Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Care and Feeding of Your Religious Educator Part 3

When I became a Religious Educator in June of 2005 I made a vow to my husband and family. I said "five years, I'll stay five years and then move on" a vow I've clearly broken. Five years was branded into my heart and soul because as a congregant I had seen a number of religious educators be eaten alive at five years into the work. 

I thought it was a universal. If you stayed long enough to really have a rhythm and a groove, the congregation would decide that you were the root of whatever was going wrong in the church and send  you packing. 

But I haven't been eaten alive. I haven't even had any bites taken--maybe a nibble or two over the years, but hey...I'm nibble proof. 

Why? Why does it work for some folks? What happened for me that allows me to put nails in the wall of our office to hang pictures? What let's me add expensive and really long term study "work" books to my library. What makes a professional religious educator able to stay past five years?

1. I was treated as a professional and a colleague from the minute I was offered the job. The minister welcomed me, the president at the time who is also our chaplain welcomed me. The chair of the RE committee welcomed me. I was a clueless newbie, but they gave me a grace period, a good professional budget and for that first year pretty much anything I asked for in the program. There was no "prove yourself" period. It was easy to grow into the professional role with the door held open. 

2. The congregation supported my professional development from the first minute I held the job. I attended the 2005 Fort Worth GA ten days after I started. I went to LREDA Professional day, I spent hours and hours in the exhibit hall learning all I could about curriculum (that's where I first met Jeff Liebmann of uujeff's muse kennel and pizzatorium--he made fun of me for being a curriculum geek!) and I opened my planner to anyone who would look at it with me to help puzzle out the next curriculum year. It was like a crash course in new DRE start up. I could never have gone without rock solid support of the leadership of the congregation. 

3. I had great support when parents or others would push back on something. I had a vision and a goal for our program and the way things had always been done had nothing to do with what we were doing. 

4. Conflict and conflict and more conflict. I love the people I work with, but there isn't a fear of saying "hey, I think you've got it wrong" or "Hey get the heck OFF my toes!" it is not always easy and is never pleasant, but it is clean and honest and much, much better in the long run. 

5. I had colleagues from the start. The advantage I had coming in was time served on an RE Committee and on a Steering Committee (the old-style board) so I'd heard about LREDA from a couple of religious educators, and I knew where to go and what to look for. I've heard of ministers who tell the religious educator they hire to avoid LREDA. That's unforgivable. Much of the learning of how to do this work is in a kind of ad hoc apprenticeship style. Even today I can say anything to a couple of my buddies and they just listen, no judgement, no argument--just support. 

6. From day one I also had a great RE chair. The fact that we now share an office and one full time position tells the whole story--she was committed and hard working as the chair and is both as a colleague now. I hear about congregations forgoing the RE Chair and committee in favor of working groups, but nothing can replace a member who has accepted the leadership on the congregation's side. This is a primary role--maybe nominating committees should consider recruiting the RE chair as a part of their work. 

5. As my professional experience grew, my congregation supported my work at a district and continental level. There was no hesitation that I should serve on boards, or as a consultant. Even weekends away to do the work were happily covered. The RE chair said "we're not very big, we can't give huge sums of money to the movement, but we can give them you for a while." While this fed me and exhausted me, it affirmed their view of me as a resource beyond our doors.

4. I've had an ongoing freedom to do the work as needed, with a powerful trust that: I'll work my hours, the work will get done and that I won't over work my hours. Yeah, trusting me to not overwork was a bust, but I'm trying. But I've been able to work from home, bring my homeschooled kids to work, work from the road--whatever. I've heard about congregations requiring their religious educators to work all their hours in the office. Oh please! If I had to do the quiet, spiritually challenging work in the office I'd go nuts! And how do you shop for a boat load of craft and classroom supplies at the office?? Yes, get volunteers to do that, yadayada, but sometimes you have to work from someplace other than the office. 

3. Everyone involved in a crazy organization like a church needs to be able to laugh, at themselves, repeatedly. Well, one or two can opt out, but everyone else has to be all in. You've gotta have a sense of humor. 

2.  Hard, hard, workers surrounding you make everything easier. At my job I'm surrounded by people who know how to really work. It rocks. 

1. I have had forgiveness gracefully extended to me over and over. This group of people trotting along with me on this journey have forgiven forgotten meetings, messed up plans, crazy ideas that turned out to just be crazy ideas and many other of my human foibles. They still pay me and they still bring me chocolate and even sometimes gift cards for the local coffee shop. 

It's not easy, but it is simple and straightfoward. Pay people a living wage, be respectful, provide the tools to get the job done and as boards/leaders and ministers educate yourselves about what is reasonable to expect from a professional religious educator. 


Kari said...

One more. A vision. You have to have a guiding vision or mission--something you hang your hat on when people yell at you so you don't give up.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for all these posts! They are wonderful and I have been sharing them with others.

I too am blessed with a congregation that really gets the "professional" part!

Margaret Sequeira
Director, Lifespan Faith Development
Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists

Steve Caldwell said...

Kari wrote:
"I've heard of ministers who tell the religious educator they hire to avoid LREDA. That's unforgivable."


I would say that it's also unprofessional for a minister to do that.

Masasa said...

Great list. And wow, I'm with Steve about the unprofessional thing regarding the "avoid LREDA" sentiment.

I can't stress how important having mentors has been to me, personally.

For me personally, senior leadership (in my early years of this work, when I tended to get this more) openly sharing their admiration and respect for my work has made a huge difference in my ability to "hang in there" when the going got rough. I am not praise-hungry, but just saying that giving credit where credit is due can really help a person keep their head up when things aren't so easy. It's really hard when you don't have that.

(I'd also say that I have been at my best as a religious educator when I've given the congregation lots and lots of credit...realizing my own leadership role in that same regard most fully.)