Supporting the Struggling Catechist

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by Marlene Sweeney

I remember the first time it happened. We were six weeks into our new catechetical year, and I was beginning to start each day with that sigh of relief that comes with a job well-done. Classes were up and running; orientations and new-teacher trainings were behind us; and I looked forward to another faith-filled year of working with the community in our shared catechetical mission. Then it happened.

I arrived at work one Monday morning to receive an e-mail, a phone call, and a short written message from three different volunteers all saying that they were in crisis mode and were rethinking their relatively new ministry commitments. They thought that perhaps being catechists was not their calling after all.

Unexpectedly losing a catechist is perhaps every DRE’s nightmare. But losing a brand new volunteer calls for introspection. This is what I learned since that incident.

Building Relationships

Relationships take time. DREs have a responsibility to try and get to know the people who come forth as catechists. Most parishes require basic biographical paper work to be completed and attendance at some training sessions. Some dioceses require background checks and additional training outside of the parish.

DREs often use personal interviews and/or one-on-one exchanges to further deepen their understanding of who their volunteers are. However, these early encounters will provide only a rudimentary and limited knowledge of these people who have come forth to serve.

Consider creating a Personal Profile form that you ask new volunteers to complete. The form might include: How do you prefer being contacted (e-mail, cell phone, home phone, etc.)? In what area do you feel you might need the most help as you begin your ministry as a catechist (discipline, prayer aides, craft ideas, etc.)? Develop a variety of specific questions that will help you know more about the person completing the form so that you are better equipped to build your new catechetical team.

However, nothing takes the place of time spent with a new catechist. Depending on the size of your program, arrange for social encounters with catechists to help build a more balanced perspective. Meeting for a cup of coffee, scheduling a drop-in week at your office, even planned home visits can invite a more relaxed getting-to-know-you experience during which you and a new catechist can begin to learn about each other.

Knowing that your new volunteer is the mother of five, works part-time, and volunteers at school provides insight into her reluctance to be called on for support at the last minute—unlike her predecessor, who was a retired teacher and relished filling in as needed.

Mutual Responsibility

Certainly you cannot be expected to know the details of every volunteer’s life, nor will you always recognize when someone needs assistance. Regardless of the size of your team, strive to build a community that is mindful of its responsibilities to one another.

Arranging for experienced catechists to be grade-level coordinators, mentor teachers, or partners with other catechists helps new teachers feel supported on many levels. As different issues or circumstances arise, struggling volunteers feel they can turn to more than one person for support.

Engaging with each other will reap great rewards. It establishes friendships. It helps ground deeper catechetical commitments. It assures less of a turnover from year to year.

How’s It Going?

Following all the training meetings and new-catechist orientation gatherings—and once the learning year has progressed for three or four weeks—I schedule a “How’s it going?” get-together. This invaluable opportunity brings everyone together to share how they feel things are going and to bring forth issues that are causing concern.

Other than opening prayer, plan no agenda for the first hour other than listening to each other. Do not respond to concerns expressed or issues that arise so that everyone has a chance to speak. Invite a person of the parish not associated with the program to take notes and list concerns.

Then, following a break that includes a special treat, come back together and engage in a super-brainstorming session. With all areas of concern posted, people imagine together all the different ways a given concern or issue can be approached. New and seasoned catechists benefit from the group’s ideas.

Following this meeting, I send each person a copy of the concerns and issues that were raised and the solutions the group discussed. I also review program procedures and class lists to see if I can make small and immediate changes based on the discussions from that gathering.

Early Intervention

Ministry can be difficult. It certainly is not meant to be a lone activity. Parishes need to offer volunteers a strong core of support: people who are willing to help them, offer prayerful guidance, and provide clear direction—especially when one is floundering. Early intervention can renew and perhaps even save a person’s commitment to the ministry of catechesis.

Marlene Sweeney, M.Ed., 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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This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, September 2011.

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