Mandy was at my office door—again. This was the third time this month. She asked if I had a minute and then launched into a thirty-minute lamentation about her co-catechist. “Mike is too laid-back.” “He does not prepare properly.” “Mike is misleading the kids with how he teaches.” This was nothing new; those two had been having difficulties since the beginning of the school year. Mike had his own set of “concerns” about Mandy—that she was too strict, that the kids were not enjoying themselves, and that she frequently wanted to skip the activity so she could lecture more.
Does that sound familiar? If you help out at a parish long enough, it is only a matter of time before you encounter scenarios like this one. It is part of the human condition to experience differences of opinion, pettiness, hurt feelings, negativity, and division. This can be the case not only between two catechists but throughout an entire program. What is a catechetical leader to do? Of course, team dynamics will never be perfect, but there are a few things we can do to help create a more productive and fruitful environment.
Build those relationships
Ministry is primarily about people. We sometimes forget this and place too much importance on programs, buildings, budgets, or curriculums. Our catechists are in the trenches directly ministering to our kids and their parents. They are the face of Christ to our young people. We are called to support them in this role. In many ways, we are a minster to the ministers.
Jesus spent much of his public ministry mentoring twelve guys for three years. That doesn’t sound very efficient. This flies in the face of our conventional wisdom and penchant for mass production. And yet, we cannot argue with the results. Perhaps it is time to rethink our current practices and embrace the model that Jesus established for us.
First and foremost, connect with each one of your catechists in a regular and authentic way. If you work in a large parish like I do, this can be especially challenging with all the tasks we need to take care of, but there are still ways to accomplish this.
Always make sure that catechists know that you value their input and wisdom. I frequently say to our volunteers, “Give me the good, the bad and the ugly.” Even if I wrote the curriculum or designed the session, I am not wedded to it. I need to know if it is effective or not. We cannot always accommodate catechists’ requests or suggestions, but truly listening to them goes a long way in building trust and respect. Take their concerns seriously and cherish the ideas they put forth. The more perspectives you get, the better your program will be. The bonus is that they feel heard and validated. It is a win-win for everyone involved.
Take an interest in your catechists personally. In this busy, chaotic world, it is very easy to be business focused. I am guilty of this on many occasions. Our conversations and relationships with our catechists can be almost entirely centered on program details. While some of that is necessary, it should not be the emphasis. Before all else, we need to care about them as a brother or sister in the Lord, and it should show in how we interact with them.
If you have the ability and opportunity, meet them for coffee and ask they are doing. Greet them at the doors when they come in to teach, and try to connect with them before and after class. Purchase a Mass intention for them if they have a loved one who passed away. Go through your list of volunteers and make a personal call to each of them during the slower periods of the year. Ask about their spouse and kids. Encourage them in their journey of faith. See if there is anything in particular you can pray for them. Friend them on Facebook. Of course, there are lots of different ways to accomplish a more personal touch, but whatever you do may become one of the most valuable things you do all year.
Equally important is to build community with the team. Have a midyear retreat or morning of reflection. Incorporate times of faith sharing and prayer into your catechist trainings. Don’t just focus on lessons plans and logistics. Use that time to build community. Create an atmosphere where catechists bond on deeper, more personal levels.
One way we have done this at our parish is to create a “Personal Profile.” Each catechist answers a series of questions about their faith life, family, personality traits, teaching style, and so on—nothing too personal, but enough to provide a snapshot of who they are and what they value. They then give that to their co-catechist as a starting point to getting to know one another. It also facilitates a conversation about their potential strengths and preferences in the classroom. This goes a long way to ensuring that they utilize their gifts and talents in the most optimum way, which then leads to a more life-giving experience for both catechists involved.
Embrace the vision
When people are mission minded, they are excited and motivated to focus on what really matters. Have a clear and compelling vision to inspire and encourage them. The good news is that we do not have to come up with the vision ourselves. The Bishops have done all the heavy lifting for us and have outlined our mission in the National Directory of Catechesis. Your catechists might not even be aware of this, or they might operate out of their own agenda or what they think they are there for. Highlight the vision up front, and remind them every chance you get. Also, make sure that you are not just spewing empty words or well-crafted phrases. Help your team to continually reflect and incorporate practical ways to live out this vision in the good work that they are doing.
Invest in your team
Do everything you can to encourage, equip, and inspire your team in their evangelical role. Here are a few ideas.
- If you have a local or regional conference, offer to pay half their registration fee to attend.
- Bring in outside speakers for your training or retreat day. Spending the time, money, and resources on your catechists helps them feel like you really care. There is something special about the “expert” coming in. I always tell people that when I do presentations and trainings at other parishes, people automatically assume I know so much more than they do, and they are more open to the message I have to share. The farther I travel, the smarter I become! It is that old “you cannot be a prophet in your own hometown” syndrome. I have done the same thing at my own parish over the years. I can certainly put on retreats or do trainings myself, but when I bring in someone new from the outside, my own catechists pay attention more.
- Give out great door prizes (not just cheesy ones) at the end of leadership trainings or meetings.
- Send out regular e-newsletters to keep catechists informed and inspired. Include links to short videos that will continue to form them.
- Host a midyear “Wine and Cheese” event to gather together for food and fellowship.
- Give out little appreciation gifts throughout the year to let them know that you are thinking of them and praying for them and their families.
- Publicly acknowledge their efforts with an insert in the bulletin and a full page on the website.
- Feed them often. Good food works for all ages.
Become a master communicator
You may think this is reserved only for those who appear to be naturally gifted in this area. However, effective communication is essential and possible for all of us. Increasing the amount of communication might be part of it. When we get busy, we tend to neglect keeping people in the loop on things. Then we wonder why our changes catch people off guard. Employ all types of vehicles to get your message across, including social media, emails, phone calls, posters, flyers, videos, testimonials, and face-to-face meetings. More important than quantity is quality. Do not just fire off an email with the bare essentials. Remember to start off friendly, positive, and personal. Inquire about people’s jobs, families, or life circumstances. Again, let them know that you care about them as individuals. From there, you can transition into the business at hand. Be sure to end with gratitude and encouragement. How we communicate is just as important as what we communicate. Yes, it takes more time and effort, but it will pay off dividends in the future.
Pray, pray, and pray some more
This may seem obvious, but it is amazing how often we neglect to offer up our work to the Lord. In my former life, I was an urban planner. Because I worked in the secular arena, my opportunities for spiritual items was very limited. As a result, I had a very strong and reverent quiet time with God every morning before I headed off to work. As I got into full-time ministry, I found my personal relationship with the Lord starting to wane. It was so gradual that I did not even realize the drift. Then it hit me one day that my prayer life was much more robust when I was not working for the church. It seems like ministry became my new idol of worship. I know many of you can relate to this. I have since made intentional efforts to attend daily Mass or go to the chapel for a few minutes during the day. This has helped tremendously. I have also been more consistent in praying about the many decisions I make in ministry as well as offering up the catechists, parents, and kids in my regular devotion time. Every move we make should ideally come under the inspiration and blessing of the Holy Spirit. It is only then when we will see the fruits of conversion that we so desperately long for.
We all have faults, failures, and insecurities. This can bring about tremendous challenges in working with our catechists. However, I implore you in the words of St. John Paul the Great: “Do not be afraid.” Embrace these principles, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, and know that our Lord will indeed bless you, your catechists, and your ministry with abundant grace!
Bruce Baumann is the director of faith formation at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Plano, Texas. He received his master’s degree in pastoral studies from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has been involved in professional faith formation ministry since 1996.
Bruce is a catechetical instructor in the Dallas Diocese and an adjunct faculty member for the Certificate of Pastoral Ministry Program at the University of Dallas. He also teaches at Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving, Texas, and is a life coach for the Living Your Strengths movement. Bruce is the author of the recently published book Catholic to the Core. He is passionate about training ministry leaders and has had the joy of presenting workshops and retreats at conferences and parishes around the country.