By Emmalinda MacLean
Director, Religious Education
Recently I’ve been using the DRE’s Facebook group a lot more, and I’ve been learning a lot—it’s a forum for UU religious educators from all over the country to post questions for colleagues, share ideas for curricula and stories, and get support dealing with sensitive issues in their congregations. It’s also an eye-opener into how varied the culture and practices are at different churches around the country; I think here at Emerson we do pretty well, but there’s always room to grow.
Ministers are often better connected to their colleagues than DREs are, and I have Rev. Matthew to thank for encouraging me to reaching out for help more—in our meetings, he will often ask, “Do other churches do that?” or “What do your colleagues say?” and it feels like a revelation. I’ve had a bad habit in years past of trying to reinvent the wheel, thinking I need to come up with everything from scratch, but there are a lot of great ideas already available, and I’m getting better at collecting them.
Some of the most active members of the group, unsurprisingly, are full-time DREs at large congregations, who run their 200+ children and youth programs a little differently than we do at our cozy little 140-member church. There are plenty of times I’m grateful that our RE classes are small enough that we can afford to be flexible, but I recognize that this relaxed approach wouldn’t scale up. I’m not advocating that we aspire to be a church with over 200 children in the RE program—that’s a whole different job than the one I have right now, and I don’t know that I’d like it as much—but I do want to see our congregation grow, and seeing the systems and policies used by larger congregations is extremely helpful.
There’s also great value in seeing, by comparison, all the blessings Emerson has to offer, like sinks in the classrooms. It never would have occurred to me that plenty of RE classes take place in rooms with no sink, which makes lots of craft projects challenging, if not impossible. Our children are so lucky to have a playground on our property, too! And I feel grateful every week for the friendly and caring culture at Emerson; many churches struggle with parents who want to drop their kids off for Sunday School and leave, or with non-parents who object to the presence of children in the Sanctuary at all, and I’m so glad that Emerson values everyone’s presence and full participation in our community.
I’m confident that growing to welcome more new members wouldn’t cost us any of these gifts. And increasing our numbers in RE could give Emerson’s children and youth the best gift of all—church friends. Across the country, professionals agree, no matter the size of your church or what the program looks like, children who look forward to seeing their friends at church are more likely to come. For a religion that centers relationships, creating more opportunities for them could be the best way to nurture our religious values in our children.