Discipleship is a way of life and is not bound by the constraints of programs or processes. It progresses at a pace willed by the Holy Spirit. Time and trust are the currencies of discipleship, but when the time we spend with our students is limited to one hour a week between September and May, our ability to be present in their lives is challenged. Finding ways to connect outside the classroom with students and their parents is necessary to help facilitate authentic and lasting encounters with Jesus Christ. Catechists have a unique opportunity to reach out to families, as they often live and work in the same community. This is an opportunity to practice what Pope Francis calls the “‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 169).
The limited time we spend with students and parents can be an obstacle to building relationships with them; it can also help us to strive for quality rather than quantity. One of the best ways to ensure that we spend quality time with parents and their families is to plan and design opportunities for children and their parents to encounter Christ, whether it is in weekly prayer or Eucharistic adoration or by introducing and reintroducing children and parents to Christ over a longer period of time. A retreat setting is perfect for this.
In my book Developing Disciples of Christ, I tell of two different catechetical leaders who have effectively incorporated retreat ministry into their religious education processes:
“One of the best things I’ve incorporated into my program are grade-level retreats. Every single student attends a retreat every year. I break it into grade groups, K–2, 3–5, 6–8, and high school. These retreats are for the students and their parents. I make sure the parents know that if they don’t attend the retreat, their student shouldn’t either, since the majority of the retreat is about working together. At the retreats, I give parents tips and tools on how to pass our faith on to the student at that child’s level. I always allow time for the parents and students to have one-on-one conversations about varying topics. Every year I have a theme that all the retreats follow, which allows those families with multiple children to learn about the same topic at different levels. I’ve been doing this for four years and have 80% or higher attendance at each retreat.”—Danielle E., Wisconsin
“Families are introduced to each other and the process of discipleship at a weekend family day retreat on the parish grounds. This retreat is offered several times a year and is an entry point for all families with children that desire family formation. Families are called (1) to hear Jesus’ call to be his disciple, (2) to give their lives entirely over to Jesus, and (3) to share in Jesus’ redemptive mission. We also offer as a parish staff, for families to meet with one of our staff or lead catechists and share their family story of faith.”—Bobby V., California
From my experience, the keys to incorporating retreat ministries successfully are to:
- Plan and design for retreat ministries within the overall curriculum, so that expectations for participation can be set well in advance.
- Advertise and market these retreats through parent ambassadors who publicly witness to the difference that this approach has made for their faith. This can be done during the first parent night, in a class, or through a newsletter or e-mail communication with the family.
- Plan for post-retreat follow up. Retreat reunions are an important opportunity to reinforce content but also to continue the connection as a group.
What advice would you add for others considering incorporating retreats into their programs?