How do we involve parents in faith formation? This age-old question seems to be getting harder and harder to answer. We seem to live in a “drag, drive, and drop off” culture when it comes to parental involvement in our faith formation programs. We use phrases like “create a culture of expectation,” “invite, welcome, and include,” and “mandate, require, and coerce” when talking about our efforts to include busy parents. But how do we effectively and consistently involve parents in their child’s faith formation efforts and encourage them to pursue their own spiritual growth?
I propose a simple answer: build community.
You are probably thinking, “That’s it? Build community? But that’s what we do here!” We all try to build community, but the reality is that we do a poor job of it.
Think of how parents are typically involved in our faith formation programs. We invite them to a parent night, an end-of-year celebration, and various Masses during the year. Some parishes will offer excellent speakers in the hope that they will attract parents, only to be disappointed when nobody shows up. While we hope that these programs will build a community, they are not likely to build a vibrant, participatory, and sustainable one that nurtures a lived faith. Why?
Many parents of children in our religious education programs or Catholic schools are not evangelized, much less catechized. They will remain oblivious and impervious to your most creative outreach efforts unless they have a relationship with you and trust you. You build trust with your parents through visibility, accessibility, authenticity, and hospitality. One hour a week at a parish faith formation class is simply not enough time to build a supportive and sustainable community. Hosting events that incorporate a social component along with subtle catechesis that are inherently evangelizing are essential; but so too is consistent and visible witness to parents outside of faith formation.
One surprisingly effective way to build community is through low-risk opportunities such as family nights. Gather a core group of committed parents and have them plan a simple night around a theme such as the Olympics, Earth Day, or other holidays. These nights work best when they are held on the weekend. Invite families from the community to attend, using social media to promote these events. Encourage this core group of parents to reach out to and invite their friends. Friends reaching friends is the key to success here.
For the event itself, keep it short—no longer than two or three hours. Set up stations with different activities based on a common theme. Children can rotate through the stations with their parents. When a group of us planned our family night, we held it in the gym of our Catholic school on Earth Day. This gave us plenty of opportunities to be creative. The theme of the night was “Grow Your Family in Fun and Faith.” We opened and closed the night with a short prayer. Each child was given a tree seedling to plant, along with a prayer card to use in praying with their families while planting the tree. The biggest hit of the night was the birdhouse station. Parents and children worked together to build a beautiful birdhouse that they could take home, along with some complimentary bird seed. In a small community, we were blessed with an attendance of close to 100 participants, including many families we had been trying to reach without success for some time. We hope to offer more events that are explicitly faith-based, but we need to start small and begin with getting people to know one another. When we do too much too fast, as one friend described many of the faith formation efforts from her parish in the past, we will not build a trusting relationship with parents. Slow and steady is the way to build community.
Do you have an effective method to building trust and cultivating relationships with parents in your faith formation program? If so, please share your wisdom here!