OWL Access, Part 1 -- Cooley & Landrum

This is part one of a four-part series about increasing access to Our Whole Lives, written by Dawn Cooley and Cynthia Landrum.  In the following pieces we'll go into more depth about the struggles and work-arounds of different-sized congregations, and some proposals for possible solutions.  Part One is by Cynthia Landrum with input from Dawn Cooley.

 Our Whole Lives (OWL), the UUA/UCC lifespan sexuality education curriculum, is a tremendously important program for our churches.  It provides the most comprehensive sexuality education available at all ages.  It sets our churches apart for their healthy attitudes towards sex and sexuality.  It literally saves lives, and it has the potential to transform communities.  We're justifiably proud of this curriculum.  When we point to what is ground-breaking, innovative, and cutting-edge in our movement, we can (and should!) point to OWL.  In a society with unhealthy attitudes towards sex and sexuality prevalent, OWL has a unique and important role in our movement and in our congregations.

Though OWL is an incredibly vital and important program, is is also the most inaccessible program for congregations to offer.  Its high pricetag for training and materials sets the cost above the reach of many of our small congregations.  This is the bulk of our churches -- in MidAmerica, for example, half of our churches are under 100, and 2/3 are under 150.  That inaccessibility for most churches then ensures that the trainings become less frequent, making travel more of a cost for the mid-sized and larger churches.  

How much does it cost to get OWL started in your congregation?  It depends partly on travel, but let's suppose that I was interested in OWL for my grades 7-9 junior high group, and I wanted to get training sometime between July and September.  I have five choices: Bozeman, MT ($250 plus lodging); Corvallis, OR ($225 plus lodging); Bellevue, WA ($250 plus lodging); Nashua, NH (unclear price); and Murray Grove in Lanoka Harbor, NJ ($375 including lodging).  Note that these numbers do not include travel to these locations!

Let's say I decide to rule out the ones at UCC churches because I want to be trained in the UU faith component of the OWL program.  So cross off Nashua and Bozeman.  From my location in Michigan, it's therefore cheapest to get to Murray Grove, where the lodging is included.  OWL requires two facilitators, so our costs would look something like this ( without counting incidentals, travel cost to/from the airport, and meals):
$750 - Registration and Lodging for 2 people
$400 - Air Fare
$120 - Books (curriculum, companion book, advocacy manual & parent guide)
$1270 - Total Cost
Keep in mind that is the cost for getting trained to facilitate one age group.  The 7-9 junior high training is the most expensive for materials, but also the most commonly offered.  Other age ranges would have lower material costs, but one might have to wait much longer for training or travel much further.  Regardless, a $1270 cost for offering the program would cut a pretty large-sized hole in my small-sized budget.  If we wanted to get a third person trained, allowing us to rotate facilitators so as not to rely solely on just two facilitators, the costs are even higher.

These costs also don't include the time off from work that is required for those who get trained - the training is 2.5 days, not including travel time. Most people would be required to take at least one, possibly more, days off work in order to attend.  This hidden cost further limits who can participate in facilitator training.

The UUA estimates that as of 2009, more than half of UU congregations had at least one facilitator trained at one level.  That means it's likely even fewer have two trained facilitators, and fewer still have two for more than one level of OWL.   

Compare this to another UUA program that UU congregations are encouraged to participate in, which also requires a substantial time investment with multiple leaders: the Welcoming Congregation program.  The vast majority of congregations across the country have become Welcoming Congregations.  In Michigan, for example, the number is 82% of congregations -- all but three.  The materials are all online, and no facilitator training is necessary.  This program has been extremely successful in helping our congregations become more welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. In part, its success is due to the lack of barriers to participation in the program, barriers which the OWL program unfortunately continues to have.  There are reasons for some of these barriers, but some of our thinking around them is outdated.

According to the Religious Institute, one of the hallmarks of a sexually healthy congregation is that it offers comprehensive sexuality education at every age level.  But too many of our UU churches don't meet this benchmark, or scramble to do so.  It's time to make OWL accessible for all churches.

Edited to fix a typo.


  1. Anonymous11:07 AM

    I agree that the way training is currently offered is unsustainable. One of the reasons the costs are so high is that there are so few trainers. To host a training, the host congregation must cover travel, housing, and food costs for the two trainers. When we have hosted trainings in Dallas, we've had to cover costs to fly trainers in from as far away as California.The host church must also provide approximately six meals for attendees, provide copies of all handouts, and provide all necessary supplies (markers, easels, newsprint pads, candies, snacks, etc.) All of this costs money and leaves a pretty decent carbon footprint as far as travel goes.

    Realizing that the ideal situation would be to have certified trainers for all OWL levels in our own congregation (which means less expense for attendees not only our church but for others in Texas), we contacted the UUA about sending six people (all of whom have taught OWL for many years) to a "train the trainer" training. In addition to the hurdles you've outlined above, the requirements to become trained to lead an OWL training (train the trainers) are a challenge. First, there is a limit to how many people may attend from any one congregation and on top of that each person who gets trained must agree to provide three trainings a year for other congregations desiring to have people trained to teach OWL. That means that once trained, a person must be willing to fly across the country, miss work, and leave family. Many people who would be happy to be trainers for their local congregations simply would not be able/interested in traveling across the U.S. and losing additional income.
    It seems to me that a different approach would be more sustainable. Why not make a concerted effort to train and four trainers in specific geographic locations throughout the U.S. For example, four trainers in each of what used to be the UUA's districts?
    Maybe this isn't the answer. Perhaps there's a better one than what I've proposed. I do believe, however, that there's got to be a better approach/system than the one currently in place.

  2. It seems to me that we could accomplish an awful lot of the training through video conferencing, although it will require some creative thinking to be able to make small group discussions and activities have the same impact online. Perhaps it could be linked to a small in-person retreat that happens at the GA location or a Regional Assembly location.

    In any case, I wouldn't want to see OWL dwindle away for lack of participation -- it is just too important and influential to neglect.

  3. Cynthia and Dawn wrote -- "Let's say I decide to rule out the ones at UCC churches because I want to be trained in the UU faith component of the OWL program. So cross off Nashua and Bozeman."

    For what it's worth, the two "UCC" trainings you've mentioned are being led by a team with one UU facilitator and 1 UCC facilitator. That would provide for inclusion of UU faith content even with a non-UU organization sponsoring the training.

    The OWL workshops where trainers are trained often have a mix of UU, UCC, and secular/community educator participants. This gives all of us plenty of opportunities to have conversations about the connection between sexuality and our respective faith traditions

    And my experience has been that many OWL training workshops contain a mix of UU and UCC participants (and sometimes participants from other traditions -- Disciples of Christ, Methodist, Episcopal, Ethical Culture, etc). This often happens even in workshops sponsored by UU congregations or organizations with two UU facilitators leading the training. It's pretty common even for a UU-sponsored OWL training to have some inter-faith conversations.

    It might be worthwhile having a conversation with your regional UU staff (what used to be district staff before the recent reorganizations). Are they planning to have any workshops closer to home for your folks?

    Maybe your regional staff has OWL trainings planned for your region but didn't know they can (and should) submit them for listing on the UUA and UCC OWL training calendars? This has happened before and may reflect lost institutional knowledge with UUA regionalization.

  4. Fortunately, Steve Caldwell has pointed out your misunderstanding about what it means when OWL training is held at a UCC church. That is simply a location, not an indication of the the content of the training nor who is leading the training. As for locations, if you had not cut off the date range at Sept. 1 you would have been able to mention other locations of trainings in the month of September. I suspect that most Owl programs do not get started in early September.
    As expensive as it is to get an OWL program going, once a congregation is able to offer it, the costs can be more than covered over the years (not to mention it is totally worth the expense anyway). At a small UU congregation I used to serve as Director of Religious Education, the Jr. Owl and Sr. Owl have become known in the community and families pay to have their non-UU children attend.
    The initial costs of getting facilitators trained can seem daunting, especially for a cash-strapped congregation and/or a geographically distant-from-others congregation. I can only stress that it is totally worth it. Of course, the congregation as a whole needs to be in support. Perhaps things like video-conferencing could be employed, similar to how some online religious education Renaissance Modules are being tried out by the UUA. Having taken the OWL training, it is hard for me to imagine it as being as effective with this intense topic. Personally, I think the wealthier congregations in any one region could help out other congregations with the common goal,of increasing OWL program availability. But that is another whole issue...
    Finally, Comparing OWL programs to the Welcoming Congregation program is like apples to oranges. They are very different kinds of educational programs.

  5. Steve & Jetplains, I take your point about crossing off the UCC church locations. However, it was not really the point. Neither of those would have decreased the cost for my congregation, and it was really just a means of winnowing it down to the hone that was easiest to price out. However, I take the point that OWL training at a UCC church is not UCC-specific training.

    As you'll see in Part 2, one of the things I tried to do in trying to make OWL work in my congregation is work with my local UCC churches. So I'm not opposed to that, and actively engaged in that. It really was a matter of dwindling it down to one reasonable choice so that I could price it out for you.

    My regional staff folks are aware of a desire for more OWL training in our region, but our region is vast. Chances are, my costs are still going to be similar to what I described. Again, the point here is to create a reasonable analysis of what it would cost to go to an OWL training. It is not an inexpensive proposition to get a congregation able to host OWL. We're 45 minutes from any other church, and we're small, so odds are you're going to have all the fees the same except for some potential difference in flight costs or gas/mileage.

    It may be "worth it" as you say, and I know I believe wholeheartedly that it is vitally important, but is it worth my firing a staff person? What if that's my few-hours-per-week RE staff person who might have been who I would send? Because that is literally, without exaggeration, what it would take to put OWL training into my small church budget.

    This is a small church problem. But churches under 150 are 2/3 of the churches in my region, and 1/2 are under 100. Until we're making OWL something that small churches can do, we're not trying hard enough.

    I think OWL is tremendously important, which is why it needs to be more accessible, and we need to think about ways to make this possible for ALL congregations.

    Lastly, yes, apples and oranges. But the point is, there are things we know how to spread across our whole association, and our life-saving and critically important sexuality education program is just not one of them. I think OWL is too important to just accept that situation and not address how to change it.

  6. Scott -- good ideas of using GA and Regional Assemblies in conjunction with online trainings. In part 4 we'll address some of our ideas, and you'll see online training there, you might guess, knowing me & Dawn...

  7. Anonymous6:18 PM

    We budget for OWL training on an ongoing basis, even though we do not offer middle school OWL every year. What I notice is that after doing the facilitator training weekend and then leading the many, many weeks of OWL, our adult facilitators are not much interested in repeating the long weeks of leading the course.

  8. Anonymous6:25 PM

    These issues are real for us right now as I try to get another person trained for the Adult/YA OWL facilitation. There has not been one offered in our New England region for many years. The few available trainings conflict with her schedule, and even so, they are flights away. I went to Columbia Maryland for a training for the Adult/YA program. It was a great weekend of all ages training offered. But I had travel, hotel, and registration costs.

    I am interested in knowing what people actually charge non-members to attend the Middle School OWL course. That might offset much of this cost.


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