Sunday Mornings at the Ethical Society

While our building has been closed during the pandemic, I wanted to take the opportunity to review our programs and get to the root of why we do what we do. What does the Ethical Society exist for, and do our programs achieve those goals? It’s good to return periodically to questions like these, to gain clarity around major decisions and to inform any changes which might be made. So, with a team of members and staff, I led an examination of our Sunday morning programming. We spent months looking at each program we offer on Sundays (especially Platform) asking what it is for and why we do it that way.

In our discussions we identified three core goals we hope our Sunday mornings will meet each week:

We want members and visitors to learn something new.

We want to inspire people to lead better lives.

We want to help people connect with others, building meaningful relationships.

Learning, Inspiration, and Connection: these are the three goals of Sunday mornings at the Ethical Society. But do we always achieve them? We felt that we almost always help our members and friends to learn something new; we often provide inspiring programming which encourages you to think about how you are living; but we don’t always do enough to connect our members with each other. Connection stood out as one of our most important goals – a major reason people join our community – but also the one we felt we could work harder to acheive.

How to promote more connection? After much discussion, I concluded that the current schedule of Sunday mornings hampers our ability to bring our members – and particularly new visitors – into relationship with each other. Having a pre-Platform Forum downstairs, followed by our main community gathering in Platform, followed again by a late coffee our when many people wish to leave for lunch, means that many people miss out on opportunities to connect with others on Sundays. So I came up with a proposal: why not flip the timing of Forum and Platform, so that Platform happens first (starting at 10am) followed by a menu of options focused on helping members build relationships?

There are many potential benefits to this proposal:

Members and visitors frequently express their desire to stay longer to connect with other members, but feel they have to leave at 12 to get lunch, it being so late. By moving Platform earlier we enable more people to stay and build connections with others after the main program.

This change enables post-Platform programs to offer a space for deeper discussion of the topics raised in Platform. Currently, many members express the desire to dig more deeply into the ideas Platform raises, but cannot either because they have to leave, or because we offer no dedicated space on Sunday to foster such discussions. This could provide a more cohesive Sunday morning experience.

Programs like Colloquy and Forum could benefit from increased participation, as people will receive an explicit invitation to attend them at the end of Platform. New visitors will attend for the “main event” and then be enticed to stay longer for another program.

By hosting post-Platform discussions in the Auditorium (instead of the Hanke Room as presently) we avoid some major problems with the current schedule. We often lose many people when shifting the speaker from the Auditorium to the Hanke room, leading to low turnout. Also, the post-Platform discussion often starts late, as many people wish to engage the speaker in discussion right after Platform. Finally, we make better use of our building: the Auditorium currently sits empty during Forum, while under the proposed new system the Auditorium and Hanke Room are used for meaningful programming simultaneously.

Congregational growth research suggests that while 11am used to be the overwhelmingly popular start time for congregational gatherings, that is no longer the case, and has not been for a number of years. One survey of 1,649 churches in 2015 found that the majority of churches held their gatherings at a time other than 11am, and that services with start times between 9:30 and 10:30am were most popular.

This change would also require changes to the SEEK program. I consulted with Kat (our SEEK Director, who supports this proposal), and we both see potential benefits to the SEEK program of this change:

Placing Platform first improves the flow of our children’s experience on Sunday mornings. Currently children are dropped off downstairs, do an hour of programming, then are taken up to Platform, then are brought back down again. This breaks up their experience and hampers the creation of a consistent learning environment. With the new timings, parents can bring their children straight to Platform then, when they are brought downstairs they will transition straight into SEEK programming until 12pm.

We are also proposing to flip SEEK programming so that the formal Ethical Education component happens first (after kids are brought down from Platform), followed by the workshop component (which is more like structured play). This means that the ethical education section will still have the same amount of time as before, and will occur without many adults in the Becker Room, while the workshop will act as a “treat” after the ethical education component is completed. Kat and I feel this revised experience more closely mirrors what young people are used to in school, in which more formal educational experiences precede less formal ones. We hope these changes will maintain the content and quality of our SEEK program, while making it easier for our staff to create a positive and structured learning environment.

This is a significant change, which is why I am proposing it well ahead of reopening, so we can collect the thoughts of the community. The proposal to try this rearranged schedule has already received the unanimous support of our staff and of our Board, and there is an all-Society Forum on Zoom on the 29th January at 7pm to discuss this with the membership – one of many opportunities you will have to express your thoughts in the months ahead.

These proposed changes were developed after taking into consideration many weeks of work by staff and members in various teams and committees. I hope they will enable our community to reopen our building confident that we have taken our enforced closure as a chance to review what we do and why we do it. I believe that we should make programming decisions – including decisions about when we gather as a community – based on deep reflection about our mission and goals. I think these proposed changes would make our Sunday morning programs flow better; would offer new opportunities for members and visitors to connect with each other; would make better use of our building; and would enable us to connect our programming in a more conscious and thoughtful way.

James Croft, Leader, Ethical Society of St. Louis