Burying Sunday School: a sleep-deprived RE Chair goes ape sh*t

It’s the middle of the night and I’m really tired and I’m awake because there are four 12 year olds having a “sleep over” in my living room. So I really shouldn’t respond right now. But I feel it coming on.  All I can say is Dan, you must be right.

If you haven’t read the series of posts over at East of Midnight asking what, in my small, unschooled opinion is a relevant question about our Sunday School practices, then I suggest you start here, then go here, then here, and finally, here. Dan’s summary is in part 1, and at this time of night, I read his response as smacking of smugness but may really be an attempt at being helpful.  I will give him credit for that because I really don’t want to start a fight with anyone after crabbing at 12 year olds all night long.

But here’s why I’m feeling defensive and want to go all “in your face” when earlier today I posted that that’s not very UU.  I may be a UU, but am still human with foibles, so if I sound like I’m going all ape shit, credit the hour and the kids in my living room.  That said: I’m no hippie and though I fall in the demographic of the baby boomer generation, I am smack dab NOT a boomer or a gen X/Y er, but a 48 year old woman who had kids late and is now struggling to pull together an RE program for children when there seems to be a lack of interest by very few other people to provide it regularly. As Ms. M. pointed out, the frustration is in putting together a program where the families either are overscheduled, have custody arrangement issues, or simply don’t make the effort and hence do not attend on a regular basis.  Frankly, I’m tired of feeling like I (as a volunteer) need to provide weekly programming because someone “might” show up.  I’d be happy—-no, I’d be blissed out—to have a weekly worship service that gave people of all ages a grounding for their spiritual center, engaged kids enough to ask questions of their parents and engaged parents enough to be able to ask questions of their kids. That would be more than enough.

I don’t have theory. I have experience.  And I’m tired. And I don’t want to be called an unschooler because I think we could do better things for our kids these days then replicate yet another classroom setting for them on a day when they would rather be doing just about anything ELSE than sitting in what looks like a classroom–though it doesn’t always. (Why I should be offended at being called an unschooler I don’t know, but it seemed like a blithe generalization and I generally recoil at those.  Hence the not wanting to be labeled a “boomer”.)

I’m not a learned person with a string of degrees. I’m a hardworking mother who barely has time to figure out dinner four nights a week let alone three different curriculums for my volunteer gig at church. So, if I start singing about not offering Sunday School any longer it isn’t because I don’t value it or value the research behind the reasons we have always done what we always do, it is because I do value the young people I meet each week who remind me by their presence and their contribution that sometimes the best thing one can do on Sunday is show up. With or without research.

Further, I have to lift up a further struggle we have had at our church this year and I’m sure this is something other churches have also troubled over. For many years we had kids who came in eager to learn and eager to learn in the typical style of most of the curriculum I have reviewed in my post as RE chair. But the last few years we have had many kids enter the program from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Additionally, these kids came with different learning styles and needs, and different levels of interest in being a part of a typical classroom environment. We have tried shaking things up, but we are all volunteers and, without a leader with the type of credentials and research that Dan lauds, we’re stumbling around most weeks and I have to say it leaves me feeling like I’m doing a crappy job and it might be better for the kids for all of us to put our efforts into a really good worship experience rather than trying to do more than a small church ought to try to do in the first place.

And so, here is what got me writing about this tonight: I feel like I’m doing a crappy job and I hate that. AND I feel that our kids deserve better. AND I know I can’t generalize my experience across the nation, BUT when I hear someone else singing the same tune I’ve been humming for years, I get a little giddy. There is a place for solid religious education programs. My church just isn’t it right now. And what I’m hearing by the question is not a call to dump what we’ve always done just because we don’t want to do it anymore, but because maybe, just maybe, there are other ways of giving people what they need.

When I, as the RE Chair, have even lifted up the possibility of NOT having children’s programming it was as if I was asking the church to kill itself.  People literally gasped. But I continue to ask the question why are we doing this because without a solid, communal response to that question, we will continue to do what we have always done because we have always done it and done it that way.  And I find that to be a poor and unimaginative response for a liberal religious community to give.


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8 Responses to Burying Sunday School: a sleep-deprived RE Chair goes ape sh*t

  1. Masasa says:

    Full warning: I am also posting in the middle of the night. It is 3am and I am up late finishing an RE registration mailing that should have been sent out at least a few weeks ago, but that didn’t go out because I was in over my head trying to finish the leftover spring project of finding teachers…10 of which I still haven’t found and that I am not sure I will find. Meanwhile, the upcoming teacher training is weighing heavily on me, and I still have curricula I need to finish writing.

    Sunday School isn’t the only way to provide RE, I agree. Right now my kids are in a Spirit Play class that they love and from which they receive so much. They get something out of attending service, when they do that, too. But something really transformative occurs weekly in Spirit Play for them and for us as a family. It’s not something they get in even the best-designed worship. I really believe that this experience will be formative in their lives, and I would do anything to ensure my future kids will also have that opportunity.

    That said…

    Having been a professional religious educator for a decade now, and having received a great deal of training in my vocation, I am eager and ready for a conversation about other forms of religious education, aside from Sunday School. I may do this work for a living, but I am worn out too. I am tired of having my success in the minds of congregants being tied to the number of kids I can get registered in this 1950s institution called “Sunday School,” and how many I can get to show up week-after-week when I am working against their sense of being overscheduled, their parents’ joint custody arrangements, the unwillingness of many families to make church a priority, the children’s resistance to “classrooms,” and multiple weekend sports. And heck, even that is something I don’t have control over because ultimately, this ministry belongs to the congregation…they ultimately shape it and they make it, even with my professional partnership in this work. I’m tired of feeling like I am a disappointment because I can’t raise the dead. Not to mention that I am tired of spending all spring and summer begging people to invest in the kids through Sunday School, only to receive every excuse in the book. Hey, if folks don’t want this, then by all means, let’s do something else…something we can all feel better about.

    I am a believer in religious education, but I don’t have my vision tied to a Sunday School model (other than my belief in the transformative power of well-done Spirit Play, at least for young kidos).

    So I read posts like this: http://tandik.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/soccer-is-killing-sunday-school-long-live-soccer/, and I am right there with you saying, let’s figure out what nourishes our children’s souls and go there. Let’s have a big enough imagination so our kids can have that. And yeah, let’s teach them about [fill in the blank], but first let’s figure out where the teachable moments are.


  2. nagoonberry says:

    I love everything about this conversation. The frankness of the original post. The love evident in the comments. The space for disagreement.


  3. Dan says:

    No “smacking of smugness” on my part; I certainly didn’t perceive any smugness in the conversation (frustration, yes; passion, yes; smugness, no). I wanted to lay out what I see to be the philosophical differences that are preventing the conversation from going forward — and what I was trying to get at might actually help you move forward with what’s going on in your congregation.

    If, for example, you’re serious about wanting to do away with children’s programming, you might want to look into some books on unschooling. By learning something about the rationale for the unschooling movement, you might find it easier to explain to people how your congregation could do away with Sunday school, while still supporting families with children, and while still providing a meaningful experience for kids.

    When I’m trying to get innovative ideas through the usual church politics, I usually find it’s helpful to emphasize the positive aspects of my new plan. Talking negatively about the current state of affairs without providing a positive alternative always gets me in trouble. Thus I wish that those who want to do away with Sunday school would stop saying they want to do away with Sunday school — framing it that way just annoys people who have worked hard to make Sunday school effective. Instead, why not say something positive like, “Hey, I think unschooling is the perfect way for us to do religious education! Here’s what we could try….”

    One last thought: one of the reasons that I am not personally enthusiastic about doing away with children’s programs is that it sure looks to me that it takes *more* work to successfully integrate children into congregations using an all-ages worship approach, or an unschooling approach. (A secondary concern is that I don’t think such approaches scale up particularly well as a congregation grows, but if your congregation is likely to remain at under 300 members, that shouldn’t be a problem.) Also, major congregational changes usually require *more* volunteer hours up front. None of this is a dealbreaker, but it does mean that it makes sense to have a compelling positive vision to present to other people, so they get excited and want to help you out.

    As always, your mileage may vary!


  4. uuMomma says:

    Thanks to all of you. Having pulled together a couple of hours sleep, I’m wondering if I should have hit “save to drafts” rather than “publish.” That said, what I didn’t want you to hear is a big bag of feeling sorry for myself. What I did want you to hear is that whenever I hear people ask “why are we doing it THIS way?” I get excited because I think it is a valid question. When I worked in the fundraising aspect of my current job, one of the things we (those who were volunteers as well as staff) were asked to do was a “passion retread” where we had to state why we continue to work for this particular institution–why we continue to be passionate about its mission. So, to me, asking the question “why are we doing this THIS way” is another form of this kind of valuable exercise.

    My apologies for being a little reactionary. Still haven’t slept much. But the 12 year olds are gone. Whew.


  5. Ms. M. says:

    Hugs Mama.

    Wish there was an easy answer to “fix…” And since there isn’t…here are wishes for you to get good sleep, support for maintaining healthy spiritual boundaries, and a little bit of that worship you crave!


  6. jacqueline says:

    Oh sister! It is only when we get deep in the trenches that we see the worms. Doing RE on an all volunteer basis to the level expected of the curriculum given by the UUA is really hard. And I dare say that families are different now then they were 20-30 years ago when some of this material was written and might not fit the needs of our children now. I look back at the time I taught and the time I dragged my not to happy daughter on Sunday mornings and just hope that I did a good enough job… and that she doesn’t completely hate me for making her go every Sunday for 15 years.


  7. mskitty says:

    Been there, done that, though not from your position as RE chair, Momma. I have always served small, even tiny, churches with an overload of retirees who weren’t at all sure we ought to have an RE program. And RE was hard on the volunteers who kept plugging along. The key for the two congregations (out of three) who have now got a growing RE program was scraping together the money to hire a parttime DRE who was willing to take over the mechanics and planning, relieving the overloaded RE committee. I don’t know if that will be the solution in your case, but my current congregation has had the lucky break of hiring a wonderful woman as quarter time DRE, shifting the role of the RE committee to “support team” rather than “executor of the whole program”, and trusting the DRE to make good decisions. I supervise her, rather than the RE committee doing that, as well.

    This does hinge on having ministerial support and it’s hard to get to that point sometimes, as I judge you don’t have a minister. Or at least one who is gung-ho for RE.

    I am gung-ho for RE because the DRE at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Colorado practically saved my kid’s bacon when he was an obnoxious middle-schooler with few friends in the church. She really helped him find his path and learn to be a constructive, not destructive, force in the program, whereas he’d been a divorce-angered smart-ass.

    I hope things get better and that the kids sleep in really late this morning.


  8. Paul Oakley says:

    I hope that, despite the demands of the sleepover, you have some restful sleep before morning. Sorry things have converged on you that way.

    Though you were clearly stressed when you wrote and were responding and reacting to Dan’s comment, I’m glad you did write. I have a much better feel for some of the situations informing your approach and concerns. As I said on Kim’s blog, “I had not thought of the problem in terms of the absence of a practice of presence.” Knowing your experience helps me to both better understand your opinions and have broader frame of reference within which to think my own thoughts. Thanks!

    I’m holding you in my thoughts and sending a few deep breaths into the cosmos to your account. Take care.


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