Training and retaining volunteers is a major responsibility of a DRE. In my parish, we have about 200 volunteers assisting in various ways with faith formation, and my staff and I have the responsibility of ensuring that they are equipped to do their ministry.
Preliminaries for Volunteers
Long before we allow someone to volunteer, he or she fills out a volunteer application, which includes reference checks. In our archdiocese, as in others, we must follow strict procedures, ultimately leading to a criminal background check. This takes time, and it’s imperative that you follow all child protection policies of your diocese.
Once the background check is complete, we meet with our new volunteers to go over our volunteer handbook, which spells out our policies and procedures that are in place to help them be effective in their new role. That’s as far as we need to go with those who aren’t helping in a classroom. For those volunteering to be a catechist or classroom assistant, we invite them to a new teacher training, which takes place close to the start of our classes.
Initial Training of Catechists
At that training, volunteers are given several things. First the catechists are given their catechist guides, along with information on how to access the publisher’s website. It’s helpful to show them the site, so try to have the technology in place to facilitate this.
They are also given a copy of The Catechist’s Toolbox, which is a tremendous resource for both new and experienced catechists. Lastly, they are given a list of our staff’s home phone numbers, along with those of our mentor catechists.
Several years ago, we asked several of our most experienced catechists, one for each of our grades, to become mentors to those who were just starting out. Basically, the mentors get in touch with the new catechists throughout their first two years, offering support and encouragement, along with answering any questions. Mentoring has been a wonderful addition to our program. It spotlights the seasoned veterans and honors them for their many years of service, and it provides another way of ensuring that our newest catechists have a wonderful teaching experience.
Ongoing Support of Catechists
Here are a few tips for providing ongoing support that will encourage catechists to stay in ministry.
- Evaluations—At least once a year, we do a formal classroom evaluation of each catechist. We do this not to judge their teaching methodology, but rather to see how we might help them in their ministry.
- Ongoing Formation—Regular formation is very helpful at keeping volunteers motivated and current. In addition to the formation offered by our archdiocese, we also provide two potluck in-services each year. We do this for two reasons. First, if you have children’s faith formation at different days/times, your volunteers probably never have the chance to interact. Potluck in-services give them the opportunity to get to know each other better, along with the chance to share their experiences. Second, our volunteers are required to be working towards archdiocesan certification. We provide some type of presentation for them that will earn credit toward that goal.
- Prayers—Let’s face it; we all need prayers. Knowing that someone is praying for you is a great support and comfort, and we remind our volunteers on an ongoing basis that we are praying for them. Twice each year, one of our Sunday Masses is celebrated for the intentions of our volunteers.
- Thanks—Every chance we get, we thank our volunteers. We have to acknowledge the fact that without them we would be very limited in our efforts to catechize the young people of our parishes. We should never be too busy to ask people how they are doing, how we might be able to serve them better, and offer them our thanks. We also send catechists birthday and other occasion cards as a loving reminder to them that we are grateful for their service.
We have a responsibility to ensure that all those who volunteer are equipped for ministry. There are many ways to do this, and it’s critical to have a plan in place in order to achieve this goal. We can make it meaningful, fun, and exciting to volunteer. We can also make volunteering burdensome, stressful, and unfulfilling. What our volunteers experience will be in direct relation to how well we’ve planned.
If you are a seasoned DRE, how do you train and retain the volunteers needed in your faith formation program? What advice would you give to someone just starting out in his or her ministry as a faith formation leader?
This article was originally written in 2011, when Paul was the DRE at St. John Catholic Church.