or Christian tradition, they should look to for lesson ideas. Click on the “Lessons and Resources” button, and scroll down for workshops based on stories from various biblical texts. These are great resources that congregations can use. Browsing through these workshops will also give congregations ideas for workshops they can do with other stories.  

Sometimes, the publishers of children’s books will have already created activities based on a story. For example there is a website with quilting guides for children to use with “The Quiltmaker’s Gift,” by Jeff Brumbeau, you can find quilting guides for children. Every congregation has quilters and, with these resources, they can easily lead a workshop for that theme. There’s a website with ideas for using Eric Carle books. A quick on-line search will often turn up ideas. But, remember, the key is for the congregation’s lay leaders to take ownership of the idea. Sharing what others have done is a way to spark the imagination, not to prescribe an approach.  

Those congregations that are doing both themes and workshops are finding it to be a transformative and deepening experience. Their work feels more purposeful, and both children and adults are growing deeper in faith. As more and more congregations explore these methods, we will continue to learn from our own experimentation and the wisdom of our colleagues.  

Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Johnson-Doyle
The Unitarian Universalist Church
Rockford, IL

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