Threshold Conversations: Leveraging Tech for Modern Paths Toward Spiritual Growth

Threshold Conversations: Leveraging Tech for Modern Paths Toward Spiritual Growth

The collaborative project aims to foster deep, creative thinking about the future of Unitarian Universalist faith formation.

Kat McKim
A small group of people sitting indoors at a coffee shop and talking to each other.
Brooke Cagle/Unsplash


It could be tempting to boil the work of religious education down to a set of quotidian tasks: adapt a lesson, plan an activity, prepare for a discussion. But there is equally important work that won’t be found on any task list, such as the work of contemplation, reimagining, and deep relational conversations about the future of religious education.

Threshold Conversations is a new project headed by religious educators from several institutions—including the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Liberal Religious Educators Association, and Starr King School for the Ministry—that seeks to make space for exactly that work.

Threshold Conversations aims to build on the work of two earlier compilations that explored the future of religious education: Essex Conversations: Visions for Lifespan Religious Education, published in 2001, and The Stonehouse Conversations, published in 1979.

But this project has a decidedly modern approach that takes advantage of technological advancements—with panel discussions and conversations on Zoom, social media engagement, analysis, and podcast episodes.

That, leaders said, will allow the project to be shaped by a broad group of participants and ideas—a crucial step in a time when the COVID-19 pandemic and other realities have shifted the dynamics of religious education.

"Every so often, perhaps once in a generation, the pieces on the board of our denomination—the needs of our faith, the challenges of our faith—have moved substantially," said Joy Berry, one of the project leaders and the children and families faith development specialist in the UUA’s Office of Lifespan Faith Engagement. "And we need to reconvene and regather ourselves to make sure we are getting all of the voices at the table."

Threshold Conversations Program Meets UUs Where They Are

Rev. Dr. Gregory C. Carrow-Boyd, minister and director of religious education at First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, Hawai‘i, was one of the panelists at this first conversation.

"It was really exciting to hear how big my colleagues and I are dreaming, both separately and together," he said. "There were things that I wasn’t dreaming about that they brought out. And now I’m passionate about that, too—that thing I wasn’t even thinking about."

The conversation also gave panelists and participants the opportunity to thoughtfully reflect on their congregations’ practices around Coming of Age.

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"It’s important to look at what we are holding space for in our congregations and to be intentional about why [we are] doing this," said the Rev. Meagan Henry, panelist and assistant minister of religious education and pastoral care at First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, New York. "Have we always done this in a pretty great way, and it’s something we want to keep? Or do we want to try something different? Thinking deeply about these things is what I think Threshold Conversations are good for."

Project organizers plan to host six conversations, each on a different topic related to religious education. There will also be an expansive space for more engagement following each conversation, which may take the form of essays, blog pieces, videos, or interviews.

Each conversation will be accompanied by an episode of the "JUUst Breathe Live" podcast, and the series of conversations will likely culminate in a printed book as well as a virtual library of the various multimedia pieces collected over the course of the project.

The focus, however, is not so much on these precise outputs. Rather, Threshold Conversations seeks to "lift up voices from the margins," Berry said.

"We want to gather all of the ideas that we’re building upon and our gratitude for those who set the frame," she said. "But we also recognize that we are called by them to go further and to meet the moment where we are, which is focused on relational conversations. We now have so much more capacity to have them with so many more people."

How Threshold Conversations Fosters Inclusivity and Uses Technology

Part of that capacity for wider conversation comes from the technological advances of the past few years. Zoom discussions, asynchronous videos, and social media conversations can reach a far wider audience than the group that convened for Essex Conversations over twenty years ago.

But Berry and her teammates have also been intentional about fostering inclusiveness on several levels.

First, they are actively reaching out to and engaging with collaborators and panelists from a wide variety of lived experiences. They are also thinking about how they can lift up youth voices and the voices of religious educators who are working in their roles part-time and who may not have substantial funding for professional development.

“Learning how to be in congregational covenant, learning how to talk about antiracism—that’s all-faith development.”

"Learning how to be in congregational covenant, learning how to talk about antiracism—that’s all-faith development," Berry said. "So, we are seeking to . . . pull in our colleagues and minister and other professional groups to say, 'We can all carry part of this load.'"

To do this effectively, Berry underscores that faith development must be at the center of a congregation, not in a silo.

"We are acknowledging that this work requires more than just religious educators," she said. "Whatever we can accomplish with our religious education colleagues, we can amplify that exponentially if we’re able to entice [others] to join us and bring their input, challenges, and perspectives."