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The Fahs Collaborative Laboratory for Innovation in Faith Formation is both a holder of the Unitarian Universalist tradition of liberal religious education and a pioneer for faith-based practices that empower and sustain the human spirit. Sophia Lyon Fahs, the namesake of The Collaborative, was an early 20th century religious educator who knew all too well how systems of “organized religion” seemed to be more concerned about 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 descendent of the the Sophia Fahs Center for the Study of Religious Education which was housed on the Hyde Park campus of Meadville Lombard Theological School.  The Center, founded in 1993, 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 Center were generously given by the Fahs daughters, the Community Church of New York City, Meadville Lombard Theological School 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, the President of LREDA 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.

A "Listening Team" was formed that included the the Past-President of LREDA Anne Bancroft, Minister of Religious Education Rev. Linda Olson Peebles and Dr. Hicks. The team conducted ten 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 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 Theological School, the proud 20-year sponsor and fiscal agent of The Collaborative.  Comprised of outside-the-box educators and religious leaders, the conference produced structures, governance guidelines, and innovative programs that signaled that the power of creativity and innovation was still alive and well.

Sopha 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, Fahs’ 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.