It seems burnout is an inevitable side effect of catechizing. Some parishes can go through catechists every year, every four years, yet some have the same catechists for ages, despite tiredness and lack of zeal. Why the burnout? How to keep the fire of the Holy Spirit from dying?
One of the biggest frustrations among catechists is the feeling of loneliness and frustration that can sometimes strike midway through the catechism year or after a few years of catechizing. At times it feels like you are pedaling a bicycle and going nowhere. You wonder if your students are really making a connection, a meaningful deep connection that will truly change their lives. Contributing to these sentiments are the fact that most catechists teach for free, and they only meet with their students every two weeks or at most every week. Nothing compared to regular school teachers who have four or five times as much time with our same teenagers. This sets a base for potential dissatisfaction and burn out. Let’s face it, it is work to teach, it takes preparation and dedication. But, it’s the reality for many catechists, most parishes can’t afford to pay their catechists and we have to abide by an assigned curriculum and schedule. Believe me; been there, done that – I’ve taught for a little bit over ten years and in three different parishes, I know the feeling.
Besides these external issues, the classroom dynamics can add to the stress of catechizing, evangelizing and knowing whether or not we are making a difference. And although we as catechists may not be able to change external curriculum and parochial issues, we can change classroom dynamics. Here are some clues to decrease stress and frustration:
1. Accept the spiritual growth of your students. As catechists we sometimes get frustrated with our students because we see their potential for holiness. Sometimes we forget that we ourselves didn’t become active Catholics pursuing holiness overnight. Neither will our students, it’s true that sometimes they have significant conversion experiences during retreat and sometimes during class, but considering all the temptations they face daily, even those experiences can be overshadowed and their best intentions can be weakened encumbering their spiritual growth. You can help them and help yourself accept where they are at while encouraging them to grow by doing the following:
Get your teens use to journaling. Whether you ask them to journal at the start or end of every class. Asking them to rate their faith growth or to share faith experiences will make them aware that spiritual growth is a work in progress. This is something we did in our program throughout all high school grades. Later we read their journals and were able to share with one another and offer support and spiritual encouragement for the teens.
Share your own growth. It still surprises me how well teens respond to sharing stories of faith. It can be a small miracle, a big miracle, or simply a personal journal. Share an appropriate story with your teens, something that reflects your own spiritual growth. It will inspire them and make them realize that they too are a work in progress when it comes to holiness.
2. Remind yourself: this is God’s work. Considering all the work and preparation that goes into having a successful catechism program and research and planning that goes into teaching, it’s easy to forget who’s in charge.
Exchange catechists. If it’s possible, take a day off from your class by exchanging it with another class. It will give you an appreciation for your own students and (hopefully) vice versa. And, it will help remind you that God is in charge.
Surprise your students. Try something new. Hold class outside; treat them to ice cream, show a funny movie, or simply take the time to pray one on one with your students. Sometimes doing something fun midway through the year can give everyone a reprieve and put things in perspective.
Go on retreat or on pilgrimage. YES! take the time – make the time – to go on retreat or on pilgrimage. An outing like this can refresh the spirit, and renew the vocation of the catechist. Whether the retreat or pilgrimage is with other catechists or a personal spiritual retreat, it can bring a new vision, energize and clear up any doubts regarding your journey as a catechist. Most importantly it will make clear that God is Lord of Lords.
3. Use prayer to its fullest. Prayer is not only the responsibility of the catechist alone, it is a communal effort. Besides the usual habit of praying for your students a catechist should enlist the prayer of others. Here are some ways you can do so:
Add you student’s intentions to Mass intentions. If you make it a routine, parishioners will get use to it and soon they will be asking about the teens.
Add a request for prayer in the bulletin. Every month or every week if possible, put a prayer request for your teens in the bulletin.
Distribute a novena for families. You can select a specific time in the liturgical year. It can be a specific novena written for teens or a traditional novena such as the Christmas novena. Ask parents to pray it, ask them to make it a family tradition. Sometimes if this effort comes from the teen, parents tend to be more willing to participate.
Enlist cloister nuns. That’s their life! Prayer. Research cloister communities in your diocese and send them a letter with a list of names, if possible a picture of your class. The first year I did this my students thought it was strange, but by the third year it was common knowledge and students expected that nuns would be praying for throughout the year and specially during retreat weekend.
The vocation of a catechist is unique. Unlike teachers of scholastic subjects the catechist development and success is closely linked to his/her spiritual growth. A catechist’s work is God’s work. These simple suggestions can help a catechist remain in Him, from whom all good things come.
2009 Maria Rivera