Letter from the President – January 7, 2019

Dear Friends,

How many times have you heard this? We must have a strong religious education program.
Young families will be attracted to a strong program and join our church. Religious education is
an engine for growth. In the past ten years, the religious education team has worked hard on
this, redesigning programs, updating curricula, looking for ways to integrate families into
worship. This has all collapsed. It has not just collapsed here at First Unitarian, it has collapsed
denomination-wide and in many mainline churches as well. The Sunday School model, the
model I was raised in, my kids were raised in, the model you were probably raised in, does not
work in 2018. If we build this model here in our new space, they will not come. From the
introduction of Kimberly Sweeney’s paper on the death of Sunday School, “This paper was
written because while the structures of our past met the needs of families in that time and place,
they are not meeting the needs of our families today. We don’t build programs or develop
strategies with the intention that they will live forever. We implement these programs and use
these strategies for as long as they are effective and useful. While our programs and strategies
should and will change over time, the purpose of our work remains the same: to bring the love
and grace of Unitarian Universalism to our families’ lives.”

I want to share with you the words of Ann Kadlecek who wrote about how the UU congregation
of Binghamton has confronted this problem….”Family ministry is not a new idea for Unitarian Universalists – religious educators in particular–have been aware of the limitations of Sunday School, and the ways in which we fail to serve ouryoung people, for decades. Now, however, we’re seeing increasing interest in exploring family ministry in our congregations; possibly because, more and more, we’re discovering that the Sunday School model is not just limiting – for some of us, it is becoming impossible. That was our experience in Binghamton. But what do we do when the old way isn’t working and the new way is still experimental? How do we decide where we’re going, and how best to get there,
while simultaneously serving our children, youth and families? Family ministry requires a change in the congregation’s understanding of its role with respect to families, the role of parents in their children’s religious education, who worship is for, and what “inclusive” means throughout congregational life. This is a big congregational project, a little like constructing a new building. And just as a slow, tentative approach in funding and planning building construction is unlikely to succeed, such an approach to big congregational transformation may not always be the most effective for achieving change or maintaining it in the face of systemic pressures to return to the old ways. Rapid change was the right approach
for this congregation, at this moment. The new reality for UUCB was that people were not volunteering in the way that they used to, and parents were not bringing their children the way they used to. The needs of the families had changed and we were no longer meeting those needs. The families were not going to conform to the expectations of previous generations; instead, to remain relevant, our faith development programming had to change.

Family Ministry is an approach to faith development that recognizes that: – Faith development
happens throughout our lives, at all ages and wherever we are – Parents, grandparents and
caregivers are the primary religious educators for their children, and – Ours is an intentional
community of all ages.

Family Ministry seeks to meet people where they are and include families of all kinds – as families – in the life of the congregation. Family ministry is not just about families with children, but the family ministry model recognizes that families with children need significant attention. Family ministry may look quite different in different congregations, but congregations moving in this direction typically place greater emphasis on:

-Whole-congregation worship
– Social action and social justice for all ages
– Parent support and education
– At-home resources
– Whole-congregation social and educational events
– Worship and education at times other than Sunday mornings.

So what does that mean for our congregation? It means that we are not going to invest in a traditional Sunday School model. We are going to invest in making our services places where adults, youth, and children can worship together, where we will fill our cups, where we will be comforted and made ready to face another week in this ever more complex and challenging world. It will be a place where we will be comforted, yes, but not necessarily made comfortable.

We don’t know who is going to come. This uncertainty can be paralyzing! The only certainty that we have is that the people who will come will be different than us. They will touch our lives and change us. And we them. We must be prepared for whoever comes. We must be prepared to try new things and fail spectacularly. We must accept that we will not, can not and never will meet everyone’s needs. And that’s ok. because lighting a single candle against the darkness can make the world brighter. Small changes matter.

We are stepping out into the unknown and unseen, and we might ultimately fail. But if we fail,
we fail because we chose mission over money, we chose service over comfort we chose hope over fear.

If you are interested in reading more about the death of Sunday school and how UU congregations are responding, you can click on the links below.

Next week: how our habits affect visitors.

You can reach me any time by e-mail at president@firstunj.org , and I am around most Sundays.
-Melissa Logan
President, Board of Trustees
First Unitarian Society of Plainfield