Teaching Our Faith — A year like no other: Being open to the movement of the Spirit

In this set of teaching editorials, church leaders in the areas of worship, formation, service and administration will reflect on what we have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and how that might inform ministry going forward.

We can agree this year has been a year like no other with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it brought to every facet of our lives. Our formation and education ministries have provided a bedrock of support to our communities, parishioners, families and students. Led by our pastors, pastoral staff, school leaders, catechists, teachers and staff, our Catholic communities simultaneously made bold changes to respond to the needs of those we serve.

What did we learn?

  •   Innovate and re-think.
  •   What it means to be community.
  •   Communicate, communicate, communicate.

When parishes and schools closed abruptly a year ago, we chose to keep going by doing whatever we needed to do. Snow packets evolved into weeks of remote learning plans honed by experience, seeking input, regrouping and making changes to meet the needs of learners.

Re-thinking Confirmation preparation programs allowed focus and raised the question of what is truly necessary — a good lesson moving forward.

Learning new technology and platforms was no longer optional. We could no longer put off implementing our technology plans. For parish religious education programs that did not use virtual learning or were doing a combination of in-person and virtual, parish catechetical leaders (PCLs) found clever ways to engage the families. At one parish, families were invited to pick up a pizza box containing the weekly lesson plans and resources presented as “spiritual food” for carry-out.

Virtual meetings and formation opportunities led to greater participation of individuals who typically did not attend in person — those with busy schedules, those who live or work farther away and members of our senior communities. Our communities rose to the challenge and learned to innovate and re-think to continue formation and education ministries.

COVID challenged parishes to re-think what it means to be “community.” When asked, “Is it possible to build community virtually,” the answer was yes, but not completely. We can see and hear one another online, but the experiences fall short of being fully present to one another in person.

Large-group gatherings and activities were reformatted to fit small-group settings when youth ministries jumped at opportunities to re-gather in person, even if six feet apart. Schools used structures such as their house systems and faculty meetings to ensure everyone had the opportunity to check in with one another in the absence of informal encounters during the school day.

Parents were challenged by working from home and taking on additional responsibilities with remote learning. Some parents fully embraced their role as “primary educators of the faith,” but most struggled or were reticent to be their child’s “at home” catechist.

As everyone continued to try new approaches and make adjustments as things were not working, communities were strengthened by an intentional focus on honesty and openness among leaders, teachers, catechists and parents.

Many communities became stronger by nurturing trust and working together to create affirmation that we can work together and come out stronger.

Communication increased as virtual meeting options moved into “high gear,” and old-school methods were used to combat the screen fatigue that many were experiencing. Weekly newsletters, Facebook Live events, teasers, recaps, virtual art fairs were used to communicate and experience in-person events.

One PCL said she sent more Christmas cards this year than ever before to let parishioners know that church leaders were thinking about and praying for them. Reaching out by phone to say hello and share information about parish activities was effective in reaching many parishioners, especially in Spanish-speaking communities. As circumstances changed daily and our desire to stay connected grew stronger, more frequent communication became a necessity.

We have learned a lot throughout this COVID journey. What are some of the lessons we are taking with us?

  • We are mission-focused. Approaches can change, so hold them loosely. Try something different, and if it’s not working, move on.
  • The new technology, learning platforms, etc. are here to stay and will be permanent additions to formation and education programs. However, they will be perceived as tools to enhance learning, not as replacements for in-person experiences.
  • There is a critical need to focus on new strategies to help form parents to be their child’s “primary educators of the faith.”
  • Be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit during moments of crisis. The pandemic was a challenge that provided opportunities for us to face uncertainty as a people of faith who are called to be Church in a different way.

Karl Dolson is the director of the Office of Youth and Young Adults, Leisa Schulz is Superintendent of Schools and Art Turner is the director of the Office of Faith Formation.

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