Latest Trends in Spiritual Formation for Young Friends

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting youth programs staff and children work on an activity together outside at a PYM gathering in 2022. Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

Unprogrammed Quaker meetings have historically turned to members to coordinate spiritual education for young Friends. In recent years, Quakers reviving programs disrupted or closed by COVID-19 shutdowns have tried novel approaches to First-day school education, such as hiring professionals or turning to non-scholastic formats.

“Coming out of the pandemic, there was a lot of exhaustion coming out of meetings,” said Melinda Wenner Bradley, director of program and religious life for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

Wenner Bradley previously taught middle school students at a Friends school, and in 2014, she was a founding member of the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative (QREC), a networking group for religious educators committed to lifelong Quaker spiritual formation. QREC members pool resources, skills, and information. The collaborative does not keep statistics of how many meetings in the United States have hired professional educators, according to Beth Collea, a member of the QREC Steering Circle.

Wenner Bradley has advised many meetings looking to hire educational professionals. She suggests clarifying whether a meeting is seeking a teacher or coordinator. She also recommends discerning the purpose of the meeting’s children’s program because “the why drives the how.” Common purposes include spiritual formation of young people as well as support for parents who wish to attend worship and adult religious education classes.

Sometimes meeting members who oppose hiring professionals say parents should teach instead of attending worship and religious education.

“That’s not helpful to parents who themselves are seekers,” Wenner Bradley said.

Volunteers are willing to help, but they have their own children and personal lives, according to Zoe Zurad, youth ministries and education coordinator at Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Mass.). Some weeks the call for volunteer teachers gets a strong response, and other weeks the response is less robust.

“When an organization hires religious education professionals, it allows for consistency and structure,” said Zurad, who last year filled a part-time position that had been vacant for three years. Following the pandemic shutdowns, Zurad started to develop programming from scratch, a task facilitated by her being a compensated employee.

Having a paid staff person helped preserve the youth program offerings at Durham (N.C.) Meeting, according to Andrew Wright, youth and children’s ministries coordinator for the meeting. As a paid staffer, Wright had the time and energy to join the meeting’s reopening committee and advocate for the concerns of children and youth, which differed from the concerns of older members. Young people had a strong need to get together during a time of deep isolation, according to Wright.

Welcoming children and young people into the spiritual life of meetings often involves a school-like approach to religious education. Some meetings Wenner Bradley has worked with considered whether a scholastic approach to children’s religious education, such as a typical First-day school format, might isolate youngsters from the rest of the meeting. Children could benefit from intergenerational worship or a weekday evening program, according to Wenner Bradley.

When Durham Meeting’s youth programming switched to virtual, the young people collaborated with adults to start a garden on the meetinghouse property. The young people continue to participate enthusiastically in the garden project. There is also a group of children at the meeting who are passionate about art. They create art projects while adults or other children read them stories as they work, according to Wright. Examples of stories include the book Wangari’s Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter and stories from Shine On: A Story Bible, which presents the Bible in an engaging way for younger children. Discussion of the stories follows. Adults can use religious education time to introduce children and young people to the language of the spiritual community, Wright explained.

Dover (N.H.) Meeting calls its First-day school program the Children’s Meeting. In 2022, members of the Children’s Meeting built a dollhouse to enable little ones to explore weekly inquiries into their inward and outward journeys, according to the QREC article “Do Our Children Know Enough About Quakerism to Play Quaker?” by Beth Collea, a member of the QREC Steering Circle and of Dover Meeting. The Dover Children’s Meeting uses various non-scholastic formats to nurture children’s spiritual lives.

Children at Dover (N.M.) Meeting interact with dolls in a cardboard dollhouse they made to represent a meetinghouse. Photo by Beth Collea.

“Our mantra is, ‘it all starts with stopping.’ We work on stilling ourselves so we can open ourselves to Divine Love. We use finger labyrinths with mindful snack eating, a Tibetan prayer bowl, a body prayer, and more. Quakerism is an experiential religion. We gently and intentionally set the stage for children having that experience of a living Presence,” wrote Collea, who was not available to be interviewed for this article.

A dollhouse that represents a meetinghouse invites children to learn about Quaker identity through play, according to Collea’s article. The dolls represent Black, White, and Asian people. Guiding principles of using the dollhouse for religious education include permitting the children to play freely with the materials, allowing the young ones to express themselves genuinely rather than guiding them toward predetermined answers, providing time and space for youngsters to wonder, and having the adults share part of their own experience with God and spirituality.

The children explored traveling minutes and decided to send one of the dolls along with an adult from the meeting who was traveling to Cuba, Collea wrote. They also sent a doll to comfort a Friend in the hospital.

At Goose Creek (Va.) Meeting, religious education in a non-scholastic format often includes adults taking nature walks with children, conversing with them about butterflies, creating art, and sharing their own interests with young people, according to Cameron Hughes, a member of the meeting. Adults offering religious education do not have to worry about adhering to a strict school-like format because young people learn from various experiences.

“The kids are learning and they’re going to find their own path,” Hughes said.

In Durham Meeting, finding their own path on which to learn about Quaker identity takes the form of young people convening for Junior Meeting, which is a meeting for worship with attention to business clerked and attended by the youth, according to Wright. Adults may propose agenda items for the Junior Meeting agenda but after doing so, they go away and let the young people decide whether they will discuss the proposed items, according to Wright.

Adults offering spiritual accompaniment to children and young people differs from a traditional teaching model of religious education. Spiritual accompaniment involves adults admitting that they do not have all the answers and being willing to wonder and journey along with children and youth, according to Wenner Bradley. Adults who wish to nurture children’s spiritual lives in this way believe in the value of continuous questioning. Accompanying children on their faith journeys requires adults to understand spiritual formation as a lifelong process.

Enabling learners to have fun and letting them lead are cornerstones of successful religious education programs, according to Zurad, who describes children as equal to adults. Curriculum can have a wide variety of content, according to Zurad, because Quakers do not have a doctrine. Some considerations include promoting Bible literacy and balancing the views of parents who are and are not Christ-centered. Each meeting has its own culture and having educators on staff allows meetings to offer enrichment activities for young learners. She hopes the meeting’s religious education program will inspire youngsters to continue worshiping with Quakers when they grow up.

Friends proposing hiring religious education staff or re-envisioning First-day school are sometimes met with reservations from meeting members who question whether their community has enough children to justify hiring a staff person, according to Wright. Other Friends express reluctance because they are not sure if they have the skills required to change the format of religious education and do not know whether the new version is truly preferable to the old, according to Wenner Bradley.

“There’s so much conversation in Quaker meetings about welcoming families with children, about welcoming young people and younger adults. And I’ve consistently found in working for two yearly meetings that our hearts are there, but we’re not always really ready to put our hands in that work because it often requires some discomfort on our part,” said Wenner Bradley.

Correction: the article has been updated to clarify Wenner Bradley’s advisory role with meetings looking to hire professional educators.

Sharlee DiMenichi

Sharlee DiMenichi is a staff writer for Friends Journal. Contact:

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