Our Whole Lives Faith and Sexuality Education
The SNEUCC Faith Formation Team recently hosted a zoom info session with Rev. Amy Johnson, UCC Minister for Sexuality and Faith, and Jenn Ringgold, Youth Ministry Consultant for the Michigan Conference. The following is an overview of the conversation about the Our Whole Lives curriculum as well as concrete steps for initiating programs.
What are the principles of OWL?
“Owl is values-based, holistic, and really rooted in dismantling the shame and stigma present in purity culture that is pervasive,” Johnson explained.
She noted that the elementary curriculum focuses on relationships, respect, and responsibility. The middle and high school levels have content built around self-worth, sexual health, and responsibility as well as justice and inclusivity.
Why should churches offer faith and sexuality education?
“It is transformative to have a positive, sacred frame for all that sexuality encompasses in our lives. Children are learning about it all the time, whether we’re in the conversation or not. So why wouldn’t we be? If we are not, we are abdicating to purity culture and abstinence-only education on the one hand, or we are abdicating to the media on the other. Either way, it is not a healthy message. OWL is a way for us to be church and be involved in healthy conversations,” explained Rev. Johnson.
She went on to cite a recent blog post The Gospel According to Sex Ed by Allison Connelly Vetter. An OWL facilitator, Connelly Vetter describes how OWL is truly life-saving for young people.
OWL helps participants make informed and responsible decisions about their relationships, health and behavior in the context of their faith. It equips participants with accurate, age-appropriate information in six subject areas: human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture. It provides not only facts about anatomy and human development, but helps participants to clarify their values, build interpersonal skills and understand the social, emotional and spiritual aspects of sexuality.
--OWL Program description from the UCC website.
What are recommendations for getting started?
Johnson suggested the free pdf download, Parents and Caregivers as Sexuality Educators as a useful way to introduce the conversation: “You can gather adults for a small ministry format and use this curriculum, which includes scripture and prayer. It not only equips parents for discussions at home, but also provides a faith perspective on sex education. This will pave the way when you move ahead to offer classes for youth simply because participation is improved if you already have adult support and commitment.”
Jenn Ringgold recounted how she got started the program at her local church: “I was trained about ten years ago and my goal became to offer a program that started at Kindergarten and extended through high school. We started with the elementary program, and built from there offering classes every other year.”
The UCC also has a video series called Under Our Wing for parents and caregivers of young children. The series offers tips for talking about families, bodies, boundaries and shares helpful book titles for teaching at home.
Train a team of leaders
In preparation for offering classes, it is important to train more than one instructor. Johnson recommends two leaders per class-- not only to satisfy safe church requirements, but also to offer a diversity of voices. Ringgold described how she gradually built up a team of trained instructors who could share the work. She then she became the program administrator and handled all promotions and communications.
The curriculum has been honed over a 25 year partnership with the Unitarian Universalist Association and is comprehensive. It includes all materials as well as tips for presenting in a faith setting. Johnson acknowledged that OWL requires an investment at the beginning to cover the training. “Once you get it going, it doesn’t have a lot of costs,” she added.
[Note: One SNEUCC Association recently earmarked funds to cover training costs for leaders as they begin the process of establishing a multi-church program.]
The OWL Training Calendar, which includes some online classes, can be found on the UCC website. SNEUCC will offer trainings on October 6-8 (middle and high school) at Edwards House in Framingham and on November 10-12 (elementary) at Silver Lake Camp and Retreat Center in Sharon, CT. Space is limited to and registration is now open.
Implement a teaching model that works for your setting
There are a variety of ways to schedule classes. These can be regular meetings spaced throughout the year, either after Sunday worship, on Sunday evenings, or weeknights. Ringgold recently presented the 7-9 grade curriculum in an intensive summer day-camp program. She mentioned that she has also seen groups present in a retreat format over a couple of weekends. Some offer OWL every other year, alternating with their confirmation program.
Both Johnson and Ringgold cited the value of collaboration with other congregations or non-profits. Some churches partner with other UCC congregations and some with nearby UUA churches. Many open the program to the wider community seeing it as a form of ministry to the public, and may even charge a fee to participate. There are several “nests” or groups of churches offering programs throughout SNEUCC. Take a moment to fill out this SNEUCC OWL Interest form if you would like to be connected to other congregations.
OWL has impact
Ringgold acknowledged that starting a program takes lead time and intention, but lifted the value of investing in sexuality education with youth: “I am extremely passionate about OWL and what it can offer, both from my perspective as a parent, and as a youth leader. OWL builds safe space for meaningful conversation in the home and within the faith community. I have watched the development of young people in my church who took classes in Kindergarten and are now in entering high school. The conversations they are capable of having and the bonds that they have with one another are amazing."
More information about OWL can be found on the UCC website. You may also register for the quarterly UCC OWL newsletter to get updates on resources and trainings.
Additional reading: That’s not how Umbrellas Work UCC Still Speaking Devotional on purity culture by Rev. John Edgerton.
Reserve your place at an SNEUCC training:
October 6-8 (middle and high school) at Edwards House in Framingham
November 10-12 (elementary) at Silver Lake Camp and Retreat Center in Sharon, CT.
Space is limited to and registration is now open.
Debby D. Kirk
Debby Kirk serves as leader of the staff team that provides resources for the work of nurturing disciples of all ages in the local church. Her area of focus is youth ministry. Contact her for: Faith Formation Communities of Practice Confirmation ...