|Office of Educational Services
Melkite Eparchy of Newton
1710 Surf Avenue – Belmar , NJ 07719
Voice 732-556-6917 – Cell 201-417-3804
Strategies for involving parishioners as catechists in your program
In churches of every description – Eastern or Western, historic or reformation, large or small, urban or rural – the recruiting of catechists is the major problem facing church school coordinators. This is a crucial issue as the person of the catechist s the single most important element in any program. A number of factors have been suggested a being the causes of this situation:
- 1 Being a catechist is not a role valued in the congregation or by the pastor;
- 2 Religious education is not a high priority in the parish;
- 3 Few in the congregation see the church school in action;
- 4 Catechists feel isolated and neglected;
- 5 Too many (or too few) students to deal with;
- 6 Little Parental support leading to erratic attendance by students;
- 7 Inadequate facilities, equipment and other resources;
- 8 Little sense of satisfaction or accomplishment evident;
- 9 Lack of training or support leading to catechist not succeeding in assignment;
- 10 Serving in the church school demands more time than a person may have to give.
All of these reasons are true and your parish program may be suffering from any number of them. In some parishes church school classes are dispensed with for any number of reasons, often because a social has been planned for the same time! In other parishes religious education receives little interest from the parish council, negligible funding, and no visibility to the whole parish. We would be hard pressed to find catechists who would be willing to serve under such conditions.
However, even when these situations do not exist, recruiting catechists is a perennial problem leading us to see other, even more basic reasons at the heart of the matter:
For a number of reasons, most parishioners have been led to believe that to be a good Christian one need simply be a spectator rather than a participant. One reason is that many see the most important aspects of church life, including worship and administration as well as service, as the province of the clergy. “We’re not smart enough” or “That’s what we pay him for” are often the reasons given for this attitude People who do get involved are often seen as ‘religious fanatics’, even by fellow parishioners. Thus the readiness of parishioners to serve as catechists is generally equal to the level of faith and discipleship as a whole in that parish.
As people become more aware that all believers are called to participate actively in all dimensions of the Church’s life, the number of people open to serve as catechists will grow. And so the first step in catechist recruitment as it were, is the raising of parishioners’ consciousness concerning what it means to be Church. Intensive preaching, parish renewal and adult enrichment programs, and a good deal of one-on-onediscussion is needed before that attitude spreads through a large sector of the community.
Whatever the percentage of parishioners committed to service in the parish, there is often a tendency toward competition between various parish activities for the good workers. Frequently leaders have the good of their own programs at heartand do not see any wider need in the parish. Similarly, since”George” will always say yes, everyone asks “George” to take on yet another task. The result is that “George” does it for a while,then gets so burned out that he won’t accept any more responsibilities in the parish. Then we look for a new “George.
Parish leaders need to evaluate their needs together and coordinate their recruiting activities so that all those in the parishwho are willing to serve will be placed in the best way possible. Leaders need also realize that certain tasks – and being acatechist is certainly the chief of them – are so demanding that a person who has accepted to service in this way should expect other parishioners to respect this commitment by not asking them to roll grape leaves, sell raffle tickets or otherwise divide their energies.
Our lifestyle is continually changing. Where a few years ago mothers of church school students were prime prospects for recruitment as catechists, today most of them are working outside the home. Some are also single parents with little time to themselves. And so we need to direct our attention to other subgroups in the parish as we’ll; the two principal ones being the parish “grandparents” and the childless young adults.
Persons in both these groups generally have more time to devote to the service of the parish family as they do not yet (or no longer) have families of their own to care for. In addition, both groups are ‘naturals’ for involvement in the church school as younger persons are often seen as role models for children and senior citizens as surrogate grandparents. This is especially important in our society in which children are often not part of the extended families in which such figures would traditionally have been found.
Realizing that all these obstacles must be overcome to make a significant difference in your catechist recruitment, we will offer here some procedural suggestions for recruiting. If these are followed without dealing with the above problems you may experience some success, but probably not much, Implementing them should go hand in hand with working to raise the awareness of the entire community to what Church is really all about.
In discussing recruiting procedures it may be helpful to see them in terms of the classic questions of news reporting: who, what, why, when and how.
WHOM DO WE RECRUIT?
The potential catechist must, first of all, be a Person of Faith who is committed to living the life of our Church and who has made its way of life and teachings their own. Persons whose commitment to the Church is more social than spiritual or whose personal beliefs exclude aspects of the historic faith or of our particular Tradition should not be asked to serve.
Those who evidence a desire to deepen their knowledge or skills for ministry in the Church by attending courses or by personal reading and who seem disposed to accepting the guidance and direction of the pastor and coordinator should be considered seriously as prospective catechists, as this ministry in the Church as much learning as teaching.
Believers whose creativity and imagination have made them teachers, whether naturally, as in the home, or professionally, in the classroom, may be particularly gifted to deal with particular age groups which would respond to these gifts. Thus a person comfortable with music, dance and storytelling would be particularly suited to primary grades. A person skilled in craft projects or drama may relate well to secondary or junior classes. Someone who can guide without patronizing or dictating would be especially appreciated in a high school group. A person who can help others synthesize their own experiences and the Tradition of the Church can be a invaluable catechist for adults.
WHO DOES THE RECRUITING?
Often it is the parish priest or coordinator who is the recruiter of catechists. Too often this means waylaying a prospect after Liturgy, giving them an inadequate idea of what is involved, and – since it is often a last minute kind of activity – being content with having plugged another hold in the dike.
One way which has often succeeded in increasing the number of volunteers is to increase the number of recruiters. By bringing more people into the process of enlisting catechists we raise their awareness of the nature of ministry in the Church as well as of the needs of the parish. Often this generates a number of spokesmen who can plead the cause of the catechetical program more effectively than any one person can do. Likely candidates as “associate recruiters” are:
Present Catechists – Discuss the above criteria for catechists with those presently involved in the program and invite each one to suggest one of their personal friends who might be suitable as a catechist. Ask them to open the subject with their friend and see if they are willing to learn more about what is involved. Then you take it from there.
Parish Council – The recruiting of volunteers for all grades of ministry and
other forms of parish activity should be a regular priority for the church council. If the council takes up this responsibility seriously It will surface more interest than can at first be absorbed. FOR WHAT ARE WE RECRUITING?
One of the obstacles to recruiting catechists, mentioned above is that
Many people simply do not have the time (or the inclination) to commit themselves to preparing classes every week for an entire year. They may accept under duress but often simply don’t show up for every session. The more varied interests people have, the more this is likely to be the case. One way of dealing with this problem is by offering alternative forms of service which do not demand such a weekly commitment. Several options are possible, such as:
Short term teaching – In this model people commit themselves to teach only one part of the school year. This may mean all fall, all spring, or summer school. It may also mean two or three out of the usual six units or quarters of the curriculum. Thus two teachers may be used in one class, with each teaching an alternate unit in the curriculum.
While alternating units or quarters may be a good idea, alternating every other Sunday is not. This deprives the students of continuity as this week’s teacher usually does not have a clear idea of what last week’s teacher stressed or required.
Even when catechists have made commitments to teach all year long, the alternating unit plan might prove successful if at least part of the catechist’s “unit off” would be devoted to skills enrichment.
In any case, indicate a clear beginning and ending time for this commitment. New teachers could be invited to attend staff meetings at one, although they do not begin teaching until the fall. Catechists should be urged to complete a predetermined time in the program (e.g. through the school year) before considering recommitment or dropping out.
Topic Teaching – Another approach to short term teaching is teaching by topics. People with particular interest may be asked to teach particular topics to various groups. Thus a person who has lived in the Holy Land may be asked to give the classes on bible lands or the saints associated with these places in the fourth or sixth grades. Similarly a person who is good at crafts may be asked to handle the activity portions of some classes. Especially if the regular catechist is all thumbs in such pursuits.
Student Teaching – Often teenagers become restless in church school. They are at an age when they seem to be in continual activity and sitting in a class doesn’t often fit their needs. They may be used as aides and even as occasional teachers in the younger grades. They will certainly learn more about the topic than they did when they were students in those grades and they might learn more than they would in a high school class as well. This would be most successful if several teenagers collaborated on a lesson. The coordinator could supervise and the regular catechists would not need to be present. This should not exempt them from any teen guidance-oriented sessions, however.
HOW DO WE RECRUIT?
The immediate strategy for catechist recruiting involves the following steps:
1 Determine Your Needs – Immediately after Pascha, Begin discussing the next year’s program with your present catechists. Determine who will be available to serve next year and which classes they would prefer to teach. You should ask teachers at this time to let you know within the month if they will be available for teaching next year, if they wish a year off, or is they want to leave the program altogether. There will always be contingencies which may affect their decision at a later date, but this will at least give you a general idea of how many new teachers you will need for the fall.
You may have dedicated volunteers whom you feel need a break, or who should be retired gracefully or transferred to other duties. Discuss these cases with the pastor, then approach each one personally and share your thoughts with them before they have renewed their commitment.
Determine what additional workers you may need because of program expansion (e.g., for adding preschool or high school groups to your program).
2 Pray About It – The next task in personnel recruitment is prayer that the Lord make manifest the gifts that He is giving to the community through the various members of the parish. This prayer is the first way in which we can discern whom the Lo4rd is calling to serve in parish ministry. The more who are involved in committee prayer that people acknowledge their gifts (clergy, parish council, present catechists), the more will such gifts be manifested in a survey or in other ways. We are not speaking here of a pro forma 45 second prayer at a parish council meeting, but a firm commitment to ask the Lord for the gifts He has promised.
Just as we pray for the development of gifts, we ought also to pray for discernment on the part of those responsible for accepting people to be catechists. Many times people are enlisted because of their good will rather than any clear sense that they are called to be catechists. We need to pray that recruiters be guided by the Lord’s call rather than the needs of the moment in inviting others to serve in this way.
You might schedule one or more group prayer times (e.g., on Sunday afternoon) or designate certain days on which all present catechists and parish council members commit themselves to fast and pray for this intention. The degree to which this is done will be related to the group’s stance on the role of prayer in their own lives and the life of the parish.
3 Coordinate Your Quest with Other Parish Needs – the next step in such a program should involve the determination of available persons for all parish activities. This may include a parish wide interest survey followed by an evaluation of the responses by the parish council. In the spring an interest survey form, along with a return envelope, could be mailed to each individual member 16 and over . Perhaps this call to service in the Christian community could be connected with the Lenten summons to a more intense Christian life. The purpose of this survey is to make people aware of the needs of the parish, and of the possibilities for service of all types which exist in your community.
The results of this survey would then be discussed by the parish council and a design for next year’s structures, sketched out. Care should be taken that the gifts of as many people as possible be put to use and that the same old faces not be expected to do everything. In one sense this session should resemble an athletic league’s draft session which coaches share recruits among the various teams.
A parish interest survey such as this is the best ay for a new pastor to discern who is interested in ministry in the parish. Larger parishes or parishes with a high proportion of transients could conduct this survey annually or at least every other year. Smaller or more stable parishes could do it less frequently. In either case new parishioners could be given the questionnaire whenever they join the community.
The most important side to such a survey is the degree with which the parish leadership implements the results. And so initiating this process presumes that there are no doors which are closed in the parish. Often certain tasks or ministries seem to be the private preserve o f certain individuals: This is so-and-so’s kitchen”, or “Mr X has always taken care to that here”. When you invite people to express an interest in serving in new ways, you must be willing to give up a proprietary system such as this. One way parishes have done away with this system is by having all ministries in the parish operate for specific terms.
These steps should be followed by (a) a direct invitation to those responding to our questionnaire, offering them the positions determined by the council; and (b) training programs for each of the ministries envisioned.
4 Personal Visits – In this, the most individual approach, the recruiters would visit prospective catechists and carefully explain what is involved in the program and invite them to seek guidance in prayer as to whether the Lord may be asking them to give of themselves in this way.
Both the “why” and the “what” of this ministry should be clearly explained. If sincere prayer and discernment have been employed, the person should be made aware of this, not to make them feel guilty if they do not comply, but to witness to the importance of this ministry in the life of the Church. All one’s cards should be laid on the table so the person can make a responsible decision.
5 Promotional Strategies – A number of other techniques are generally used to publicize program needs. These may be done independently of the above mentioned survey, but more profitable if this kind of information gathering precedes them:
Letters – from the pastor and or coordinator inviting people to join them in this ministry
Phone Calls – clearly a more personal approach; also, more of your staff could get involved in the process of inviting others to join them in this ministry.
Pulpit Pleas – here again, depending on the wishes of the pastor, the catechists themselves can witness to the satisfaction (and problems) they have experienced in this ministry as part of your invitations.
In these various ways of reaching out, remember to be accurate, brief, clear, and interesting. Do not limit your recruiting to a single time or a single means. Various studies have shown that 62% of all ideas are remembered and worked on only after they have been presented six times! It is said that an idea or fact presented once to 100 people is forgotten by:
25 people – 24 hours later;
50 people – 48 hours later
85 people – 4 days later
98 people – 2 weeks later
Remember: Repeat, Be interesting, Repeat
6 Observation – the prospective catechist may be invited to visit the program in action, to see the various classes and the other kinds of activity involved.
7 Covenant – the person should be presented with a concrete job description and asked to sign a covenant with the community spelling out their responsibilities and what they can expect from the parish.
WHY SHOULD THEY SERVE?
Many good ideas on this subject may be found in the chapter in Discerning Your Call. In addition, the following ideas may prove food for thought.
When Christian parents have a child they are expected to bring that child to church to be presented to the Lord. The child is offered to God in the sight of the entire community which welcomes its newest member. In this way the community accepts a kind of responsibility for the Christian upbringing of its children, a point that many pastors make regularly at both churchings and christenings. Providing catechetical opportunities to is children is one way in which the parish fulfills this responsibility. The congregation should be reminded of this fact when you are recruiting catechists.
Another aspect of this ministry often overlooked in recruiting catechists is the children’s need for pastoring. In many instances the catechist may be the only one of the Church’s ministers who has regular dealings with the children of the parish.. This makes them de facto “pastoral assistants” which can be especially helpful in situations of family disintegration, loss or death. Needless to say, one does not talk about this aspect of the catechist’s service if we are trying to make it as brief a commitment of time as possible.
WHEN SHOULD RECRUITING BE DONE?
Early! Early!! Early!!!
Your time frame for catechist recruitment and “basic training” should be the spring before their service is expected to begin. If you are doing an interest survey, it should be taken during the Great Fast. The recommitment of current catechists and the invitations to potential catechists should be begun after Pascha. The “basic training” of new catechists should be a project for the summer.
How often do we hear coordinators say at the end of August, or even the beginning of September, that they will need volunteers. What does this itself say to the parish about the quality of your parish program? Should there be parents in the community who sincerely want Christian formation for their children. Would they be encouraged to think that the parish catechists had two weeks notice and no instruction? It should be preferable in such circumstances to limit the classes to those you can organize within an appropriate margin of time to allow for at least basic preparation.
Finally, as mentioned above, success in catechist recruitment often depends on the total vision of Church current in the parish; is religious education a value, does it have a high profile in the parish, is it important to the parish leadership, etc. The more interest is likely to be aroused. Thus many parishes devote a regular page or column in their newsletter to the catechetical program. In other parishes the program itself produces a publication to keep the program before everyone’s eyes on a regular basis.
Questions for Reflection
1 We all remember the picture games we played as children in which we had to find how many mistakes there were on the page. In the same vein, read the following actual catechist recruitment notice which appeared in a parish bulletin at the end of August. In light of what has been said above, how many “errors” can you find in this announcement:
Sunday School needs two volunteers who are willing to commit themselves to teach our children. Books and Teacher’s Manual provided. See X now!”
2 How different is the way catechists are recruited in your parish?