When congregants at First Unitarian Church of Victoria, in British Columbia, returned to in-person programs after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of their first Sunday services was a multigenerational dance party. Some attendees were moving back into a familiar space where they’d spent many hours before the lockdown. Others were newly discovering it—adults who’d found the congregation during COVID and even children who hadn’t been born when the shutdown began.
“For most of [the children] this was their first time in the sanctuary,” says Anna Isaacs, the congregation’s acting director of spiritual exploration and learning for children and youth. “If they were 2 [years old] before the pandemic, now they were 4, so it was new,” she adds.
The sanctuary’s flexible seating enabled worship leaders to create a circle of chairs where some congregants could dance in their seats while others moved around an open space in the center, an intentional invitation for people of all abilities to participate. Music ranged from an Elton John/Dua Lipa collaboration to popular Disney tunes. Isaacs says that by reimagining worship in this way they were able to meet multiple needs at once, such as providing an embodied experience while also minimizing the number of events on the calendar, something that has been helpful to many families as they return to bustling school and extracurricular schedules.
“I think as Unitarians we’ve historically often lived in our heads,” says Isaacs. “This moment is really calling us to move into our bodies, where we’re storing so much of our grief right now.”
“‘This is your church home.’ That’s one of the things I want to instill in our kids.” – Correna Ness, director of religious exploration
Descriptions of post-COVID grief are a common refrain for UU religious educators. Parents and guardians describe the utter isolation of the shutdown, followed by feeling overwhelmed as they were catapulted back into the daily round of appointments and activities when lockdown ended.
“What I know as a parent and what I’m seeing play out for other people is exhaustion and a little bit of whiplash,” says Dayna Edwards, minister of faith formation at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland. “Like, ‘Wait, now we’re acting like this pandemic never happened? Now we’re going to get back into the swing of things without having processed what has happened for the past two years?’”
UU religious educators are searching for the kind of community events and outreach that will stitch unraveled connections back together and offer families the spiritual support they need to navigate post-shutdown life. Church staff and volunteer teams are experiencing many of the same struggles. There is tremendous stress in trying to decide when to reopen—and, if COVID numbers increase again, when to shut back down, a difficult push and pull between public health-based decision-making and fears about congregational attrition. These days, people are expressing a real need to be in worship together.
The 2021 Multi-National Children’s Ministry report Do We Need a New Plan for Children’s Ministry? reflected on research conducted by a team of academics and ministry practitioners across several Christian denominations (see tinyurl.com/youth-ministry-report). They surveyed families with children and youth on three continents about how children’s faith formation had fared during the pandemic and found that, above all, families needed relational connection. Unfortunately, these families’ ties to their churches felt transactional, in that churches seemed to see themselves as content providers rather than sources of connection.
The report found that parents, who were already expected to homeschool their children and counsel them through a pandemic, were overwhelmed by the idea that they were also responsible for stewarding their child’s relationship with their faith. Further, they often felt under-resourced and under-supported in doing so. Because many churches were worrying about metrics, budgets, and how to get more people through the doors, the needs of families were being subordinated to the need for families, further isolating and demoralizing parents, children, and youth in the process.
The desire for connection didn’t begin with the COVID pandemic. While the lockdowns were undeniably a crisis, Janet Murphy, director of religious exploration at Unitarian Universalists of San Luis Obispo, California, points out they were also a potential opportunity. “The pandemic gave us, in some ways, a much-needed pause,” says Murphy. “We were so focused on forward motion: what’s the newest gadget, the next scientific breakthrough, the next engineering feat that’s going to propel us into the future? . . . It’s not that it doesn’t matter, but we need to think about people first.”
Murphy says that, like other small congregations in her area of coastal California, San Luis Obispo has for the most part moved to a one-room schoolhouse model where all the kids are in one space. “We tore out some walls,” says Murphy, “and stopped having teeny-tiny, pocketed rooms.” Murphy’s congregation uses the Soul Matters faith formation curriculum, but they keep the structured activities brief, and then offer children a variety of hands-on resources such as art supplies to choose from.
“The work of the child is play, as we know, and the adult volunteers find they can have conversations and expand on whatever the child is talking about and tie it back to our themes, but it’s child-led. All of the guides (adult volunteers) have said, ‘This is so fun!’” says Murphy. The congregation has also transformed an underused area of its social hall into a nook—or, as they like to call it, a “nUUk”—with couches. Teens have priority and use the nUUk for small-group ministry, but everyone is welcome, as a sign on the wall makes clear. Murphy says this multigenerational invitation helps build community.
Edwards has found it effective to lean into community events that were canceled or pared down in recent years, like Cedar Lane’s annual holiday craft day, which returned in December 2021. The simple fact that familiar events have resumed can be restorative and rejuvenating, she says.
UU churches do not need bells, whistles, and a multiplicity of programs to provide lifesaving faith formation and call congregations back into community.
Correna Ness, director of religious exploration at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has received feedback that people of all ages are yearning for multigenerational connection. “Adults who do not live with children say, ‘It’s the only time I get to talk to little ones,’ and ‘It feels like a family to me this way,’” she says. Ness and congregants have worked together to restructure popular events like an annual auction to make them more multigenerational and financially accessible to all. Children and youth were integrated into the teams that did meal prep and ran the auction, and new auction items were created that were more affordable and family friendly.
“‘This is your church home,’” Ness says she tells the children. “That’s one of the things I want to instill in our kids.”
Edwards also emphasized the importance of remembering one of the things Unitarian Universalists do best: promote sexual health and wellness education. “One thing that became very clear over the pandemic is the lifesaving and life-affirming need for comprehensive health and sexuality education,” she says. “Our kids were left at home on their devices getting information from TikTok and Instagram, getting lonely and confused with no one to help them process it. So I think OWL (Our Whole Lives sexuality education) is one of the most important things that we need to continue to put resources into.”
“As we returned, [OWL classes] were the first classes that I could successfully run,” says Robin Slaw, director of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, Maryland. “Families were willing to send their kids to Our Whole Lives when they didn’t send them back for other classes yet, because it was so important.”
“This moment is really calling us to move into our bodies, where we’re storing so much of our grief right now.”
Adult UUs across the country joined Slaw in spring of 2022 for a virtual multi-congregation Parents and Caregivers as Sexuality Educators group. “The curriculum is designed as a small group ministry . . . parents have a chance to build trust with each other,” says Slaw. “The Supreme Court decision was handed down just prior to the session on abortion. This was now a dinnertime conversation.” Sharing community with each other and Slaw, participants explored the case’s justice implications. They gained support to talk with their children about one of the UUA’s key justice priorities—reproductive justice—and tools to communicate this faith-based commitment in age-appropriate ways.
Each of these religious educators’ stories continues a simple through line: UU churches do not need bells, whistles, and a multiplicity of programs to provide lifesaving faith formation and call congregations back into community. Instead, they can lean into the understanding adrienne maree brown articulates in her book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (AK Press, 2017): “Small is good, small is all.” As brown goes on to explain, “What we practice at the small scale sets the pattern for the whole system.”
Above all, says Deb Weiner, senior consultant for the Guild of Interim Religious Educators, congregations must meet people where they are. “I recently heard someone say that all their congregation seemed to get excited about was ice cream socials. My response is that, for this time, that is fine. Spaghetti suppers, game nights, outdoor grills, or camping trips for the [intergenerational] community—all those things are great if they meet the most present need that people have, to be together . . . people are lonely and yearning for what feels like normalcy, and we can provide it!”