The Ants Go Marching: Children’s Faith Formation – Survey Series #3

Corresponds to questions 13 and 28 of the survey

My niece is fascinated with all furry, feathered, or crawling creatures. When I visited last week, ants were the new obsession. Lucky for her, someone had spilled some snacks on the driveway. Lucky for me, certain topics stay in our heads long after we’ve left the office, so the ant-watching turned into a parish reflection.

More on that later.

Gather the Facts

Part of analyzing the parish survey is to look beyond the survey. Pull out your parish stats, and see how many registered families you have with elementary aged children.  Now compare that to the number of children involved in your religious education programs. Are there missing kids?

I’m not sitting in your parish leadership team’s meeting right now, but I think I know the answer. Our survey responses probably don’t include the parents of many of those missing children, so part of our task is to fill in the gaps as we evaluate our parish pulse. We have to ask the tough questions: Why aren’t they coming? What will bring them in? How can we make our formation compelling and important enough to be a priority in their lives?

Parents: Equip, not Replace

In question 13 of the survey, respondents shared how they pass on the Faith to their children and what challenges they face. As a parish community, we have the urgent task of supporting these parents in the faith formation of their children.  Support, not replace.

So the first question at our round-table discussion on children’s faith formation should always be about the readiness of parents to teach the Faith, and what we are doing to effectively empower them to evangelize their own children. Empower, not replace.

The parish religious education program supports the parents, it does not replace them. Our job is not to do their job. Our job is to help them be better at their job. Equip, not replace.

What that might look like and tips for pulling it off:

  • Put on parent formation sessions, perhaps during the children’s classes each week, or at the start of each new unit. (Here’s how a parish in the D.C. area is doing that)
  • Send out regular parent communication that goes beyond just logistics and announcements – give them content, tips for living the faith at home, snippets of catechesis. Share resources like The Mass Box to use with their children, or an app for the Year of Mercy for their own faith growth, or a blog post on tips for strengthening family life like these from Dr. Tim Hogan.
  • Don’t be afraid of the word “required” – there is always a house project that can keep me from attending an event, so sometimes I need that “mandatory” push to get me out the door. But when the event is meaningful and compelling I never leave wishing I stayed home to do a project. Even if it’s mandatory, we can put on events that parents are glad they attended.
  • Give parents our best. They probably won’t present the same distracted behaviors as we’ll get from their 3rd graders if we give a boring lesson, but just because they have more self-control doesn’t mean we owe them less effort. Make it count – they’re the most essential members of the team called to evangelize children.
  • There are many other ideas that could be listed… here are a few from Leisa Anslinger. Keep brainstorming and discussing with your parish leadership team and come up with what’s best for your parish community.

The Empty Chair Dilemma

You have the most spectacular lesson plan and delivery for your religious ed class. You should probably record it and post it to YouTube because it’s so awesome that you’re about to be famous. But wait… you’re teaching to an almost empty classroom. Get your YouTube fame if you want, but we are not reaching our objective of evangelizing our parishioners if the chairs are vacant.

Let’s take a look at our parishioners’ responses again. What did they say in questions 2 and 27? Do those responses enlighten your understanding of what keeps them away from regular attendance (either to Mass or to religious education)?

Good news and bad news: Rome wasn’t built in a day. They won’t all show up at once, so don’t expect bursting rooms just because you’ve prepared a great program. But the good news is that Rome was built. And it’s magnificent, and people still flock there every year. Most great accomplishments take time. Cutting corners only cheapens the outcome. So put in the effort to make it great – it will pay off. Even if it’s smaller improvements each lesson or each unit or each year, develop an end goal with a clear vision of how to achieve that goal, and start taking steps. Here a woman shares her own personal dream for religious education — your parish’s goal may or may not resemble hers, but make sure you develop a clear vision for where you want to go.

What that might look like and tips for pulling it off:

  • At one nearby parish, the DRE upholds a high standard of teaching by requiring that each of her 120 catechists turn in a lesson plan before their class each week.
  • Many parishes across the country have moved away from the traditional classroom model and are transitioning to a “flipped classroom” model. If this is of interest to you, call or email me and I can share their resources and methodology.
  • Gathered sessions at the beginning of class with all children in your program offers an opportunity for prayer, dynamic presentations of a new theme, or introduction of a service project. Imagine 15 minutes of VBS-level engagement before sending them to their classrooms.
  • Articulate a goal first, then decide how your parish reality can most effectively achieve that goal. Don’t try everything suggested by all religious educators everywhere. Be picky and stick to a consistent plan.
  • You and your team know your parish the best – what will be most successful? Think big, and be willing to step beyond your past modules if needed.

Back to my niece and the ants. Watching the constant line of ants marching to the pile of food begs the question: “How did they all know about this?” Had it been a pile of browned lettuce, there would be no such line. But it was sugary fruit snacks. The line was not ending.

If we’re feeding them well, the ants will come, and so will all their friends and neighbors and relatives. I think there’s a corollary for our catechetical programs.

What do our respondents think of our current programs? Check out question 28, on page 6 of the survey result. Here parishioners gave a level of importance they place on “engaging children’s ministry” and also their level of satisfaction. Are we meeting expectations?  (It may be beneficial to also look at the youth survey results, particularly questions 10 and 15.) Perhaps as we work on improving the satisfaction in question #28, we’ll start to notice a rise in improvement in question #30 as well. And then you’ll need to make sure you put out extra chairs as the ants come marching two by three by…

How can your parish go beyond the classroom with children’s faith formation?

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