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'Tis the Season
by Marlene Sweeney
Directors of Religious Education rely on volunteers. The task of transmitting faith from one generation to the next depends on many voices and helping hands.
Directors of Religious Education rely on volunteers. The task of transmitting faith from one generation to the next depends on many voices and helping hands. Although children learn about God and the practices of their faith from their families, most parishes recognize the need for additional adults who will teach the young about the essentials of our faith as well as be living models of faith. These volunteers come in all ages and are a priceless treasure in every local setting.

Catechists, classroom aides, program volunteers, and office helpers are each a necessary part of children’s ministry; as directors we could not run our programs without their generosity. So whenever the holiday season arrives, I find myself searching for the perfect way the parish can gift these people, affirm their ministries, and thank them for investing themselves in the next generation of Catholics. Here are some collected ideas.

The Gift of Affirmation

I once wrote a letter to a young teacher who had a great influence on our then ten-year-old son. The young man’s style of teaching and the stories he shared made a difference in our son’s outlook on school and life. I wanted the teacher to know how his words had challenged and inspired my son and consequently his words were carried home to the rest of our family. Many years later I met that teacher at a social function and he confessed that he had carried my simple note of affirmation in his briefcase for most of his career.

That was a great moment of conviction for me. People need to know that they are being instruments of grace in our lives. We need to affirm others’ talents, kindness, and generosity. As leaders in our parish we have been blessed with witnessing many God-moments between catechists and children, volunteers and parents. We need to capture those instances and reflect them back to the recipients. What a wonderful gift it is to have someone share with you how they see God working in your life.

Perhaps this Thanksgiving you can begin to write and send personal expressions of gratitude to those men, women, or teens who have generously given of themselves to your community. As we enter Advent you might reflect on “those messengers of God” you have seen on a weekly basis. Or this Christmas let your volunteers know what a gift they are to the children who depend on them to teach and be models of faith in our midst.

Nothing Says Thank-you Like…

Sharing personal affirmations with volunteers calls for observations and relationships. There are always some good, dependable people who you may never know on an intimate level. I once had a young mother in a program who organized and coordinated a huge piece of curriculum without ever leaving her house. Reaching out to these volunteers is equally important, maybe more so because you lack regular personal contact with them.
Organizing a holiday social that includes all levels of volunteers may be one way you can thank people and build relationships. Considering how hectic the season is, one DRE always hosts a post-holiday (within the Christmas season) Sunday afternoon tea. She makes several different types of tea and serves Christmas cookies and dessert breads. It is a simple but elegant treat.

In another parish, volunteers are invited to come with their families on a Saturday evening, following Mass, to enjoy pizza and a holiday movie. Still another parish offers community recognition and blessings on its ministers during the Thanksgiving liturgy. All are attempts at acknowledging and thanking these men and women who serve our children. 

Perfect Gifts

I still laugh when I think of my early years as a catechetical leader, of trying to find the perfect gift for parish volunteers. I recall my office being filled with close to 200 odd shaped candles, all needing to be wrapped; or Christmas stockings needing to be stuffed with various books or CDs; or plaques, ornaments, and pen sets; or numerous other paraphernalia that fell within my limited budget, were gender neutral gifts, and had a religious theme. While my intentions were good, I now realize how impossible the task was that I had set for myself.

First, there is never any “perfect” gift. Second, I had so many necessary parameters due to finances and the diversity of the receivers. (It seems comical now). Finally, the recipients already had the perfect gift—these were the committed men and women of faith in our community whose very life was gift to all of us. What else could they need?

Marlene Sweeney, Med, MA, is a Certified Pastoral Associate in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Marlene is a writer and poet whose works have appeared in numerous books and periodicals. E-mail Marlene at

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