We are in a liminal space right now: there is uncertainty about what is ahead, but it is also a threshold to a new place. Thinking about planning for First Day programs this fall, I wonder what new possibilities are emerging during this de-stabilized time? In March, there was a crisis response and many meetings pivoted into online spaces; now the shift is to the new normal. Friends are thinking about how and when to return to meeting houses and what the implications are for children and young people gathering with the meeting. Some questions we might consider in this moment of community planning:
- What are we on the verge of discovering or accomplishing?
- What seemed important before that’s not important now?
- What was undervalued before — and is not now?
- Where is the abundance in this time? Where is the scarcity now?
- What is our greatest asset now?
- What relationships do we need to build or strengthen?
- What long-term changes in the bigger picture would we like to be part of bringing to fruition?
I’m holding these questions and wondering how in our vision and planning for the coming year we might consider shifts and changes that speak to new possibilities in how we approach youth religious education that sustains families, young people, and communities of Friends. Three images emerge: a tether, a seesaw, and concentric circles.
I. Staying TETHERED to children and families in the meeting
How can we center connection to families in our planning? It feels important to name the loss and mourning that accompany the fact that children may not always be in person for programs at our meetings for the coming year. This is hard for families, and also for people involved in children and youth ministry. There is trauma in separation; as humans we need connection, routine, and normalcy, along with flexibility. What is the role of the meeting? It is a paradox that young people are “Zoomed out,” especially older kids, but are also seeking spiritual comfort.
Some meetings pivoted to online programs, and others have reached out through mail, phone calls, and care packages to stay connected to families. My meeting has been online since mid-March, hosting Children’s Meeting and Young People’s Group (middle school) during the half hour before worship. It’s also been wonderful to be joined by families from other meetings who are not offering online programs but share the invitation to ours. Some of what we’ve been trying:
- A weekly email on Thursday shares what’s happening on Sunday with Zoom links and options for home as well as joining online (tethered as a community, either way). The email often includes PDFs of coloring sheets connected to that Sunday’s topic, to support children in worship after our program.
- Lessons for At Home & Online Together on the PYM website
- Sending care packages and projects for home — a note (“we miss you!”), pipe cleaners, crayons, items to support online activities, seeds to plant, a copy of “Flat Fox and Fell” (think: Flat Stanley) ready to use at home. One package included blank pieces of a puzzle to color/decorate and a hopeful promise that when we return to the meetinghouse and can be together again we will put it together (and frame and hang it).
Being together online in the time before worship supports all-ages worship —children stay on with families; we encourage being prepared to support children. The explicit message to families is one of invitation: “Families are encouraged to attend the children’s online program and then stay for worship from your own home — children can settle in with you for waiting worship, and you can have books, coloring, snacks ready. Because we use “mute” online unless sharing vocal ministry, you can do what works best for your family and be in community at the same time.”
II. Program Planning with a SEESAW model
One plan to begin this fall is with listening and paying attention to the needs of families. A simple survey about interests and comfort with program models (in person, online, hybrid) may reveal whether returning to in-person programming feels right to parents at this time.
- The seesaw might have online program at one end and in-person program at the other: the balancing point is your WHY. What is at the center, and will hold, no matter how we’re executing our plans? Why do we offer children’s programming in our meeting? What is the purpose of this time? Community building and fellowship? Developing Quaker faith, practice, and identity with young people? Exploring spirituality? If there is a need to plan fluidity between gathering and online options — what connects the two and grounds your program?
- There are curricula and resources to support a “seesaw” approach: Use children’s books that also have YouTube videos of them being read, so that they are accessible for families at home who do not participate online. Illustrated Ministry has coloring pages and multigenerational projects, and their materials include excellent tools and tips for working online and connecting with people across virtual spaces. They frequently offer samples that are free inspiration!
- Identify the in-person guidelines for safety. These may vary by state; there are guides to borrow from and comfort in knowing others are thinking this through. Things to think about:
– Do we continue Zoom meetings for children but arrange another time to meet in person outdoors? Where is there a space big enough for socially distanced activities?
– If we meet in person, what CDC guidelines for gathering with children will we follow?
– Can we offer blended programming — a hybrid of online and in-person?
– How can a blended program also offer support to families choosing not to participate online?
– If you use Godly Play or Faith & Play Stories, the Godly Play Foundation has created guidelines for cleaning and use of materials in classrooms.
- Continue to listen and adapt — we’ll be adapting all year long; phased re-opening might start and stop.
III. Expanding CIRCLES of Spiritual Community
It’s time to recognize that the “school” model of religious formation/education has not been serving us that well in recent years. Friends meetings in the US are generally gathering fewer families and children with this Sunday-morning, “First Day School” model, and young people often drift away in teens.
Is there an opportunity in the threshold of this destabilized moment to step into a different kind of model for spiritual formation? What new circles can we meet/learn/worship in together?
Shifts to consider in planning at this time:
- age-based groups —> families; multigenerational
- instruction —> practice; experiential learning
- one hour/Sunday —> new times/online and at home
Perhaps with these shifts in mind, in our local meetings we can “mix up” programming options during the month, recognizing the family at home as the common thread through these experiences, building outward together:
The circle of young people is a spiritual community:
Some Sundays a month the meeting offers religious education programming for children/youth. This might be a combination of things to do at home during the week, meeting online to share or have an experience together, possibly a hybrid of these two, or gathering in person as able.
- The emphasis is on what works for families and flexibility with sharing resources and content. We want to plan to stay tethered so that on the other side of this time apart, we have stayed connected as a community. Rather than a family feeling like, “well, we aren’t going to do Zoom and so we can’t be part of the children’s program,” what can we share for parents to provide and discuss at home? In this time, we can develop new ways to partner with parents, empowering them to nurture faith in their families. Research demonstrates that parents are the biggest influencers when it comes to spirituality in young people — even teenagers.
- Fewer weeks to plan allows adults on a youth religious education committee to “pair up,” collaborate, and support one another planning and facilitating the two weeks of the month.
- Meetings might also explore connecting the adult and youth religious education programs with intersecting themes and topics, so that faith formation can connect at home as well as at meeting. If adults and children are immersed in the same or similar topics, it widens the circle of spiritual community and experience. Adult RE program planners might partner with the youth religious education committee to collaborate.
The meeting is a wider circle of multigenerational spiritual community that children and families are part of:
What if one Sunday a month meetings planned for all-ages worship? While all meetings for worship are for all ages, a planned all-ages or “community meeting” is semi-programmed to support and include those who find an hour of waiting worship more challenging.
- Children and adults have different needs and comforts in worship that need attending to, and these differ in person and online. If the latter is our reality for the coming months, what encouragement can we give families? Zoom and the “mute” feature may help families online feel more comfortable with children in worship. But a commitment to experimenting with monthly all-ages worship goes beyond noise control!
- Studies show that children who worship with the body have an “experiential – anchor” that connects them to their faith and the community. Worship is central to our experiential faith — how can we make that more accessible to children?
- Direct invitation to join!
- Schedule children’s program in the half hour before worship so that one flows into the next.
- Share coloring pages or other supports for children that connect to their morning program.
- Encourage parents to prepare the space for family worship with coloring, books, a snack, quiet toys. Simple “spiritual care packages” can be sent or dropped off to families.
- Reassure parents that it’s OK for younger children to move in and out of the space — the container has been made, and they know they are welcome and part of what’s happening. Wiggles allowed!
- The hope, of course, is that when we are “together again” we will want to stay “all together” for worship with some routine frequency, because the circle widened during our time apart.
The circle grows when we gather with our YM community:
One Sunday a month this fall, the Yearly Meeting will offer an online “Giant Children’s Meeting” where all are welcome.
- One hope is to support for smaller meetings and their children’s programs, giving people a break from planning and leading.
- The other hope is to build community across the YM, and grow our sense of denominational connection. PYM Youth Programs are a vital circle of community for older youth; this creates a space for younger Friends to begin to see themselves as part of a wider fellowship.
- The series of once a month thematic programs will be 45 minutes in length and offered September to December. Because local meetings have worship at different times, “Giant Children’s Meeting” will be offered at a time other than Sunday morning.
Watch for more information in September!
Melinda Wenner Bradley, Youth Religious Life Coordinator, firstname.lastname@example.org
*With thanks to Building Faith/Virginia Theological Seminary’s online “Faithful Planning” webinar (July 2020) and Tim Wright, “Sunday Schooling Our Kids Out of Church” (2015)