UU Religious Education: Immigrants Teaching the Natives

Tim Atkins, a UU religious educator in New Jersey, recently (10/18/2013) did a Facebook post on the six sources and our religious mission. In it he mentions that some religious education programs over-emphasize the first source over the other five.

As a refresher, here are shortened versions of the 6 sources of UU-ism (the full set can be found here):

  1. Direct experience of …transcending mystery and wonder,
  2. Words and deeds of prophetic women and men…
  3. Wisdom from the world’s religions…
  4. Jewish and Christian teachings…
  5. Humanist teachings…
  6. Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions…

He further comments–

…It’s too easy to slide down to community being the goal in of itself. What’s the mission of the church and how does that related to the mission of Religious Education?

It’s a really great question. At First Church, Houston, we are one church in 3 locations. We want to do the religious education program that can be replicable and scalable at all 3 locations.

What is unique to each campus, and what is shared among us?

We decided we have 9 core ministry areas. I go through this in my last post here. The 2nd and 3rd areas are Faith formation for children, and faith formation for adults.

Unitarian Universalist religious education is tricky because unlike most churches, we face an unusual situation with our teachers. Most of them did not grow up in the UU faith.

This means immigrants are teaching the natives.

More context:

  1. Newcomer adults often get into teaching fairly early on:
  2. Our children’s faith formation program always needs volunteers;
  3. parents are eager to integrate their families into their new church; and,
  4. church becomes more of a family activity, rather than an individual one.

These are all good things. But they come with an inherent problem. You might imagine the problem this way. You are just beginning to learn Spanish, and you are trying to teach what you know to someone who knows even less than you do. At least with Spanish, there’s a book you can go to.

What authoritative texts can newcomers to Unitarian Universalism turn to? Well, probably the greatest single repository of UU thought is in our hymnals. You can find out what UUs “believe” by reading through them. If you pay attention to when they were written, you can also pick up an evolving theology.

But with no creed, the only other– and shorter– options are the Principles & Purposes and the Six Sources. Some colleagues don’t like these, but their chief complaint is that they personally don’t like them. However, they are still useful to newcomers– who want clarity, and not waffling, or overly definitive obfuscatory verbosity.

 If we’re going to do UU faith formation– we have to ask– what’s the point?

The frame I like to use is– if we take a child all the way through our program , from nursery through high school graduation–

  • what experiences do we want them to have had?
  • what do we want them to know about each of the six sources above?
  • what constitutes a spiritually mature young adult UU?

If we know the answers to these (and similar questions), then we can design a faith formation program for the immigrants (teachers) and the natives (students) taking their context and stage level into account.

Another similar question is:

what does a spiritually mature adult UU look like? Sound like? How do they behave? How do they model UU elderhood?

For me, these are the questions that adult faith formation have to answer in order to come up with an excellent faith formation ‘program.’

But I hesitate to say faith formation program. Why? Because really, our faith formation isn’t a program, it’s a step.

When we think of programs, they can have a life of their own, their own agenda, ideology, mission statement, angel investors, and constituency: in other words the classic toddler’s parallel play (that’s when toddlers play in the same room, but my not interact with each other much). And the problem with that is that you end up with a lot of separate programs that don’t interact with each other very much: they can end up being focused on their own program needs, to the exclusion of integrating into the overall church mission.

What’s an alternative? Our Creative Team approach is one example. We combine

  1. Sunday service monthly themes, with
  2. writing/ interpreting children’s faith formation materials (some from the UUA), and
  3. our only adult faith formation program / step: Growth Groups.

I’ll explain how we do that in a future post. Suffice it to say, that all 3 areas are integrated. We have 4 UU ministers and 3 UU religious educators all working on the three things above together.

For now, I’d like to leave you with the idea that when thinking about UU faith formation, consider the following:

  1. The six sources are the most powerful and easily understood template for what undergirds UU-ism to newcomers.
  2. Our faith formation relies on the unusual setting of immigrants teaching the natives.
  3. If we can name what a spiritually mature UU is, then we can design a series of steps (a program, if you will).
  4. Our faith formation ought to move a person along this path, and we ought to be able to measure the results.
  5. If we find out our ‘steps’ aren’t getting the desired results, we change them.

What do you think?

4 thoughts on “UU Religious Education: Immigrants Teaching the Natives

  1. This is something similar to your idea on what does a spiritually mature adult UU look like?” I’m beginning a process with my Children’s RE Committee to redo what curriculum we’re using. I’m starting them off by visioning what they want children/youth who bridge out of the program and go off to college to be like. What do those children value? How do they identify? How do they act? etc. Then after they have that vision, we’re going to talk about steps to get there, and from there, start looking at a curriculum plan that follows those steps.

    1. Yes, Tim, that is exactly it. “Begin with the End in mind,” is how policy governance wonk John Carver put it (as have others). What’s the desired end result? Especially given that we frequently have kids grow up in our church? And with both adults & kids, can we envision a series of “steps” to take them from “off the boat” immigrant to spiritual elder?

  2. I think of faith formation as a process. Not a program, certainly, but more than just a step. And having written that, I am hearing “One More Step,” from the hymnal.

    The immigrants teaching natives concern is precisely the expression I’ve used in explaining part of the problem we have; the natives have that gut-feel for the natural grammar of a language that an immigrant struggles for–and only rarely fully achieves.

    I think that longer-time UUs (immigrants who’ve gone native) and the youth often find that they’re troubled by similar things, a desire for more depth, and for more active community commitment to the values that the principles are an *expression of*, and real live action that is consistent with and reflective of those values.

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