Coming of Age


I’m just back from leading a retreat for our Coming of Age youth and their mentors.  Coming of Age is a common UU program, although each congregation does it a bit differently.  This year I rehauled our program almost completely, but I knew I still wanted to end with a retreat with solo vigils for the youth.

It was a wonderful, thoughtful, and poignant retreat.  The space I found to rent was lovely, despite the rain, the youth were really using this time to be thoughtful and introspective, and the adults had a good time together while holding this intentional space open for the youth.

A reading from Coming of Age: a treasury of poems, quotations and readings on growing up that I used begins with: “Coming of age never really ends.  It is a regenerative and cyclic process, moving a bit forward, a bit back, seeming more an adult one minute, less so another.”

In other words, Let It Be a Dance We Do.  A dance it is my honor to witness and be a part of.

Reclaiming the words “Religious Education”

(This was written as a newsletter article for the congregation I serve)

I serve as your Director of Religious Education (DRE).  This is the terminology that this congregation and the UU tradition has been using for a very long time.  And yet, these two words – religious and education have history and associations with them that have become problematic for many, leading to a trend of UU congregations renaming their programs.  “Religious Exploration” is popular now, as is “Life Long Learning”.  I’ve also heard of programs re-named “Spiritual Development”.

Those who prefer the word Spiritual to the word Religious usually point to all the negative history of organized religion, the association with indoctrination in many people’s minds, and a sense that religion implies external authority and closed-mindedness.  In contrast, Spiritual seems to mean “individualistic” and “independent” to many people.

But strictly speaking, the word spiritual means “of, relating to, or affecting the human soul or spirit as opposed to material or physical things” or “having the nature of spirit; not tangible or physical”.   In its Latin roots spiritus means “of breathing or of the spirit”.

If you look up religious you get the definition “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity”.  The origins of the word from the Latin religio mean to “bind together” or “place an obligation upon”.  So while spiritual refers to what affects our human spirits, religious refers to what we are called to be faithful to – what our ultimate reality and ideals are and what we are called to do in a community bound together by mutual obligations.

It’s not that I don’t like the word spiritual.   It certainly has its value as well, and part of what we do in the RE program is certainly about the human spirit and its care and development.  But I find the meaning of religio to be a better definition of our learning community, with its sharing of community values and striving to honor the call to build beloved community and a better world.

Moving on to education, I find the arguments against the word laid out very well in the book Letting Go: transforming congregations for ministry by Roy D. Phillips.  Here, Phillips lists three reasons not to use the word “education”: 1. It is associated with just adding to a person’s stock of knowledge, 2.  It is associated with someone full pouring their bounty into someone empty, 3. It is the inculcating of community norms.  For these reasons, Phillips urges congregations to rename their programs “spiritual development”.

But the root of the word education is from the Latin educare meaning “to draw forth”.  Development means “a specified state of growth or advancement” and probably comes from the Old French desveloper meaning to “unwrap or unfurl”.  Perhaps education has those negative associations with the word – basically associations with some of the less-enlightened ways we have tried to educate each other over the centuries.  But I still believe in educare – to draw forth something with some sense of intention.

And you might notice something with each pairing of words: religious is more about community than spiritual, education is about a relationship between the one who draws forth and the one being drawn forth while development could be a completely individual process.  The older phrase is about a community process, while “spiritual development” does imply more individualism.  In the context of the rampant individualism of our society, holding to the old words says that we still value community and the relationships between people in a learning community.

Words are tricky things.  In the theology course I recently took the lecturer remarked that theologians are always playing at the edge of established language, and have two choices: to make up a new word or to reclaim or redefine an old word.  We can turn to new words to signal our intentions, such as saying Spiritual Development because we want to break with the negative notions of filling children up with a closed-end authoritative doctrine, or we can redefine what we mean by Religious Education and say that we mean to “draw forth that which binds us together in ultimate value, reality, and meaning”.

It might be the conservationist in me, but I hate to throw away some perfectly lovely and serviceable words.  I stand by Religious Education, and am proud to say that I serve as your Director of Religious Education.

The Care and Feeding of Volunteers


It’s that time of year again: time for religious education programs in congregations all over to be recognizing their current volunteers and recruiting volunteers to staff next year’s program.  This can be a stressful time for the staff person, or whoever is responsible for finding all those volunteers.


Fifty Volunteers!  Can it be done?  (This is for ideal staffing levels, folks, just to be clear.  I could run the program with a team of half that size, but then, well, they would all be doing twice as much work, right?)

Volunteers are what makes these programs run.  It is the sharing of their time, talents, energy – their gifts – with the children and youth that makes this an effective ministry.

So how do we find, recruit, support, and retain these volunteers?  I wrote my 7 Ways to Care For Your Volunteers out on my other blog last year.  Now I’m also interested to read Sharing the Ministry by Jean Morris Trumbauer.  Trumbauer points out that the old models of “Fill the Slot” and “Fuss and Beg” (love those names) for volunteer management are not effective and we should instead work toward an intentional model of shared ministry.

Instead of just focusing on Recruitment, we should divide our time among:

1.  Recruiting

2. Interviewing

3.  Matching

4.  Training

5.  Supervising

6. Supporting

7.  Evaluating

8. Managing Data

9.  Planning

10.  Discovering Gifts

11.  Designing

It’s both a bigger job and a smaller job, because it’s not about finding 50 volunteers by going down the church directory and just calling everyone (whether they are really right for this job or not) and begging and cajoling them to do it (then begging and cajoling them to never quit).  No, it’s not about filling spots, but instead about designing and running a program all year long that is exciting and inviting for volunteers to work on.  It’s about supporting volunteers, appreciating them, and facilitating them in seeing their work as an important ministry and a personal growth/fun/social/enrichment activity all rolled into one.

So the question I’m looking at right now is, where are the 50 people whose gifts will shine in our RE program?  How do I let them know about the opportunities and invite them into the program?  And how will I  train, support, and appreciate them all year long?

What we want for Mother’s Day: Peace


(The picture is of a helium balloon a child wrote a message of peace on a few weeks ago at church.  It’s a lesson from the curriculum In Our Hands by Barry Andrews and Patricia Hoertdoerfer).

Mother’s Day is coming up this week, and I’ve sent a card off to my Mom to thank her for all she has done and been for me over the years.  That’s what we do on Mother’s Day now, right?  Honor these women who have mothered us?

Many people are surprised to find out that the original Mother’s Day in America was about peace (before it was moved to May based on the campaign for a holiday by Anna Jarvis, who chose May because it was the birthday of her own mother).  Although it never really took off as a huge holiday, Unitarian Julia Ward Howe had tried to establish a Mother’s Day for Peace in 1870 and wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation.

And so, as Unitarian Universalists, we can lay claim to a tradition of seeing Mother’s Day as a day to call for peace.  Yes, we still honor our own mothers, but if we expand that expression of love and caring to our global human family …. if we recognize this as a day for honoring human relatedness and recognizing that peace is the only way to live if we are honoring that relatedness …. then we have a holiday that is much more transformative and challenging.  It is a truly religious holiday in this sense, calling us to reflect on that which binds us all together and seek to create a Beloved Community on earth.

Julia’s Voice is a website devoted to this vision of Mother’s Day.  In addition, the Standing on the Side of Love folks have another vision for making Mother’s Day a call for honoring All Families.

It is my sincere wish for Mother’s Day that this message spreads and that we can all celebrate Mother’s Day in the spirit of Julia Ward Howe, rather than Hallmark.  Happy Mother’s Day to you all.

Got a minute?


Our Office Administrator clipped this cartoon and gave it to me at church. 🙂

I know this feeling, when I’m trying to do what I think is important (memorize the story for the Sunday service, organize and write the lesson plans, craft a volunteer recruitment letter, whatever) and a person interrupts me with what might seem like a minor issue to me (the battery is out on the classroom electronic candle, all the pens are gone from the sign-in cart, they have a large item that needs storage space somewhere, they want to be shown again how to use the TV cart to do a powerpoint presentation, etc), and it can be very frustrating to be interrupted.

It’s the same at home, where my family interrupts me because they need something.  Why can’t people just deal with their own minor concerns?

There really are no minor concerns.  Everything matters to someone.

Maybe it doesn’t matter as much to me as it does to them, but the fact that it matters to them makes it matter to me.  Because they matter to me.

I work in a people oriented field, and I am interruptible.  I am available to others, to help, to listen, to point out where the pens are kept, how the TV cart works, which closet we store things in, and where the spare candles are.  I’m here to talk through your discomfort talking to children about God.  Or I can pull together the supplies for an activity you really would rather do than the one in the lesson plan.  I can listen about your struggles with your kids.  Or your struggles with other people’s kids.  Or we can talk about how you think we should put out non-dairy creamer.

It’s all important to somebody.


(Disclaimer: that said, the flipside is that if Everything Matters to Someone, Not Everything Can Matter Equally to You.  I cannot take on the concerns and nitty-gritty of every little detail and every last person in the congregation.  But I can give them a few minutes of my time, then say “yes, I see this is important to you – have you tried?/spoken to?/thought of?” And ultimately, I can’t solve everything for everyone.  So don’t take this post as a call for unrealistic standards.  There is enough of that and it is incredibly destructive to us all.  No one is superman/woman/minister/DRE)

Defeating the Culture of Bullying



I have just read the wonderful and important book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon.  This bestselling book follows the stories of three teens who suffered from bullying, and along the way leads the reader through the best research on why kids (and adults) bully and what can be done about it.  If you are a parent or an educator, you simply must read this book.  There are also some great resources on the author’s website, including resources for Parents, for Youth, for Educators, and a discussion guide for the book.

I also recommend (for adults and teens) the Ted Talk presentation by Shane Koyczan presenting his poem “To This Day”. There is some strong language used, but it is a beautiful piece of spoken-word poetry.

And because I believe in the power of literature to heal, or at least to start the conversation, there are good books about bullying for all ages:

Bully by Judith Caseley is a picture book good for young children.

Blubber by Judy Blume is a classic good for eight to twelve-year olds.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is often taught in middle schools.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio is a great book, enjoyed by nine year olds up to adults.