LRE and a Vision for the Future

cropped-blog1.jpgDuring the discussion about staff re-visioning at April’s Board meeting, I was asked: If I knew 100% that I would be supported, and some of my time was freed up by volunteers taking on my regular, administrative duties, what would I do? What programs would I create? I don’t even think I allowed the question to be finished before I started rattling off my wish list: caregiver groups—caregivers of preschoolers, caregivers of teens, caregivers for the sandwich generation; one-on-one RE volunteers for our special-needs students; a comprehensive lifespan religious education (LRE) program; forums before or after service; film screenings; guest speakers; classes that take place at varying times, lengths, and formats; and service projects—lots and lots of all ages, hands-on service projects. I could go on and on.

This is a list I have been cultivating since I started, and like many to-do lists, it only seems to get longer. Please don’t misunderstand: I love our current programming and the volunteers and committees that make it all possible. I will never be able to express the depths of my gratitude for those who show up and give so we can have Welcome Home Wednesday sessions, RE classes on Sundays, and Family Fuun Nights. However, in my heart of hearts I know we are not at our best.

LRE aims to grow children, youth, and adults who Know they are lovable and worthy, able to flourish in their potential, and use their gifts in the service of life; Value the importance of asking questions and their own search for truth and meaning; Affirm that they are part of a Unitarian Universalist religious heritage and community of faith that has value and provides resources for living; Accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their community of faith; Realize that they are moral agents, capable of making a difference in the world, socially, environmentally, and politically; Recognize the need for community, families, and interpersonal connections; Appreciate the value of spiritual practice as a means of deepening faith and integrating beliefs and values with everyday life; Understand the need and tools for cultivating diverse and welcoming communities; and Experience hope, joy, mystery, and healing and personal transformation in the midst of life’s challenges.

These are worthy and beautiful goals. What has always struck me, though, is the fairly passive nature of the bolded words—accept, appreciate, understand. It leaves me wondering, in our changing world, is a passive LRE program what our community needs or wants? I think the answer is no, and I think most of you would agree.  To create that imagined world proposed at the Board meeting, I would want to add Engagement, Collaboration, and Leadership in our and the larger community; Support for living out their values; and Empowerment and Encouragement to act as agents of change for more peace, justice and love in the world.  The wonderful part of being Unitarian Universalists is that world does not have to be make-believe. The new facilities are a bright, shining example that if this congregation dreams it, it can be done. Maybe not overnight, and not without the time, talent, and treasure of the community, but it can be done.

In full disclosure, when the conversations about staff restructuring first started, it was hard not to take it as a commentary on the LRE program for the last two years and the job I had done. However, I soon realized that it was not a critique of what LRE is now, but rather an exploration of who we want to be and what we need to do to accomplish that.  I have been impressed and excited by the bold ideas and structures being explored. At a time when it would be much easier for leadership just to keep status quo in LRE, the hard work is being done to take advantage of the opportunity created by staff openings to really evaluate what we want and what we would need to make it happen. And I cannot imagine the LRE program described in my to-do list happening without this critical first step of answering the question: Now that we have the new building, who do we want to be?

Again, in full disclosure, I am sad, and maybe a little envious, that I will not be at the helm of the LRE program when this dream is brought to fruition. However, I am grateful to the Board and other members of leadership for taking on this important work, and I truly believe that the LRE program, and the congregation as a whole, will be better for doing so.

Yours in faith,


What are your God/god beliefs?

Do you believe in God (or god, gods, goddess)? One of our RE kids would like to know.

A few Sundays ago I was stopped by one of our RE kids wanting to know if I believed in God. You see he doesn’t, but all the kids in his class do. At any age, but especially at a time where much of life is still black and white, right vs. wrong, having beliefs different from your peer group can be incredibly isolating. Living in a relatively progressive and accepting city, like Iowa City, it can be easy to forget, but this is just one of the many reasons that being an all ages community is an important piece of our commitment to being a welcoming and diverse spiritual community.

In addition to the promise that UUSIC is place where it is safe to have his own beliefs about God, I would like to offer him some concrete proof that he is not alone. This congregation in the past has done God surveys, and I think it is time for another one. From the options below, please select the one(s) that most closely matches your personal beliefs.  Thank you for helping out, and for those that are curious, I’ll be sharing results in a future blog post.


survey apdatped from: and

Worshiping with All Ages

“In one church, when my toddler started asking questions, a woman behind me leaned forward and suggested I bring an iPad to entertain him during Mass. In another, we arrived before mass started and, being the only people there, allowed our toddler to roam around a little—at which point an usher approached us with a warning: if our son made noise during the service, we’d have to take him outside.”

This is an excerpt from Meredith Hale’s Washington Post article, “No church for the wild: Trying to find a place to worship with a toddler.” As most of you probably are, I was appalled by the treatment Hale’s family received as they “church shopped” for a place that would welcome them. After my initial disbelief, I started to wonder how families feel in our services. And what about the children and youth? As Hale aptly points out, “[c]hildren aren’t just there as their parents’ appendages. They are part of the community, learning … and entering onto their own spiritual paths. Isn’t it our jobs to guide them along that path, to introduce them into this community—not to exclude them because they’re small, or noisy, or have to go to the bathroom eight times in one Mass?” While I cannot imagine any of the above comments transpiring during a service at UUSIC, Hale’s experiences and comments can serve as a reminder to us all of our commitment to be a welcoming space for all ages.

So how can we make sure that we are creating a worship space that is welcoming to everyone, no matter their age?


  • You are welcome here! Worshiping together is as important as Religious Education classes in terms of your family’s spiritual journey. All Ages worship services are one of the few events where all groups in our congregation are together, participating and helping each other on that journey. I firmly believe it takes a village, and your family is an important part of our village!
  • Grab a few fidgets and activities. People of all ages can benefit from having something to put their restless energy into when sitting in service. During All Ages worship services, at the back of the worship hall you will find baskets filled with items— Legos, pipe cleaners, activity sheets—to help redirect energy that doesn’t have an immediate outlet.
  • Get up and move around. There is no expectation that anyone will sit still (or perfectly quiet) during any service, but if you are finding sitting down too restrictive for your active ones, please feel free to get up and walk around. There is plenty of space at the back of the worship area. Need more room to groove? The service is piped out to the lobby and kitchen areas.
  • Kids–Try playing follow the leader. I know sometimes services can feel like they are something just for the adults, and you can feel bored. We try to make sure that worship is for everyone, but you can help too. Try playing follow the leader—follow along with the hymns, participate in the responsive readings, ask questions about parts of the service or why we might be doing something. Having trouble following along? Ask for help. We want you to enjoy worship as much as we do.


  • We want you there too! Taking part in All Ages worship gives you an opportunity to practice your spirituality in a different way from the typical Sunday. All Ages worship services are among the few events where all groups in our congregation are together, participating and helping each other on that journey. I firmly believe it takes a village, and you are an important part of our village!
  • Welcome everyone. During service, greet kids and adults alike. Children want to know they are welcome just like any other visitor or member. If possible, try to get on their level. A six-foot tall adult towering over a four-foot tall kid can be very intimidating. This doesn’t stop after service is over ,either. During social hour, talk to the whole family.
  • Include everyone. Many services have parts where we ask all of our ages to interact. Whether it be questions, activities or discussion, during our weekly Story for All Ages, or an interactive segment during our All Ages worship, everyone wants to be included. So make sure you’re including the youth along with the adults. We have very thoughtful youth, and we can learn just as much from them as they can from us.
  • Help out. See a family struggling? With permission from the caregivers, help out. Maybe offer to sit with them; share your hymnal to help someone follow along; answer a question about why we are doing something; or help with the fidget activity. The family may not take you up on your offer, but I bet they will appreciate your thoughtfulness.
  • Smile! Sometimes all it takes to help people know they are welcome is a friendly smile, especially when that smile is one of solidarity and letting a family know that their wiggly and giggly ones are not a bother.
  • Get fidgets, moving and grooving! Please see the second and third bullets in the above section. These are strategies that can benefit people of all ages.

Our next all ages worship service is on Easter Sunday, March 27th. I hope to see all of you there! And remember, ALL are welcome and wanted at our church: the wild, the wiggly, the giggly, the peaceful, the serious, the young, the young at heart and all the in-betweens.

UU RE: A History of Innovators

In February, UUSIC honors our living tradition’s connection to the past by observing  UU history month. As you will see, our past is filled with activists, reformers, and heretics who challenged the conventional and changed the way we practice our faith. The history of UU Religious Education has mirrored that larger context in UU history and greatly changed the fundamental way Religious Education is presented today.

For example, in a time when children learned about God as a vengeful and angry parental figure whose role was to punish sinners, Judith Sargent Murray’s Universalist catechism was radical and revolutionary, not only because of her gender, but also because Murray’s catechism portrayed God as a loving and forgiving being. As this lesson from Tapestry of Faith’s Love Connects Us lifts up, when a child would make a mistake, imagine how a shift from the above to a loving, forgiving God who offered universal salvation would affect that child’s self-esteem and perceptions of self.

In our more recent history, probably the two of the best known innovators in UU Religious Education, Angus MacLean and Sophia Lyon Fahs, helped shape what we think of contemporary UU Religious Education. If you grew up UU, or just U, you have probably seen some of Fahs’s work—eg: From Long Ago and Many Lands—and many UU programs still utilize the Neighboring Faiths (now Building Bridges) curriculum based on Fahs’s The Church Across the Street. Even if you are not familiar with these works or MacLean’s The New Era in Religious Education, you can probably recognize MacLean and Fahs’s contributions in our Religious Education classes.

Both MacLean and Fahs were proponents of child-centered religious education. Prior to their work, children were viewed as empty vessels waiting to be filled with truths from their elders. However, Fahs and MacLean recognized that people, including children, learn best through their own experiences. For Fahs, children were more akin to gardens than empty vessels, and for MacLean, the methods in which Religious Education was taught was as, if not more, important than what was taught. So if you walk into a Religious Education class today you will hear questions, not answers; wonderings, not absolutes; and a focus on hands-on learning and exploring as a group, not from a teacher-down perspective.*

While I offer up only a few examples, this movement for transformation and renovation is rooted deep in our history and serves as a touchstone and guiding principle for the work of today’s religious educators. Even as I write this, there are several new programs for religious education being developed—flipped classrooms, workshop-rotation, theme based ministry, and full-faith week, just to name a few.

Our elementary grades will be joining this rich tradition with a pilot program starting this month. Based on a theme-based ministry model called Spirit Jam created by Katie Covey at the Boulder Valley UU, our K-5 groups will be meeting for a program called Adventures in UU Land. Each week the group will gather for a check-in and a centering activity or story based on a famous Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian Universalist. They will then break off into age-appropriate, small groups for a hands-on activity based on that week’s theme (e.g.: science or building), and then will come back together to share experiences and close. The hope is this program will help create cross-age friendships and community, best use our teachers and resources during the transition, allow UUSIC members and friends to share their passions with RE, and continue to utilize hands-on experiences to explore life’s big wonderings.

Going Deeper

To learn more about UU History and the innovators mentioned in this article, check out:

For Adults:
Long Strange Trip
Kindred Spirits*
Sophia Lyon Fahs, revolutionary educator
UUA’s History of UUism Web Pages
UU History Timeline

For Kids:
Sophia Fahs 
Judith Sargent Murray
Timeline by UU Association of Membership professionals

Look, It’s a Bird; It’s a Plane! No, It’s Super UU!

Superheroes are all the rage right now. A quick tour of the toy aisle or movie theater and you’ll probably find Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Cyborg, and many more. But where do the world’s superheroes go when they need help?

According to  the DC Comics’s website, the Justice League, made up of the superheroes mentioned above, comes together to combine their superpowers to take on villain(s) that are “too massive for any single hero.”

What if UUSIC had our own super group to help take on those problems too large for any one of us? Who would make up that group? What would their powers be? What tools would they have? Those are just the questions our very own Nathan Gall answered. It is my pleasure to introduce you to the newest UUSICers, our very own superhero group—the Social Justice League.

Comprised of heroes with powers based on the Seven Principles:

  • Inherent Worth and Dignity Person,
  • Equitizer,
  • Spiritual Gardener,
  • Trailblazer,
  • Witnessing Bystander,
  • Gatherer of Peace, and
  • Spider UU—who spins the interconnected web of all things.

Chalice Signal

When injustice rears its ugly head, the members of the UU Social Justice League are called by Commissioner Steven with the Chalice Signal to join their powers and take on those things too large for any single UU.

They might take on super villains the likes of Institutional Racism Man, The Ignorancer, Lady Prejudice, or The League of Oppression by using social justice tools like the megaphone of advocacy, the force field of education, or the voting box of accountability.

While it would be marvelous to have superheroes to take on those super villains we can feel powerless against, we don’t need them. It doesn’t take superhuman strength, lassos of truth, a utility belt with batarangs, or a power ring to take on the injustices of the world. To be your own Equitizer, Gatherer of Peace, or Spider UU, you just need to get involved. We have all of the tools for justice at our fingertips—witnessing, advocacy, education, accountability—and for those things too massive for any single UU, we have each other to help.

To get involved and to be one of UUSIC’s superheroes, check out our calendar for upcoming opportunities to be part of the Social Justice League.

Thank you to Nathan Gall for sharing his Social Justice League with us!

How Do You Celebrate?

. . . [A]t home many of us still struggle to find the right mix of family traditions for this time of year. Many UUs respect Christian traditions that celebrate the birth of Jesus but are personally uncomfortable with the idea that he was the Christ. Yet veering away from religious rituals throws them smack into the materialistic, secular approach to Christmas, and they don’t want to deify Santa Claus either.

This passage is from Meg Cox’s “‘Tis the season for your own family rituals,” a UU World article from the Winter 2005 edition. I came across it while researching ways to bring more depth to my family’s holiday traditions, and it struck a chord. As a religious educator, UU parent, and someone who will admit to loving most things Christmas- and winter-related, the question of how to navigate my family’s personal and theological beliefs and holiday traditions, while still honoring the meaning behind a holiday that is distinctly Christian but also rooted in ancient traditions (without landing solely in the materialistic and spiritually shallow), is a struggle every year. I have a feeling we are not alone. As Cox points out, “Celebrating multiple holidays this time of year, honoring many traditions while emphasizing our own principles is a very UU thing to do.” She goes on, though, “But doing it more consciously with a UU spin can help us deepen the season’s meaning and stop the feeling that we’re just nibbling this time of year—while others are sated from a full meal.”

So how do we get that full meal? Two steps—first, Cox suggests, lifting up the stories of Jesus and Christmas in a UU context. While we could spend the rest of the year debating validity and theology, with the violence, bombings, hostages and refugees crisis domestically and internationally, I doubt anyone would argue against the fact that the underlying messages of love, compassion, and helping those in need is exactly what we need this holiday season. Second, putting those messages and our UU Principles into actions. Cox’s article lists out some great generic examples (i.e. purchasing double of everything from your holiday meal to donate to a local food bank or family Secret Santas, “in which each family member draws a name from a hat and then does good deeds for that person anonymously”), but more specifically to current needs in both our local and global communities, check out the United Way of Johnson and Washington Counties’ Holiday Volunteer and Giving Guide, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s Refugee Response Guide, and social justice work happening right here at UUSIC.

No matter how you celebrate, as Maureen Killoran said in “Tis the Season“:

“this is the season
. . . for generosity of spirit
. . . for giving of the heart without counting cost
. . . for forgiving those who are not here or not here as we would need
. . . for gentleness with self and others
. . . for hope that love in presence or in memory will pay a healing call
. . . for conviction that the way YOU greet each dayspring is what
matters after all.
Blessings, and may this holiday season bring, for you and yours,
Joy and Peace.”



The School for Animals

There once was a school for animals, and unlike you and me, the animals did not study math or language arts or science, but rather, they took classes in flying, swimming, running, and climbing.

One of the students at this school was a duck, and as you can imagine, he did wonderfully at flying and swimming—top of his class. However, when it came to running, no matter how quickly he moved his little webbed feet, he always came in last.
So the school got Duck a tutor, and with a lot of work and a lot of time, he did manage to improve so that by the end of the year he was finishing races in the middle of the pack. Although with all the time Duck spent on running, he wasn’t able to swim and
fly (the things he really loved), and Duck wasn’t very happy. 

There was also a rabbit at this school, and as you can imagine, this rabbit was a great runner. She always finished first in races. However, when it came to swimming, no matter how hard she paddled, she was always at the bottom of the class. So just like
the duck, the school got her a swimming tutor. She practiced, practiced, and practiced. By the end of the year, she had improved her grade to a C and passed swimming class. Although with all her time spent on swimming, she wasn’t able to go out for runs with her friend tortoise anymore, and by the end of the year, Rabbit wasn’t very happy.
At this school, there was a also a frog. Frog did great in all her classes. She could hop her way up a tree quicker than any other of the animals. Once up in the tree, Frog could flatten her body and spring off the branch to glide through the air like the most
graceful bird. With only a few hops, Frog could beat out most of the animals in running class—even beating Rabbit some days. Finally, with a few kicks of her strong back legs, Frog could swim farther and faster then most of her classmates. For her good grades, she was made the valedictorian, and Frog was very happy.

I heard a version of this story at the Liberal Religious Educators Association’s Fall conference last month, and it is probably an adaptation from a story from the 1940s that George Reavis wrote when he was the Assistant Superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools. Generally in religious education, we use this story to express the need to create inclusive classes and welcome the diversity of ability and gifts of all our participants.

However, this moral should be applied further than honoring all children and youth in our RE classrooms, and it should include our RE volunteers as well. We have some people who are like Frog. They love teaching RE on Sundays. They love the discussions over big questions, telling stories, and crafts that involve glitter, paint and pipe cleaners. We also have some people who are like Duck and Rabbit. Maybe they don’t enjoy crafts and facilitating discussions, and asking them to take on that role would make them just as unhappy as Duck and Rabbit. This doesn’t mean that our school is not for them, though. Just as Duck was good at swimming and Rabbit was an excellent runner, maybe they have other talents to share with us.

So, what are we looking for? With RE teachers, we look for volunteers who want to spend time with our children and youth; who want to want to learn about the kids, learn about themselves, and learn more about UUism; and are able to make the time commitment to be prepared for and present during Sunday’s RE classes. RE teachers do not need a formal education background/experience or even need to be an expert storyteller or crafter. We can help with that.

However, if this isn’t you, that  is okay, that doesn’t mean you can’t help in other ways. We are always looking for people to help with plays, teach music, help organize RE supplies, plan special events, do special projects with the kids—just to name a few. So if you have some time, and you would like to help support RE, please let me know. Frogs, ducks and rabbits are always welcome.
Yours in faith, Jessica