By Denise Utter
Vibrant Faith Coaching Team
As August tails off into September, I often reflect back to my teacher days. I loved the end of August and looked forward to new blank notebooks, clean 16-month calendars, new pens, sharpened pencils, and an array of colored highlighters (oh the color-coding)! It was a fresh start—a chance to be organized, even if it lasted only a moment. I made an effort to know the names of students on the first day. I welcomed parents on that first parent-teacher night. It was all so exciting.
I felt that same excitement as a parish leader as well, every fall. New names. New families. How could I help them feel like they belonged? Help them feel a part of the community? Engage them in ordinary and extraordinary ways?
I follow and participate in many ministry leadership groups online, and as we prepare for fall kickoffs, I hear some of that almost-here excitement. I also sense some of the tension leaders are feeling as we try to include parents in our ministries, welcoming them in some way to the faith-formation environment. Some churches are just beginning to offer family nights. Some offer whole-parish intergenerational gatherings a few times a year. Some are dipping their toes in these waters for the first time, while others have pivoted to full family programs with parents receiving formation and/or forming their children at home.
As leaders share their excitement and their concerns, I feel their pain as they ask:
- “Do I tell parents these sessions are optional?”
- “Do I say explicitly that this is mandatory for parents?
- “Do I just add parent nights to the calendar and wait for the questions?”
When our parish began to make a paradigm shift from drop-off faith formation for children to a family approach to lifelong faith formation, I remember getting that question often: “What’s mandatory?” My pastor and I sat down to discuss our language around this issue. Mandatory. “It’s not a state-mandated program,” I would say. “How do we mandate what people do?” he would ask. “If you don’t do this, you don’t get this? You don’t move to the next grade? It’s not school.” Neither of us liked the word. Mandatory is a word that causes immediate push-back in me. I feel the child within me saying, “You can’t make me!” Language matters.
I also knew that whatever we decided was mandatory (seven out of eight sessions or 24 out of 30 classes?) that would be the new “low bar” for people to clear. “What’s the minimum I can do and still ‘pass’?” If someone says you can miss two sessions, you might just decide you’re going to miss two sessions. It’s human nature. So, instead, we chose to use the phrase: “We hope and expect.”
Challenge your people to taste fully of the banquet you place before them. Offer them your very best, in the most hospitable way, and then tell them you hope and expect that they participate fully in what you’re offering. We know parents want to nourish their children fully. They sacrifice to participate in church because faith is important to them and we know that. Say something like:
“We understand sometimes life happens, and we’ll work with you as best we can when that happens, but we hope (Wednesday night, Saturday morning, whatever day/time you choose) becomes your favorite day of the week/month. We’re going to do everything we can to make that true—time with your family, and your community, focused on a relationship with God.”
When we entice rather than demand, people respond well. Collaborate with parents. Invite them to play a role in the planning. Share your “why’s.” We know why it’s important to support parents in the faith formation of their children—all the research tells us! But have you shared that research with parents? Have you affirmed them for showing up—for presenting their children for formation and sacraments?
In my just-released book Engage Every Family I writethat I have always had such a heart for parents, especially those who are struggling to live their faith, those who want to but aren’t sure how, and those who are unchurched but desire this faith for their children. They are making countercultural choice just by showing up! I’ve found that when we walk with them, affirm them, and build up their confidence, amazing things happen.
So this year, don’t scold, don’t blame, and don’t focus on what they “should” be doing. If you can avoid words like “mandatory,” please do! This fall offer a faith formation kickoff that is welcoming, exciting, and fun for the whole community. Affirm them, invite them, and work on building relationships. From the beginning, commit to getting to know the children and their parents, and offer the parents opportunities to get to know one another. Trust that if you offer a welcoming environment and focus on loving them like Jesus loves them (right where they are) transformation is possible.
Not only will they grow in their relationship with God, but you’ll be amazed at the transformation that happens within your own heart. They are not all going to get it right. They won’t all be present 100 percent of the time, but with a little encouragement, I think you’ll notice tiny miracles you may never have witnessed when you were counting hours and mandating sessions. Try it.
I’ll hope and expect miracles for you.
Denise Utter, M.A., is a freelance consultant, writer, and a speaker—she’s been coaching with Vibrant Faith since 2018. She has worked in ministry and education for 30 years. Denise loves to inspire ministry leaders to reimagine faith formation, put families at the center of faith, and provide innovative approaches to faith formation.