I’m writing with mixed feelings, to share with you some news: I will resign as your Director of Lifespan Religious Education, effective July 15. I will remain a religious educator, joining the Fahs Collaborative Center for Innovative Learning at the Meadville Lombard Theological School this fall. My family and I will remain in Asheville while I work remotely most of the time.
While I am glad for the opportunity to serve the wider faith that role will provide, it is not what I had hoped for or expected. This job was a perfect mix of challenge and fun and success for most of the last three years. I love Asheville, and I loved my role and my work.
The last year has been challenging for all of us. We offered a new approach to faith development from ideas and commitments that emerged from our congregational visioning process in the spring of 2016. That required more time and energy from both staff and volunteers, just as we lost staff hours and recruitment levels waned. We rallied; the RE staff, Council and a core group of dedicated volunteers from all walks of life in the congregation helped make our new program a success anyway. RE attendance increased dramatically, even before the election, and was double last year’s average for much of 2016-17. This created its own issues, with regard to recruitment needs and class size. As this April rolled around, and we began recruitment for fall, we recognized our challenges remained. We are now matching the commitments for leadership to a down-sized, sustainable RE program for 2017-18.
The challenges we faced together called us toward big ideas and deeply creative solutions. Although we did not fully solve them, I do not think them insurmountable. You have the tools and resources to continue the work. Like our affirmation of covenant, it is not perfect fulfillment, but the ongoing work of commitment and collaboration that builds healthy change. I believe I fulfilled my role as a temporary shepherd here, guiding and nurturing. And I believe I have done the work I could, as a temporary gardener, planning and planting, tending and harvesting…and saving seeds for next season’s gardeners. I stood on the shoulders of those who came before me; their work paved the way for what we could accomplish together. It is my sincerest hope that I have helped build something of lasting value, too, to support the work of my successors and this congregation, as you take up the work with them that is yours to do.
One of my roles in this community has been as a storyteller. I have often asked you, as my tale ended, “I wonder where you are in this story?” As in Spirit Play with our youngest children, I hoped to support you in thinking deeply about how stories shape us… encouraging the emergence of both an identity as a person of faith, and the work we are called to do, as a result.
So let me tell you a story. I once said, only half-joking, that you may have begun to suspect I only ever told you one story, in many forms. This, too, is really a single tale, told over the course of three years, through which a single thread runs. It is the thread that connects the eldest among you to the newest arrival, and everyone in between. It is the ribbons you tied in one unbroken loop around the Sanctuary last spring and that the children turned into a weaving; it is the story of the covenant that connects UUs, rather than any creed. It is the story of who we are, and what we are for. And it is your story to continue telling.
I hope you feel as proud as I do, of the story Mark and I told, about the value of our children and families’ presence in this church. And that we began worshipping together every Sunday, welcoming our children and youth into our ceremony and song, so that they might begin to find themselves in your congregation’s story. We held the largest CoA and OWL classes ever in this congregation’s history. And we found ways to creatively respond to challenges, that strengthened our connections across generations—like having high school youth lead K-3 kids in building Little Free Libraries, when we lacked leaders for both. Like offering UUCA’s first-ever All Ages RE program, at 9:15, giving adults and children a chance to learn and grow together.
You may not have heard this part of your story…that your RE programming was nationally acclaimed, and became models for many other UU churches: the four Sundays, out-of-the-classroom approach to YRUU; your Little Free Library and Little Free Blessing Bags social action projects for children; your hybrid Spirit Play program, with the first-of-their-kind Contemplation and MakerSpace centers in addition to Art, Drama, and Nature.
And this story should make us all proud: this year, you offered the first ever congregation-wide trip to General Assembly. A chartered bus was paid for by you. Some riders bought their own seats and others sponsored seats for CoA youth and chaperones in support of their efforts to get to GA. I want you to know the impact you had in making such an innovative opportunity possible, serving the whole congregation, CoA teens, and multigenerational faith development.
We have done so much good work here together. I believe that is a long story, still unfolding. It began before I joined you and it will continue when I am gone. Your faith community has a strong foundation of excellence in RE, including a core group of committed parents and non-parents who have consistently devoted their time and energy to help it succeed, and deepened their own faith in the process. Even those of you who did not actively lead RE, but helped support the work of this church through financial pledges, should know you had a hand in shaping these stories. And your shared decision to embrace a vision of integrated faith development is a course-altering event in the story of this church’s life. It may take time to become deeply rooted, but it cannot be erased by this year’s difficulties. It is a continuation of the thread of hope and commitment that links these snapshots of your community; I have borne witness to them, and told you about them, but they are your story.
I hope you will continue telling each other of the impact all these efforts made. These are stories that matter: who this faith community is, and what you are for. And I trust you will shape and tell more of this story, going forward, reflecting the values and goals of a gathered people, dedicated to growing in faith.
Faith development is all we do. Unitarian Universalism is all we teach.
The congregation is the curriculum.
–Maria Harris and Connie Goodbread, religious educators
Warmly, and in faith,
Written by Joy Berry, Director of Lifespan Religious Education