THE Uniting Church is a community of worship, witness and service but it is also a place of learning.
Our schools are not the only learning organisations within the Church either; one of UnitingCare Queensland’s values is “Leading through Learning”.
In Paragraph 11 of the Church’s foundational document, the Basis of Union, it states: “The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture.”
Queensland Synod General Secretary, Dr Shirley Coulson, came to the role from a long background in Catholic Education. Her Doctorate was in creating a learning community.
A member of the Kairos Uniting Church Clayfield/Hamilton congregation, Dr Coulson is passionate about the Synod being a place of active, lifelong learning.
“The concepts around learning are embedded in everything that we have been as a church,” she said. “We have learnt about coming together and being the one church. We are learning about how we embrace multiculturalism. “In going through the hard stuff we have learnt something about process, people, ourselves and as our context changes we bring that with us.”
The Synod’s Vision, Together on the way, enriching community, has been, according to Dr Coulson, a journey of learning, discovery and reflection.
“Learning doesn’t always mean growing. Learning is about change and some of that change might be contracting,” she said. “When we learn something, something changes: we change our understanding, skills, we change our perspective in some way or another, we might change how we do things, even how we relate. It means that we are able to critically reflect and look at what we are doing in terms of relevance and quality,” she said.
“One of the big learnings for us as a synod is looking at our culture. If we can create that culture of learning, we are actually embedding some perspectives that are really important for being able to do something with the structures and processes. You can’t change structure without cultural change and cultural change by itself won’t change that.
“Our learning as a synod has to be grounded in our Call and Vision. We are not going back to having fixed points of view because the Uniting Church has never been fixed! It’s uniting and it is pilgrim people; we have that wonderful vision in that way.”
Reasearch shows people don’t connect learning and church
Together on the way Project Officer, Lyndelle Gunton, has also done postgraduate study into learning in organisations. Last year she completed an 18-month research project as part of a Master of Library and Information Studies at QUT looking at people’s experiences of using information to learn in church communities, and specifically the Uniting Church in southeast Queensland.
Ms Gunton interviewed both lay people and those in ministry to develop an understanding of the types of information they use and how they use it in relation to their faith and in the way the church is run. She said people use information to grow in their faith, develop relationships, manage the church, and serve within and beyond the church community.
“Not all people think they learn at church,” she mused. Learning in church primarily consists of aural and textural learning.”
Ms Gunton’s research indicated that the primary way people in her study consolidated what they had learnt was by group
“What we also identified was that people use a variety of other tools intentionally to enhance their experience.
“People learn best when they do something a number of different ways and when a number of different learning ways are available they are hopefully going to find something that suits them best.”
In a worship service that could be as simple as including a variety of musical styles, images that people can look at while they are listening, or interaction such as passing the peace.
“Using a variety of learning styles means that people leave with an experience that is much richer and they want to come back to be part of that continuing learning experience. In my understanding faith is not something that is static. It is a growing, living thing and, like other aspects of life-long learning, you never finish learning about it,” she said.
Ms Gunton said it is the responsibility of all people in the Church to teach and learn from each other.
Opening learning styles for kids
Indooroopilly Uniting Church members Narelle and Craig Mercer know all about the importance of providing a variety of ways to learn. For the past six years the couple have run a Rotations program for the Primary School aged children in their congregation. Ms Mercer said she discovered Rotations, or the Workshop Rotation Method, in 2005 while searching for new Sunday School resources.
“It takes the major Bible stories and teaches them in a block for four or five weeks,” she said. “There are a number of workshops and each workshop teaches the story using a different learning style. Some kids are visual, some learn by doing. So one workshop might be cooking, one might be a good video resource, and one might be computer games.
“The theory is that you have a teacher who teaches say, the cooking workshop, for four weeks. The children are in their age groups and they visit that workshop in rotation so the teacher teaches the same thing. They just adjust it to the age of the children.
“We also have someone called a shepherd and they stay with the kids.They have no preparation but act as pastoral care for the kids and are an extra pair of hands.”
After surveying the congregation they identified 10 major Bible stories to be learnt by the end of Primary School. They do roughly six rotations a year plus Christmas and Easter rotations.
“We focus on a different rotation each Easter. This year we are looking at Easter through symbols.”
Mr Mercer said the aim is to ensure the children pick up the essence of the stories in a way that is beneficial for them.
“If you were to say, ‘We are going to learn about the Bible’ that is a fairly dry topic, so we figure out how we should tackle that in a way that draws the children into it,” he said. “They are engaged in doing something that is creative and interesting and pitched at their level.”
Ms Mercer said one of the activities in the rotation on the story of the Good Samaritan was making a quilt to give away.
“We conscripted all the quilters from the congregation. The ladies came with their sewing machines and there were Year Five boys using sewing machines for the first time!”
Mr Mercer said it was important to work with people on their level.
“It is not about dumbing it down for them, it is about understanding the triggers that excite them and working the stories to fit those triggers,” he said.
Experiencing the learning edge
Pilgrim Learning Community Director, Neil Thorpe, said a disciple is someone who is attached to a teacher, but also an active learner.
“Learning isn’t an intellectual proposition only; it is about formation and our faith. It is about how we discover ourselves, and ourselves in service to our neighbour and God,” he said.
He talked of the importance of lifelong learning pulsing through our church communities.
“We risk it becoming a platitude unless everyone knows about it, everyone gives their assent to it and recognises that lifelong learning for each person is important. We think if it is life-long we can put it off until a bit later. We have got to bring it down to the here and now and ask, ‘What do I need to be learning now?’
“To me a learning edge is the very thing that makes you uncomfortable. “It is not about going to church and hearing the same comforting words … it is about saying things like, ‘I really don’t know’.
“For me, the learning edge is the thing that we need to work on. If our experience as a church is an example, then we have to, as disciples, be able to get out on our learning edge.”