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What each of us knows about God is a piece of the truth

Toward a Philosophy of Religious Exploration

Octagonal Unitarian Universalism

It is my belief that a congregation is richest through the recognition and integration of the gifts of all ages. I refer to this as "Octagonal Unitarian Universalism". Square Unitarian Universalism happens when the adults are in the pews and the children/youth are down the hall. Circle Unitarian Universalism happens when the youth/children are involved in collaborative worship in the round, freed from the pews. Octagonal worship is a mixture of the two; intellectual and embodied worship, meditative reflection and personal connection, multigenerational community experiences in all areas of the life of the congregation.

We can learn from our youth and children who are leading our faith toward the future. The youth lead our faith toward mutually respectful and interdependent relationships, anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism. Youth teach us about the benefits of post-modern sensibilities. I credit their creativity, compassion, and leadership skills to the teaching and curriculum created in the RE programs throughout our movement. We have nurtured amazing leaders and inspirational teachers. Now, it behooves us to learn from them as well.

Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley reminds us in her essay in “Essex Conversations” that religious education is a part of “the total work of the church.” She goes on to say, “If a congregation’s curriculum represents the learning experiences in the immediate environment and beyond, then as Maria Harris suggests in Fashion Me a People the church does not have religious education; rather, the whole church is religious education.”

My mantra for RE is:  “Within the context of relationships, be safe; have fun; learn.”

My RE leadership experiences range across a variety of ages and curricula. These have shown me how to best partner with youth and children to learn together with purpose and passion. For example, while I was interning at the UU Congregation of Central Nassau I made a point of meeting with the Senior and Junior Youth during their RE classes. With the Senior Youth we explored the Backpacker’s Notebook and with the Junior Youth we explored the Toolbox of Faith curriculum!

Some of the most meaningful things I’ve done with learners of all ages center on worship experiences. These include the worship developed entirely by six youth at a retreat in Buffalo NY, the Passover Seder conducted by the middle school youth for the 3-5 year olds in Salem, Oregon, and the involvement of children and youth in the main sanctuary for the Winter Solstice worship service. Equally meaningful were the Flower Communion in Salem and the Samhain worship service created by the youth on Long Island for the area UU congregations. In all cases, it was my joy to create the context for this experience, but then step out of the way and provide support and encouragement to the youth and children who took the lead.

As the t-shirt printed by the Young Adult Caucus at GA several years ago reads: “It is a gift that you were born. What each of us knows about God is a piece of the truth. It matters what we do. You don’t have to do it alone.”

Rev. Dick Gilbert, in his essay in Essex Conversations, reminds us that Religious Education is “the totality of experiences, planned and sometimes unplanned, from which we can learn.” And that we must think of Religious Education as the creation of people who put their religious values into action. Ministry is the work of the professional minister the RE director and staff and the work of all participants in religious community. This is how we live in religious community: through worship, learning together, caring for one another, and working for a better world.

Involving youth with children and with adults and involving adults with children and youth is where the richness of UU RE shines. In multi-generational RE, we can each learn from the diversity of us all. Generations indicates many things. We can use it to refer to the conventional categories of "Gen X," "Boomer," and others. We have to remember that there are differences within these traditional categories that create cohorts with shared experiences, values, expectations, and styles. These 'generations' are just as important to acknowledge and address when ministering to the whole congregation.

The goods of diversity are real and precious and deserve to be celebrated. We are in relationship with others, and defined by those relationships. Multigenerational ministry is the act of engaging members of religious community in shared worship, learning, social connections, mutual caring, or justice work. It allows the community to draw on the diverse experiences of members of religious community and share those gifts widely. This allows us to know the diverse needs of the members of religious community and find ways to navigate the synchronicity and conflict among and between those needs.

“Multi” indicates more than two. This is important because so often people think of intergenerational experience as something simplistic like "the children with the adults” (two generations.) The term multigenerational acknowledges that there are many different cohorts that need to be brought together. For instance, a Children's Chapel experience that brings the first graders through Teens together in shared experience counts as multigenerational. I prefer the term multigenerational to intergenerational for this reason. Intergenerational has begun to mean to me "Two opposing camps brought together" rather than a "multiplicity of people in varying places in their lives and experiences." We don’t have to live our lives alone, but are much richer, together.

Adults in Unitarian Universalism inherited a worship style from our protestant forebears. For instance, during worship we are often in pews, facing the front where a professional (or specially anointed) staff conducts worship for us. Staff members at the youth office at the UUA have referred to this style as “Square Unitarian Universalism”. Children and youth have developed their own worship styles, informed by their curricula. The philosophy of religious education where each person contributes to worship, all are expected to contribute to decision-making and governance is very collaborative within the structure set by the youth advisors and teachers. The vision created by our youth emphasizes relationships of mutuality. I’ve heard that called “Circle Unitarian Universalism”. Currently, when youth transition out of youth programs, many find UU congregations that feel foreign. I seek a hybrid style of congregation. I call it ‘Octagonal UU’. It is a vision that combines the wisdom of both.

We can best achieve this balance by involving many congregants in the teaching, mentoring and advising of children and youth. We can involve children and youth in the whole congregation’s life. Responsibility for nurturing children and youth belongs to the entire community, not just parents. The best thing we can do for children, youth, and adults, is to support their best instincts: compassion, and self-respect. In a context of safety, we can listen, witness and embrace.


[1] Bowens-Wheatley, Marjorie “Toward Wholeness and Liberation” in Essex Conversations, Visions for Lifespan Religious Education collected by the Essex Conversations Coordinating Committee, Page 24

[2] Gilbert, Richard “Useable Truth” in Essex Conversations, Visions for Lifespan Religious Education collected by the Essex Conversations Coordinating Committee, Page 65