Can REA Support Innovation in Religious Education?

For five years I ran a “start-up” religious education program. I wanted to test out a model of family-based learning in the Jewish community for families who were opting out of synagogue life. The methodology and pedagogy was inspired by Scouting: a system of ranks and requirements provided the framework for kids (K-12) to learn at their own pace, guided by parents and other adults in the community. The project never “took off.” Participating families expressed high degrees of satisfaction with the community we had created, but we struggled with recruiting new families each year, and we never converted the interest from leaders in other regions to become franchised groups. I wasn’t prepared to leave my full-time job to give the program “my all” and we weren’t able to raise enough money from tuition and fees and outside funders to hire a part-time project director.

I could speculate on whether the initiative died a natural death because it wasn’t exactly the right educational product at the right time (which is my hunch) or because of other factors, such as insufficient commitment from the leadership or limited funding.

For me, one takeaway from that experience is noting that the field of religious education could do more to support and encourage innovation. And the Religious Education Association is in a position to become part of an ecosystem for innovation in the field.

There are many reasons why the educational approaches we are currently invested in may not be the ones that help our faith communities thrive into the future: religious life is changing, social demographics are changing, technology continues to evolve rapidly, and our understanding of how humans learn is changing through the field of mind, brain and education science. For these reasons and many more, our field of practice needs to have a healthy culture of innovation to thrive.

Over the past two years, a small four-member committee of the REA has been working to re-think how the REA approaches awards. Without boring you with the bureaucratic details, I can say that we inherited a set of three awards, none of which were sufficiently resourced to make much of an impact on the field. So we asked ourselves how we might do it better. The answer we are now working towards is to shift from three awards to one award and a new innovation grant. We’re reaching out now to get REA members’ feedback on the plans.

First, we would keep the William Rainey Harper Award, a lifetime achievement award in the field. That award would be given out every three to five years for financial reasons and to keep the award special.

Second, we would combine the two lesser-known awards under our purview, the Wornom Award (originally intended to recognize institutions leading in the field) and the Harper project (originally intended to promote collegiality across the field), into a new, annual small grant for innovation.

The new innovation grant (“Wornom Project Small Grant”) would be given out through an annual competitive selection process. Religious educators would be invited to submit their innovative projects for consideration each year. Five finalists would be selected, and a winner would be announced annually at the REA meeting to receive $3,000. A leader from the winning project would be invited to the REA the year after winning the grant to tell us what they have been learning through their project.

By highlighting innovative initiatives in religious education each year, we can bring much-needed attention to people and places in the field of religious education where new ideas are being tested out. We can develop relationships with practitioners who are taking risks. And we can inspire our members.

If we move forward with this direction, the Wornom grants process would be announced at the REA meeting in November and applications would be due in January or February.

As a committee, we’re interested in feedback from REA members about moving in this direction. Below are the members of the committee. Send us your thoughts.

Justus Baird, Chair, REA Harper/Wornom Committee

With Boyung LeeMary Elizabeth Moore, and Maureen OBrien…and added deep acknowledgement to Charles Foster who chaired this committee for a few years before 2016 and allowed us to reach this direction.

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