Catechists and church workers in particular are often looked to by fellow parishioners as “in the know” about Church matters of all sorts, from why is Easter so early this year to how did St. Luke know exactly what the Angel Gabriel said to Mary and vice versa. It goes with the territory, and there are many things we should know because they go with our responsibilities. I had a funny (to me, anyway) experience a few weeks ago when I was conducting a seminar for Catholic professionals. I remarked in passing that the previous Sunday’s diocesan Catholic Charities appeal was having difficulties reaching its goal, and someone on the church payroll asked, “Oh, was that last Sunday?”
It is good to have a handle on such things, if for no other reason than pride of professional appearance. The expectation will always be there, along with the strong probability that you will be expected to come up with a good “grace before meals” at any gathering of Christians, family or otherwise. If you launch right into “Bless us, O Lord…” there will be an unspoken but general consensus that, given your church connection, you wimped out, that anybody could have done that. This is Catechetics 101: once you accept the bishop’s mandate to teach the Apostolic Tradition to folks of any age under the Roman Catholic umbrella, you are not anybody anymore—your faith life, your personal life, your professional competence, become an extension of Jesus’ command to preach and teach the good news to the ends of the earth.
This is the precise reason that the faith formation of Catholic school teachers, catechists, lay parish leaders, bible study coordinators is so critical in the extension of the Spirit’s grace, and at this stage of my life I think it is the most important ministry I can engage. However, I am a licensed mental health therapist, too, and yesterday I was listening on my I-phone to On Being a Therapist: Fourth Edition (2010) by Jeffrey Kottler, something of a classic in this profession and a terrific read for church ministers, too. Kottler includes a chapter on continuing education, which he concludes does nothing for practitioners but lines the pockets of the companies who provides such services. Here’s a stat to reflect upon: while one day of continuing education for catechists in my diocese costs $15 or thereabouts, essentially the bare bones delivery cost; the average fee for the same day of mental health training is $190. Big Pharma is not the only winner in the present day health care environment.
Kottler goes on to discuss the attitude that most of us have about “continuing education:” hoops to jump through. An educator himself, he has his own stories about providers who spent a one-day race on-line from course to course and finishing a year’s worth of certification in eight hours. In truth, I relish continuing education in both fields, theology and mental health, but in the profit-driven mental health education market, most offerings currently focus upon trauma and eating disorders and, in my view, are repetitious and not always research-driven or sufficiently established.
The best continuing education courses are those that not only interpret my experience but engage the frontiers of my ignorance. I am eternally grateful to Gregory Lester, Ph.D., for example, a psychologist from Denver whose regular workshops in Orlando opened my experience to personality disorders, particularly as they afflict church clergy, administrators, ministers and volunteers. One personality disordered staff member can hold an entire parish or school emotionally hostage—think of a narcissist, a histrionic, an anti-social personality, etc. Sadly, the strategies most common to our experience of resolution—prayer, reasoning, traditional counseling, accommodation—are the least likely interventions to resolve local stress. (Dr. Lester, incidentally, has served several dioceses in screening seminarians.)
I apply my own definition of professional formation to the more specified cohort of catechists and teachers: interpreting one’s own faith and life experience and engaging the frontiers of the unknown. There is pain and exhilaration in the formative process—a Catholic school teacher, for example, may have to face the very real incongruence of interpreting the Catholic worldview for students when he or she has major angers or doubts about “the Catholic way.” On the other hand, there is exhilaration that comes from the immersion into mysteries and historical experiences that transform how we think of our own worth, not to mention the precious jewel we hand on—and I hasten to add that all Catholic school teachers, not just the “religion teachers.” I address my own teaching to the life of the catechist or teacher; the classroom strategies only make sense when teachers can say “our hearts are burning within us.”
I would not teach a continuing education program that involved jumping through hoops, and I sure wouldn’t pay $200 (or $15, for that matter) to take one. During this week I am experiencing a happy confluence of several things that do not involve hoops: in several hours today I will be engaging six Catholic school teachers on their home turf for the first of three meetings on our diocese’s “Ministry and Catechetics 101,” the opening course in our formative sequence for catechists, teachers, and parish personnel. This is a little diocesan experiment involving working in a seminar-like setting instead of a larger classroom/lecture format, at times more conducive to teachers’ schedules, with opportunities for that graduate school feel of personal engagement. I completed a similar 101 course setting at another school a few weeks ago, and I was amazed and edified at how our group evolved in just three weeks. Granted, I did not get to about 90% of the “official curriculum,” but Common Core in that group focused more upon personal and corporate identity and religious experience, and we broke up with a hunger to continue.
Another happy occurrence was a request I received yesterday from my boss downtown—a very thoughtful man, recently promoted to his directorship--asking my thoughts about our 101 introduction. I plan on giving his request the full attention it deserves, but off the top of my head I would suggest several things.
In my 101 seminar earlier this year, the final point (9) was intense, varied, and highly productive. I did not “rein it in” due to clock considerations. I don’t believe that every vital Church issue has to be raised in every course, so we never “got” to Social Justice, Catechetical Church Documents, and a myriad of other issues. I like to think, though, that the evolving faith hunger of the participants—on their own and through structured learning opportunities—will take them there—with no hoops!