Thursday, May 9, 2013

Part Four: Proper Care and Feeding of Your Religious Educator

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm getting ready to let my congregation know that I expect at least one Sunday off a month moving forward, because as an avg 15hr/week DRE I'm expected to be at church every Sunday but the half time minister only preaches twice a week. I do just as much administrative work and have grown the RE program by 7 in a year.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post and I absolutely agree with you. However, I have had the unfortunate experience over the past several years of meeting DREs who have a very high theology of professionalism and frankly mediocre-to-poor professional performance. To hear someone quote all the wonderful philosophy of LREDA and then underperform, cause problems for the lay leaders and minister, and generally not have a clue that their skills and their self-regard don't match is painful. Not any more painful than for a minister, but there are way more ministers out there than qualified DREs and the blow is particularly hard on congregations that really want to support religious educators.
Anyone who has been hired to be a DRE at 15 hours a week and honestly thinks that they should have one Sunday out a month is not connected to church reality. I get how hard it is to commit to working every Sunday, but that's the job. You're essentially counted on to work at least that ONE day a week (a minister is on call 7 days a week - it's a totally different set of expectations + not productive to compare the two positions). By all means ask for more hours or vacation time, but don't expect congregations that have hired you for that ONE day to want to grant 1/4 of them off. It makes no sense to the institution. And don't shoot the messenger, please. I'm just stating the obvious. Volunteers are not likely to want to do the job of a paid staff person -- some might, but I think that would be an unusual situation.

Kari said...

In response to the second anonymous comment, I'll say it takes at least 13 hours every week to simply run the program. I wonder if what you're talking about is a paid child care provider or a paid teacher who would be expected to be there each Sunday to work with children, except for perhaps vacations. Our primary work as professional religious educators is not on Sundays, as the "face" of the program, our primary work is in the management of volunteers, curriculum, policy, vision, administrative tasks and procuring supplies. The Sunday morning piece is not the core of our work. If we are trying to manage the whole Sunday morning, we are doing a disservice to the congregation because even in the smallest of congregations, it is absolutely impossible. The option of one Sunday per month away from the sanctuary is the very real reality for almost all successful long term religious educators who help grow vital programs and bigger churches. I appreciate the comment and the joining of the conversation, but I do not think that I am out of touch with this issue. I'd like to help congregations stop burning out their staff so that they can focus on growing together instead of replacing crispy professionals.