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Advice from Master Catechists - September 2009
by Kate Ristow, Dan Thomas, Chris Weber, and Sister Janet Schaeffler
How can I use "hard economic times" in my lessons? How can I share my personal stories with students?
How can I use “hard economic times” in my lessons?

Q: Many of my students’ families have been terribly hurt by the weak economy. How can I use their struggles and fears in my lessons?
—L.M., Philadelphia, PA

Kate Ristow’s Answer
Encourage your class to pray for those affected by hard economic times. Early in the year, remind students that God wants us to bring our worries and concerns to him in prayer. Explain that a great concern to many people is the financial situation of so many families. Work with the class to surface specific examples of how the economy has impacted families in your community, across the United States, and around the world.

The students’ list may include things like:
* people who are unemployed or those who have had their hours severely cut
* families who have lost their homes due to an inability to make their mortgage payments
* people who are homeless
* families who have no health insurance
* people who have difficulty paying their monthly bills or purchasing necessities like food, medication, and clothing

You may need to get this discussion started, but be careful not to scare students by giving them too much information. Although kids at almost every age know someone who has felt the impact of financial hardship of some sort, you don’t want them to fret that they might have to move out of their homes or that their moms or dads will lose their jobs. Keep the discussion age appropriate.

Work with the class to write a few petitions to include in your closing prayer for that session. In subsequent classes, remind students of people who are suffering because of the economy, and invite class members to offer spontaneous prayers.

Another tack you might take is to emphasize Jesus’ concern for the poor and his command to care for our neighbor. Review the Corporal Works of Mercy and ask the students to name specific ways they can support and comfort friends whose families are going through tough times. Help students appreciate that being a good friend when someone is troubled is one of the best things that they can do. Ask the kids to give examples of how they can show their friendship for classmates who are worried about their families’ finances.
 
You may also want to talk about the different ways your parish reaches out to people in need. Perhaps your parish has a food pantry or clothes closet or a ministry that helps those who are unemployed find work. Help your students organize program-wide canned-food drive or a “slightly used clothing” collection. Older students might get more actively involved by helping stock the pantry shelves or sort donated clothing by size.

A word of caution: If you know that one of your students has an out-of-work parent or some other financial problem, do not single out the child or mention it to the class unless the student asks you to do so. Your students’ privacy is paramount and must be respected.


Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to
CATECHIST, is National Catechetical Consultant for RCL Benziger. She has been involved in children’s religious education for over 25 years as a Catholic-school teacher and parish catechist.



Chris Weber’s Answer
Besides the economic woes, students also may experience struggles like bullying on the playground, the death of a peer, serious illness, and more. These concerns often surface spontaneously during shared discussion, in a child’s artwork, or through a spoken prayer. In these unexpected moments, offer direct but short reassurance and prayer.

Let’s take a fictional scenario with “Gina,” a second-grader. During discussion about the story of the lost sheep, Gina blurts out that her mother lost her job. The catechetical moment might continue like this:
Catechist: Oh, Gina, I am very sorry to hear that.
Gina: Yeah. My dad says she better find a job real soon or we are going to be in trouble.
Catechist: This is a very challenging time for a lot of people in our community. Children, let’s stop for a moment and say a special prayer for Gina’s mom: Dear Jesus, you are our good shepherd. You promised to care for us like a shepherd cares for his sheep. Please send your loving care to Gina’s mom and help her to find a new job. Be a good shepherd for everyone we know who is hurting or scared. Thank you for loving us so much! Amen.

To reassure Gina of your ongoing support, you might want to offer this kind of comment to her in several weeks, in a setting outside of class time: “Gina, I have been keeping your mom in my prayers. Is she doing okay?” 

In most cases, your attention to the issue need not be more detailed than this. In fact, spending too much time on an issue may actually escalate your students’ worries. Another ongoing way to address concerns is to have children add intercessions to a prayer box. Pull out one or two prayers each week to read aloud.

Throughout all of this, be sure to keep parents in the loop about their child’s concerns and worries. At the same time, be alert to the possibility that parents may be uncomfortable or embarrassed about what their child has shared.


Chris Weber is Director of the Catholic Education Ministries Center of Central Maryland, a regional office in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, MD. He is a frequent contributor to Catechist, and publishes monthly columns online at centralmdcatholic.org.



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How can I share my personal stories with students?

Q: What are some do’s and don’ts for sharing our own stories?
—Cory, Chicago, IL

Sister Janet Schaeffler’s Answer
One day, near the beginning of the year, a father picked up his young son after the child’s faith formation class. “How was class today?” he asked.

“Oh, all right,” the youngster replied.

“Just all right?”

“Well, yeah. I think my catechist must have been Jesus’ grandmother. He was all she talked about.”

We’ll return to this story in a moment because it has very much to do with your question.

As with much about life, the answer to your inquiry lies in balancing. Faith formation today isn’t just about passing on facts; it’s about sharing faith. It’s about relationships. We’re all on the journey together and we grow in our faith because we share our faith journey. Pope John Paul II said, “Today people don’t listen to teachers. They listen to witnesses. If they listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

Catechesis—the faith-formation journey—is about relationships. It’s about calling our children and youth to a relationship with our loving God and God’s family, not just a relationship with ourselves.

Look at your catechist manual (and that is one of your key guidelines to what to share) and its process for exploring personal experiences. It invites participants to talk about (or use other activities) to explore their own experiences related to the Catholic story. In this section, it would certainly be appropriate for you, as a catechist, to share your story—your favorite way of praying, your experience of Lent, etc.
 
The beginning story of the little boy calls us back to the guideline: The sharing of our personal stories is not about us. Everything we do is about the goal of catechesis: “The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ” (General Directory for Catechesis, n. 80).

In recent years, most dioceses have developed a pastoral code of conduct for volunteers. Some dioceses have guidelines for adults working with children and youth. Much has been explored regarding professional boundaries, including for teachers (for example, see oecta.on.ca/forteachers/essentialsots/boundaries.htm). One of the guidelines is that the relationship between teacher (catechist) and student is one that is friendly but professional. It is unacceptable behavior to become too personally involved, as a friend or confidante, etc. It is for this reason that our self-disclosure is a witnessing about God, rather than just stories about ourselves.
 

Sr. Janet Schaeffler, OP, Associate Director for Adult Faith Formation, Office for Catechetics, Archdiocese of Detroit, writes frequently for CATECHIST and other publications. She has many years of experience as a catechist and parish DRE.



Dan Thomas’s Answer
Let me begin by saying that sharing one’s personal stories can be a valuable activity. Putting our own self on the line is something that can speak about real-life situations and struggles to the young people in front of us. It puts the teaching that we are doing into real life in a way that can bring it down to earth. It can make us more real—people who struggle to live our faith.

So what kind of stories do we share? One criterion is based on the age of the children with whom we are sharing. With younger children, we might share stories about our own experiences when we were their age and how we responded to what we are teaching them. With older children, we might focus on how difficult it is sometimes to apply a teaching to a particular situation.

For example, to share our personal struggle with how to treat a homeless person with charity and concern raises a realistic difficulty that many, including me, have faced. Another example: I have often shared the story of getting angry at my son, hitting him (not too hard incidentally), and having him say to me later, “I thought we didn’t hit in this house.” I was challenged by his words to practice what I preached.

Of special note: Sharing stories about personal moral choices in the area of sexuality and sexual issues pushes at the boundaries. This is a bit more delicate and difficult because of the repercussions of what we share. It is important to weigh these carefully and cautiously with discretion.

Presenting authentic Church teaching is essential. While sharing personal stories has its place, sharing about the process of making decisions through thoughtful reflection and prayer is critical.

It is important that we share about our personal and communal relationship with the Lord, the impact that relationship has on our lives and the lives of others, and how difficult it often is to live that relationship in today’s world. Witnessing to God in our lives is a form of evangelization that we Catholics aren’t always comfortable with, but need to do with our learners and others each day. The world needs to hear how the Good News of God’s unconditional love has influenced us. What a difference that has made in my life!


Dan Thomas has been a DRE for 28 years and is involved in the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL). He and his wife, Eileen, are the parents of two college-age sons.




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