What has changed in your catechetical planning since March 2020?
What has been surprisingly fruitful?
The pandemic exposed and accelerated the same issues we had prior to March 2020. (See “Facing a New Reality.”) Critically examine what you do and why. Since we are forced to move in a new direction, think about what can be pruned for new growth. Perhaps a blessing of these strange times is this opportunity to reassess and forge new ways of proclaiming the Good News. New methods open the possibility of being even more transformative.
Two areas important to every catechetical leader are volunteer recruitment and catechetical methods. Following are some things to think about when planning.
New ways of recruiting and supporting catechetical volunteers are necessary. If professional educators are experiencing difficulty navigating today’s learning environment, volunteer catechists are sure to be overwhelmed. Have you helped your volunteers or potential volunteers discern and reflect on their charisms? Are you aware of the gifts you need in your ministry? Are you open to utilizing the gifts that are available, even if it means reconfiguring your ministry? Is finding a warm body more important than helping a parishioner use his or her gifts for the service of the community? In what ways are you inviting people to live their baptismal calls more deeply? How can you help volunteers further develop the gifts they have?
Before making assumptions and issuing directives, check in with your volunteers. How are they doing personally? Do they have the ability, desire, and time to continue to volunteer, but in a different way? Explore their comfort with, knowledge of, and access to computers and the internet. You may find that some people no longer want to volunteer. They may be using the pandemic as a way to “escape” from ministries where they are not a good fit. Perhaps you are eager to help a volunteer find a more appropriate ministry. For the good of the community and the volunteer, establish term limits. At the end of volunteers’ “terms,” help them discern where God is calling them.
Your parish may be relying increasingly on technology. Recruit others who can give computer support. Provide tutorials and practice sessions with video conferencing platforms. Can a local campus ministry provide support and a place for students to volunteer?
The major religious education publishers all have digital resources and are adding more each week. Contact your representative to learn about these resources. Share them with your catechists and brainstorm ways they can be used with your faith community. Be open to the possibility that a new method may be even more effective than a previous way!
For example, at St. Mary’s Parish, preparation for First Communion has always been through the parish Catholic school or parish religious education program, with minimal participation from the parents. This year, the parish provided the materials to the families with a simple and clear outline of expectations and a timeline for completion. The packet included not only a brief faith formation handout for the parents but also access to short videos as well as more in-depth choices for the parents. The second-grade catechist regularly checked in with the families and answered questions, offered suggestions, and gave encouragement. Some families used the digital resources from the publisher while others preferred the print textbook. The parish offered a choice of several family “mini-retreat” options online, and about half of the students participated. Already the parish catechetical leader is getting feedback that this has been a special time for the First Communion families, and they enjoy learning together. Eventually, the children will celebrate First Communion at the parish with their families.
Does this mean First Communion at St. Mary’s was not done correctly? If the point of sacramental preparation is to assist families in preparing their children, then St. Mary’s Parish did a great job. Perhaps the “we’ve always done it that way” mentality so prevalent at our parishes should be set aside.
If the parish has a goal to provide faith formation for the children in grades K-8 who do not attend Catholic school, it does not necessarily mean the children must go to the parish for weekly classes. A parish catechetical leader could gather a group of parents and catechists and brainstorm creative ways of achieving this goal. If a weekly Bible study was a treasured adult faith formation gathering, a parish leader may meet with participants to discuss how to continue the gathering. Additionally, talking with other adults who wished to participate but were unable may generate new ideas that make the Bible study more accessible for others.
Guard against trying to fit traditional ideas into new methods. Using an online video conferencing platform for faith formation may be a creative idea, but expecting a child to sit for forty-five to sixty minutes listening to a volunteer catechist teach online is unrealistic for both the child and the catechist. Children who are also attending classes during the school day are already experiencing fatigue from being online for hours. Families are experiencing unprecedented stress. Jesus offers hope and healing to these families. Your faith community should reach out in support rather than make unrealistic demands. Here are a few possible alternatives. Your parish or diocese may create even better ideas.
- Flipped classroom model: This could be utilized for both children’s formation as well as adults. Applied to a parish catechetical situation, the learner spends some time learning new concepts at home (with resources you provide), and then the catechist checks in with the learner to help with comprehension and application. Ideally, the learner would then complete a post-lesson project to apply and synthesize the new concept. This could work for Bible-study groups, faith-sharing groups, and RCIA.
- Family catechesis: You may have wanted to try this model. Now is your chance! Instead of asking families with more than one child to supervise separate lessons, provide them with thematic lessons they can do together. The publisher of the catechetical textbooks you use should be able to assist you.
- Independent online or book learning: This is not ideal, but it could be a possibility for families who can manage it well. The parents would homeschool their children using print or digital resources provided by the parish. Some publishers have online assessment tools, or there are print resources available.
- Home kits provided by the parish: This requires coordination and more effort, or a parish can purchase ready-made products. The parish supplies a bag or box of catechetical materials, simple instructions, and inexpensive gifts for the family. They could be hand delivered to each family by a representative of the parish, such as the catechist, or the parish could host a “drive-by” day to pick them up. An outside gathering could take place where families could pick up the materials, enjoy a treat, and safely visit with the catechetical leader and catechists to learn about the bags. The beauty of this option is the strong connection to the faith community, and the bag becomes a sign of support and caring for each family. Solicit feedback from the family before creating the next home kits. Start with a manageable twice a year and work up to four times per year, or according to the liturgical season. The home kit could also be used in conjunction with one of the other models.
- Dinner-table catechesis: Instead of a longer catechetical session for each child or as a family, break it down into small prayers and tasks over several nights. Now that most families are eating together again, this is a perfect opportunity. Provide the schedule, prayers, and catechetical materials. Here is an example: link to videos on RCLB website?
- Service: Reach out to youth with ideas for service in your community and a specific time period for completing the service. They can be paired with a senior citizen or single parent who needs a yard raked or a walkway shoveled. Then plan a follow-up to discuss the experience. Offer a short prayer and meditation on Matthew 25:40. Offer opportunities for youth, adults, and families to share their own ideas about how they may be able to use their skills and talents to serve the community.
- Making it real: Find out what current issues youth and adults in your community care about. Give them a brief lesson on theological reflection and the tools to research Catholic teaching on these issues. Then plan a panel discussion to discuss the issues in light of Catholic theology.
- Tailgate theology: Weather permitting, invite families to bring a sack dinner and chairs. Use the church parking lot to spread the family groups out. If your parish has a playground, all the better! Allow the younger children to run around while the others take part in an adult faith formation session.
- Reaching out: Try quick video reminders from the parish catechetical leader or catechist. Use a smart phone to record a one-minute message. Send handwritten, personalized notes to youth from the staff, using paper and pen. Deliver a treat such as a pizza to students or families who earn a certain number of points for participation in faith formation activities.
- Engagement: For all online sessions, use music and games to increase engagement. Play music as participants gather. Use short video clips or visual aids.
- Invitation: Invite young adults to interview long-time parishioners by phone or video call. Provide a list of conversation starters, such as what they remember about the parish fifty years ago, or how their families celebrated Christmas. These parishioners could be introduced to the parish through a video or a written story, and the whole collection could be archived for historical purposes.
Consider various methods of assessment and evaluation. When developing an evaluation, keep it brief, but ask the right questions. It may be more useful to know whether participants learned something new than whether they enjoyed the experience. When possible, avoid simple yes-or-no responses. Rather, provide a scale or specific indicators to help respondents provide meaningful feedback. If possible, use more than one method to reach the greatest audience and gain the most information. It is important to listen with an open heart and mind. Then follow up on the responses and seek specific ways to improve. Ask for examples of projects from the faith formation lessons, photos or scans of unit assessments, or photos of family altars or other creative activities. Some ways to gather feedback include:
- Phone calls to the family, with a check sheet for the caller to complete informally as he/she speaks to the family
- Text messages
- Online surveys or paper questionnaires
- Small gatherings of families for quick check-ins, prayer, and feedback