I came into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 2014. By Easter of 2016, I was running the Religious Education program at one of the largest parishes in the diocese. Not bad for a guy whose first question at his interview was, “So, are you Catholic?”
It was actually a very reasonable question to ask. Although I had been a Christian since before college, I had only recently ceased teaching full time and pursuing a doctorate at an Evangelical seminary, speaking at Evangelical events, and writing for – you guessed it – Evangelical publishers. My resume literally had “Evangelical” written all over it. My journey into the Catholic Church had taken five arduous years, during which I had learned a lot — but I had little to show for it on paper. After quitting my teaching job, switching doctoral programs, and losing a sizable portion of my professional network, I was somewhat adrift on the religious sea.1
Thanks be to God, I got an interview anyway. It went well and, I was thrilled when I was invited to become the new Director of Religious Education. Without irony, I began my position on February 8 (the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of the enslaved). I unpacked my books, set up my desk, hung up my crucifix, and tried to look like I knew what I was doing.
I had no idea what I was doing.
It’s not as though I was completely incompetent. I had several years of managerial experience, several more years in the field of education, and had recently completed a Ph.D. in theology. The priest who led my RCIA had asked me to become the program’s coordinator, but he got reassigned so I never got the chance. I fast-tracked my son through second grade catechism (more on that below), but that was done at home. Serving as a confirmation catechism aid was the closest thing to experience I had in parish education – and I had barely started that when I got the job offer and had to step down (my first experience with undependable parish volunteers!). Admittedly, I was a newbie – a newbie managing a program with five employees and 100 volunteers, and serving more than 5,000 families.
As I enter my fourth year as DRE, I realize I have learned a lot (mostly how much more I need to learn!). I have also found that many of my struggles are shared by others in this or equivalent positions. Below I present some of my experiences, and the lessons I learned from them in the hopes that readers in similar situations might benefit.
Rather than organize these by importance or alphabetically, I will hit the historical high points.
First, carefully observe
As I began my new position, I did not suffer from “Imposter Syndrome.” I did not fear being exposed as a fraud, because I embraced the fact that I really had no business being there. My top priority was to not mess things up. Fortunately, the parish was in good shape overall, and my department was staffed by competent people who didn’t need my input for most of the day-to-day activities. This allowed me to force myself to remain in observation mode as long as possible.
In my parish, the DRE oversees the entirety of religious education. From the Parish School of Religion to RCIA to Youth Ministry – it’s all seen as one enormous and complex system. The reality of the situation, therefore, was that it would likely be a year or two before I really got into the swing of things. While I could pick up daily processes fairly quickly, some events occurred only once a year — and it wasn’t like I was going to fully grasp each in one pass. The inherited problems I would need to resolve were made clear fairly quickly, and I began work on those as best I could. Until I had a solid grip on the big picture, I tried to do as little as possible in the hopes that nothing would break.
Second, add something
In addition to messing up as little as possible, I needed to do something big. While I knew I needed to be patient and take my time with any major changes, I didn’t want people wondering what I did all day. In my parish, adult education had fallen by the wayside in the wake of employee turnover. This was good news for me, because adult education was my thing. But did I have anything to teach?
Sure, I had a decade of college-level teaching under my belt – but none of it was Catholic. I needed something I could teach well but that also would be something the parish could embrace. I decided upon an apologetics class. Although I earned my MA in apologetics at an Evangelical school, my education had included a surprising amount of Catholic thinking. We put up posters, placed bulletin ads, and lectors made announcements at Mass. I hoped at least a few people would come to see the new guy. Instead, 300 people packed into the parish hall the first night. Go big or go home, as they say! By the end of school year, the class had thinned out – but I gained a reputation as a good teacher, and the parish now offered adult faith formation (which was the goal).
In summary, my first few months finished well because I only made changes I controlled.
Third, fix things
For much of my first year, I comfortably lived with the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Of course, in a large active parish, things eventually break. A few employees left for greener pastures, which although stressful afforded me the opportunity to hire my own team. Here my past management experience was helpful. I often went with my gut when hiring, and found it trustworthy in most cases.
I know that it is considered passé to describe one’s weaknesses as strengths — but in one case at least, my limited experience gave me the perspective to solve what I believe to be a major flaw in Catholic parish education and sacrament preparation. The problem arises when a parish determines the preferred age/grade for a given sacrament’s reception, and then attaches sacrament preparation to that age/grade level’s curriculum. All is well until anything out of the ordinary happens – and in a parish with 5,000+ families, dealing with the “out of the ordinary” is rather ordinary.
For example, in my first parish, Holy Communion was normally received in third grade and, because sacrament preparation was a two-year process, it began in first grade. Now, when I became Catholic my son was 7 years old, and by the time he began his faith formation he was in second grade, but they enrolled him in first grade catechism class so he wouldn’t miss out on sacrament preparation. He didn’t mind being a grade behind that year, but I knew he would in a few more. I worked it out by teaching him second grade that summer, but it made me wonder – what if he had been 9 or 10 years old?
We had the same system in place at my parish. Sacrament preparation was so firmly affixed to the grade-level curriculum that there was constant confusion over what grade kids should be in, and we had extraneous classes that taught the same things to multi-grade classes. I had found my first big change to make — and given the parish landscape, it was radical:
We would disconnect sacrament preparation from grade levels.
Kids could prepare to receive First Holy Communion in fifth grade. High schoolers could get baptized and initiated into the Church. Seventh grade would no longer be equated with “Confirmation 1,” and the eighth grade retreat would no longer be a “Confirmation 2 Retreat.” The goals was that any student could be prepared for any sacrament at any stage of their faith formation regardless of their grade level.
It was not easy, and ironically it caused a bit of confusion because it was so simple (parents mostly expressed surprise at how many problems didn’t exist anymore). Soon, however, the benefits had become clear, and we have never looked back.
Fourth, break things
Going into my second full year, it was time for a new adage. This time I chose, “If you want to make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs.” I wasn’t hired to keep the status quo, after all – and fortune favors the bold!
During my observation phase, I had discovered that the enrollment process for religious education was a nightmare of inefficiency and poor communication. My team and I identified key elements that were causing problems and devised a brand-new procedure that streamlined and combined processes to ensure that communication would not be a problem in the first place. It was bold, brilliant, some would say beautiful.
And it failed miserably.
The failure (which was considerable) was not, however, due to missing our goals (which were met). The process, while satisfyingly complete, simply took too long. It became a disaster from a customer service perspective – but once it was over, it was extremely valuable from a data-gathering perspective.
I sucked it up, and made my apologies. I then took what I learned and figured out how to utilize the strengths of past procedures while avoiding their weaknesses. The next year we cut enrollment times by 90 percent.
While it feels safer to remain in maintenance mode, some of our most valuable lessons come from making mistakes.
Fifth, get help
One of the best decisions I made as a new DRE was to network with others in my diocese.
Parishes in our diocese exhibit a sometimes surprising number of differences in procedures, policies, and perspectives. Whether as good or bad examples, all of these are valuable. By reaching out to others, a camaraderie develops and mutual experiences can be shared. Beyond gaining ideas about one’s own program, it helps to avoid parental “parish shopping” if everyone is basically on the same page.
It has been said mistakes are avoided by wisdom, and that wisdom comes from making mistakes. While true, no one has time to make all the mistakes necessary to gain all the wisdom one needs. That requires a collection of people trying new things, learning from their mistakes, and sharing those lessons with others.
Parish work is not for Lone Rangers!
Sixth, avoid ruts
When I arrived on the scene, my parish was in the middle of a major curriculum overhaul. It had spent a considerable amount of money getting some new programs started, and I was tasked with overseeing their continuance. And that’s just what I did – until I didn’t.
As my second year began winding down, I was on my third Children’s Coordinator and her second assistant. That’s life in a big parish I guess. While all of these employees were very different, most agreed that the new curriculum the parish had adopted before I arrived was not working out. It was a hassle to set up, and it required more training than we could demand of our volunteers to really reach its potential.
Now, I had spent nearly two years cleaning out the vestiges of our previous curriculum and getting the new one as close to workable as I could. After spending several days combing through all the offerings from other publishers, I concluded that the best one for us was actually the one the parish had replaced with our current one! Awkward…
Because the original decision had not been mine, I felt I was not to blame for its failure. That brought little comfort, though, when I had to present my “new” curriculum plan to the senior staff. Before I did that, I sold off everything I could to offset the cost of re-replacing the curriculum and also found a creative way to save a lot of money in the future. So, by the time I explained what I was doing it seemed like the obvious way to go. Phew!
Seventh, select volunteers
I love being a DRE. It’s an excellent ministry. But it’s also a job — and, like most jobs, there’s a reason people get paid to do it. I sometimes see myself as a kind of enforcer or bodyguard – shielding the pastor from mundane problems, protecting families from bureaucracy, keeping volunteers from burnout, and, sometimes, from serving. This last part is difficult not only from the personal side of things, but also from the parishes. It’s hard to find volunteers, and even harder to lose them.
However, a parishes’ volunteer pool should be a selection, not a collection. Building it from the ground up is easiest, but I was walking into an existing system. Thus I encountered one of the hardest parts of the job: firing volunteers. Many say this cannot be done, but it can — and sometimes must. I haven’t had to do it often, and I have never done it flippantly or without much peer consultation and pastoral approval. But, as with employee selection, I have learned to trust my gut.
None of those situations were pleasant, and at no time was the parish flush with volunteers. Hard decisions sometimes have to be made, and sometimes they end up backfiring. That’s a risk one has to take, though, to maintain integrity. If big problems ever come along, I have to be able to honestly say I didn’t see them coming.
Now, I’ve also had the pleasure of re-hiring those who were “fired” (whether by me or someone else). In many cases, volunteers simply had the wrong combination of strengths and weaknesses for a particular position. Lacking awareness of their spiritual gifts, they either missed their true calling or were placed into the wrong ministry. I’ve seen the healing that occurs when a volunteer is helped to find a better place to serve, and the joy that accompanies such discoveries is worth the initial discomfort.
Well, it seems I’ve actually learned quite a bit in just a few years! When another couple have passed, I hope to have learned even more as I evaluate my decisions and those of others. I hope you can learn from my experiences as well — whether by repeating or avoiding them.
1The details of my journey (and several others) are chronicled in a book titled Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome, available from Ignatius Press.
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