The Lyons family of Chicago is not one of those overscheduled American families with a color-coded calendar to keep all their appointments and activities straight. But with two parents employed full-time outside the home and three children ages 6, 9 and 11, juggling music lessons, school projects and other activities isn't easy.
Which is why Chrissy Lyons is grateful her parish offers a religious education schedule that works for her family.
In fact, the creative scheduling at Old St. Patrick's Parish is one reason the Lyonses chose that parish when they returned to Catholicism after worshiping at a Methodist church for a year.
"We were really struggling to find a place where we fit in," said Lyons, whose husband, Chad, is Lutheran. "We loved the Methodist church, but I missed the ritual and tradition of the Mass. And I didn't think the religious education program was very strong."
Because the kids attended Sunday school during the Methodist service, Lyons thought they missed out on the connection between class and liturgy. At Old St. Pat's, religious education classes follow a twice-monthly 9:30 a.m. family Mass. Once a month lectures or workshops for parents help them develop the theme at home.
"I love their schedule," Lyons said. "If it were on a weeknight, it would be one more place to get to. Now it's part of our Sunday tradition. It's what we do."
Of course, for every family that prefers a Sunday schedule, there's another for whom it's a conflict. What's a DRE to do? Many directors of religious education have gotten creative with scheduling, not only to satisfy parents but also to consider volunteers' and priests' availability, not to mention parking and other space issues. On top of that, they're trying to teach parents that faith formation is as important as football.
"We try to make it as convenient as possible for families," said Lillian Cruces, coordinator of elementary catechesis at St. Mary of the Assumption in Whittier, Calif., a large parish of 4,000 families with a variety of options. English-speaking parents can choose between Saturday morning or Monday evening classes, while Spanish-language instruction is offered on Sundays.
This so-called "track" model, which gives parents choice, is increasingly popular, as is scheduling that piggybacks on Sunday Mass attendance. Not only do Sunday classes encourage going to church as a family, but they can make it easier for working adults to volunteer as catechists.
One innovative parish, St. Mary in Waltham, Mass., offers a comprehensive afterschool program that includes homework help, prayer and religious instruction. Others break the year into shorter modules, depending on the community's needs. For example, in an area where hockey means heavy competition for religious ed in the winter, a fall module might coincide with Advent.
At Queen of All Saints in St. Louis, parish staff chose Wednesday evenings for religious ed classes, in part because of the number of Monday holidays.
"The reality is that families are much busier today and have more demands on their time, with two working parents and an increased number of activities available for children," said Carrie Sallwasser, coordinator of religious education at Queen of All Saints.
Other activities, such as sports or academic extracurriculars, may seem more immediately beneficial for children, said Sallwasser, also the president of the National Association of Parish Catechetical Directors. "Parents may not as readily see the benefits of religious ed."
Cruces agreed: "Sometimes it seems like religious education is last on the list, just something to 'get done.' We fall below soccer, baseball, swimming or dance. If we interfere with those schedules, often families won't choose to do it."
The solution, however, is not to issue demands or ultimatums, leaders in faith formation say. Instead, parents and parishes need to work together on the challenge of scheduling.
"Religious educators should try to be willing to flex and bend a little bit," Sallwasser said. "Certainly, religious education should be a priority, but it's very easy to start mandating and become judgmental. That doesn't solve anything. You can't force someone to make something a priority. But if you invite, and you're willing to listen and work with someone, you've got a much better chance."
Cruces also tries to welcome and work with all families, whether it's divorced parents with custody every other weekend or grandparents bringing children to religious ed. "My advice is to just love them where they're at," she said. "If we're going to be an evangelizing church, we need to welcome everybody, try to be pastoral and work with them."
Flexible religious ed scheduling as part of the "new evangelization"? That's how Lori Dahlhoff, executive director of the Religious Education Department at the National Catholic Education Association, sees it.
When a parent says, "Well, Tuesday night doesn't work for me," it should prompt a conversation, not immediately be taken as an affront by parish staff, Dahlhoff says. For example, she knows one family whose son with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder requires the physical activity of being involved in a sport. Sitting in a religious ed class after a long day at school and practice would be impossible for him, she says.
"Part of our job is to recognize how to help these families on their journeys," Dahlhoff said. "That's not always what we've been doing when we talk about programs rather than about the learner."
Perhaps a neighboring parish offers another option that could work for a particular family. Or families who choose to "homeschool" for religious ed or who otherwise can't attend a formal program can still be included in group activities or Masses, to stay connected to the community.
On the other hand, parents should remember that at baptism the church promised to help to raise the young person in the faith, which involves not only a personal relationship with Christ, but also a communal one with the body of Christ. "You can't form someone in the Catholic faith without a community," Dahlhoff said. "Parents need to think not just, 'What should I do for my child?' but 'What does my community need from us?' Because that child is also a gift to the community."
While offering flexible and creative scheduling is one way to help today's busy families, so is prompting some deeper reflection on that busy-ness. Dahlhoff said, "One way we can support families is by helping them ask if they always need to be this busy: 'How does your schedule help you to enjoy the gift of each other and the gift of God's presence in your family?'
"Part of being a faith-filled person requires contemplation and solitude," she said. "Taking time to pause can be very important, and religious formation can be a natural time to do that."
[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communication at Aurora University outside Chicago.]