For So the Children Come

I hope my surprise departure from the service to volunteer in the children’s ministry program wasn’t too alarming to you. Gina was worried you would be alarmed. I promise you: this was not her idea. Desiree and I cooked it up—a bit of worship theater. I hope and trust the message is clear. We always need adults to volunteer in our children’s ministry on Sunday mornings and at other times. Children’s ministry has always had, and I suspect will always have, the largest need for volunteers of any ministry we offer at UUS:E. Mindful that these needs are great, Gina and the Religious Education Committee have done a lot in recent years to actually scale back the number of volunteers we need, and to reduce the amount of time volunteers have to put in. Even so, this ministry has always had, and I suspect will always have, the largest need for volunteers of any ministry we offer. And that’s a good thing, because volunteering to work with our children and youth is the most reliable way for us to build relationships and community across the generations here at 153 West Vernon St.

For the record, most of you will remember that at the end of September we began messaging the congregation that we needed more volunteers for the children’s ministry. We emphasized something that Desiree said earlier: we’re trying to design programming for the kids that directly utilizes your gifts. This is a shift in our children’s ministry culture. Instead of asking who knows how to make stained glass? Or who knows how to set up an obstacle course? Or who would like to teach a song? Or who can lead a nature hike around the grounds? Or who is willing to be the lead teacher for the elementary-aged kids? Instead of that approach, we’re asking each of you to identify a skill, a gift, an area of expertise, a passion you can bring to the children’s ministry. You identify the gift. Gina and her team will turn it into a spiritual lesson for the children.

If you know how to set up a bike rodeo, let us know. We’ll turn that knowledge into a spiritual lesson for the kids. If you are passionate about gardening, we’ll turn that passion into a spiritual lesson for the kids. If you can lead yoga or tai chi or modern dance, we’ll turn your ability into a spiritual lesson for the kids. We’ll match your gift to the ministry theme for the month. Painting, water-coloring, cooking, exercising, gardening, story-telling, worship-leading, crafting of any sort, teaching a foreign language, playing games (especially obscure games), reading poetry, writing poetry, writing prose, listening to music, sharing your musical prowess, or lack thereof, demonstrating your musical instrument, designing service projects, designing social justice projects, and anything to do with animals. All you engineers—surely you have some knowledge or skill to bring to the children. All you social workers and therapists—surely you have some knowledge or skill to bring to the children. All you nurses and medical staff—surely you have some knowledge or skill to being to the children. Small business owners? Lawyers? IT specialists? Surely you have something we can adapt for our children’s ministry.

Incidentally: while I don’t typically leave in the middle of the service to volunteer for the children’s ministry, from what I’ve been able to glean from conversations with colleagues, I spend far more time working with our kids than most clergy. I understand it as part of my ministry. I am not just the minister for adults. I am the minister to the children and youth. I’ve led children’s worship once already this year. I’ve led a session for the Affirmation class. I think I’m scheduled to do a “Breakfast with TED” session in February. I love it. The reason I am able to dedicate this time is because of our shared worship ministry. On the Sundays when lay-people are leading worship, you quite often will hear, “Our minister, the Rev. Josh Pawelek, is working with the kids this morning.”

On the subject of volunteers, there’s good news. Gina reports that some of you have responded to the message, have offered your gifts to the children’s ministry, and we’ve already been able to work you in for a Sunday program. Anne Carr offered baking. She baked brownies with the kids for the holiday fair. This activity served as an opportunity to explore important concepts with the kids, such as institutional stewardship, the various ways we support the congregation, the importance of community, understanding that children can contribute and make a difference, and the fun of working together on a project.

Ben Elzerman shared his music. He demonstrated the bagpipes and led the kids in a percussion circle. They used this activity to explore November’s ministry theme of change. One instrument makes a pleasant sound by itself, but what happens when we add additional instruments and sounds to the mix? They talked about creating change in community.

Louisa Graver has offered to lead a workshop on making a peace quilt with the junior youth group. That’s going to happen in January. Sandy Karosi, Shirley Schiumo and Priscilla Meehan, who is a newcomer to UUS:E, have all volunteered to work in the nursery with our staff-person Molly Vigeant. This is a different structure than we’ve used in the past. We used to ask volunteers to teach a class three or four Sundays a month throughout the congregational year. Now we’re asking you to name what you can bring one time. Our culture is slowly starting to shift. That’s good news. Keep it up! Keep the ideas coming! Keep the gifts and knowledge and skills and passions flowing!

Having said all this, I want to remind us I’m talking about far more than volunteering with the children’s ministry. Yes, we absolutely want you to volunteer, because we want the ministry to be successful. But larger than that, deeper than that, more essential than that, we have been, and we continue, to build a vibrant, thriving, liberating, multigenerational spiritual community. We were very clear about that as a congregation when we hired Gina Campellone as our Director of Religious Education. We didn’t just want a successful children’s ministry hidden away in its own silo. We wanted children to be present in many aspects of congregational life. I went back to a sermon I preached on building multigenerational community in the fall of 2013. Some of you will remember that at that time, some in the Unitarian Universalist Association were talking about the “death of Sunday School.” Congregations in many denominations were facing challenges in sustaining children’s ministries. In increasing numbers, adults with young children generally no longer saw church as a significant part of their children’s lives. And one of our regional staff members, Wren Bellevance-Grace, use to talk about the demise of Sunday morning as sacred time. Sports leagues, karate schools, dance studios and on and on were scheduling children’s programming on Sunday mornings, and families were often forced to choose. Wren used to say, “the battle for Sunday morning is over, and we’ve lost.” Remember that?

We heard that message. We took it seriously. But we didn’t give up on our children’s ministry. Our guiding vision was this: children and youth don’t want to come to church just to take religious education classes. Even if they can’t fully articulate it, they want to come to church because they feel part of a multigenerational community that cares about them and their families. Here’s what I said a decade ago:

Let’s ask how we can connect across generations, and then do it. 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. At that point 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 elders and young adults too! 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, liberating, 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, liberating, 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, [breaking and baking gluten-free 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.

We’re not there yet, but we’ve made considerable progress. We are much further along in our evolution than we were when I first preached those words.

I’ll leave you with this idea: The presence of children—high school, middle school, elementary, kindergarten, toddlers, infants—is the most reliable indicator that a congregation has a bright future; that our liberal religious values will endure, will be passed on to the next generation. The presence of children is the most reliable indicator that there will be people ready to receive, carry on, and adapt the spiritual legacy of those who are here now; just as those who are here now receive, carry on, and adapt the spiritual legacies of those who founded this congregation in 1969; just as we all receive, carry on and adapt the spiritual legacies of those who established the Unitarian and Universalist denominations in the United States more than two centuries ago; just as those founders received, carried on and adapted the legacies of religious free-thinkers, rationalists, heretics, protestors, prophets and lovers of humanity and the Earth extending back through the tens of thousands of years of human religious and spiritual history.

When you volunteer for the children’s ministry; or even when you just hear the children engaged in activities outdoors when the windows are open during worship in warm months; or when you join us for one of our all-congregation activities; or when the children and adults are worshipping together and the children come just as they are, they make a little noise, they squirm, they move around—they produce that blessed holy hubbub—remember all the liberal religious and spiritual legacies that have made this place possible. Remember that our children will, in their time, become the holders, the carriers, the adapters, the speakers, the singers, the teachers of these great legacies. Remember that, and love them fiercely.

 Amen and blessed be.