The UU World article "Obama's Religious Roots" contains references to his mother attending a Unitarian congregation as a young person, and his own brief experience with a Unitarian Universalist congregation during his childhood. There is a detailed accounting of contact and interaction with the two congregations; his mother with Eastshore Unitarian and his own with the Honolulu congregation, including an account of Mr. Obama searching for the restroom at his grandmother's memorial service. Much more interesting is the exploration of why children who grow up in the liberal faith, or have familiarity with the faith through Sunday morning visits or family connection choose not to associate with Unitarian Universalists as adults. The author, Thandeka, deftly explores the emotional void often left for people who are raised asUnitarian Universalists; there is an emphasis on intellectual development and connection, yet the emotional and very human connection needed to overcome resistance to religion is not addressed.
Missing from this exploration about why children raised UU don't stay UU is an understanding of how programs for children, youth and families are crafted. Also missing is the voice of the people who craft those programs. In many congregations most of the leadership, lay and ministerial, has very little to do with the programming for children, youth and families. As resources outside of Boston shift, and districts come together as regions to support the work of congregations, some are choosing not to support programming for children and families with any staff at all. So often, the work of creating this lasting bond for children and faith falls to congregation-based religious educators.
Religious educators are hard working professionals who come to the work from many different disciplines. A few have educational backgrounds which have prepared them to work in systems or religion, but many rely on an on-the-job training, leaping in to the very deep end of church systems, pastoral care, curriculum development and volunteer management. The Religious Education Credentialing program offers one path for professional development; some religious educators enter seminary to expand their knowledge. These are the fine people usually entrusted to connect children with an identity as Unitarian Universalists. But find the religious educator in the local congregation and you're likely to find an absolute whirl wind of activity, even a line queued up waiting to speak to this person during a coffee hour following services.
The religious educators in many congregations are barely keeping their heads above water, the culture of over-functioning in some regions leads to short tenures and frequent turn-overs, leaving congregations without stable and consistent programming for children, youth and families. It is also true that the majority of people serving congregations as religious educators are women, leading to the question: is there gender bias in the field as a whole? This is neither a post-racial nor a post-feminist time in history. Is it, perhaps, part of the reason that children grow up and leave Unitarian Universalist churches in great numbers, that the staff people charged with developing the programs meant to engage them fully are stretched too far, their time too thin, the expectations of congregations unrealistic.
Why did Barack Obama attend a Unitarian Universalist church as a child but settle in a United Church of Christ congregation as an adult? Why do many children follow the same path, or follow no path at all? There are many reasons, many influences, but if the question is to be asked, it should be asked of those who are the closest to the question. The religious educators.