Issue Date: April 4, 2008
Rethinking adult faith formation
Make knowledge secondary to nurturing spiritual lives, says
By HEATHER GRENNAN GARY
Tom Zanzig is a Madison, Wis.-based writer, editor, trainer, retreat
director, speaker and consultant who has focused on adult faith formation the
last few years. In early March he presented a workshop called Adult Faith
Formation: If It Is Broke, Lets Fix It at the Los Angeles Religious
Education Congress. NCR spoke with him shortly before the congress.
NCR: You say adult faith formation is broken.
Zanzig: Heres the dilemma I keep running into: The
1999 bishops document Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us is in
many respects a beautiful document with a holistic understanding of adult faith
formation. But were often told that the RCIA [Rite of Christian
Initiation of Adults] is the model of how we should be doing all catechesis. We
have such a narrow idea of what adult formation looks like that even when we
try to approach it in a new way we consistently fall back into the adult
education course model. We keep getting stuck.
How do we shake ourselves out of that?
We have to change our
paradigm. We think the key to nurturing Catholic identity is to teach people
more content. But research suggests knowledge is secondary, not primary, to why
people connect to a community and embrace its mission. We dont form
adults by just telling them what they should believe or do. We have to nurture
their spiritual lives.
What are some of the strategies and tools you recommend?
exciting new insights are coming from business practices adapted for religious
settings. Im really excited about a strategy called Appreciative Inquiry,
or AI. Instead of focusing on whats wrong within an organization or
parish, AI shifts the focus to whats life-giving.
Most parishes operate like other organizations: We identify problems,
like why people dont show up for adult education programs, and then focus
our energies on trying to fix whats broken. But what if we focused
instead on things in the parish that work well and build on those?
There are four phases in AI: In the Discovery phase, trained
parishioners do one-on-one interviews with fellow parishioners, asking them to
recall and describe in detail their best experience at the parish. In the Dream
phase, we ask, In light of what we have discovered, what is the Gospel
calling us to? Then in the Design phase we figure out what we need to do
to move toward our Dream. In the Delivery phase we implement the design. And
then the cycle can repeat.
The big shift here is that rather than the pastoral team sitting around
and asking itself what programs they should offer, they truly listen to
parishioners. They invite them to get in touch with and share their own
stories, and consider what they really need and want from the parish. When
people are engaged at that level -- reflecting on their own spiritual life and
interacting with a companion -- they develop ears for what God is doing in the
It seems if you focus only on the positive you might be avoiding some
real problems that need to be addressed -- or some people might have nothing
positive to share.
That can happen. But a lot of ministers spend too
much time and energy trying to appease the naysayers, and no matter what they
do its not enough, or its wrong. The Gallup Organization has
identified three different kinds of Catholic parishioners: About 16 percent are
fully engaged. These are people who see the church as a core part of their
spiritual and family life. About 49 percent are not engaged. They may attend
Mass regularly, but the church is not a strong part of their identity. And
about 35 percent are actively disengaged. They might show up just once or twice
a year, or they might be actively involved with the parish but be against
everything the leaders do. Our challenge is to work with those who are engaged
and bring them into deeper engagement, as well as work with those who might be
unengaged but are open.
Whats another strategy that works well?
with a lot of potential power is Gallups strengths-based research and
resources. Gallup found that employee happiness and effectiveness is tied to
being able to exercise their own strengths. Their StrengthsFinder tools have
been adapted for religious settings. Parishes have members fill out an online
inventory that helps them determine their top five strengths. Afterward,
parishioners gather in small groups to talk about their giftedness and reflect
prayerfully on how to offer that back to the community. One parish in
Cincinnati used this model and their biggest struggle now is people coming out
of the woodwork, wanting to share their gifts. The levels of engagement are up,
and contributions are up.
In your workshops you suggest parishes need to move from a communal
focus to a personal focus. Doesnt this go against conventional
When you nurture a genuine relationship with God within the
individual, that person will start looking to bond with other people, and
community will come out of that. You cant create community through a
top-down approach. Community is a byproduct of more personal interactions, of
one-on-one relationships, of feeling that someone knows your name.
Is there still a place for adult education courses in the
Absolutely. But those programs have to be a response to a felt
need of the community, and we wont know what that is until we listen to
parishioners. After going through approaches like AI and StrengthFinders, some
parishioners may say, I need more scripture. Others might say,
I know nothing about church history. Its not the job of the
pastoral team to put together a bunch of structured programs hoping that
someone might come. Its their job to help discover what God is already
and uniquely doing in their community and then equip parishioners with the
resources to respond. The more parishioners are themselves involved in planning
programs, the more truly engaged theyll become.
National Catholic Reporter, April 4,