Making Room for Introverts in Catechesis

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (which I reviewed on Monday) got me thinking about how we  accommodate  introverts in our catechetical programs. Many school activities and pedagogical methods, such as group work or presentations, are designed for extroverts. This is also true for many catechetical and faith formation programs. (Think of the typical small faith community or Bible study, which expects conversation, interaction, and the sharing of one’s personal faith.) With so many youth religious education programs working off a school model, we need to be careful that we allow room for introverts (who make up roughly 30% of the population) to explore and learn through their own particular gifts as well.

Cain includes a whole chapter in her book for parents and educators on cultivating the particular gifts of introverted children; many of her suggestions are easily applicable to catechesis of children or adults.

  • Don’t force introverts to act like extroverts. Just because the “shy” child in your class keeps his head in the book and rarely answers questions aloud doesn’t mean he isn’t learning or absorbing the material. Allow introverted students to interact and talk at their own comfort level; forcing them may only increase their anxiety. If you do group work, try to keep the groups small (pairs or threes is good).
  • Try to seat introverts in low-distraction areas. This may mean keeping them away from the talkative kids or the class clown, who will only serve to distract introverts.
  • Be sensitive when taking students into unfamiliar situations. Be attentive to your students’ comfort levels when taking them on field trips or mission activities; some may feel awkward or nervous in new or overstimulating situations. As Cain writes, “The key is to expose [him] gradually to new situations and people — taking care to respect his limits, even when they seem extreme. This produces more-confident kids than either overprotection or pushing too hard. Let him know that his feelings are normal and natural, but, also that there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
  • Use introverts’ interests to make a connection. Many introverts are passionate about a few things. It may be music or science fiction or dancing, but it’s their thing. Praise them for these interests and try to use them in your curriculum to help your students make  connections  with the material. For instance, if you have an introvert who plays an instrument, have them play a hymn connected to Sunday’s readings.
  • Allow space for introverts to explore spirituality from their perspective.  In the book Cain talks about going to a weekend designed for introverts — no expectation of chit-chat at dinner, lots of time for reflection and journaling, and minimal personal sharing with others. How many parishes do you know that offer a silent retreat or personal retreat experience? I’ll bet not many! Yet introverts may not be comfortable in the group participation/small group model that many retreats work from. Similarly, introverted teens may not be comfortable in a LifeTeen or similar setting. Don’t assume that everyone belongs in a “one size fits all” ministry; remember the particular needs of introverts when planning retreats and other formation experiences.

Have you ever had to respond to an introvert’s needs in your catechetical program? How did you handle it?

Catechesis: Not Just for Theology Geeks

Marc Cardaronella has written a great response to my recent post on adult faith formation. Marc gets to the heart of the problem with this passage:

I  think a lot of catechetical programming is geared toward the theology geeks and old regulars. It centers on teaching doctrines or other aspects of the faith. But to draw in a wider audience, it needs to tell  people how to solve real problems.

I’m not saying that catechesis isn’t important (except if it’s boring). I’m saying that often it’s not perceived as important by the average person in the parish. That’s because it’s  not filling a need…

People are busy. If they don’t see a real value in your class, they won’t go. It doesn’t matter if it’s free. The currency they’re spending is time. They only have so much of it, and if you’re not giving them enough value, they’re not going to spend their time on you.

Here’s one example of what we’re talking about:

Imagine you’re looking over a list of upcoming catechetical offerings and trying to decide which to attend. Which course title sounds more appealing?

  • Ending World Hunger, Poverty, and War with the Power of Faith
  • Catholic Social Doctrine

Two courses that could have the exact same content — yet the first will be better attended because it promises to address real world problems that people encounter every day. The second one? The average person in the pew doesn’t even know what “Social Doctrine” is, let alone how it will help them.

People write what they know, and unfortunately many catechetical programs are written by theology geeks (I want that on my business card!) rather than people who are really interested in how the faith can work concretely in people’s lives to address their needs and questions.

If we expect people to give up something to attend our catechetical programs — and Marc is absolutely correct that, in today’s hectic world, time is a precious currency — than we need to demonstrate how our programs will benefit them. This isn’t something we can demonstrate during their time in our programs. It has to be part of the way we market catechesis and our programs.

If we want people to come, we have to demonstrate that it will be worth their while.

Image by Druid Labs/FlickrCC

Book Review: Will There Be Faith?

Whenever I engage in conversation with my catechetical colleagues, certain questions and themes arise again and again:

  • What would catechesis look like if it followed the pedagogical model used by Jesus?
  • What if we sought to not just teach about the faith, but help the faithful (both young and old) learn from and be transformed by our rich Catholic tradition?
  • How can parents be more intentional about passing on the faith?

Thomas Groome’s new book, Will There Be Faith? A New Vision for Educating and Growing Disciples, seeks to answer these questions by proposing a life to Faith to life  model for catechesis and Christian religious education.

By life to Faith to life Groome means a  methodology  that begins with the life experience of the faithful, invites them to consider that experience in light of the wisdom and practices of the Church, and then to bring those new insights back to their lived experience. This intuitive, praxis-based approach builds off of Groome’s earlier body of work in the field of Christian religious education.

Groome’s aim is to take catechesis away from the strict classroom-based model that has became  prevalent  in many places in the Church. This model, although popular, has led to the compartmentalization of catechesis. As Groome writes:

The emergence of denominational schools, Sunday schools,’ and the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) all greatly enhanced the effectiveness of religious education. The disadvantage, however, was that they removed the family from its central position as educator in faith and gave the impression that the school — of whatever kind — could educate better than and instead of parents. Even the Church helped to convince parents of this schooling paradigm. As a result, most parents still assume that if they simply take their children to a parish program, say one hour a week for about thirty weeks a year, it will make them Christians.

Groome’s life to Faith to life approach seeks to re-integrate faith formation into the lives of the faithful by beginning not with the dogmas and doctrines of Christianity, but with the lived faith experience of the people to be catechized.

Groome quotes liberally from the General Directory for Catechesis  (GDC) in making his case, pointing out that catechesis “bridges the gap between belief and life, between the Christian message and the cultural context” (n. 205) and “one must start with praxis to be able to arrive at praxis” (n. 245), to give but two examples. He also utilizes the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35) to demonstrate Jesus’ use of this approach. By beginning with life experience as a tool to draw people into conversation about the faith, Groome honors the GDC’s commitment to catechize as Jesus did. (Cf n. 143)

At the same time Groome affirms the need for good doctrinal content to the proper formation of the faithful, including catechisms and curriculum guidelines.  By starting with life experience Groome is not proposing a radical “I’m OK–you’re OK” relativism; rather, he proposes using life experience as the starting point for introducing how our Catholic faith provides a framework for living as a disciple of Christ in our particular historical, social, and cultural contexts.

All this would be well and good as a theoretical discussion. Fortunately  Will There Be Faith?  shines in its outline for implementing the  life to Faith to life  model in a variety of settings. Groome lays out strategies for parishes, schools, and families  for putting the life to Faith to life  approach in to action.  Groome even has positive things to say about devotional practices for families:

After Vatican II, such popular practices fell off, and for so good reasons. Many had become exaggerated devotions, sometimes with a dash of superstition, there being a fine line between faith and magic. Vatican II made a successful effort to recenter what should be at the core of Catholic faith: Jesus, the Bible, Mass, the sacraments, and discipleship. Now, however, almost fifty years later, we might return to some of those old devotions, informed by better theology and without exaggerating their importance to the Faith. We need some such personal and family-centered practices. They are powerful ways to nurture and sustain people in faith. They educate. The key is for families to choose ones that will be meaningful for them, so that they are likely to practice them regularly.

My only correction to this passage would be to add that such a revitalization of devotional practices — in light of the Second Vatican Council — is already  occurring, spearheaded by young Catholics who are rediscovering them with joy.

Unfortunately Groome’s approach will be overshadowed for some people by his  use of inclusive language and praise of liberation theology — which is a shame, because these issues are not intrinsic to the life to Faith to life approach he outlines. Groome goes out of his way to avoid gender-based pronouns for God, including such phrases as “God calls us to Godself,” a phrase I can’t imagine being written by anyone except an academic theologian. His uncritical praise of liberation theology is especially disappointing since Groome points out that all metaphors for Christ’s work, if taken too literally, end in error — yet he never points out such boundaries on his metaphor of “liberating salvation.”

That having been said, I would encourage readers to look beyond these secondary issues to the heart of Groome’s approach, which offers a promising vision for Christian religious education. Will There Be Faith?  merits multiple readings — especially the last two chapters in which he lays out his total vision for the life to Faith to life  approach. I look forward to reaping the fruit of this book for years to come.

Disclosure: I  received  a review copy of this book for free from TLC Book Tours.

What Web Browsers Can Teach Us About Methodology in Ministry

Permit me a little rant for a moment:

A friend mentioned on Google+ yesterday that he is not allowed to install Chrome on his office computer. I’m sure his IT department has perfectly legitimate reasons. Heck, as someone who’s done a little IT work I understand the value of standardization across a company’s platforms: it makes  maintenance  and troubleshooting much easier if you don’t have to manage multiple programs, and locking down computers helps keep more… adventurous employees from accidentally installing malicious software.

(For the record, I’m one of those  adventurous  employees; I love trying out new software to find something better than what I’m  currently  using.)

All that having been said, I think there is tremendous benefit to allowing people to use the tools and techniques they are comfortable with in their work. For those of us who are “power users,” it lets us do our work more efficiently and with less headache. We can deploy the latest updates more quickly. And it also keeps us from using our knowledge to creatively get around the lockout! (In one of my previous jobs I got around the browser issue by installing the portable version of Firefox on a thumbdrive and running it from there.)

This goes back to my previous thoughts on methedological diversity in ministry. We don’t all need to go about the same things in the same way! We need to trust that parishes will choose the “right tool for the right job” for their particular local situation. Indeed, I think allowing for such local control offers the same benefits: efficiency, rapid adaptation, and a decrease in “creative workarounds.”

For instance, unlike some dioceses, ours does not make parishes choose from a short list of catechetical texts for schools and PSR programs. So long as the text is on the bishops’ conformity list, we trust them to choose what is best for their congregation. We do this because of the diversity of parishes in our diocese. Some are rural, some are suburban; most are very  homogeneous, but some have great cultural diversity; some have a lot of youth, some are  rapidly  aging. Creating a “short list” of catechetical texts simply wouldn’t be able to account for the diversity of a diocese that covers 28 counties. Forcing parishes to use a text that doesn’t match their local needs would be less efficient, since parishes would need to find additional supplemental material — or worse, risk not meeting the catechetical needs of their parishioners.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have standards. But if I can create a Word-compatible document in either Microsoft Word or in OpenOffice, why should anyone care which I use? Similarly, if parishes can fulfill curriculum standards or other catechetical goals  through  a variety of texts, why  should  we restrict them? Allowing for this type of local decision making may mean more administrative work for some of us, since it will mean supporting multiple programs rather than just one or two. But I believe that is part of our service to parishes, and will mean a greater flourishing of catechesis in the long run.