An open letter to congregations searching for their next rockstar religious professional:

Kimberly Sweeney

I know you are busy and I know you care deeply about the health and future of your congregation. If you are experiencing a staffing transition right now, perhaps it is due to retirement, or because your staff person left for a position with more hours, or maybe it just didn’t work out for any number of reasons. Transitions happen. Staff leave. Congregations move on. It’s all to be expected really.

I live in New England where the number of transitions among religious education professionals has been steadily increasing over the past several years. Once upon a time, we might expect to see a shuffle with religious educators moving on to other area congregations, a few retiring, and maybe the addition of a few newcomers to the profession.

This year, I am observing something new. Sure, some of those same situations apply, but this year I am seeing more religious professionals leave the work. I’m hearing more and more stories from across the country, not just from our religious educators but clergy as well. There is a deep sense of frustration. Congregations are searching for, asking for, and expecting our religious professionals to miraculously retrofit an outdated model of ministry resulting in measurably improved results, without supporting strategic change.

Our religious professionals are busy and also care deeply about the health and future of your congregation, and of this faith. So much so, that they have dedicated countless hours to reading, researching, learning, conversing, and discerning how best to support the health and vitality of the future of faith formation. When these committed religious professionals are excited about the possibilities, and see where there is hope and a chance to really impact the lives of the children and families they serve, they want so desperately to be able to share that and work towards that vision.

Time and time again, our rockstar religious educators are being told, “No. That won’t work here/that’s not how we do it here/that’s not what we need.” And these rockstar religious educators who have been in the field for a while, who have developed strong leadership skills, who are willing, ready and able to lead into the future, who don’t underestimate the power and potential of this amazing faith…..these rockstar religious educators are leaving. The ministry they are being called to do is not the ministry most of our congregations are willing to embrace.

I find myself talking about this alot these days, the difference between doing what we know how to do, and doing what matters most. If we are to take parental influence, whole congregation worship, and religious education as the three areas that have an impact on the faith formation of our children and youth, we now know, that of the three, parental influence is the primary indicator of whether or not a child will remain connected to their faith in adulthood. In fact, this can happen without ever entering a congregation or participating in a religious education program. It’s that powerful.

Second to that, by way OF LASTING IMPACT, is participation in whole congregation worship, knowing and being known by people of all ages and being recognized as a full participant in the life of the congregation.

And then finally, we have religious education. Sunday school or religious education programs alone, without participation in whole congregation worship, and without parental or family influence, are virtually ineffective in passing on the faith. Even if it’s fun, even if you have a rockstar religious educator, even if you’ve been doing Sunday school for 100 years: it still pales in comparison to the impact parents and families have on a child’s faith development.

In a perfect world, we would do all three: support families, welcome the entire community into worship, and offer religious education opportunities. And while many congregations do attempt to offer all three, by way of religious education, worship for all and support for faith development in the home, the allocation of resources (to include our time and energy) is heavily weighted in opposition to what can have the greatest potential impact.

This morning I read 20 job descriptions posted for religious educators across the country. 20 of them listed supporting a Sunday morning religious education program as the primary responsibility. 14 of them mentioned responsibilities related to worship (although most of them were talking about leading a story or collaborating on special worship services a few times a year). Three of those positions mentioned in a single bullet point something about providing resources for parents. I’m being generous in my interpretation.

Friends, until we are willing to put our resources towards the pieces of the faith formation system that have the biggest impact, until we are able to admit that “the way we’ve always done it” might very well be engaging on Sunday morning but doesn’t result in transmitting faith, I fear we will continue to watch our rockstar religious professionals and clergy leave the work; we will continue to experience 88% of our children and youth leaving our congregations never feeling connected to the faith or returning as adults; and we will fail to mature as a faith that is just so deperately needed. The world needs us to grow up now. It’s time.

In faith and hope,

Kimberly Sweeney, rockstar religious professional committed to the future of our faith

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