Parish formation program helps make disciples out of families

By Tom Beschta | For The Compass | February 26, 2020

Bishop’s Appeal provides training, tools for Appleton parish’s outreach

APPLETON — St. Thomas More Parish believes in the power of family when it comes to religious education. So much so that it established its own family program as a method of getting families to talk about faith in their homes.

However, after many years of the family program, the parish was ready to update its educational materials to better support its mission. Under the Religious Education Initiative through the Diocese of Green Bay, St. Thomas More was able to do just that.

Shawn and Jolene Kopke, left, and Will Chase share a laugh during the adult class of St. Thomas More Parish’s family program. The Kopkes have participated in the family program for five years while Chase is new to the program this year. (Tom Beschta | For The Compass)

“We want to foster households and families of disciples,” said Emily Shackleton, coordinator of child ministry at St. Thomas More. “We said that something had to be different. How can we get families talking together about faith at home?”

The family program is an alternative to regular faith formation classes that take place one Sunday morning per month. The program encourages ongoing conversations about faith between parents and their children. Currently, 13 families with 24 children between them participate in the program. They are split into three classrooms for adults, grades 1-4 and grades 5-8.

“Our children are the future of our church,” said Tammy Danz, Bishop’s Appeal director. “Through the generous support of the Bishop’s Appeal, the Office of Marriage, Family Life and Pro-Life is able to provide the tools and training for religious education catechists to inspire families to grow in the Catholic faith.”

Shackleton, who has been with St. Thomas More for over five years, said the family program needed something cohesive that families could do together to grow in faith.

“The family program has been going on for a long time, but to this point it had always been with the textbooks that are used at regular faith formation, and those are always different by grade level,” Shackleton said. “If a family had two or three kids, parents had to sit down with each kid individually and work on their book with them, or, worst-case scenario, they’d say, ‘You all go work on your books and let us know if you need help.’ That wasn’t really what we wanted to do.”

This led Shackleton to a family-friendly text series called “A Family of Faith” by Sophia Press Institute. The series follows a four-year cycle based on the four pillars of the Catholic faith (creed, sacraments, life in Christ and Christian prayer), integrating it into everyday conversations by placing parents at the center of their children’s faith formation.

“The text series is kind of neat because it allows families to choose the lessons they want to work on,” Shackleton said. “Some of the lessons are just having a discussion on a topic, some are videos, some are crafts, and some are just coloring a picture of a saint while the parents talk about that saint. The series allows parents to learn the content and then bring it to their children at their level.”

Through the training, Elisa Tremblay, Marriage and Life Ministries director for the diocese, and her team provide to St. Thomas More, they are able to pilot a program that lays the foundation for parent-driven religious education.  They are able to come up with new ideas for building on the success of the family program.

“The Religious Education Initiative is a way to look at what the parish has and determine how we could incorporate more parents,” Tremblay said. “Instead of just transmitting information, this is about building up the family, because parents are the best disciple anchors.”

In conjunction with parish-selected materials like “A Family of Faith,” the Religious Education Initiative utilizes “The Family Ministry Field Guide” by Timothy Paul Jones, along with U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ documents and other materials discussing discipleship.

“The Family Ministry Field Guide is a very methodical process that lays beautiful foundations in a parish religious education program to transition from a classroom model or a dropping off model to a parent educator model,” Tremblay said.

“St. Thomas More has been continuing with the program and we are hoping to expand it to other parishes.”

Pastoral Leader Deacon Lincoln Wood, whose wife Jenn teaches the adult portion of the family program, said the response to the new materials and Religious Education Initiative has been very positive, and parents are feeling confident in talking to their children about faith.

“The families are deeply engaged,” Deacon Wood said. “I asked them if this is worthwhile, and they said, ‘It’s kind of what we need. It’s given us tools to use in our homes to help with our kids.’”

Shackleton said the parish has other changes in mind for its religious education program, and the new text series and support from the Religious Education Initiative was a good starting point.

“I like the family program because I feel like people are really getting to know each other, and they’re getting more involved in the life of the parish,” Shackleton said. “I love nurturing families to actually do things in their households.”

Deacon Wood said the family program has been central to the parish’s mission of growing disciples. “The diocese was able to give us the support to get us started on this path, and I think it’s going to make a huge difference in how that faith and discipleship happens at our parish,” he said.

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