Something I do not list on my curriculum vitae is the undeniable fact that for one year I was an official DRE for a Florida parish. My qualifications consisted of my theology masters, my ordination, and the fact that I happened to be there. I will always remember that year as my closest experience to being sued. To house the growing religious education program, I rented a large double-wide trailer—a former public health facility, of all things. The trailer mover failed to fill in the holes at the previous site, and someone fell in and broke a leg. If faith formation is measured in depositions, I would have been a major success. My only real success was in recruiting a wonderful faith formation director who served the parish magnificently for a decade—until my diocese, my own bishop!—raided my staff.
I regret that I did not become truly cognizant of the challenges of religious education until long after my years in the priesthood, when I become more intensely involved in the training of catechists and visited many hosting parishes onsite. And it goes without saying that as a Catholic myself I have the strongest desire that the faithful in all of these parishes receive the best quality professional faith formation.
If someone today were to ask me about entering the ministry of religious faith formation, at a volunteer or profession level (and one frequently morphs into the other), I would offer a few words of advice.
The first is to develop and maintain a career vision. Yes, you heard me correctly; I said a “career vision,” as opposed to “temporary slotting,” for want of a better phrase. I have great discomfort when I see or hear of parishioners drafted last minute to “cover fourth grade religious ed” or run a parish bible study. Faith formation is a vocation, a unique charism, a particular expression of one’s Baptismal promise to do the work of Jesus. The decision to undertake this kind of ministry demands discernment and prayer, appropriate vetting and comprehensive training. Failure to address catechetical ministry as a “call” results in a cheapening of the ministry and the profession, frustration and rapid loss of viable ministers, and probably worst of all, a breakdown of Jesus’ command to “teach everything that I have taught you.” If I were shaping policy, I would incorporate a year of spiritual, theological, and pedagogical formation before anyone sets foot in a position of catechetical responsibility.
Second, I would tell advise an inquirer that his or her level of competence in all formative ministry must be professional, whether compensated or not. We are in dangerous territory when we have “tiers of competence” in parish faith formation. An easy example—perhaps a tired one, I admit—is the comparison between a Catholic school religion teacher and a catechist volunteer of the same school grade level. Given that the subject matter in both forums is identical, namely the Apostolic Tradition of Faith, the ability to formulate this matter cries out for equality, given that the students or hearers are in this setting for very high stakes. Again, were I in a position to make policy, I would work toward appropriate compensation for the time and continuing education of all certified parish ministers of formation, with the commensurate expectation of professional performance.
And finally, I would encourage an individual to develop an internal identity as one whose life involves theology, the “study of God.” The ideal minister of faith formation incorporates the hungers of faith, the pursuit of knowledge, the joy of expression and the conduct of a servant.
The catechist must own “his/her life” in the manner in which “Jesus taught with authority.” Individually and in groups catechists have the right and the duty to shape the environment and conditions under which they exercise their ministry and, within reason, the methods and models that make best use of their own gifts.
The professionals I referred to earlier are on point that much of what we call religious education ministry might be more appropriately called “event planning.” I instinctively understood what they meant. As a DRE (in title only) I can recall my pastor crabbing at me because he was finding broken pencils around the church after CCD nights. What kept me going…was knowing I was a temp. Today my concerns are for those who stay.