Advice from Master Catechists—April/May 2013

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by Janet Schaeffler, Kate Ristow, Dan Thomas, Chris Weber

How can we reverse the pastor’s decision about our DRE?

Q: Our pastor is “dismissing” our much-loved DRE for budgetary reasons. He has chosen an experienced catechist to take over the program. She is a wonderful person but has no training. Plus, everyone is upset that we are losing a great leader. This has not yet been announced to the parish at large. Could we do something to reverse the decision without creating animosity?

—D. E., concerned catechist

Chris Weber’s Answer

A: Unfortunately, by the time this column comes to print, you will be well beyond an opportunity to change the outcome. The only way you could save the DRE’s job would be to use a time machine.

Ah, a brilliant idea! For a moment, let’s assume that we have access to a time machine, and together take a ride.

As we settle into the machine, we set the dial to the week before your pastor made his decision. No—better than that—we set the dial to two years before he decided. As we arrive, and you meet your two-years-younger self, much about the parish appears the same. Your DRE is much beloved, and the parish is struggling financially. We hear that, because of the economic times, contributions have lagged. The parish needs to tighten its belt and establish clearer priorities for its resources. As you tell your past self the sad news about the DRE’s future departure, you and I make plans to save her position.

How will we convince the pastor that the DRE’s work is worthwhile? He needs to get this message from parishioners. Start by soliciting personal testimonials from some of your supportive families. Ask them to be specific about how your DRE has enhanced the faith life of the parish, and the qualities and skills that they value in the DRE. Encourage families and other catechists to write such letters throughout the year. A regular stream of these letters during a time when the program is not in jeopardy will be more effective than a slew of letters at the decision point.

Promote awareness of the Church’s ministry of catechesis in your classes and with your families. Ask your diocesan office for statistics on the number of children enrolled in catechetical programs, the number of catechists, and the number of full- and part-time personnel devoted to the work in parishes. Provide this information in “did you know?” statements within parent letters. Ask your DRE for inspirational quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the General Directory for Catechesis, and other resources. Use these quotes in student projects and crafts.

At the end of your catechetical year, invite your families to evaluate their children’s experiences and provide comments about the program. Where appropriate, respond to their questions and concerns, particularly if there are ways you can improve your class for students the following year. Pass on all of this to your catechetical leader so that she can monitor your progress and provide feedback. Involving parents and responding to their feedback builds understanding and helps them know the value of a well-run program.

Before we get back into the time machine, remind your two-years-younger self to work closely with the DRE and not to take her for granted. Even if your work is unsuccessful and she is laid off, your DRE will know how much she is appreciated, and your parish will be better equipped to take part in and support the ministry of catechesis.

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 the author of Jesus-Style Recruiting: A Fresh Look at Recruiting and Forming Parish Volunteers, published by Visual Dynamics Publishing. He is currently Director of the Mount Summer Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD.

Kate Ristow’s Answer

A: Boy! This is a tough one! Budget cuts are hard on everyone, but when they involve personnel—especially a beloved leader—it is likely to create turmoil and bad feelings.

Your letter did not tell us how this news was announced to the catechetical staff. Hopefully, if the pastor brought you together and explained the decision and why it had to be made, you probably were given a chance to express your feelings. However, you all may have been so shocked at the time that you simply weren’t able to speak up. Or people may have remained silent out of respect for the catechist who has been chosen to take your DRE’s place. After all, she has been your colleague.

If you received the news in a letter or an email (I cannot imagine a worse-case scenario than email!), you did not have a forum through which you could express your feelings. You certainly have a right to do so—either by writing a letter to your pastor, possibly signed by like-minded catechists, or by asking the pastor to meet with you.

However, I would tread lightly here. This decision was made by people who are much more aware of your parish’s finances than you are. It was probably a very painful process for all concerned. It is unlikely (unless you can come up with a plan to raise the money necessary to retain your DRE) that the decision will be reversed. If you organize a protest, it may create bad feelings on both sides of the issue. It may also reopen wounds that have begun to heal.

What I would do is talk to your DRE and ask her what she would like you to do. I suspect—because she undoubtedly knows exactly how the decision was made and what went into making it—that she will ask you to give your full support to the catechist who is replacing her. That would be a great gift—to her, to the new person, and to your program.

There is one other positive thing I hope you will do. Sit down and handwrite a letter to your outgoing DRE. Let her know how valued she is and how her example made a difference in your life. This will give her a tangible memory to take with her as she moves on. 

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, has worked in Catholic publishing for over 25 years as a national speaker and writer, building on a wealth of experience in the religious formation of children and catechists in both parish and Catholic school programs.

˜How do I arrange our program schedule after the tornado’s destruction?

Q: Our parish grounds and buildings were severely damaged in a tornado two months ago. At first, Father suspended the RE classes the first two weeks following the storm. But because he was overwhelmed and could not help me arrange alternate meeting places, he “cancelled” the program for the rest of the year. So that’s eight weeks of lessons the kids didn’t get. Where do I begin in the fall?

—G. T., DRE

Janet Schaeffler’s Answer

A: I’m sorry about the damage and suffering that you, your parish, and all the people in your area have endured. I hope that, by now, things have gotten easier for all those who were affected.

This happening might provide the chance to emphasize and experience some realities about ongoing faith formation as well as the “who, where, when, and what” of faith formation.

The loss of your parish space for a while certainly was a hardship, but does that mean faith formation stops? Can this be used as an opportunity to remind and empower the parents and families of their roles, of the reality that faith formation happens first in the family? 

If you can give parents the texts for each of their children in your religious education program, consider providing suggestions for ways to explore, discuss, pray about, and live the themes of your last eight weeks of the learning year. This direction could be given at parent gatherings (at the library or another church if parish space isn’t available), through mailed newsletters, through email, or via your parish website.

Perhaps, too, “everything in the book” doesn’t need to be “covered,” if that seems overwhelming to parents and families.

Another way you might help families is to provide core discussion questions, activities, family prayer ideas, and suggestions for everyday living and serving—all flowing from the core themes you have identified.

Another “content” question of faith formation might also surface at this time. Often, in the face of natural disasters, people ask: “Why is there evil and suffering in the world? Where is God in all this? How does my faith really help me in times like this?” As a catechetical leader, consider ways you can be sure to grasp this opportunity to help parishioners reflect on and talk about these perennial questions that undergird who we are as Catholic Christians.

Returning to your program and your question, why wait until the fall to begin? Is it possible to offer family events in which the entire family comes together during the summer? These gatherings, whether they are fashioned in the format of learning centers or age-group sessions coupled with family time, can be designed to reflect on some of the core themes that are covered in the last eight weeks of your curriculum.

Sometimes we might be tempted to say, “Parents won’t take the time at home and they won’t come to family events at the parish.” But attitudes change with crisis. In the face of hardship, people often respond with all that is needed. They realize how important their roles are. They understand the reality of how important their roles are in a larger picture of community.

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

Dan Thomas’s Answer

A: This is a difficult situation you are facing. Here are some options to explore.

First, offering a Vacation Bible School, if you are not doing that now, might be one option. There are many VBS programs out there and most of them are relatively easy to do. But you do need to get started quickly to organize this well. This could be suggested to parents as a way to make up some of what was missed.

A second option would be to design or search out activities that can be done at home. Most of the textbook series include parent-child pages and/or family activities. It certainly would require some challenging work on your part to put together a “course description” for parents to follow between now and the fall. There is the additional problem that some families will do them and others will not. But for those who are interested, this should be helpful.

Using the Sunday liturgy as a resource might be another way to help the children to “catch up.” There are both online and print resources that could help this process. Websites from the various religious education publishers are full of ideas and activities that could be used by families.

I would also suggest using this crisis and its spiritual/religious dimensions for reflecting, sharing, and praying. If there are specific community events happening to deal with the consequences of the tornado, find ways to fit them into your parish program.

The best approach probably would be to use all of these and any other suggestions you can think of in order to give a wide range of options. The more options you offer, the more likely it is that families will choose one.

For those who don’t catch up, there is the consolation of the spiral curriculum that most publishers use. It covers the same topics (God, Jesus, the Spirit, Church, etc.) each year at more depth and in different ways in order to integrate those learners who haven’t been part of the program previously.

This is a situation that, for me, points out the importance for pastors to consult their religious education professionals and staffs before making decisions. When a pastor does not consult beforehand, he may not be aware of all the consequences of his decision. Consultation gives him the opportunity to find alternatives. It can help him be less overwhelmed because there is support and mutuality in the decision-making process. Eight weeks is a large chunk for any religious education program to lose; failing to explore alternatives is not a good thing.

This certainly is a challenging situation. Reflecting on what was done well and what could have been done better is an important learning experience for the parish and the pastor.

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.

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