Dreaming Ourselves in a Multigenerational Community

Mr. Barb Greve, MDiv, MCRE

Mr. Barb GreveWhen I was a child I walked among real-life superheroes and I bet you do too. But don’t look now – they’re probably wearing their church clothes. 

There was Playdough Pat, whose superhero powers included being able to make anything out of Playdough in a matter of moments. What was most impressive about Pat’s Playdough powers was that ze seemed to magically know just who in our class needed the most help and was always there to help; whether the help we needed was with our Playdough sculpture or something that was going on in our lives. With a handful of Playdough and a caring heart, Pat was there to help. 

There was Boiler Room Bob, whose fix-it powers never ceased to amaze us. With just a wrench, a screwdriver and a roll of duct tape, Bob could fix anything that needed fixing on a Sunday morning or any other time. Whether it was a broken window or a stopped toilet, a burnt out coffee maker or the sound system, Bob was there to make sure it got fixed. 

There was Octo the Organist, who could inspire all near him to join together to make beautiful music. Octo’s specialty was that it didn’t matter what our musical skills were or how we sounded solo. His power to bring us together extended to making our combined music sound wonderful.  

I’ll always remember Justice Janet, who had an eye on world events and could explain them in such a way as they made sense to everyone, regardless of our ages. Justice Janet tirelessly encouraged us to use our privilege and power to help make the world better. She organized the first town-wide recycling program, started a community garden, regularly ran voter registration drives and was on a first-name basis with all of her local, state and national politicians. 

Playdough Pat, Boiler Room Bob, Octo the Organist and Justice Janet, along with all of their superhero friends, created a community where each person was valued for who they were. They learned that by staying in community and sharing their powers, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and broaden their own strengths. Together they were a force for good in the world, offering love and caring wherever they traveled. 

I bet there are Superheroes sitting among us today. If you watch carefully you’re bound to figure out who they are. Perhaps you’re even one and you don’t yet realize it. 

One of the important messages that the Superheroes of my childhood taught me was that church is a place where we can be fully in one another’s lives. They taught me that, as the Reverend A. Powell Davies wrote, “Religion is not something separate and apart from ordinary life. It is life – life of every kind viewed from the standpoint of meaning and purpose: life lived in the fuller awareness of its human quality and spiritual significance.” 

My hope is that at its core, Religious Education teaches this message of the inextricable connection between religion and life. In the skit earlier, the Ghost of Future RE offered Josh a version of the future where that didn’t happen. What we saw instead was a collection of adults who are lonely, afraid and disengaged from the world. But that doesn’t have to be the future path for you. 

In a recent blog post retired UU minister, the Rev. Tom Schade offered this possible description of a Unitarian Universalist future congregation: 

“Our congregation is where you go if you want your children to grow up to be morally and ethically strong and clear AND open-minded and curious about the world of differences. We are really one big, all ages cooperative Sunday School. Our primary purpose is to help families form themselves around spiritually progressive values: multiculturalism, gender equality, healthy sexuality, right relationships, arts and sciences, etc. Every member, adult, youth and child, contributes to our educational activities. We offer that education/growth experience to every family in our community, regardless of their religious affiliation or none. Most weeks, we have family worship. Some weeks we have a group field trip. Some weeks we engage is a work/service project or an arts project with an artist. But everything is for families and children and the future. All ages and generations are welcome.”[1] 

This is the direction in which you are already moving. Time and again your Transitions Team has indicated a desire to move to a more multigenerational model. You’ve begun to do some things that will bridge the divide between the youngest and the oldest among you: from nametags for all to elders attending children’s chapel. These are great starts. 

Karen Bellavance-Grace offers a model of religious education called Full Week Faith: a mash-up of good old-fashioned family ministry, first century-style mission driven church, and a faithful leveraging of technology and social media to expand the reach and breadth of our ministries.[2] 

In this model the staff are asked to not spend all their time gearing towards Sunday morning and instead balance out their efforts to provide additional ways for families to engage in church life all week long. This might include daily Tweets or Facebook postings, online classes for all ages, and organizing groups to attend sports games, concerts, math Olympiads and such – all events where children from the church are participating. The idea being that members of this community are together attending events out in the community where each other are engaged. 

Karen’s colleague Tandi Rogers even goes as far as dreaming that there is a traveling UU cheerleading squad who shows up at sporting and academic competitions to cheer for all sides, using phrases that incorporate our principles and values. 

There are many other models of how to deliver Religious Education, some include holding multigenerational worship every Sunday followed by an hour of multigenerational learning. Others include no Sunday worship and instead the congregation goes out into the community to do the good works of the church, as described in Rev. Schade’s advertisement. Some models continue to have the ages segregated for worship, but invite additional adults to work with our youngsters by sharing their skills and passions for 3-week workshop sessions. 

UUS:E’s desire to be a more multigenerational community is a wonderful idea and is good for your future. But in order to do this, everyone has to be willing to change. Being a multigenerational community isn’t just about more elders teaching Sunday School. Being a multigenerational community means the whole community worshipping together more frequently; with all of us becoming comfortable with squirming, fidgeting and sounds –and I’m not just talking about those coming from the children! It means continuing to offer opportunities for engagement at all areas of church life for all ages. 

It means that when thinking about social action activities, the social action committee is thinking about ways to engage families with small children. It means that when thinking about building projects the buildings & grounds committee is thinking about who the teens might be engaged in helping (and not just for their strength). It means that when we’re writing newsletter columns and blurbs we are considering how it will read to a 5th grader and when we’re choosing music for worship we’re not just using children and youth to play the music but that we’re also choosing music that has meaning for them. Being a multigenerational community means creating and finding more classes that can work for all ages, such as a common book read and discussion group; using books that are accessible to youngsters and elders. Being a more multigenerational community means that we adults have to make more room for the children. And the reward is that by doing so, we’re inviting them to make more room for us. 

There’s a secret trick to all of this. And it is best told through perhaps my all time favorite religious education story, written by one of the grandmother’s of Unitarian Universalist religious education, Barbara Marshman, and titled The Toadstool and Spindly Plant: 

At the edge of the forest stood a large squat toadstool. Next to him grew a spindly plant about the same height with four leaves. 

One day the toadstool said to his companion, “Hey Skinny, I’ve been watching you. Tell me this – how come when somebody kicks a toadstool, we fall all to pieces. But when someone steps on you, you can straighten right up again as good as new?” 

The skinny plant thought for a while, and then answered, “I guess it’s because I have something down under the ground called roots. They go down deep and when I get stepped on I just hang on tight with my roots until I’m all right again.” 

“Hey, that’s a great idea,” said the toadstool. “How do you go about getting these roots?” 

“Wellllll,” said his friend slowly, “it takes a long time. I’ve been growing mine for almost a year.” 

“A year!” shouted the toadstool, “Who has got that kind of time! A whole year growing something that you can’t even see! Roots may be handy, but that’s the silliest waste of time I ever heard.” And he laughed and laughed. 

Finally, he said to his forest friend, “By the way Spindly, when you’ve got all your fancy roots grown, what do you expect to be?” 

The Spindly plant seemed to grow taller as he spoke. “Do you see that tallest oak tree standing against the winds on the top of that hill? That’s my mother and someday I’m going to be strong and tall just like her.” 

A deep religious faith is like the deep roots of the oak tree. It helps to give us strength to weather the storms of life. Being regularly engaged in multigenerational life here at UUS:E will help you grow deep roots in our faith, like the oak tree grew deep roots in the Earth. These roots will help you feel secure in your community and will ensure that you won’t be like the toadstools and fall apart at the slightest little kick. 

May we each, through multigenerational community, cultivate our roots in order to better bend and sway to the changing times. And you never know, you might wake up one day and realize that you’ve been sitting next to a superhero this whole time. 

May it be so and may we be the ones to make it so.

Amen.

[1] Schade, Thomas. (2015, March 28), UU Growth: Alternative #3 to Community Building Strategy. [The Lively Tradition]. Retrieved from http://www.tomschade.com/2015/03/uu-growth-alternative-3-to-community.html?m=1

[2] Bellavance-Grace, Karen. (2013, October 3), Do Something. the full week faith.  [Full Week Faith]. Retreived from http://fullweekfaith.weebly.com/doing-something-the-full-week-faith.html

Getting Ready for Full Week Faith

As of January 1, 2015, we haven’t started using this page yet. But we will! UUS:E is currently exploring different ways to develop “Full Week Faith.” If you’re not sure what we mean by “Full Week Faith,” check out Karen Bellevance-Grace’s paper here.

On the Meaning of “Multigenerational”

Rev.  Josh Pawelek

 

generations

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.”[1] 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?

Karen Bellevance-Grace

Karen Bellevance-Grace

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.

Hands

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.

generations

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.

Screen-time

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.[2] 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.

connecting generations

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.

Josh and Ezri

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] 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.

[2] 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.