I wrote earlier this fall about keeping your Religious Educator happy and content in their work at a congregation. With a recent rash of resignations/trauma among completely unnamed colleagues, let’s take this a little deeper.
A congregation simply must provide for the continuing education of their religious professionals. Your bookkeeper needs to go to training on the updates for the system they use to manage the books (can you say CHURCH WINDOWS??) the minister needs to buy books and go to professional events to find renewal and your religious educator needs to have classes, training and collegial time to be able to come back and be the best professional that they can be.
Not just time off for good behavior. Not just time off “if you can cover the things you normally do on Sunday that the congregation needs” but regular reliable and committed time away. LREDA guidelines say that religious educators need to have four weeks of paid vacation as well as the option to take ONE SUNDAY PER MONTH OFF! What? You say. One Sunday a month OFF? But that’s when everything happens, that’s when we NEED our professional to be on site.
OK, yes, I understand that. But it’s not true. A religious education committee needs to know what that religious educator does every Sunday, and they need to be able to step in and DO it. It provides them ownership and a deeper understanding of what happens each week. The religious educator needs time with their own family or in solitude that is contiguous and relaxed to be able to recharge. If we didn’t earn half the salary of a city bus driver, maybe working every Sunday except the ones for vacation would make sense. Don’t get me wrong, we love our work, we love Sundays, but there is a good and time tested reason that LREDA guidelines demand one Sunday a month off. Put it in the contract, support it, and explain it to the board and whoever fusses about it. Stand behind it.
The work we religious educators do doesn’t end. We have “days off” but the next children’s chapel or the holiday play or a working list of who can teach next fall is always churning in our hearts and minds. We get important calls from families on our “day off” and of course we take the call because we love the families of the congregation and we are the best ones to help them when things are hard. We work more hours than you pay us to work, we answer email on vacation and we take family time to run to the book store late on Saturday night to pick up the book that someone forgot to get for the children’s message for worship in the morning.
So write a sabbatical into your religious educator’s contract. Yes it’s scary and hard, yes you will miss that professional presence, but it’s the right thing to do. We Unitarian Universalists buy fair trade coffee and vegan Birkenstocks, we march for human rights and a fair wage for workers elsewhere, but sometimes we treat our own employees in ways that are not fair or just or right. It is easy to overlook our lay employees—after all they aren’t ordained clergy. But some of the expectations of congregations I’ve been hearing about are absolutely disgusting. So write it in to the contract. A month per year served is the common measure. Can’t start there? At least write something in, start somewhere.
Reach out to Good Officers, either from the UUMA, UUMN or LREDA if there are troubles that are brewing. Bring in your district services, and believe them when they say to call BEFORE things get bad, before you have a problem. This is what keeps us healthy. Marriage counseling, grief counseling, are commonly accepted places to turn to prevent problems, think of your congregation in the same way. Yes a consultant from Alban Institute is expensive, but what are the hidden costs of NOT doing it?
Save the money you’d spend on a search committee
Turn over for religious educators is extremely high. Why wouldn’t it be? The work is demanding and rigorous. The hours are often simply awful. The complaints are voluminous—we are the reason classrooms are hot, after all. And we sometimes get asked to clean out the fridge in the kitchen and to handle pastoral calls because the minister is out in almost the same breath. But we do the work (but not the fridge!) because it is fulfilling and extremely important.
For all its pitfalls it’s the most rewarding job that most of us have ever had or will ever have. But if you don’t follow LREDA guidelines or you ask simply too much of the human you’ve contracted with to be your Religious Educator, they will leave. Gone. Poof. Seems like a whole lot of people are leaving as of December 31st. Those congregations will now be “in search”. That means a committee, if you’re like lovely Emerson in Houston it means a lot of money on mailers sent out to recruit just the right person.
If you’re large enough it probably means you'll have to find an interim religious educator and offer a moving package. It means a lot of trauma for the children and families. And while they may not be your big pledgers or volunteers right now, give it a decade, they will be. And they’ll remember. Or they’ll leave and never have a chance to be the big spenders. Consider other program staff time and adjustment. Consider the likely chance that you will not just be able to pluck someone from the congregation to “run the kids program” and do it as well as a professional religious educator with ties to the community and deep connections. There is a cost to not being a good employer. And it’s not all monetary. It’s a soul cost.
Say thank you. Say I’m sorry, I was wrong. Say we appreciate you.
But only if you really mean it.
So I guess the moral of the story is (if we were in person I’d point the microphone at you) live your Unitarian Universalist values. Treat people well, trust them and do what you should do.
There ya go! Oh, and some chocolate that appears on our desk every now and again, not a problem, not at all!
(edit 12-2 8am--links) note--this blog is in reaction to the loss of some good people to this good work we do, my congregation is of course, not the home of this unjust treatment.