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Leadership skills for catechists

By Wanda and Gerard Scheuermann

  • All involved in catechesis have specific gifts that they bring to the task.
  • By virtue of their baptism, lay catechists have a right and responsibility to catechize.
  • All catechesis is evangelizing catechesis.
  • When catechists develop various creative ways of bringing alive the message of Jesus, more people are able to connect that message with their lived experiences.
  • Catechists who enable others to connect faith with their life experiences have a clearer understanding of the social context in which they live.
True catechesis leads people to intimate relationship with Jesus Christ and moves them to continuing conversion. While materials and methodology are important factors in catechesis, at times they are overemphasized. The General Directory for Catechesis reflects the important role of the catechist. "No methodology, no matter how well tested, can dispense with the person of the catechist in every phase of the catechetical process" (156). Instructions on the role, focus and qualities needed by catechists form a significant portion of the GDC.

People seem to understand the role of the priest or religious in religious formation. Often, lay people have been viewed as "helping Father" with the task of religious education. Yet all involved in catechesis have specific gifts that they bring to the task. Lay people bring to the ministry unique charisms. The GDC states that lay catechists have a "special sensitivity" for bringing the Gospel to life in the everyday lives of men and women. By virtue of their baptism, lay catechists have a right and responsibility to catechize. More emphasis should be placed on the skills of the catechist than on the texts, scheduling, and methodology. There should be criteria for the calling forth of the communityís catechists (beyond filling a slot with a willing volunteer) and emphasis on the skills and development of leadership qualities in every person called to the ministry.

What qualities and skills are needed by those involved in the churchís ongoing catechetical process? Some are innate, and some can be learned and developed. Primary among the innate qualities is a dynamic relationship with Jesus and the church. In addition, taking adequate time for prayer, actively participating in the communal life of the parish and living a life of "transparent witness" are all integral to being a catechist. Other important qualities are a genuine love for others and a hunger to share with them the joy of a deepening relationship with Christ.

All catechists are leaders, leading others to Christ. Beyond the innate qualities the Spirit places in them, other skills are needed. The development of these skills should form the basis of ongoing catechist development at the parish and diocesan level. "Diocesan pastoral programs must give absolute priority to the formation of lay catechists" (GDC 234). The GDC also emphasizes the need for ongoing catechetical formation of priests. All who catechize must be aware of the current trends, announcements and discoveries that impact the ministry of catechesis.

Bringing the Good News into the lives of people requires good communication skills, both listening and transmitting. All catechesis is evangelizing catechesis. The welcoming and attentiveness that are core to evangelization demand good listening skills. Catechists do not minister to a general group or class. They minister to unique individuals within a group setting. Helping others travel their faith journey both as individuals as well as in the community requires listening to the life story of each person. For example, a mother with grown children has learned much in life and may simply need help seeing the churchís story in her life, while a teen may be struggling to see Godís love at all in the uncertainty of adolescence.

The word communicate comes from a Latin word that means, "to make common." It is the task of every catechist to better develop the skills he or she uses in trying to "make common" the truths of the faith to others. People take in and learn information in different ways. When catechists develop various creative ways of bringing alive the message of Jesus, more people are able to connect that message with their lived experiences. Using their own gifts, catechists need the skills to place the message into the media that make it accessible -- be that visual, auditory, oral, sensate or a combination of all.

Skills in group dynamics are important. It is in the group experience that children and adolescents develop their personalities and social sense and that adults are able to experience community and promote an attitude of Christian responsibility. Catechists are called upon to help form and nurture the small group interactions of those they minister to, helping to draw out the wisdom of the group to be shared by all. Group dynamics involves more than getting people into small groups and telling them to share. Understanding the creative tensions present in the various styles of group participation will help the catechist to involve all in active and meaningful participation.

From the human sciences, catechists learn about psychological and sociological development. Additionally, an understanding of religious and moral development will help catechists be sensitive to the individual at all stages of faith development. This knowledge will help the catechist learn how to develop the educational skills needed for ministry. Asking someone to operate beyond the level of development he or she has achieved will only cause frustration. The skilled catechist invites and leads to growth in a way that is respectful of each personís level of development in all areas.

"Catechists catechize others by firstly catechizing themselves" (239). Catechists cannot "teach" only what they remember was taught to them as children. Ongoing study of Scripture, liturgy, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the documents and history of the church will help catechists nourish their own spirituality while gaining sufficient knowledge of the message they are to proclaim. To be good catechetical ministers they need to be teachers and learners, sharing their new discoveries in the riches of the faith and learning formally and informally from those around them. There is no "arriving." The more a person learns, the more he or she discovers the limit of his or her knowledge.

Catechists who enable others to connect faith with their life experiences have a clearer understanding of the social context in which they live. Awareness of the present historical situation -- with its challenges, tragedies, joys, and value systems -- will help catechists "to link the dimensions of truth and meaning of the faith, orthodoxy and orthopraxis, ecclesial and social meaning" (237). This linking is crucial to catechesis. To be effective and lasting, catechesis must have an impact on a personís life. Without this connection, catechesis becomes an intellectual exercise or a brief, passing diversion rather than the conversion experience it should be.

Catechists, even with all the skills and knowledge listed above, do not catechize in a vacuum. Liturgy catechizes. Social justice catechizes. Family ministry catechizes. Community gatherings catechize. For all these components to catechize well, they need to interrelate. Collaboration skills will assist the catechists in integrating their role with the entire catechetical ministry of the parish, the diocese and the universal church.

Looking at this long list of qualities and skills needed to be a successful catechest, you may ask, "Who from my parish can fill those shoes?" The answer is: No one. These qualities and skills are not starting points for becoming a catechist; they are growth markers for the journey. "The exercise of catechesis Ďallows the catechist to grow in a balanced and in a critical outlook, in integrity, in his (or her) ability to relate, to promote dialogue, to have a constructive spirití" (239). As the leadership skills of each catechist are being fostered, he or she will become better guides, capable of giving greater consolation and hope to the people of God.

ML

Gerard and Wanda Scheuermann both have masters degrees in Community Leadership from Regis University in Denver. They have been involved in catechetical ministry since 1972.


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