The question of how to approach religious education programming is of fundamental importance to the future of the Unitarian Universalist community. UU World asked two religious educators deeply involved with this work to share their perspectives on the subject.
Aisha Hauser, MSW, is an accomplished religious educator, facilitator, author, and advocate of equity and justice, currently serving as president of the Liberal Religious Educators Association and as part of the lead ministry team of the Church of the Larger Fellowship. She is a credentialed religious educator at the master level with a master’s degree in social work.
Kirsten Hunter is a credentialed religious educator with a master’s degree in special education. She is director of lifespan ministries at South Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, serving in co-leadership.
What issues do you consider most important when looking at the future of RE?
Hauser: I think it is helpful to point out that UU religious education is faith formation. It happens throughout all aspects of congregational life. We learn what it means to be a UU through formal classes and programs, and informally through our observations of faith leaders and one another. We need to stop viewing religious education as separate from our faith formation.
Hunter: Absolutely. The history of religious education as separate from the practice of our faith is rooted in the origins of Sunday school and reinforced by how our society undervalues its relationship to children and youth. “Religious education” isn’t a synonym for “children’s programming.” It is a lifelong journey for each of us.
How have your backgrounds and experiences shaped your perspectives on RE?
Hunter: I grew up Unitarian Universalist and was deeply engaged with the YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists) youth community as an adolescent. I first experienced truly embodied worship in youth community spaces. More recently, the UUA hiring controversy in 2017 [over racial disparity in hiring practices], followed by the White Supremacy Teach-In, was an awakening for me about the importance of religious education to the future of our faith. In a matter of a few months, religious education literally changed the language we use in Unitarian Universalism, and that was a moment that clarified my call to this work.
Hauser: I was born in Egypt and grew up in a strict Muslim home in the United States. I was taught that all the answers were in the Holy Qur’an, and we were never allowed to question anything. When I married a Jewish man, I left the Muslim faith. My love of UU religious education is shaped by my commitment to teaching values rooted in centering love and pluralism rather than religious dogma.
What is an example of an initiative or approach you feel has been particularly effective?
Hauser: Our Whole Lives, the lifespan comprehensive sexuality education program developed by both the UUs and United Church of Christ, is an excellent example. Also, the UU White Supremacy Teach-In (as Kirsten named above) which began with three non-ordained religious educators of color, and about twenty-five faith leaders, both religious educators and ordained clergy, who immediately lent their support through curriculum curation and development in response to the 2017 hiring controversy.
What do you see as some of the challenges in moving forward with this work?
Hunter: I think you have to first define “this work.” If we can agree that our work as UUs is to transform ourselves and the world by our liberating love, I would say our biggest challenge is a willingness to change. Our congregations have not been great at centering children, youth, and young adults, and they are our future. Young people nowadays are terrified about the world they are inheriting; they need pastoral care and opportunities to develop spiritual practices that can help them cope with an uncertain future.
I grieve the reality of the climate crisis all the time, but this painful era of human history serves as an incredible guidepost to anyone paying attention. It is like a billboard in my heart that affirms my human instinct for healing over harm, connection over consumption, cooperation over competition—an ever-present reminder that humans who engage in conquest, resource hoarding, and supremacy ultimately self-destruct.
How would you describe RE’s potential as a tool for significant change in the UU community?
Hauser: In order for Unitarian Universalist faith formation to remain relevant in the future, we must focus on values that affirm love, liberation, community, and connection. Our congregations have a great opportunity to center a multigenerational approach to worship that includes offering community events and working as advocates for social justice. Right now families are hungry for spaces where they can heal and reconnect. That is where many of our communities need to start.
"UU religious education is faith formation." — Aisha Haser, LREDA president
What would success look like in this context? How does RE most provide care to congregations and the UU community?
Hunter: We know what success looks like. When we build trust, interconnection, and a culture of accountability throughout our faith, we are heading in the right direction. When we appreciate the incredible relationships we already have, and commit to keep widening those circles, we are moving in the right direction. It looks like a willingness to be a novice at something, to take risks, and center those members of our community who have not been centered before; and if anyone is wondering how to do that, spend more time with children.
Hauser: Success also includes embodying a generosity of spirit. Understanding that UUism is not for the select few who “get it.” There are congregations who host food banks, shelters, offer their parking lots for those living in their cars, as some examples. Imagine the impact on the world if we expanded our imaginations and offered those spaces for community engagement.
What do you see as key actions to take in the near future?
Hauser: It is imperative that congregations move away from a scarcity mindset. This has caused near-panic that RE numbers have been in decline even before the pandemic and more so since. I would suggest that boards invest in a holistic approach to congregational life. Instead of separating worship and RE, we need to think strategically about how a congregation that centers faith formation of everyone, across the lifespan, would operate.
Hunter: I am noticing fear in many congregations right now as well. The number of children and families showing up for church dropped significantly during COVID; many religious education positions were cut; and ministers, staff, and volunteers are stretched thin. But now is the time to move beyond scarcity and fear and reflect on what we’ve learned. We need to focus on building generative and life-giving ministries. Because when we do that, people show up.
How do you envision RE will change as our congregations become ever more diverse and strive to increasingly reflect our commitment to welcoming all children and families?
Hauser: RE has already been more diverse than the adult populations of congregations, therefore religious educators have been on the forefront developing programs that serve people of many identities. I anticipate that RE will lead the way in responding to the spiritual needs of a diverse population.
Hunter: Yes. One of the reasons that religious educators are working at the forward edge of transformation in our faith is because young people hold us accountable to do better. Relationship is the key.
Given the pandemic experience, are there learnings that will inform RE’s future in terms of accessibility and/or a multiplatform experience?
Hauser: As the world came out of lockdown, there are few excuses that remain that prohibit multiplatform offerings. There is also a recognition of the need for people to find ways to meet in person that are as safe as possible. People need human interaction and connection, and there are many creative ways to provide that.
Hunter: Agreed. We have more tools now. Our communities have expanded their fluency with video and streaming platforms, which means we are more accessible, and we can be more intentional about how we facilitate online and in-person faith community. We have not yet realized how much the past few years have changed us—it is unfolding in real time.