SUMMIT: Faith formation in smaller parishes

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Parish catechetical leaders gathered at the Feb. 5 SUMMIT meeting in Hayward to discuss hot topics in their ministry. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Superior Catholic Herald Staff
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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on hot topics in faith formation. The SUperior Mutual MInistry Team, the professional group for diocesan catechetical leaders, met Feb. 5 in Hayward.

The networking the SUperior Mutual MInistry Team provides is of particular importance to those who are the sole faith formation staff members in more rural areas. Often with sparse numbers of registered students, these programs present unique challenges and opportunities.

In a follow-up conversation with Kay Berg, director of youth ministry at St. Mary’s, Tomahawk, she acknowledged the difficult question for smaller parishes: “How do you devote that much time and energy and resources to a declining population?”

She also noted, “It has also not become a priority for many younger families.” Grateful for the number of dedicated families she works with, Berg said they have also seen many fall to the wayside, “and that isn’t just us Catholics, it’s a huge issue in all faiths.”

The Catholic Herald also spoke with Jen Metzger, coordinator of religious education and youth minister for parishes in Three Lakes and Sugar Camp.

She expressed the challenging “guessing game” that coordinating classes can be. She gave an example of a class with three students where one might get sick, his or her friend doesn’t want to attend alone and the third has a schedule conflict. The catechist is putting in time and effort to prepare – the same as if she taught a class of 20 – but might end up with a class of one, or none.

Creatively adapting, they have been “mostly successful” working with families by being “extra communicative.” And while “both parishes are passionate about keeping their separate programs,” those in sixth grade and older have been meeting together, especially since the two area elementary schools merge into one and older students are all classmates.

“Numbers do matter when we’re trying to combine events for enrichment,” Metzger said and referenced participation with other parishes in the region. The flip side for her is that smaller groups become more of a tight-knit family; although she added, “not everything is about whether or not they’re having fun … they need to learn solid faith to live it in their lives.”

Calling it a fight for the greater good, the catechetical leader spoke of the need to engage and encounter in order to grow and even just to sustain. “It is a tougher sell,” Metzger said, and added that parishioners can wonder, “Why are you doing this, if we don’t see kids in church?”

Again, the key for her is communication. Informing the parish of the things going on that they cannot see. Always trying to find new ways to encourage the families to make more time for Mass and be visibly present in the parish community. Reaching out to those families who have drifted away.

“In today’s society, folks are so busy that unfortunately not all of them are choosing their faith as a priority,” Metzger asserted. She also said, while “my numbers might be different than others (in larger diocesan parishes), American culture is the same across the board, whatever the population.”

Stating that the community in general, including the school district, is “smaller than it once was,” Metzger acknowledged the decreasing number of job opportunities to keep families in the area as the primary cause.

While she admitted having “discouraging days,” Metzger’s general sense is one of strong support from her local priests, parishioners, the majority number of invested families and her community at large.

In the words of a priest friend of hers, Metzger reminds herself often, “Jesus said feed my sheep, don’t count them.”

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