Rev. Josh Pawelek
Bellevance-Grace, Director of Faith Formation for the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) writes: “The world of church is changing. And why not? The world of medicine is changing. The world of journalism is changing. The way we govern, teach, communicate, learn, the way we buy and read books is changing. There’s no good reason to believe that changes would not also impact the way we understand worship and Sunday School and every other aspect of congregational life.” There’s nothing controversial about this statement. We know it’s true. For better and, in some cases, for much worse, the world is changing: climate is changing; the economy is changing; technology, demographics, health care, education, families, and children’s lives are all changing. We know this. The question on my mind and in my heart this morning is how shall we, as a faithful Unitarian Universalist congregation, adapt to all these changes?
Though there are many answers to this question, I am convinced that we will successfully adapt to the storm of changes all around us if we focus our energies on building and sustaining UUS:E as a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. This answer has something to do with how we carry out our religious education program for children and youth. But it has much more to do with how all of us intentionally build relationships across generational lines; how we learn from each other, care for each other and love each other across the generations in all aspects of congregational life. With a robust network of dynamic, caring, loving multigenerational relationships, we cannot help but thrive. Without such relationships, we enter a slow decline. We need the wonder, awe and innocence children bring. We need the questioning, testing, sometimes rebellious spirit youth bring. We need the idealism, creativity and energy young adults bring. We need the experience, skills and leadership middle-aged adults bring. We need the wisdom, memory and depth elders bring. We need it all, not in isolated silos and affinity groups, but mixed together—a beautiful, blessed mixing, week in and week out, holding us, teaching us, challenging us, inspiring us. That, for me, is the meaning of multigenerational—a community whose members interact with ease across generational lines; a community in which each generation receives the gifts the others have offer.
I want to reflect on the state of our multigenerational community here at UUS:E. To begin I want to talk about our search for a new Director of Religious Education (DRE) to succeed our retiring DRE, Vicki Merriam. Vicki is the only DRE this congregation has ever known. Vicki herself is not entirely sure how long she has been in the position. We know it’s over thirty, possibly 35 years. For more than a generation Vicki has guided our religious education program with skill, patience, consistency and grace. Her reputation in our district and nationally is of the highest order. Just last year she was invited to write the curriculum for this year’s Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Guest at Your Table program, which we’ll be experiencing in December. For years she has been a pillar of this congregation, providing links to our traditions and vision for our future. I’m not sure we can fully thank Vicki for all her years of service, for her loyalty and dedication to UUS:E, for the love she has shown our children, but we owe her profound gratitude. I urge each of you, even if you really don’t know Vicki, to thank her, trusting that we wouldn’t be who we are today as a congregation without her service.
I rarely preach about internal congregational dynamics like our DRE search, but this feels really important to me. There’s a lot at stake. One of the reasons I can say this with complete confidence is because so many of you have contributed feedback on the future of religious education at UUS:E. More than 110 of you responded to our online survey—a remarkable participation rate for us. And approximately 100 of you participated in one of our many face-to-face discussions between July and early October. Karen Bellavance-Grace, who is periodically checking in with us on our search process, was amazed by the number of people who participated, and by the thoughtfulness and passion you brought to the conversation. Based on your responses it is clear you care deeply about providing an excellent religious education program not only for our children and youth, but for people of all generations. But perhaps even more significantly—and Karen noticed this immediately when reading through the feedback—you want a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. While there certainly isn’t unanimous agreement about that, or about what it might look like, that is the picture that emerges from the feedback you’ve given: a vibrant, loving multigenerational community.
Well, wait, don’t we already have that? Based on what Vicki and many of you who were here in the 1970s, 80s and 90s have told me, UUS:E had a very strong identity as a vibrant, loving multigenerational community during that time. You were a smaller congregation then. A greater percentage of adults knew a greater percentage of the children’s names and vice versa. Children’s time in general was not as over-structured and over-scheduled then as it is today. Many of you whose children grew up during that era recall how easy it was to bring them along to church events even if those events weren’t for children. “We’d just let them play in some other part of the building, or outside if the weather was nice enough, or even if it wasn’t.” What a difference 20 years later, when insurance companies expect to see congregations implementing a whole range of safety practices which, among other things, require all children on the premises to be supervised by at least two adults. What a difference 20 years later: we’ve finally witnessed the death of Sunday morning as the one, truly sacred time in the United States, the one time when no other events or activities could be scheduled, no shopping malls could be open, and families with children were not forced every week to choose between church and a plethora of other activities and organizations that involve their children and, in some cases, demand—as the price of participation—that their children make whatever the other activity is their highest priority. What a difference 20 years later, when young people and adults who used to experience their congregation as a major center for social connection, now come to church with hundreds if not thousands of online ‘friends,’ vast social media networks, and unlimited opportunities for screen-based entertainment—entertainment one experiences essentially alone—just a few keystrokes away. What a difference.
These changes and many more have put enormous pressure on faith communities. We hear often how mainline denominations are declining, how even the mega churches aren’t so mega anymore, how a growing number of Americans describe themselves as “nones,” meaning no religious affiliation. While Unitarian Universalism is holding steady in its membership (though not growing at the same rate as the overall American population), and while our congregation continues to grow slowly, we’ve certainly felt the impact of these wider societal changes. And here’s how: we don’t always feel like the vibrant, loving multigenerational congregation that we felt like 20 and 30 years ago. The reason we don’t always feel that way is because—this is my theory—we knew how to make multigenerational community work more or less seamlessly then. We just brought out kids along. But we aren’t so sure about how to make it work now. There’s been so much change. We haven’t fully adapted. We don’t yet know—really know—how to make multigenerational community work in the midst of these changes.
I do know at least one thing. There’s a clear distinction between implementing an excellent religious education program for children and youth, and building and sustaining a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. They are related, but not the same. Implementing the religious education program is the primary responsibility of the DRE and the Religious Education Committee. Building and sustaining a vibrant, loving multigenerational community, is the responsibility of all of us. An excellent religious education program, though immensely important to the future of our faith, is just that—a program. A vibrant, loving multigenerational community isn’t a program. It’s part of our identity. It’s who we are at our core. Programs flow out of identity. What we offer to our people is a function of who we are as a people. We provide an excellent religious education program because we are a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. It’s not the other way around.
Why does this matter? Because Vicki will be retiring and we will be looking for her successor. And we need to be clear: Vicki’s successor is responsible for implementing an excellent religious education program for children and youth ages three to eighteen—a program that is grounded in Unitarian Universalist principles and sources, takes place in a variety of settings, and utilizes diverse teaching methods; a program that provides the solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists. But Vicki’s successor is not responsible for building and sustaining a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. That responsibility belongs to whom? All of us! And Vicki’s successor will thrive if we all take responsibility for our multigenerational community. So, we have work to do.
How do we get there? There are many models for how to do effective multigenerational ministry in our time. But I don’t think the answer is for us to just adopt someone else’s model. Other models can inform us, but UUS:E is at its best when we create our own model from the ground up. So let’s do it. Let’s enter together into a time of experimentation and creativity. What better time than now? Let’s think deeply together about ways we can connect across generations, and then let’s try them. Let’s learn together through trial and error about how best to build and sustain vibrant, loving multigenerational Unitarian Universalist community.
Certainly we can build on our strengths. Affirmation—our coming of age class for 9th graders—creates wonderful relationships across generations through its mentoring program. So maybe we build a mentoring system for other age groups. The Thanksgiving dinner offers a wonderful experience of multigenerational community. Maybe we need more Thanksgiving dinners throughout the year. Let’s also look at the places where we are most challenged. If it is truly difficult for some families to attend services every Sunday due to children’s schedules, maybe there’s a way to offer multigenerational learning at other times of the week. I love the idea to send care packages to our young adults at college, or the idea to hold a camping weekend on our grounds in late spring, or the idea of dedicating one of the garden level rooms as an arts space—not only for kids, but for anyone who wants to be creative and get a little messy.
The point is to ask how we can connect across generations, and then do it. Make the invitations. And this is my hope: After a few years of experimenting and creating, making mistakes and coming to some dead ends, learning together and building relationships, we will transform our congregation. We won’t ask, “How can our children be more integrated into the life of our congregation?” We’ll say, “Wow, the children are really integrated into the life of our congregation!” And not only the children, but the elders the young adults too! And our children will be more fully integrated into the lives of our elders. And our elders will be more fully integrated into the lives of our youth. And our youth will have input into more of our Sunday services. And we’ll know what music they’re listening to. And all of our adults will be discerning their passions and figuring out how to share them with people of all ages. And they’ll also be volunteering in the nursery. And if the youth group is walking against hunger, the elders will go with them. And if the social justice committee is organizing an action against mass incarceration, the children will go with them. And if the elders are organizing a game night, the youth and young adults will join them. And if the religious education director needs volunteers to help teach a 5th and 6th grade class, twelve people will raise their hand and beg to be given this opportunity. We will have a beautiful, blessed mixing, week in and week out, holding us, teaching us, challenging us, inspiring us. That’s what a vibrant, loving multigenerational community looks like to me. We will figure it out. And we will thrive.
Friends, I am convinced this is a major piece of our journey as a congregation in the coming years. It must be. Too many forces in society drive the generations apart, preventing each from receiving the gifts the others offer. Too many forces direct people away from living fully in neighborhoods, from knowing and caring about their actual neighbors. Too many forces drive wedges into what I call sacred family time, including family meal time, family leisure time, family prayer time, family reading time, family art time and, with the death of Sunday morning, family worship time. Too many forces deprive us of the benefits of multigenerational community: the wonder, awe and innocence of children; the questioning, testing, sometimes rebellious spirit of youth; the idealism, creativity and energy of young adults; the experience, skills and leadership of middle-aged adults; the wisdom, memory and depth of elders. The church can and must be that force in society that says no to all that drives us apart. The church can and must be that force in society that says yes to vibrant, loving, multi-generational community; yes to responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking multigenerational community; yes to being together across generations, caring for one another, listening deeply to each other, honoring each other, playing together, working together, singing together, dancing together, breaking bread together, baking bread together, making art together, struggling for a more just and fair world together, struggling for the world together across the generations. In my experience, outside of families that manage to keep some semblance of togetherness—not all do—there is no other institution in society that has more capacity to bring generations together than the church. We may very well be the last refuge of multigenerational community. If that’s true, then I, for one, feel a deep moral obligation to build and sustain vibrant, multigenerational community here at UUS:E. I hope and trust you do too.
Amen and Blessed Be.
 See the full text to Karen Bellevance-Grace’s paper, “Full Week Faith,” at http://fullweekfaith.weebly.com/introduction-how-to-use-these-resources.html.
 There’s a story in the latest issue of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine about a congregation near Cincinnati called Harmony at http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/290443.shtml. See Karen Bellevance-Grace’s paper on Full-Week Faith at http://fullweekfaith.weebly.com/introduction-how-to-use-these-resources.html.
Kimberly Paquette, Multigenerational Ministry director of the Northern New England District of the UUA, has a blog on multigenerational ministry at http://multigenministry.wordpress.com/page/2/?blogsub=confirming.