By Dr. John M. Rinaldo, Parish Success Group
When Covid-19 hit our world, I was numb. Wait. What? I have to stay home? And so do my kids? How is this going to work??? Well, that’s okay because this will only be a week or two, a month max.
Boy, was I in for a surprise!
As the father of three children ages 3, 5, and 9, the first month was crazy! I was working from home. My wife was working from home. My nine-year-old was a self-starter and managed most of her schoolwork on her own, with a few exceptions here and there.
Then came my 3- and 5-year-olds. They had no distant learning. They wanted constant attention. And I did what any busy parent would do…used streaming television as a pacifier. I’m not proud of this, but my two youngest kids watched more television during Covid-19 then I’d care to admit.
But we were in survival mode.
Then came an email from my parish faith formation office. Faith formation for my kids had been cancelled until further notice. They encouraged my parents to continue faith formation at home and emailed weekly a myriad of activities to do.
I laughed. “There is no way we are going to do any of this.”
Now, my parish was well-intentioned, and we did do some of the activities they sent us. But my family was so overwhelmed adjusting to the new reality, keeping up with work and school, that any extra activities that we felt “forced” to do was not going to happen.
Now, if a life-long minister in the Church (me) and a Catholic school teacher (my wife) dismissed these activities outright, imagine what the average family did during Covid-19?
Parents are so used to depending on the faith formation office to do all the teaching of the faith. When parents were forced to do it on our own during Covid-19, we were unprepared.
The simple lesson I learned was this: we are not equipping our parents to be the primary educators of the faith.
This reality was not only true during Covid-19, it’s been true for a couple generations of Catholics. Covid-19 just intensified what many of us already knew.
For all the complaining we ministry leaders do about parents not being engaged and taking their faith seriously (I know I’ve done it many times), what have we really done differently with parents over the past few decades?
I suggest it’s time to take a different approach. We have plenty of research to suggest young people in particular are leaving the Church in droves (National Study on Youth and Religion and Going, Going, Gone to name just two studies).
The wisdom of the Church has already led us in this direction. We just need to listen to her.
St. John Paul II said:
Evangelization cannot be new in its content since its very theme is always the one gospel given in Jesus Christ. Evangelization can be new in its ardor, methods and expression. It must be adapted to the people of our day.”
We need to change our methods.
More importantly, for the purposes of this article, The General Directory of Catechesis states, “The organizing principle, which gives coherence to the various catechetical programs offered by a particular Church, is attention to adult catechesis. This is the axis around which revolves the catechesis of childhood and adolescence…” (275).1
In short, we need to stop being child-centric in our parishes and start prioritizing adult formation. We need to start equipping our adults to be the “primary educators of the faith” that we need them to be.
How do we do that?
1. Build Relationships with Parents
I know this goes without saying, but sometimes the things that go without saying need to be said more often. We are so programmatically focused that we forget that the entirety of our faith depends on one thing: relationship. With God, certainly, and with others.
The influential Gallup book, Growing an Engaged Church (2004) discovered one very important fact: “belonging leads to believing.” People come to believe in God because of the relationships they build in the Church community, not because they have been in religious education since they were in kindergarten.
How do we best serve our families and parents? We have to get to know them. In my coaching with parishes, I often recommend that leaders spend an equal amount of time, if not more, getting to know the parents as much as they do the youth and children in their program. You can’t adequately help a family grow in faith if you only have a relationship with the child.
There seems to be one strategy during Covid-19 that was as close to universal as parishes in the United States could get: calling parishioners. Overwhelmingly, people were so surprised that their parish would provide this type of personal touch, that it greatly impressed. So much so that I have seen some preliminary data to suggest that the personal phone calls actually led to increased financial giving.
This should not be something we do during extraordinary times: it should be something we do regularly. Build in opportunity to connect with parents.
2. Evaluate Current Adult Faith Formation Activities
As a parish coach, much of what I do with parishes is not encourage them to do new adult formation, but to evaluate and improve on the formation that is already being done. Most parishes are already doing some adequate formation for adults. With a few tweaks here and there, every parish can take a mediocre program and make it excellent.
Take marriage and baptismal preparation for instance. These are important sacramental moments in the life of an adult. There are many who come for these sacraments and never return to Mass. Parishes that do marriage and baptismal preparation well are the ones that not only prepare them for the sacrament, but connect them with the parish community.
Parishes that I have worked with don’t leave the preparation just to the clergy, but also to mentor couples who can guide them during their journey of marriage and child rearing. The clergy are still involved, obviously, but the majority of the preparation comes from these incredible lay volunteers, who invite them into their homes, encourage them to come to Mass with them, and stay connected with them well after they celebrate the sacrament.
When we “hook” parents in during these important moments, they come to realize more easily how essential the parish community is to their faith and their lives.
3. Let Parents Do the Formation
One of the reasons many parish leaders don’t equip parents well is because we don’t trust them. We don’t believe parents can form their children as well as we can. And we’re probably right.
But that’s because we don’t teach parents how to do it. It’s not the parent’s fault. It’s our fault.
Parents don’t need theology degrees or extensive knowledge of the Bible or liturgy to pass on their faith. Parents merely need the love they have for their children to effectively form them and introduce them to a relationship with Christ.
Every child and youth program needs to have one thing: Opportunities for kids and parents to gather together to talk about faith. And parents need to lead it.
The best way for parents to learn is to do it. Give parents resources to talk about faith, whether that’s a short faith video with discussion questions, or a simple family activity that they can do at home or at an intentionally scheduled event on the parish grounds.
Most importantly, set the expectation right at the beginning: the job of the parish is to help parents form their own kids, not to do it for them. Covid-19 forced many parishes to rely on the parents to form faith in their children. This should be the norm, not the exception. We’ve done it once; we can do it again. This time, on purpose.
We just scratched the surface in this article. In the supplementary videos to this article, I will break down more ways we can be intentional about the three strategies named above.
Understand that this is a huge paradigm shift for many in our parishes. Do not expect that this will turn your parish around overnight. It won’t. Do expect resistance. Most adults have not experienced a parish that is intentional about adult formation. Work through it and constantly remind yourself that this what the Church is calling us towards and that the fruits will come over time. We have to start to build the expectation in parents and all adults that they have a role to play.
Parents cannot merely be passive observers, consuming faith through their parish. They are meant to be disciples who evangelize through the way they live their lives. And the first people they are meant to evangelize are their own children.
Dr. John M. Rinaldo is a coach and trainer for Parish Success Group and an Adjunct Lecturer for Santa Clara University. John earned his Doctor of Ministry (D. Min.) in Leadership and Organizational Development from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, as well as a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from Santa Clara University. John is the co-host of “The Church Podcast,” where weekly they discuss “all things ministry to help you do Church better.” You can find out more at www.ParishSuccessGroup.com and www.TheChurchPodcast.org.