It has been nearly a full year since I left my position as a religious educator. I think because I left quite publicly and with a loving leaving, over the past many months I've been the confidential confidant of more than half a dozen folks who were exploring leaving their positions as religious educators. A number of these fine folks were credentialed, long-term, dedicated folks who held leadership positions and loved, loved, loved what they did.
What happens? Why do we as a whole UU-beast have such a high rate of turn over for the folks who bring to life our ministry for children and youth? And what on earth can be done to change it?
Well--I don't really know. Maybe someone knows the whole answer and just selfishly sits on that answer, cackling with mirth because the rest of us are stumbling around trying to sort it all out. But my hunch is that it's a complicated answer.
I watched the VUU again today, and again felt like I was eavesdropping on a minster's meeting--this time about parenting and ministry. This balance of family (or self) and work is also very difficult for religious educators, and for me it was the reason I left. I don't regret it for a second--while I MISS the work, I am so desperately grateful I had this year of evenings and weekends to be present with my kids. TWO of them are moving away next year, making this year absolutely precious.
When compared with the challenges for ministers with families, religious educators have the added difficulty of two things: 1--doing work that has traditionally been "women's work" with the expectation of lower pay, more responsibilities and a smiling happy-to-have-the work expectation of attitude on the part of SOME congregations and 2--Very few congregations expect the minister to work every Sunday, but most expect the Religious Educator to do so. That's like turning the toaster oven on broil and walking away. Family time doesn't mix well into that burned up mess of pizza rolls and religious education.
I know there's a fuss about metrics and growth and mission and vision and leadership in the big picture UU stuff right now. I don't know what to do about that, either. But we could remember that these are people who do the work, and people who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. And we could remember that our professional ministers are not the only leaders in the game--I tell you the secret, ugly truth--people will stay through mediocre sermons for great religious education for their kids, but they will not stay for great sermons if the programming for their children is sub-standard. (Again, not the situation at the church I worked for-I saw at least three standing ovations for sermons from that minister over the years.) There's more to look at here.
For the regular Jo in the regular church dealing not with huge metrics and consultants, but with the daily stuff of running a church, maybe for that Jo I do have a little advice. It's not all brand new, but it all still applies. Start here: Proper Care and Feeding of Your Religious Educator, then go here to Part 2 and then to Part 3. I should write one called "after the letter of resignation" because that's a tough one, too. But this is a place to start. Don't be one of the churches who says "gee, we thought everything was going well" it may very well be your religious educator that I've been chatting with since January. The resignation letter may be half composed in the computer.
Go see if you can make it better. Search committees are hard to fill, and good religious educators are hard to find. Pay a living wage, give time off, support professional development. And hey all you big-wigs, remember that ministers and metrics and end statements are not the only reason churches and institutions thrive or fail. Start with people, end with people and take care of the people in between. It's not the big answer, but it's a place to start.