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Advice from Master Catechists—February 2011
by Kate Ristow, Dan Thomas, Chris Weber, and Sister Janet Schaeffler
What are the pros and cons of students meeting in catechists' homes? Should I make a change near the end of the year?
Q: The learning spaces on our parish campus are terribly limited. What are the pros and cons of classes meeting in the catechists’ homes or in the homes of other parishioners who are willing to open their homes for this purpose?
—Paula, Modesto, CA

Chris Weber’s Answer
A:
I have a bias against holding classes in parishioners’ homes. For every pro that I can raise, I immediately think of an accompanying con. Here are some of my examples.

PRO: Classes in homes provide for a more intimate and relaxed setting, conducive to building rapport and community.
CON: That same intimate and relaxed setting poses a hazard regarding liability and child protection concerns. It is a lot harder to monitor what goes on in a home. Living in the shadow of the Church’s sexual abuse scandals, many parishes consider this con the “deal-breaker” for holding classes in homes.

PRO: Home classes are convenient for catechists. They love the commute!
CON: Home classes are inconvenient for families. If a family has more than one child in the program, parents end up shuttling to multiple sites for drop-off and pick-up. 

Home classes are also inconvenient for the catechetical leader. They make it a lot harder for the leader to observe classes and to communicate last-minute program changes or upcoming events. While classes held on the parish campus afford the leader many opportunities to touch base with parents on a regular basis, home classes do not.

PRO: Home classes free up space on the parish campus.
CON: Home classes draw people away from the parish campus and a broader sense of their Catholic identity. They isolate the class from the rest of the community. The parish campus is the hub around which your parish life revolves. Holding your catechetical program on the parish campus reinforces the idea that we are part of something a lot bigger than “Mrs. Smith’s religion class.” This sense of the larger Church is harder to promote with everyone farmed out to people’s homes.

Some parishes may find home classes to be their only reasonable option. My personal opinion is that in most cases it would be better to rent space at another facility than to move classes into homes.


Chris Weber has worked in the field of catechesis for over 20 years: as a catechist, a parish catechetical leader, and a diocesan staff member. He is currently Director of the Mount Summer Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD.



Dan Thomas’s Answer
A:
This is a question that raises some interesting challenges in several areas.

One challenge is for the parish to look at its spaces and its priorities in making decisions about how the parish is going to catechize its young people. It is difficult to tell from your question what is causing the lack of space; it certainly is something the parish needs to look at.

With the needs of various age groups in mind, you may want to consider building a larger space or prioritizing the space you have.

A second challenge is to look at the way catechesis is done—and to consider options. Your question suggests one: to use the homes of catechists and other parishioners as the catechetical space.

Some of the positives of this could be the informal atmosphere, which moves away from the classroom model to a more formational approach. Also, this likely would have to be done in small groups, which is an approach the whole parish could explore for all faith formation groups, from children to adults.

Some negatives that come to mind are: the challenge of creating a strong learning environment in an informal setting; incorporating all the diocesan child-protection policies; and the organizing of the environment itself in using texts, learning resources, learning processes, and the like. It seems likely that with good organizing and planning, this could be done, along with a willingness to adapt as problems arise.

This situation also could provide the opportunity to take an entirely new approach to catechesis in your parish.

Peter Li, Inc. has a program called “The Gospel for All Ages,” which “uses lectionary-based periodicals as the cornerstone for whole community catechesis.” Go to gospelforallages.com for more information.

RCL Benziger offers the whole community catechesis approach, which is described at wholecommunitycatechesis.com.

Our Sunday Visitor has “Take Out: Family Faith on the Go”—a monthly eight-page mini-magazine that is part newsletter, part inspiration, part catechesis—and the “Catholic Parent Know-How” series, a magazine to help parents educate their children in the Catholic faith.

Bill Huebsch and Leisa Anslinger have been presenting what they call “coaching parents to form their own children in faith.” For a fuller explanation, go to pastoralplanning.com/Partnership-Parents.html.

Your question suggests that you and your parish take the time to look at what you are doing now, to investigate the limitations of your current space, and to explore ways to utilize the human and physical resources you have in ways that will serve your catechetical vision. What an opportunity!


Dan Thomas served in catechetical leadership for over 30 years and remains involved in the national Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL). He and his wife, Eileen, are the parents of two adult sons.


****


Because one of our two third-grade catechists needed to quit a few months ago, we’ve been managing with one catechist teaching 23 youngsters. So when our parish learned that it would have a seminarian for four months, I immediately decided to split the third-grade group again and have Jason teach one of the groups. I observed him for several classes, though, and I don’t think this is going to work. Jason seems more interested in entertaining the kids. He gets off track easily and tells too many of his own stories. There are only five classes left. What would be best for the kids: re-assemble the large group for the one catechist or pray for the best with what Jason is doing?
—B.A., DRE

Sister Janet Schaeffler’s Answer
A:
Before venturing a possible option for the remainder of the year, I have a few questions and a reminder for all of us.

Before placing new catechists into catechetical sessions, do we ascertain what their prior experiences have been in teaching? If they haven’t taught before or haven’t taught at this particular age level, do we provide them with formation? (I know such formation can’t be extensive before they begin, but we can offer some basics: things to do, things not to do, good methods.) 

If there is more than one catechist teaching at a specific grade level, do we schedule times for those catechists to get together for lesson planning, sharing, and exploring what’s working and what’s not working? The catechists in these groups who have been teaching the longest can offer great help to the less experienced. When and if a new catechist joins the team in the middle of the year, that person would have built-in support from which to learn the tricks of the trade from the wisdom of experience.

The ideal, of course, is for the section head or director of religious education to meet with these teams for prayer, ongoing formation, lesson planning, and consistent sharing of how things are going. 

Do we meet with catechists after we’ve observed them in the classroom and compliment them on all the fantastic things they are doing? One (and certainly more) compliment goes a long way! If we do notice things that might not be the best for the learners in a group and for the group’s catechist, we offer a supportive gift by engaging the catechist in a discussion about how he or she feels things are going and providing suggestions and tips for growth.  

And the reminder for all of us: Don’t assume that certain people—just because of who they are—will make good catechists. 

So what might you do for the rest of the year? Compliment Jason on what he does well. Encourage his potential and let him know that you want to help him to continue to learn and develop his talents as a catechist.

Perhaps for the remaining five classes, bring the two groups back together and ask Jason and the other catechist to team teach. It would take planning on their part, but Jason could do what he’s good at (under supervision), and he could learn much by being with the other catechist in the catechetical setting.


After many years in parish and diocesan catechetical ministry, Janet Schaeffler, OP, is currently involved in catechetical/adult faith formation consultation, writing, workshops, days of reflection/retreats, and teaching. Her website is janetschaeffler.com.


Kate Ristow’s Answer
A:
A few months ago? You’re lucky the other catechist hasn’t quit, too!

Twenty-three kids are way too many students for even one “emergency only” session. You need to develop a sub list—one for short-term situations (an occasional class here and there) and one for extended circumstances like the one you describe in your question.

Choosing Jason was an excellent decision. All seminarians need to learn about the importance of religious education and the challenge of teaching kids at all levels. Jason sounds like a kid-magnet; no doubt the students look forward to their classes with him.

When I read your question, a Maya Angelou quote immediately came to mind: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I bet Jason makes the kids feel great. He will probably be frozen in their minds as the best religion teacher EVER!

I know it’s bugging you that Jason isn’t teaching the lesson plan, but think for a moment about the great example he’s providing. He’s a happy Catholic. He’s giving his life in service to the Lord and the Church. He’s excited about his faith and working with kids! Jason is a gift.

As the DRE, you are responsible for helping Jason keep that joyful (albeit goofy) spirit, while helping him grow as a catechist. Schedule a meeting with him. Let him know how contagious his enthusiasm is and how well the kids are responding to him. Then, without curbing his enthusiasm, give Jason some hints on how he can complete a lesson in the time allotted for the session. Using his catechist guide, walk him through the next chapter, pointing out what absolutely must be covered. Encourage him to continue to find ways to engage the kids, but emphasize that he must complete the chapter objectives.

Jason is probably trying to wing it every week; he may not be putting in the prep time he needs to plan a lesson. He’s relying on his charm and ability to relate to the kids to get him through. Help him see that he can capitalize on the fact that he has the kids in the palm of his hand—by actually teaching them.

It’s the Mary Poppins’ doctrine: a spoonful of sugar, y’know.

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.


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