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The function of the church is to teach us how to put religious and ethical qualities into all kinds of experience.

Sophia Lyon Fahs

Mission

Founded as part of the curricular revolution at Meadville Lombard in 2011, the Fahs Collaborative picks up the historical mandate of 20th-century Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs, whose approach to religious education marked a radical departure from traditional content and methods. Today, the Collaborative supports religious workers who want to infuse religious and ethical qualities into every aspect of their social and justice-making lives.

As an experiential laboratory for educational practice, the Fahs Collaborative brings unlikely actors and new ideas together, developing resources and practices that shake off outmoded ideas and practices, honors all forms of diversity, and strengthens communities with the resiliency necessary to meet the needs of today’s world. We accomplish this by:

  • Creating educational strategies that weave the aims of faith formation into everyday life
  • Promoting research, scholarship, professional development, and community-building practices that reimagine obstacles into possibilities and subvert business-as-usual outcomes
  • Developing new ways to negotiate culturally and theologically diverse relationships
  • Creating intentional and evocative learning spaces that promote the highest ideals of collaboration, cultural inclusion, theological inclusiveness, and emotional literacy

History and Legacy

The Fahs Collaborative both holds the Unitarian Universalist tradition of liberal religious education and pioneers faith-based practices that empower and sustain the human spirit. Sophia Lyon Fahs, the namesake of the Collaborative, knew all too well how systems of “organized religion” seemed to be more concerned with upholding traditions than helping people discover and explore the big questions of life.  As a scholar and practitioner, Fahs encouraged religious educators to push the boundaries of institutional life in order to be fully human and humane.

Today’s Fahs Collaborative is a direct descendant of the Sophia Fahs Center for the Study of Religious Education, which was founded in 1993 and housed on the Hyde Park campus of Meadville Lombard. The Center was the realization of decades of dreams wherein inquiry into the ideologies and practices of religious instruction could be studied seriously and consistently improved. Resources for the Fahs Center were generously given by Fahs’s daughters, the Community Church of New York City, Meadville Lombard, and a handful of other generous donors. When funding was depleted, the center went into a state of hibernation—that is, until May 2011. Anne Bancroft, then-President of the Liberal Religious Educators Association, joined forces with the newly appointed MacLean Professor of Religious Education, Dr. Mark Hicks, and submitted a grant to “revitalize the Fahs Center for the Study of Religious Education.” The proposal won a $100,000 “Large Grant” from the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock to test ideas and forge a sustainable path forward.

Fahs Collaborative Start-Up Conference, April 2012

A “Listening Team” was formed that included Bancroft, Minister of Religious Education Rev. Linda Olson Peebles, and Dr. Hicks. The team conducted 10 focus groups with more than 30 religious educators, religious professionals, non-profit directors, and IT venture capitalists. The Listening Team offered both a new name and vision for the Fahs Center: The Fahs Collaborative Laboratory for Innovation in Faith Formation. In April 2012, a Start-Up Conference was held on the new campus of Meadville Lombard, the proud 20-year sponsor and fiscal agent of the Fahs Center—now the Fahs Collaborative. Comprised of outside-the-box educators and religious leaders, the conference produced structures, governance guidelines, and innovative programs that signaled that Fahs’s power of creativity and innovation was still alive and well.  

Sophia Lyon Fahs

By Rev. Dr. Barry Andrews

Sophia Fahs (1876-1978) was a progressive religious educator who believed deeply in engaging children where they lived, in the world of their daily lives, in the process of equipping them to deal with everyday problems. She also sought to stimulate their sense of wonder and curiosity about life. Her approach to religious education, as described in her book Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage, marked a radical departure from traditional content and methods. Instead of telling children what they ought to believe, Fahs encouraged them to ponder for themselves the mysteries of the universe and human destiny. “One’s faith,” Fahs wrote, “is the philosophy of life that gathers up into one emotional whole ... all the specific beliefs one holds about many kinds of things in many areas of life.” 

Fahs pioneered in exposing children to the stories, myths, and legends of other cultures, and to the discoveries of science. In place of rigid lesson plans and structured learning, she introduced painting, role-playing, and creative self-expression. In place of beliefs that are divisive, discriminatory, and damaging, she promoted beliefs that are expansive, inclusive, and gateways to wider understanding. She insisted that there is no special religious knowledge. Almost single-handedly, she shifted religious education from Bible-centered to experience-centered learning and from adult-driven to child-driven pedagogy. She was on the leading edge of developments in the field of religious education theory and practice. 

As the first female faculty member at Union Theological Seminary, Fahs’s ideas were developed in the context of the experimental Sunday School at Columbia University’s Teachers College, the Union School of Religion, and the Riverside Church School, each of them laboratories of religious education theory and methods. No doubt, were she writing and teaching today, she would still be looking for new ways of implementing her philosophy of creative religious development.