The Future of Religious Education at UUS:E

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Naming Our Religious Education History!

One of the congregation’s many tasks during the interim religious education year is the naming of its religious education history. To that end, the UUS:E Transition Team has written a paper describing UUS:E’s RE history. We are very proud of our religious education history, though we recognize there have been tensions and challenges over the years. In this paper we attempt to name these tensions and challenges as honestly and as fairly as possible, while acknowledging that there are multiple ways to interpret them. If anything in this document strikes the reader as worthy of discussion, we encourage feedback and further dialogue. Please contact the Transition Team chair, Stan McMillen, through the UUS:E office at (860) 646-5151.

An executive summary of the history appears below. For the extended version, please contact the UUS:E office at (860) 646-5151.

A Brief History of Religious Education for Children and Youth at Our Congregation

October 2014

Religious Education Search Committee

Members of the UUS:E Transition Team include: Jean Knapp, Clare DiMaiolo, Walt Willett, Sarah Karstaedt, Stan McMillen (Chair), Beth Corsa, Jessica Bonafine, Rev. Josh (ex officio), and Gina Campellone (ex officio). Also picture: Alan Ayers (President), Polly Painter (Vice President) and Mr. Barb Greve (Interim RE Cosultant)

For this report, our Religious Education (RE) history begins in 1979 when our congregation moved into its own building after a decade of occupying various rental locations.  At that time, we had fewer than 100 members and likely no more than 30 children in the RE program.  We shared a half-time minister with another UU Society, an arrangement that inaugurated our tradition of sharing worship leadership between the minister and lay people.  One notable fact about our RE program in that era is that we paid our RE teachers.

Due to budget limitations in the 1980s, and because our RE teachers were often not Unitarian Universalists, we decided to adopt an all-volunteer RE program.  In this model, parents and other volunteers taught a variety of curricula.  Our Director of Religious Education (DRE) was unpaid for several years (as was our Music Director).  Our DRE was uncredentialed, but over the years, attended workshops, completed the Renaissance Training Modules, and otherwise became educated in the art and practice of directing a religious education program.

Our DRE guided the RE program in collaboration with the RE Committee.  For the last fifteen years, our congregation employed an Administrative Assistant to the DRE to help with greeting parents, registration, obtaining and distributing supplies and other administrative tasks.  Together, the staff and committee volunteers chose the curricula for the various ‘grades’ and encouraged parents and others to volunteer for the tasks (in addition to teaching) that an excellent RE program requires.  At some point, parent participation in the RE program became mandatory.  Some refer to such mandatory participation as the “co-op” model.  This model provided a steady stream of volunteers for the program, but also, along with other factors, helped to create an ‘upstairs/downstairs’ divide within our congregational culture that exists to this day.  One of the features of this divide is that parents who spend most of their time volunteering in the RE program don’t always make deep connections to the rest of the congregation.  As a result, some parents leave the congregation after their children complete the RE program.

Our RE program runs from early September to early June.  During a typical Sunday on the Garden Level, the DRE, Administrative Assistant and RE Committee volunteers welcome children and their parents to the program.  The hour begins with children’s worship led most often by the DRE after which children attend classes for approximately 50 minutes.  Several times a year, the children and youth join the adults for a multigenerational worship service.  Such services include the September Homecoming, a late October “Day of the Dead / Samhain service, a post-Thanksgiving service, a pre-Christmas music service,  an Easter music service, the Affirmation service, a Flower Communion service, and an “RE Sunday” dedicated to celebrating the RE program and recognizing the contributions of RE staff and volunteers.  Four or five times per year, children spend the first 15 to 20 minutes of worship with adults and then attend their classes.  Approximately every six to eight weeks, our minister joins the Sunday RE program, leads children’s worship and visits classes.

Our congregation does not offer formal classes for children and youth during the summer, although the RE Committee, with RE staff support, has provided informal programming.  Attendance during the summer months is low.

When we surveyed the congregation in the summer/fall of 2013 to discover features of the RE program members and friends like best, they named:

1) Spirit Play, the Montessori-based program for 3-5-year-olds;

2) Our Whole Lives (OWL), the UUA’s comprehensive sexuality curriculum offered to 8th graders;

3) Affirmation, our coming-of-age program for youth in the age range of 14-15.

In addition to these programmatic favorites, one highly valued aspect of our DRE’s leadership was the integration of children with special needs into the RE program.  This enabled many such children to become successful in school and social settings, and helped their parents in the sometimes difficult task of raising their children and having them be accepted and loved for who they are.

The RE Program nominally ends for all students after they complete the Affirmation course, typically during their 9th-grade year.  Our congregation offers a youth group for post-Affirmation youth organized by the Committee of Adults and Youth (CAY).  Over the years, the youth group has cycled in and out of vibrancy.  Three years ago we hired a quarter-time youth advisor to grow the youth program; however, we ended this position due to budget constraints.  CAY has done an excellent job in recent years developing the youth group in the absence of a youth staff-person.  One measure of this success was the participation of 12 of our youth in the 2014 Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Providence, RI.  Despite the recent successes of the youth group, some of our youth decide to stop participating in our congregational life once they have completed Affirmation.

In 1989, our congregation settled its second full-time minister and we expanded our building to add office space and classrooms.  In the mid-1990s, the congregation decided to move to two Sunday services, in part to accommodate increasing enrollment in the RE program.  This arrangement led to a division of grades that frustrated parents who had children in grades meeting at different times and led to grouping children of various ages into a class that might not be developmentally appropriate for some.  However, the two services provided an opportunity for non-parenting adults and parents to teach at one time and attend worship at another though childcare to support parents in this was lacking.  Our current settled, full-time minister, joined us in August 2003.

While the RE program has always been run as a collaboration between the DRE and the RE Committee relations between the DRE and the RE Committee chairs and volunteers have been marked by tension.  Some of this tension emerged from a lack of clarity around roles, that is, which responsibilities belong to the DRE and which belong to volunteer leaders.  Tension also resulted over the years in response to our DRE’s style of leadership, which some regarded as blunt or brusque and thus off-putting though many others appreciated and supported our DRE’s leadership.

Some current and historical challenges the RE program faces include:

  • The DRE experienced some members of the congregation as difficult to work with and unwilling to collaborate.
  • Some parent volunteers do not feel capable in their teaching role;
  • Some parent volunteers do not feel sufficiently supported in their teaching role;
  • Some parent volunteers feel separated from the larger congregational community due to the amount of time spent with the RE program;
  • Lack of volunteers in RE.
  • The increase in all children’s activities on Sundays makes it challenging for many families to attend the RE program on a regular basis;
  • Questions about the relevance of available curricula to the lives of children and youth in 2014;
  • How to integrate new technologies into the RE program;
  • How to grow and sustain a genuinely multigenerational congregational community.

While we believe we understand these issues, we haven’t yet discerned ways to successfully address them.  We hope our interim year will help us address these issues and revitalize our RE program.

Interim DRE Search Committee Ready to Roll!

The UUS:E Policy Board has created a search committee to locate an interim Director of Religious Education to follow retiring DRE Vicki Merriam. The search committee held a ‘start-up’ meeting on January 23rd with Karen Bellevance-Grace, Director of Faith Formation for the Clara Barton and Mass Bay Districts of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Members of UUS:E’s Interim DRE Search Committee are Clare DiMaiolo, Andrew Clokey, Jennie Bernstein, Walt Willett, Kristal Kallenberg, Monica Van Beusekom, Peter Marotto and Diana Sherman. UUS:E Vice President, Polly Painter, is serving as liaison to the Policy Board. Rev. Josh serves ex officio. 

Thank you Interim DRE Search Committee members!

UUS:E Interim DRE Search Committee

The Interim DRE Search Committee expects to post the job in mid-February, interview candidates in mid- to late-March, and make a final recommendation to the Policy Board in mid-April.


UUS:E Policy Board Votes to Search for an

Interim Director of Religious Education

At its November 21st monthly meeting, the UUS:E Policy Board voted to search for an Interim Director of Religious Education (DRE) to replace retiring, long-term DRE, Vicki Merriam. The decision to search for an interim DRE represents a shift from the previous assumption that UUS:E would be ready to make a “permanent” hire next spring. Hiring an interim DRE is strongly recommended by Karen Bellevance-Grace, our Clara Barton District’s Director of Faith Formation. It is also the strong recommendation of UUS:E’s “Future of Religious Education” visioning team.

Why an interim? After Vicki Merriam’s approximately 35-year tenure as UUS:E’s DRE, our congregation has very little experience with other religious education professionals, and thus very little experience with a wide range of religious education models. After a 35-year tenure, it takes time to prepare for successfully hiring a new DRE. As a congregation we will have “developmental” work to do. Interim DREs are trained to facilitate this developmental work. The Unitarian Universalist Association’s website says:

The departure of a religious educator can be a fruitful time for reflection, visioning, and change. An interim religious education professional provides specialized skills and tools to help a congregation prepare for robust new leadership.

Interim religious educators are typically hired for 1-2 years, and an interim is generally not eligible to apply for the settled position. An intentional transition period has a shape and momentum that set it apart from time with a settled leader, so a limited-time role helps ensure that the congregation stays focused on its developmental work. This “pre-fired” status also allows the professional to shine light on uncomfortable truths and to work with the congregation to effect difficult changes that may be necessary for future health and success; such efforts would be easily compromised if the professional were meanwhile “auditioning” for the long-term position.

For further reading about the responsibilities of an interim DRE and the developmental tasks congregations must complete, continue reading here…..

Our next step is to establish a committee to search for an interim DRE. At the time of writing this post, we don’t yet have a clear idea of what being part of the search committee will entail. Since there is a relatively small pool of available interim DREs, we know the search will be limited to considering only a few resumes. The Future of RE Visioning Team will be working over the first few weeks of December to create an application process for participation on the search committee. If you know you’d like to be part of the search committee, please contact UUS:E Vice President, Polly Painter at (860) 646-5151.


UUS:E’s Future of Religious Education

Vision, Mission and Guiding Principles

Vision: UUS:E’s Religious Education program provides a 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. It fosters the connection and commitment of all UUS:E members and friends to our beloved multigenerational community.

Mission: UUS:E’s Religious Education program provides educational opportunities for children and youth ages three to eighteen. These opportunities are grounded in Unitarian Universalist principles and sources, take place in a variety of settings, and utilize diverse teaching methods.

Guiding Principles:

  •  UUS:E staff, in collaboration with volunteer leaders, will engage the congregation in building a “multigenerational” UUS:E culture that embraces people of all ages and abilities.
  • Religious Education programming will be provided year round with loosely structured offerings in the summer months.
  • We believe our Religious Education program is critical to the development of spirit, connection and commitment in our community.
  • We believe an excellent Religious Education program supports parents in a variety of ways that respond directly to the needs those parents articulate.
  • We believe our Religious Education program must strive to meet the needs of all children, recognizing multiple types of intelligence and learning styles, and diverse abilities and identities.

Vision Statement Team: Jessica Bonafine, Cierra Plourde, Jennie Bernstein, Polly Painter, Stan McMillen, Kate Kimmerle and Rev. Josh Pawelek


On the Meaning of Multigenerational

Read Rev. Josh’s sermon on building a vibrant, loving multigenerational UUS:E community here.



Thank you for participating!

Just about one third of our congregation filled out a questionnaire, including youth and adults (with and without children). You are welcome to review the early results:

RE Survey 3 PM 10-3-13(1)

Questions? Contact anyone from The RE Visioning Team: Rev. Josh Pawelek, Polly Painter, Stan McMillen, Jessica Bonafine, Jennie Bernstein, Kate Kimmerle, Cierra Plourde. (David Clokey, Policy Board liaison).


Read remarks from Peggy Gagne, Sunday Service August 2013 here.


Quotes from participants in recent discussions:

“We need to stress the humanity of face to face presence in RE”

“I call this place my house of hugs”

“Being with a group of kids I could relate to was the most important thing about creating my spiritual home at UUS:E.”
“I loved OWL.  And the Affirmation program was great!

“Let’s be a permission-giving church… Whether it’s more projects like Pennies for Piece, or more mission work. With such an emphasis on social justice, I’d like our youth to get more involved in giving back.”

“My vision for RE is that there would be more integration of upstairs and downstairs… Kids like the separation to learn, but then it’s difficult for them to be upstairs because it isn’t part of our culture. We could do a better job of integrating and that will require an entire culture shift.  My head is swimming with ideas!”

“I wish there were an alternative to Sunday mornings to invite kids to engage in education… The battle with Sunday morning sports is over, and we’ve LOST.”

“I’d like to see the next hire work toward Lifespan religious education.”