As renowned Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies famously said, “Life is just a chance to grow a soul.” The ministry of religious education and spiritual formation within a congregation should have the growing of souls, young and old, as its mission. All members of a religious community, regardless of age or level of experience in the congregation, should be active learners, because the process of faith development is the work of a lifetime.
Our Unitarian Universalist heritage teaches us that our lives are the primary texts from which we must learn. The praxis (process) educational model of “action and reflection,” championed by Paulo Freire, is central to my understanding of religious education. We shape who we are by reflecting on our deepest beliefs (theology), acting on our beliefs (ethics), and then examining our actions (prayerful reflection) to see if they align with our professed beliefs. This constant process of action and reflection in the world informs our thinking, guides our actions, and shapes our character.
Religious education is usually understood as the Sunday morning church programming that we provide children; however, I take a much broader view of religious education. To be sure, classroom programming is an essential part of the congregation’s religious education effort, but in the larger sense everything we do – children and adults – in church and in the world is part of our religious education. Whether in a committee meeting, a pastoral counseling session, the Sunday worship, or a service trip to another country, every part of congregational life can be an opportunity for personal religious education and spiritual development. All of life is an educational opportunity and I approach the church in that fashion. Religious education occurs wherever people of faith gather to talk, work, and be together.
My goal for all Unitarian Universalists is that they understand our own religious heritage, appreciate and respect other faith traditions, be morally sound and spiritually mature, and be able to summarize the core of our shared faith in a clear, concise, and compelling “elevator speech” that explains in positive terms what Unitarian Universalists believe. This should be our goal for all members of the community, regardless of their age.
As an active lay person, I taught children’s religious education classes. As a minister, I have mentored youths, taught “coming of age” classes for teens, led adult religious education classes, taught from the pulpit, and helped create the comprehensive Pathway of Spiritual Maturity program for adult faith development at Main Line Unitarian Church. Teaching and learning are important aspects of religious education, but faith development is about more than knowledge . . . it is about wisdom. I have learned that religious education is about formation and information. Some knowledge must be shared as information, but the real work of spiritual maturity – at all stages of life – is character formation . . . and sometimes reformation.
I consider my own religious education and faith development to be a work in progress, and one of the things that I most enjoy about parish ministry is teaching and learning.