Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What Every Pastor Should Know About Sunday School

What Every Pastor Should Know About Sunday School

By Elmer L. Towns and Stan Toler

This book recently caught my eye. While I don’t think it’s spectacular enough to run out and buy it, I did find the Table of Contents provocative. The Table of Contents lends itself to an exercise between the Minister, Director/Coordinator of Religious Education, and/or the Religious Education Committee. Get together over tea and for each of the 19 chapters, come up with three ways your congregation’s religious exploration program takes advantage of this aspect. What part does the minister play? The DRE? The REC? The teachers? Others? If you have trouble coming up with examples, perhaps it’s time to look at that aspect and use its gifts more fully. Which aspects are your strengths? Celebrate those!


Table of Contents:

Sunday School will…

  1. Help you reach the lost.
  2. Will give you extra doors into the church.
  3. Will boost (Unitarian Universalist) knowledge.
  4. Will help you minister to all ages.
  5. Will help you meet needs. (If you solve peoples’ problems, they return.)
  6. Will produce leaders in your church.
  7. Will provide role models.
  8. Will turn spectators into workers.
  9. Will provide prayer intercessors (bind community together.)
  10. Will provide teaching evangelism. (deepen Unitarian Universalist identity and commitment)
  11. Will provide instant follow-up for new converts.
  12. Will provide a friendship network.
  13. Will provide life coaching.
  14. Will teach churchmanship.
  15. Will make use of all spiritual gifts.
  16. Will provide spiritual care.
  17. Will teach faithfulness.
  18. Will build character.
  19. Activates friendship evangelism.

Friday, December 19, 2008


One year our youth group decided that as part of their church community service, they would each take turns greeting on Sunday morning. It was refreshing to see new and especially younger faces.

One person, however, took exception. Michaela. She put her hands on her hips and said, “How come they get to do that? No one asked me. How come I don’t get to greet?” Not waiting for someone to invite her, Michaela appointed herself the official child-greeter.

I find most Unitarian Universalist congregations have a Michaela, too. Our Michaela was 6 at the time. Just a little peanut of a girl. Very articulate. Very opinionated. With a wild streak of initiative.

She taught me that it’s never to early to develop our leaders. She turned out to be one of the best greeters we ever had. She knew all the members, especially the children. If someone was new, she’s spot them right away, and often ignoring the parents would grab them by the hand, “Hi, I’m Michaela. This is your first time, so I’ll show you around. You’re in third grade? Oh, good. You’re in Ms. Christine’s class and they’re telling Bible Stories. I’ll show you where to go when they sing us out. Come sit by me. Where do you go to school? Uh-hm. Do you prefer dogs or cats? Up here we sit on the chairs. We can’t stand on them with our shoes. Bob just bought them and they’re new. But once you go downstairs we can lay on the floor. Do you prefer cookies or crackers? We have both here. I’ll show you.”

Rather than say, “oh that’s so cute…” our wise Director of Religious Education helped our Membership Chair work with Michaela as a committee member. We are all spiritual peers of varying chronological, experiential, and development stages on our journies, right? The Membership Chair regularly met with Michaela after services to get the scoop on the new families. Michaela worked with the DRE to make sure families got the registration forms and knew where to turn them in. I learned a lot from Michaela’s example.

Religious Education is community-owned and multi-layered. Leadership development is important Religious Education.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

That's What We Do, Mom.

The year was 1996. My home congregation had been faced with a building decision. Do we build on land we own, or do we renovate the very ugly, inadequate building we have? We used this issue as a distraction from relevant community work for way too long. We finally voted on saving the money and renovating the building ourselves.

I can always remember the year, because that was the same year that my eldest child began solidly walking and my youngest started talking. My eldest child was put in charge of bringing water to the workers and running various small errands. The first words out of my youngest son’s mouth were hammer, drill, sharp nail, ouch and Bob.

Bob was in charge of our building and grounds and orchestrated the work parties.

Fast forward to 2008. We’re still in that building. Bob was my eldest son, Quinn’s Coming of Age mentor. For his service project they built a fence around the church parking lot together. Bob pulled me aside to say in amazement that Quinn remembers the building renovation – heck if you ask him, he was a full-fledged member of the work party. (at age 3.)

Quinn also joined Bob’s Building and Grounds Committee when he became a voting member at age 14. Pounding nails and cleaning gutters is a healthy way to channel his teenage angst. Sometimes he and Bob will go make repairs at the homes of some of our elders’. Because, “That’s what we do, Mom.”

Religious Education teaches us we each matter. We each have a place. We each contribute to our collective story. There are common values that guide us, “That’s what we do, Mom.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Soccer RE

I was doing some consulting work with another church and they were lamenting, cursing really, soccer. Soccer was the downfall of their religious education program. How could those soccer organizing heathens schedule games on Sunday morning?! I am amazed they got away with it, however, my response wasn’t very helpful to this particular congregation. I suggested they ditch Sunday School start a soccer team.

Really. That’s one of my fantasies. A co-ed soccer team that begins practice with the lighting of the chalice, an inspirational reading, a team go-around “what are you working on today, and how can the team support you?” Go practice guided by our values and principles. Close with a team go around, “what you appreciate about your team mates or what you’re proud of from today’s practice….”

And what if we call ditched worship some Sunday and went to cheer for our team… or even both teams playing…

Religious Education doesn’t exclusively happen on Sunday from 10:30 -11:30 am. Religious Education happens when life intentionally happens and we’re alive and awake in the world.

Monday, September 22, 2008

My son's friend's mother is a rock star.

On Sunday instead of picking my son up from an overnight at his friend Hudson’s house, I went to his friend’s church. Hudson’s father is the pastor. I figured I’d get out of there with enough time to skedaddle over to the UU right after. Two doses of religion, yeah, I could use that!

Didn’t know what to expect but was definitely curious. This is the church that rents the Galaxy Movie Theater on Sunday morning. During the week they meet in each other’s homes in small groups. I’ve read about these non-denominational churches that really connect with a younger crowd.

So I arrive to a big bouncy toy in the parking lot and kids squealing with delight. Owen, Hudson and some other early teens are hanging out on looking cool on the steps. Owen knuckle-bumps me, but looks a bit confused. “I thought you were picking me up after church. Did you come to watch?”

I chuckle at his choice of words. “No, I came to worship with your friend’s family.” He grins and knuckle-bumps me again. I go inside while he stays behind watching people the parking lot congest with the faithful.

Inside the movie theater has been transformed with black curtains and little white lights. An attractive welcome table has what I assume is an Order of Service with something tucked inside. I grab one and head in to the first theater where I hear a sound check. There in the front is a band warming up. Two guitars and a drum set. An attractive women a little younger than myself strides confidently up the aisle and then turns to me.

“I don’t think we’ve met. Are you new? I’m Tracey.” “I’m Tandi.” It both dawns on us who we are, and we light up. She’s Hudson’s mother. We exchange pleasantries and appreciation that our boys found each other. They both like skateboarding, but not skater culture. They both play football, and Owen is down with praying with Hudson before games for help to do his best. I’m glad Owen has a PK as a friend with which to commiserate. Tracey excuses herself to go to sound-check.

Soon after the band starts up. Tracey whips out a tambourine and before I can grasp the situation she starts belting out a catchy song like a rock star. My son’s friend’s mother is a rock star! The packed theater in on their feet swaying to the music and clapping and singing. I find nothing offensive in the lyrics. Quite the opposite. I release my inner rock star and sing it out:

I am free to run.

I am free to dance.

I am free to live for You (I translate You to mean Beloved Community.)

I am free.

Hudson’s father Pastor Jon gave an outstanding message referencing some of my favorite Bible passages and introducing their small group ministry groups. He brought up the leaders and commissioned them with a prayerful blessing.

I took notes. I want this for my own church. I want commissioned and blessed small group leaders. I want a big screen with projected scripture and beautiful pictures. I want a tambourine.

I met Owen afterward and asked him how the youth group went. He said that he liked the Unitarian Universalist theology better, but this delivery was pretty interesting. We knuckle-bumped in agreement.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Coffee Making As Spiritual Practice

I love to make the coffee at church – I go and get real half-and-half and fancy sugars. I’ll get the juice with less sugar and more anti-oxidants (super juice.) I’ll make the coffee and pray into it. And as people are standing around after church talking about the sermon or the details of their week, I peer out from the kitchen and watch my prayers get sipped up into bodies and spirit. I watch the real half-and-half delight them, hoping that they will in turn make a decadent decision in the world and go beyond what is necessary. I watch for the juice mustaches of children hoping that their blood-sugar levels will remain stable so they can share what happened in Sunday School with the adults in their lives rather than melt on the way home. I tend to these little details knowing I will not see the results. But I remain faithful to the suspicion, the hope that they have made a difference. Coffee duty is one of my cherished spiritual practices.

Monday, September 8, 2008

May your church year be amplified!

This appeared on the fall frontpage of the UUA's Pacific NW District:

If you are reading this on the Pacific Northwest District website, I think it is safe to assume that you are a church leader. And if you are a church leader, I’m willing to bet that you’re feeling a little overwhelmed with the beginning of the church year. Wish you could clone yourself? Wish you could amplify your efforts? That is my wish for you this year – May your church year be amplified! May you be a beacon rather than a bunker.

1. Pay attention to where your joy bubbles up. Follow that energy and do those acts that amplify love. What details of church work give you joy? What community dreams are like breaths of fresh air? Those are the ones to follow. Consider a “three strikes and out” rule for items that keep coming up in Board or committee meetings but never get off the ground – take this as a sign that this activity needs to be dropped, or at least put to pasture for a while.

2. Make this church year matter. The Church of the Palouse in Moscow, ID has church t-shirts that say “What we do matters” on the back. I wear that t-shirt all over the place. I wish more Unitarian Universalist congregations followed this philosophy not only for social justice outside our congregations’ walls, but also for acts within our congregations’ walls, such as worship. Worship should be the time to refuel our flames and get our marching orders. Don’t settle for a sometimes-working sound system or agree to be an untrained, unpracticed, apologizing celebrant. What we do matters. Don’t settle for “good enough.” What we do matters! When worship is created in a careful manner to elicit the high, holy “Yes!” then our spirit and intentions are amplified.

3. Be a beacon, not a bunker. I still harbor a fantasy that every congregation in our district will hold a Recommitment to Membership Ceremony and present each member with a chalice necklace or pin. And part of that recommitment will be a promise to wear that chalice out into the world and be ready to declare that you work for “what matters” in the name of Unitarian Universalism. That your good works are fueled by your faith. (If you are a potter and want in on this dream, please email me.) If it strikes fear in your heart to think about people asking about your chalice, you may want to practice with others from your congregation. The curriculum “Articulating Your UU Faith” is a fantastic tool. You can order it through the UUA Bookstore (www.uuabookstore.org ) or borrow it from the District Library.

4. Abundance follows mission. Back in November the Unitarian Universalist Association gathered together a group of ministers who have a special spark, for a deep listening session. The hope was that we would learn what made them tick and be able to replicate it. Here’s the kicker – these twelve ministers definitely had something in common, but it wasn’t a skill-set. It was a bold theology and a drive to offer our saving faith to everyone they could reach. You can download the Listening to Experience sessions on-line. But what if your congregation is shaky on UU theology? Not to worry! Have we got resources for you! Tapestry of Faith is a series of faith development curriculum available to download. And be sure to send your leadership team to our fall Leadership Council on November 8 in Seattle – the learning topic is "Finding Balance at the Center of our Faith."

5. Welcome growth and change. I should warn you that if you start wearing your chalice… and if you pay close attention to the quality of worship… and if you deepen your collective faith formation and Unitarian Universalist identity… you will attract more Unitarian Universalists to your faith community. And they will want to stay. And things will start to change as they add their gifts and take on leadership. May I suggest the spiritual practice of letting go of the mantra, “We’ve always done it that way”? It’s okay to grieve the way things used to be. I actually suggest you do that. It’s necessary to name it and let it go in order to empty your arms which will then allow you to embrace the opportunities coming your way.

6. Let go. Pay attention to duties that make you clench your jaw and resent those around you. Do what you can to let those go. Sometimes this takes incredible honesty with ourselves and others. Love isn’t always polite and easy. Sometimes love takes an intervention. I used to be one of those church members on every committee. One year a wise elder noticed this and staged an intervention. I was given an (involuntary) volunteer sabbatical. I wasn’t allowed to volunteer for anything for a whole church year. Nothing. I couldn’t even make the coffee or fold a newsletter. Guess what? We all survived just fine. New leaders with fresh ideas stepped into the places I had been hogging. And I learned which duties I resented, but was afraid to disappoint people if I didn’t fulfill other people’s expectations. And I learned what brought me joy by what I really missed. If you have been a church leader for over 5 years and you are still doing everything instead of mentoring others, then I think that you and your community are missing out. Amplified leadership happens when you make sure you’re dispensable.

8. Trust. Let go of constantly questioning power and authority, particularly that of your minister and/or board. They are not out to get “their way.” They have been elected and called by your congregation to serve the greater good. If a task force has been asked to research and bring a recommendation to the congregation, please do not nit-pick at the congregational meeting. Let go. Respect their work, and trust the process. If it’s come to a vote and you feel the need to ask a lot of detailed questions (even though the committee/ board/ task force has kept the congregation apprised of their progress through newsletters articles and emails) please let go. There is a responsibility in democracy to stay informed and involved, not to wait until the last minute and subvert the decision by protesting and questioning the process. Rather, say, “thank you!!” And if you aren’t satisfied with this round, then you volunteer next time. Or not. Perhaps you can just let go. I hear from more would-be Unitarian Universalists who sadly report that they left due to our inability to deal productively with power and authority. This is the opposite of amplifying our spirit and intention.

9. Reach out. When was the last time you invited a neighboring religious leader counterpart out for coffee to swap ideas? It could be a Unitarian Universalist leader from a couple cities away. It could be a congregational leader from your community’s United Church of Christ or Jewish temple or Baptist church. For those of you lucky enough to be within reasonable driving or bus distance to other Unitarian Universalists, please-please-please take advantage of this a couple times a year – go visit, and see what they do differently and why. Plan to attend the PNWD Annual General Meeting in February, and UUA General Assembly in June. And you do know about the various list-serves for UU leaders, right?

10.Keep the Sabbath. As church leaders, we often come to Sunday worship and take care of church business while we’re there. I’ve even overheard church leaders talking about a board meeting during the prelude. And then quickly grab each other to continue the conversation as soon as closing circle or benediction was complete. What if we saved Sunday for Sabbath? A time out from the duties and “shoulds” of our fast-paced world? What if we kept the television off and didn’t boot up the computer? What if Sunday were saved for family dinners around the kitchen table and game night? Basically, what if Sunday (or any intentionally chosen day for that matter) were set aside to refuel our flame by following our joy? Can you imagine how rested and responsive we’d be as church leaders? That’s the kind of amplification of spirit and intent I’m talking about. Check out Wayne Muller’s book Sabbath for more ideas.

I wish you a very abundant church year.

In faith,