APPLETON — When Deacon Lincoln Wood took on the role of pastoral leader at St. Thomas More Parish three years ago, the parish was in the beginning stages of revamping its religious education program. The update was done thanks to a grant from the Diocese of Green Bay through the Bishop’s Appeal.
Just as other parishes across the country have experienced, the number of children enrolled in religious education at the Appleton parish was declining. Parents were part of the “drop-off culture,” where they dropped their kids off for religious ed, but didn’t get involved themselves.
With the revamp, the traditional program was replaced with family formation. “Part of Pope Francis’ call is to meet people where they are, to get out into the world,” said Deacon Wood. “Really, ‘where people are’ is in the household. We wanted to focus there as our primary mission field to empower families to be missionaries right where they are.”
St. Thomas More Parish’s current religious education program is a team approach, explained Emily Shackleton, missionary discipleship coordinator of families and children..
“The program we have for grades one through eight is called Discipleship Formation,” said Shackleton. “I applied for a religious education initiative (grant) which came through the Families and Schools of Discipleship. With that, we met with the team from the diocese and we read the ‘Family Ministry Field Guide’ by Timothy Paul Jones. He emphasized that parents have to be part of the process of religious education. We’re all working together to bring families along on this mission to raise disciples of Jesus Christ.”
There is a Wednesday component to the formation process that meets twice a month and a Sunday component that meets once a month. “They’re a little bit different, but their approaches are similar. The highschoolers and their parents meet on a separate night once a month as well,” said Shackleton.
“We also have five skills that are associated with it so we are supporting parents to live the faith beyond just a Wednesday night or beyond just Sunday,” she added. “Because one hour, once or twice a month, isn’t going to do it. We’re talking about a conversion of hearts and a lifestyle that is modeling that of Jesus. And trying to care for ourselves and others in a way that Jesus would.”
Those five skills are:
- Regular meals as a family
- Having faith conversations
- Reading the Bible regularly on your own or as a group
- And praying together daily
The Bishop’s Appeal provided not only the initial funding for the program, but support from the diocesan staff as well. Maximus Cabey, child and youth formation director for the Diocese of Green Bay, has been guiding the team at St. Thomas More throughout the program’s implementation.
“We got the initial grant from the diocese to start the program and purchase the curriculum and planning resources, and now it’s just shepherding the fruits of that forward,” said Deacon Wood. “Maximus checks in with us regularly. We keep him in the loop on the direction we’re headed and he gives us feedback from the diocesan perspective about curricular things to be concerned about.”
Shackleton said some research was needed to find a curriculum for grade school students where families worked on their faith at home. “Not that many books have a family approach where families can sit down and have a conversation about faith together,” she said.
Eventually, she found “A Family of Faith” from Sophia Institute Press. At the time, the curriculum hadn’t yet been approved by the diocese. But since they were part of a pilot program, the diocese was willing to let them give it a try. It’s worked out so well that Shackleton has been mentoring other parishes in the Discipleship Formation program.
Deacon Wood meets with parents of children in religious education in grades one through eight on Wednesday evenings — while the students are in their own classrooms. “We talk about practicing spiritual discipline, like getting a full night’s sleep, or spending 15 minutes in silence and sharing that with your kids. Really practical kinds of things,” he said. “Then we reflect on them. We have the five skills that we want families to do, but we also want the adults who are leading those families to be intentionally growing as disciples themselves.
“The adults that I’m teaching are really thinking about the lessons we’re talking about. I give them lifestyle homework that helps grow our faith. They’re obviously working on it between our meetings,” added Deacon Wood.
“We’re investing in parents, which is kind of missing from a lot of programs,” said Shackleton. “We’re not asking for too much more of parents’ time since they’re bringing their kids to religious education anyway. I think they’re receiving so much more. They’re getting this faith and building community with other Catholics.”
Parents are being enriched in their faith, the parish leaders said.
“This year, we’re studying Jesus and the Kingdom of God,” said Deacon Wood. “Parents are learning how to read the Scriptures in a deeper way. Not just for information, but how to engage with it as we’re intended to do. We have a triangle of transformation — renewing your mind (learning how to think with the mind of Jesus), spiritual practices (concrete, day-to-day activities) and community (they are with the same people consistently each week and they pray for each other).”
The goal for the entire religious education team at St. Thomas More is to grow the Discipleship Formation program. “We would like to see it grow as a positive fruit, but the ultimate goal is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, whether that is five people or 500 people. We want to find ways to reach out, to let people see what’s happening here so more people take advantage of it. We don’t charge,” said Shackleton.
“I care about working with the kids. I want them to have a good experience, but my end goal is to build relationships with the parents,” said Shackleton. “Families are the building blocks of the church and society.”