To Gather or Not?

To Gather or Not?

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“To gather or not?”  This is a question that is on so many minds these days concerning all different places and spaces. We are nearing summer’s end and the decision to have children begin in-person schooling this fall is uncertain and ever changing for everyone, including faith formation leaders in making decisions about in-person church school models. Debi Mastroni-Kenyon, Director of Faith Formation at Monroe Congregational Church, CT, recently engaged with a member of her community of practice as to whether she had a plan for reopening church school and an online outreach to others received many responses.  Debi had a draft of a plan but decided to send out a group email to the faith formation leaders in her Community of Practice and to many others in her network asking if anyone would like to have a conversation about this.

She wrote in her email:  
"I am wondering if we could have a sharing session to come up with something collectively or even help each other come up with a plan. I KNOW my plan will be better received if I could say, "I've spoken with other Faith Formation Practitioners and this is what they are doing." 

Within minutes a flood of emails filled her inbox with great interest.  Debi immediately reached out to the SNEUCC Discipleship Team and a plan ensued. It didn’t take long to realize the necessity of coming together to share concerns, information, and recommendations; over 70 participants registered for the 90-minute zoom gathering called “Faith Formation Phasing Forward, To Gather, or Not? ” which was held on August 13 beginning at 11:00 AM.  The webinar program was divided into five informative segments with a different presenter and topic for each.  Debi Mastroni-Kenyon facilitated the gathering, opening and closing in prayer and guided everyone into two breakout sessions with discussion questions.

Debbie Gline Allen, SNEUCC Associate for Faith Formation & Youth Ministries, started the first segment with asking “What do we mean by Phasing Forward?” She zoned in on the fact that all of the Covid-19 concerns involve risk vs. management. Her information was helpful. Especially the reminder that faith formation leaders should be sure to have a “seat at the table” when discussing this idea with your church task force for regathering.  At the very least, leaders should be available to consult with the team in order to be an advocate for their church school teachers, children and families.  She also spent valuable time bringing the group through the SNEUCC website, and revealed the extensive Covid-19 pages that provide resources, advice and prayers. Debbie pointed out that these pages are continuously updated and definitely can assist in making the complicated decision to regather.  

We heard candid testimony from Dawne Quinn, Educational Director of First Church Academy for Young Children at First Church, West Hartford, CT. Their decision to reopen this summer took lots of planning. Following the state CT guidelines, they confidently reopened over 2 months ago. Dawne emphasized how important it is to have everyone on board and be fully aware of procedures. Their summer program has moved along very smoothly despite the potential of obstacles and concerns.

Dawne shared,  
“Everyone worked together, the teachers, the maintenance crew, the directors… all the staff had a stake in the operation because they wanted everyone to be safe and also for their job security.”    

Many of the participants felt relief hearing Dawne’s affirmation that the in-person schooling could be done so successfully, thinking if this large preschool can manage a full week, it might be possible to manage one hour of church school.  For other participants, it was still a far off consideration but they were glad to hear about the many safety measures put in place that could be adapted for church school. They also recognized in Dawne, an important characteristic in managing all of this, a non-anxious presence. 

The next segment framed another significant part of the decision making process.  “What do Faith Formation leaders need to know about and from their families?”  Kristin Putney, SNEUCC Christian Education and Youth Ministry Resource Consultant, recommended asking parents several key questions that ultimately might guide a church in their planning of faith formation for children.  A variety of questions in a survey might include asking parents, if the church were to provide in-person worship, would they bring their children?  Another version would be, if the church were to provide a separate church school class, would parents bring their children?  Kristin mentioned that It might be obvious that families are not ready for the in-person experience for children at this time and therefore offering a virtual option might be the best plan for the church community.  Other suggestions were given during the webinar for faith formation leaders to share with their families.  Creating a CoVid “bubble” with 2-3 other families was an option for some to widen their social circle. A guide to negotiating this creative way to connect was shared from an article by Gideon Lichfield, including giving the new idea a trial period.

Kristin reminded the group saying:  
“As we grasp a better understanding of parent’s needs, we can offer them options but we still need to encourage, engage and equip parents, especially during this time.  Most importantly, staying in contact with parents in any way throughout this CoVid time period is crucial.” 

There are so many factors involved in the decision to regather for worship and even more as churches consider regathering for church school classes. Karen Ziel, SNEUCC Minister of Faith Formation and Leadership, focused on safety measures and volunteer support. She lifted our attention to a six part question saying:  “As you come together for a plan to regather, it is important to discern and communicate a well articulated WHY! Formulate a plan by answering the questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? and How often?” 

Karen reminded the group to get expert advice from the many agencies that provide safety guidelines for children including the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the State Office of Early Childhood (OEC).  She also stressed that churches should be aware of their insurance provider's guidelines, know their liability and what defines negligence. She reiterated that having clear expectations with everyone about knowing WHO will be responsible, including the staff, WHAT will be implemented for children’s programming, WHEN will church school occur, WHERE will the safest spaces be to gather, and HOW will protocols and management be handled to eventually allow the church to reach their goal of gathering in-person.  Karen provided the participants with many informational links to carefully assist them through this process, supporting a well thought out regathering church school plan. 

The final segment proved to be the most clarifying in some ways. Debby Kirk, SNEUCC Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, shared her knowledge and wisdom commenting that we must first put into perspective that this moment in time for us is not a quick blizzard or even like a winter season.  She admitted that it is going to be much longer than that and it might feel more like an Ice Age in which we will need to adapt in a number of ways. Debby reminded the faith formation leaders that it is helpful to realize their purpose amidst this “Ice Age” period which is: forming disciples to live the love of Jesus.  Debby acknowledged the intersection that faith formation leaders are all facing now and she asked, Shall we pivot? Or shall we move towards innovation?

Debby continued, suggesting, 
“As you move through this time you may embrace the new normal.  You may also seize this opportunity to experiment and explore new ways to form disciples but expect that you may get push back.  And most importantly, follow your vision.”  

During the breakout sessions for discussion, participants shared examples of impactful innovations they were able to implement. Debby shared a list of “naming shifts” in faith formation that seemed to categorize these innovations of a new normal precisely. 
From:
  1. Analog to Digital
  2. Teaching to Equipping
  3. Gathering to Connecting
  4. Attraction Model to Accompaniment 
The webinar concluded with the invitation for all participants to do three things:  
  • Look for curated SNEUCC materials at www.sneucc.org  
  • Subscribe to SNEUCC “Discipleship Matters” newsletter 
  • Join the Southern NE UCC Discipleship Facebook Group 
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