Religious education has been an interest of mine ever since I taught First-day school for high schoolers at Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Mass.) in the 1980s. I also served as the youth and education secretary for New England Yearly Meeting for 17 years, working with First-day school teachers within the yearly meeting and guiding the high school Young Friends group. Even in the ten or so years since I’ve left that position, much about Sunday morning has changed.
One observation I’ve had and heard from others is that the traditional First-day school model is often not working very well. Some trends have intensified in recent years: we face sporadic attendance (for reasons often beyond control), heavy scheduling for other activities, a need for downtime, and difficulty calling forth long-term commitment. In the midst of these shared struggles, religious educators with energy around this topic began to organize into a grassroots network of Friends called the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative (QREC). The group had its first meeting in August 2014, with 33 Friends gathering at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pa., “to envision the future of religious education among Friends.”
When I heard QREC would be having a three-day conference this past August, I knew I wanted to go. It would be a chance to see and share with old friends from the days when I was on Friends General Conference’s Religious Education Committee (which no longer exists in that form) and perhaps share about the work I do now in my monthly meeting planning and nurturing family worship experiences. I signed up with the hope I’d return to my meeting with ideas and inspiration for our religious education program.
The conference, held again at Pendle Hill, drew 38 religious educators from 31 monthly meetings across different branches of Friends. Participants were encouraged to look at religious education in a new light and broader context: think children and parents together, inclusion of those who are in non-traditional families, and encouragement of gifts from non-traditional teachers. We also discussed how to integrate religious education with outreach, for in many cases, it is outreach to those who are seeking an experience of the Spirit and a nurturing community for their family. This is an important connection, especially for small meetings.
During the conference small groups focused on a variety of topics: Quaker parenting, intergenerational experiences, child safety (which generated a working group), and nurturing children’s spirituality in community. Workshops convened about using Activity Pages and Sparkling Still from FGC’s First-day School Toolkit; attention to bias and “isms” in teaching and learning; a working party to further revise Quakerism 101 curricula for adults; a technique for involving children in unprogrammed worship using guided imagery (“Bright Silent Worship with Young Friends”); and involving and nurturing children in meeting life beyond First-day school.
There were so many gifts along the way, a generous sharing so that all were learners and teachers. For example, a coming-of-age curriculum (“Quaker Affirmations”) presented by participant Beth Henricks of Indianapolis First Friends in Western Yearly Meeting drew lots of interest as meetings seek to involve their junior high and high school students in meaningful activity. Shawn Leonard of Crossroads Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting (and their clerk of Christian Education and Discipleship) shared about the incentive matching grants that the yearly meeting is giving for Christian education projects at the monthly meeting level, a program that has generated diverse activities and provided some needed infrastructure. Emma Condori from Bella Vista Friends Church in Iglesia Evangélica Misión Boliviana de Santidad Amigos Yearly Meeting (Bolivia) gave us her perspective on some of our shared issues, like the need to hear from the children and young people directly and the importance of educating about climate change and earthcare.
Emma also shares an enthusiasm about spreading the use of a Quakerism resource called Faith & Play, which has been translated into Spanish as “Jugar llenos de fe,” and is being distributed in Latin America. Faith & Play, a joint project of FGC and a working group of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, is modeled on Godly Play, a Montessori-inspired teaching method for biblical content founded by educator and reverend Jerome Berryman. The approach can be used in intergenerational sessions as well. One evening at the conference we had a Margaret Fell birthday celebration, which included a Faith & Play session about Margaret Fell’s life skillfully led by Joy Duncan of Fifty-seventh Street Meeting in Chicago. Faith & Play creates a holy space for imagination and spiritual searching, going far beyond conveying facts and concepts. The evening concluded with a birthday cake, which was especially appreciated by the children, who had been having their own sessions during the weekend. (By the way, we don’t know the exact date of Margaret Fell’s birth, but we know she’s 400 this year, so why not celebrate?)
At the conference, many signed up to be part of ongoing work and conversation groups. One major topic that demanded further discussion was how to teach about undoing racism, a subject that has been generating much energy among Friends. A working group was formed, and plans to connect via the Internet were made. Meeting online is, perhaps, the new model for continued education of religious educators, which may be the future for other concerns as well: collaboration rather than staffing, working parties rather than committees, meeting via Internet rather than traveling. Organizational budgets have shrunk, committee appointments seem to go unfilled, and care for the earth makes us consider carefully our use of petroleum. Conference participant Zachary Dutton, who serves as associate secretary for program and religious life for PhYM, sees the potential in this approach: “This is the work we need to be doing in every field of concern within the Religious Society or Friends. QREC is at the forefront of a new Quaker way.”
There is, as well, a recognition that the synergy and sense of leading I witnessed that weekend might only be achieved by having people in a room together. We are indebted to the QREC Steering Group: Beth Collea of Wellesley (Mass.) Meeting, New England Yearly Meeting; Marsha Holliday of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.), Baltimore Yearly Meeting; Melinda Wenner Bradley of West Chester (Pa.) Meeting, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting; and Liz Yeats of Friends Meeting of Austin (Tex.), South Central Yearly Meeting, who donated their thoughtful planning and considerable energy and expertise for this conference sponsored by the QREC network. The success of the conference also owes much to the Obadiah Brown Benevolent Fund for travel support to enable Friends from a distance to come, for scholarships for young adults, and for funding so that children of participants could attend without cost.