By Barb Arland-Fye
Parish faith formation leaders and clergy spent a day together exploring digital communication as a way to help parishioners grow in their relationship with God in the 21st century.
The collaborative learning opportunity occurred during the June Institute convocation for clergy of the Davenport Diocese. Convocation speaker John Roberto’s expertise on faith formation prompted Bishop Martin Amos and Vicar General Msgr. John Hyland to invite lay faith formation leaders to join clergy for the June 4 presentation in Iowa City.
“There’s a new enthusiasm for collaboration and I find that very encouraging,” said Diocesan Faith Formation Director Mary Wieser. Attendees approached her following Roberto’s presentation to share examples of collaboration they intend to implement.
For example, two parishes — St. Ann’s in Long Grove and Our Lady of Lourdes in Bettendorf — plan to collaborate on Vacation Bible School, extending their programs to families via online resources. Youth ministers at St. Ann’s and Our Lady of Victory in Davenport will offer a workshop on how to build a website using a free online program called Weebly.com.
Roberto, president of LifelongFaith Associates, impressed on his audience a sense of urgency to develop and build online faith formation networks tailored to specific audiences and their needs. “It is now possible to customize and personalize faith formation for all ages around the life tasks and issues, interests, religious and spiritual needs, and busy lives of people,” he said in a handout titled “Faith Formation for the 21st Century.”
He underscored that “the key to having faith and Church matter more in the lives of our people is to ‘scratch their itch,’ i.e., feed them in the areas of their lives that matter most to them connecting faith to their lives,” observed Don Boucher, diocesan coordinator of Youth and Young Adult Ministry. “Go to them and stop expecting them to come to us. Genuine hospitality is CRUCIAL for every faith community to practice today.”
Boucher said he’s always appreciated Roberto’s “no-nonsense” style of presenting. “His insistence on letting go of excuses, blame, criticizing and chastising our people for the low priority Church is in their life is something that needs to continually be said and faced if we’re ever going to turn the corner on making faith, community and Church more relevant in the lives of our people.”
The diocese can help foster this relevancy by finding a couple of parishes that really want to try to implement this change and partner with them for a year or two to resource, brainstorm, support, experiment with and learn from them on their journey, Boucher suggested. “I think it would be really exciting to be part of a parish team as they work this in their parish.”
IlaMae Hanisch, diocesan coordinator of Ministry Formation and of Adult Family Formation, said that Roberto’s presentation reminded her of the importance of investigating the reputability of websites in sharing faith formation resources. “We have to do our ‘homework’ to be sure it is a reputable website before putting links on our own websites especially in our parishes, schools or other Catholic institutions.”
Furthermore, “information we want people to use has to be disseminated in a variety of ways and often. ‘Once and done’ does not work in today’s culture. I think that John’s presentation energized many parish pastors and lay ministers to work collaboratively using technology at their disposal. They now know how easy and economical it is to provide information for Catholics about their faith 24/7. Taking the time to work together also brings accountability and the parish benefits when its ordained and non-ordained leaders work together.”
Here are thoughts from faith formation leaders in the parishes:
• Crystal DeNeve, director of Faith Formation and Youth Ministry for St. Mary Parish in Grinnell: “We can provide ways for people to grow in their faith on their own time in their own way and celebrate that faith with others on a deeper level because of all the resources that are now so easy to access.” She added that Roberto helped calm her fears about change, a comment echoed by others. “I am excited to work on giving families options to grow in their faith,” she added.
• Judy Stebral, parish secretary at St. Joseph Parish, Hills: “I appreciated learning about so many new website resources that could be used not just for faith formation but for prayers, parish activities and liturgy, to name a few.” She belongs to the Ss. Mary and Joseph Cluster of St. Mary parishes in Lone Tree and Nichols and St. Joseph in Hills. “It is obvious that we need to do some things differently if we want to meet the pastoral and faith formation needs of even our small rural parishes … the conference was energizing and at the same time somewhat overwhelming when you put it into the context of small parishes. We will need to find the ‘go to’ people to get started so we can apply what we learned. Again, no small task for the Ss. Mary and Joseph Cluster.”
• Trish Gallagher, pastoral associate for faith formation, Our Lady of Victory Parish, Davenport: “I learned to capitalize on the free resources available to make a dream of access to lifelong learning one step closer to reality.” Roberto provided hands-on learning that helps “to bring discussion of online faith formation access to interested parishioners in a manageable format. Tapping into the gifts and talents from that point will make such a large project really do-able.” And, she added: “Having the chance to sit with our pastor, Msgr. Jim Parizek, Deacon Al Boboth and Tommy Fallon, our youth minster, to envision a response of the kind that John Roberto offered will possibly transform our baby steps towards lifelong learning opportunities into real growth in our future efforts.”
• Sister Cheryl Demmer, PBVM, director of religious education at Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine, St. Mary Parish in Wilton and St. Joseph Parish in Columbus Junction, appreciated “the power that was in the ‘words’ during both John Roberto’s presentation and in the sharing following the small group work. For example: “How would you walk, how would you talk, how would you act if you believed that faith formation is for everyone?”
As a result of the presentation, she’s asking herself: “How can I take/bring resources to the parents/ youth/religious education children and meet them where they are on the faith journey with a creative energy using technology a lot more within our Faith Formation program?” She said Roberto affirmed what she’s been trying to do these past couple of years, even without technology, in meeting people where they’re at.
• Margi Mountz, pastoral associate and director of religious education at St. Alphonus Parish, Mount Pleasant: “Mr. Roberto’s presentation seemed overwhelming at first, but after much thought, I can see how our church can begin in a small way to bring a network to our parish and gradually build up to offering so much more online than we ever could in our current programming … I didn’t realize how much content was out on the web that authors want to give away for free.
“I think we get stuck in a rut in using the same websites and don’t explore the ‘net for more’ (at least I do). My hope is, with Father Joseph (Phung) and Ruth Sutherland (who also attended the seminar), to develop an overall plan where we want to take all of this information and recruit other tech-savvy parishioners who will help us develop content for a network.”
• Diane Tone, youth ministry coordinator, St. Mary Parish, Fairfield: “I have seen a need to be more tech savvy in our approach to connecting with parishioners, and John Roberto really gave us the tools to do this. I learned that we can create a website on our own for free.” She appreciates the resources Roberto provided, and plans on using them. “As Youth Ministry Coordinator at St. Mary’s, I can implement some of these things right away to help me connect better with the youth.”
• Trevor Pullinger, director of faith formation and youth ministry, Church of All Saints, Keokuk: “I learned most importantly the idea about integration between many social media mediums through the use of a singular faith formation platform. Currently we have many different social media platforms we use, but no central meeting place online that everyone can access whether they have social media accounts or not.” He thought Roberto helped build a level of confidence and trust in ministry professionals who had been apprehensive about using online tools.