Am I Called to be a Catechist?

The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!  We have all seen these roadside signs, for years now to be found near all of our churches.  But I have sometimes thought that if we were doing our jobs right, those friendly, unassuming signs should come with warning labels attached. "CAUTION! These people and their God will shake you up and turn your whole life upside down!"  In the book of Acts, the disciples are called (none too kindly) "those who have turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6).  If we're doing our jobs right, church can never just be business as usual, a carbon copy of the world around it.  We follow a crucified-and-risen Lord who calls us to a way of life and offers us a gospel of grace that can't help but look topsy-turvy to the world.

The God we worship is a surprising God, revealed not as a mighty Zeus-like Olympian muscleman but as a poor Jewish carpenter, killed by the Roman authorities on a cross as a disturber of the peace.  What?  Who would have thought that?

The God we worship is incarnate in Jesus Christ, who says things like "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," "blessed are the merciful," and "blessed are the poor" (Mark 5).  What?  Billie Holiday seems to make more sense of our world, where the strong do as they will and the weak suffer what they must: "God bless the child who's got his own, who's got his own."

The God we worship offers "grace to you and peace through God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ," even and especially to those of us who don't feel like we deserve grace, who are more used to receiving condemnation and being left to our own anxious devices in an unforgiving world (Rom. 1:7).  What?  Who is this God who offers us forgiveness and a peace that "surpasses all understanding"? (Phil. 4:7)  Why would the Almighty do that for me, if he knows who I really am and what I've done?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ turns our world upside-down.  Knowing what it really means should shake us up, mix around everything we thought we knew, and make us strange in our neighbors' eyes.  "Why do they live like this?", our neighbors should think.  "Have they lost their minds?"  People should say about us what King Agrippa said of St. Paul, after he explained the Gospel to him for the first time: "Paul, you've gone insane! Your great learning has driven you mad!" (Acts 26:24)

Precisely because the Good News of our strange and beautiful God is so very strange, so different from the world's usual expectations, the church has always dedicated a great deal of energy to the task of Christian education, or catechesis.  Because we can't take for granted the odd things our God has done for us and for our salvation, we need to spend hours, weeks, months, even years unpacking them, unfolding them, explaining what they mean.  This is no small task!  We need teachers, and the clergy can't do this alone.  Our churches need to be cultures of Christian formation, peoples dedicated to learning about and passing on the strange good news of our odd God.  That is why we need catechists, and that is why we need to train them up and send them out!  

At its most basic level, a catechist is someone who’s committed to teaching the basics of the faith to young people and new Christians at their core, and also at a higher level to more mature Christians.  That’s the narrow definition of what a catechist does, but as Ephraim Radner laid out when he came to speak with us about catechesis, there’s a rich history of lay catechists especially in Africa serving as something like the shock troops of the Christian movement, going out beyond the boundaries of the established church and becoming catalysts for and shapers of new Christian communities.  

Bishop Sumner has challenged us to do this here in our diocese.  First, we're lifting up and enhancing the licensed lay catechist training program that we have at the Stanton Center, as a way for lay leaders in Christian formation to go deeper in their understanding of the Bible, the basics of the Christian faith and life, and the identity of our Church, as well as to receive training from experienced educators in how best to teach the faith, not just how to understand it.  Our three-year program is designed to give catechists the in-depth knowledge they need to pass along the faith to young and old alike, with high-quality teachers and serious coursework.

Many times, especially in my last church in South Carolina, I’ve had conversations with people who we were asking to teach Sunday school or lead Bible studies that just didn’t feel like they were equipped well enough to do what we were asking.  If one of the kids asked them a question like, “Is the Bible really true?”, or “Why did God send an angel to kill all of those Egyptian kids?”, or “Why did Jesus have to die?”—well, they didn’t always feel prepared enough to give the kind of good answer that a teaching moment like that really deserves.  That’s what our diocese will be in the business of—equipping our teachers as catechists to answer that question.

Second, we're going to send out and empower catechists to do the work of Christian formation across our diocese.  It will always be the case, of course, that in most situations the ultimate oversight and direction for Christian education falls to our rectors and priests-in-charge.  But that said, I know of few clergy who wouldn’t jump at the chance to have well-trained and licensed teachers at the ready to help in the enormous task of passing along the faith to the next generation and teaching the faith to newcomers.  I’m especially thinking of our smaller parishes that aren’t able to pay for a full-time priest, or new church plants that need all the help they can get.  What if some of our catechists were sent out on mission to these places, working hand-in-hand with our lay evangelists and clergy to advance the Gospel in communities that sorely need a helping hand and a fresh word of hope?  Just like Ephraim Radner told us about the African experience, lay catechists can be a key part of the missionary movement of the Gospel right here in the diocese of Dallas.  You don’t have to go across the world to be a missionary.  You can be a missionary right here, to communities in need: south Dallas, rural Texas, new communities popping up all over the metro area that don’t yet have an Episcopal church.   As crucial as ordained leaders are, the church needs more tentmakers, like St. Paul, laypeople who are supporting themselves during the week and are then sent out to the cutting edge of mission, able to support the growth of communities and ministries that can’t yet support themselves.  

Christian formation is an enormous undertaking.  When I think of the people who taught me the faith as a child growing up in rural North Dakota, I think of people like Miss Vogsland, Mrs. Knutson, Pastor Rasmussen, Mr. Quanbeck out at the summer camp, and most importantly my own parents.  What I didn’t know then but know now is how much effort all of that took—hours upon hours of teaching and training and forming, the lion’s share of it completely unpaid, done as a labor of love.  It was the work of Pastor Rasmussen, who expected us middle school confirmands to sit down each Wednesday night for a whole school year and take a quiz on our memory verses and Luther’s Small Catechism.  It was the work of Miss Vogsland and Mrs. Knutson, who came up with catchy jingles for us Sunday School kids to learn a new memory verse each week, and moved around little people and animals on felt boards to act out Bible stories, as we listened and drank it all in year after year. It was the work of people like Mr. Quanbeck and the army of college kids he recruited to serve as counselors at the summer camp where I spent a week with troupes of little Lutherans each year. And most of all, it was the work of my parents, who took my brothers and I to church each week (sometimes more than once!) and read devotionals with us when we were small every night before bed and said with us our prayers.  

The faith that I have today, the faith that has given me firm foundation, a good hope, the promise of grace, a way of life that brings joy and purpose and peace, the faith that I want more than anything to pass along to my precious little new boy—I owe this faith in large part to them.  These people weren’t doing any of this to get rich.  They gave richly of their lives to give it to me, because someone had given it to them, because God of his great grace had given himself in Christ to all of us, out of love, freely and without cost.

A congregation only dedicates itself so intently to such hard work if it understands a central piece of its mission to be passing on the Christian faith to its young people and to its new members. It must, in other words, be a culture of catechesis, not simply a group that has a Sunday School wing and a priest who teaches a weekly Bible study. Catechesis must be what we do as a church community, and not just something that some of us happen to do.

Miss Vogsland, Mr. Quanbeck, and the little churches I grew up in did what they did because they believed they had been given a pearl of great price to pass along to me: Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son whom God sent because he so loved the world; his Word that was a lamp unto their feet and a light unto their paths; the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself so that we could confess that the Lord is a God in whom we can trust, who is for us and for our salvation: This is most certainly true, Luther’s Small Catechism told me, and Amen.

Are you called to this mission field?  Do you want to be better trained and equipped to do the work that God is already calling you to do? You may be called to become a catechist.  Pray, look around on this website, and come talk with us here at the diocese.  We can't wait to hear from you.

Fr. Jordan Hylden is Canon Theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.


Lay Catechist Call

Why do the work of a lay catechist in the Diocese of Dallas? Not that long ago, I couldn’t have imagined doing anything of the sort. I was too busy trying to make money.

I started taking my faith seriously in 2004, when on a long drive across the Mohave Desert, I had a kind of conversion experience. Off to the side of the CA freeway, in tears, I recognized that the very real misery I was experiencing in my life had come primarily from my resisting the call of the Spirit away from the mad pursuit of wealth and power. I finally accepted God’s call on my life, promised I would stop resisting the Spirit, and nothing has quite been the same since that day. I certainly wasn’t seeking a big change in my life, but God found me, quite literally in the desert.

At first I wondered whether anything that happened to me that day was “real.” After all, I heard no voices and saw no visible signs. I just had this deep-seated feeling that everything was somehow going to be different, even if I could not at all articulate what that meant.

I started attending a Bible church and learned to love the Scriptures, but continued to have persistently pesky questions about the Christian faith and about the Bible. In part to work out answers to these questions, I started teaching. I built a ministry on the west coast, teaching in my spare time eight-hour seminars for Crown Financial Ministries on what the Bible says about money.

It was here that I fell in love with teaching the Scriptures to laypeople, particularly on the topic of generosity. There was much fruit that came from this ministry, in terms of evangelism, healed marriages, giving and discipleship. But I still wasn’t getting my pesky questions answered. I found that the more I taught, the more questions I had.

In 2008, after a period of illness, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, an event which ended my professional career as a portfolio manager on the equity proprietary trading desk for a large NY-based investment bank. Strangely, my first inclination after I got sick was to learn Biblical Greek (I still doubt this is normal). I started taking on-line classes at Dallas Seminary and eventually moved here with my wife to Dallas (from San Diego) and enrolled full time starting in 2009. I went to seminary primarily to try to get my pesky questions answered.

After I got to seminary, I had another “conversion” experience, this time, in a history of doctrine of class, when I realized that my understanding of the Christian faith was seriously deficient because it left no real room for the church. It was all well and good to love the Bible, but what makes for a “valid” reading of it? Who decided what ought to be in the Bible anyway? I needed the church for that. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to be able to answer all my pesky questions on my own.

Around this time, however, I wandered over to Church of the Incarnation for an Evensong service on a Sunday night. The choir started singing Psalm Eight and I started weeping. I had filled my head with all kinds of technical things, but was dry as a desert spiritually. I really needed the church, but I also needed a spiritual life. Seminary wasn’t really helping with that. Once again, as I was getting my questions answered, newer and deeper ones would surface.

I intended to go on and do a PhD in Patristics, the study of the Church Fathers, when my MS flared up again and my doctors advised me against continuing. When I asked my doctoral adviser what I should do, he told me two very helpful things: (1) I needed the Eucharist every day and (2) I needed to hear the Gospel again. So I went back to Church of the Incarnation for Morning Prayer and never really left. I can’t quite explain why daily Eucharist along with Morning and Evening Prayer have made such a big difference in my life, but they do. Most importantly, the Episcopal Church taught me something about the mystery of the Christian faith. Apparently we don’t have to get all our questions answered in a rational way. This was a huge step forward for me spiritually.

As I came into the Episcopal Church, I knew I wanted to teach, but no one quite knew what to do with me. I was an ex-hedge fund manager who liked reading the Church Fathers. I was rapidly developing Anglo-Catholic sensibilities, but came from a free-church evangelical background. I loved the Bible, but craved incense. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently Anglicanism was an ideal place for me. There were some things that required right answers, but certainly not everything.

Yet, having been in the Episcopal Church for a while, the big difference is that I am doing much now with a far greater contemplative focus. In fact, I recently became an Oblate in a Benedictine Monastery on the West Coast. I’ve really grown to love silence and contemplative prayer. Since the BCP comes out of a Benedictine environment, it has been relatively easy to apply the lessons of the monastery to my life and work in the Episcopal Church.

Despite my love for intellectual exploration, it’s really been in learning to be quiet that greater spiritual richness has come. I’ve had to learn how to look for spiritual assistance as I research and teach. I’m still trying to learn how to be less in control. I’m really trying – albeit haltingly -- to learn something about humility.

So, after all these years, I have answered a lot of questions. I’m not at the same place I was when this journey began. I love the church with all its delicious mysteries and complexities but dislike its penchant for division. I love the Gospel, but wince at its corruption. I love the Scriptures, but am dismayed at those who employ it primarily for ideological purposes. But learning how to be more comfortable with ambiguity has been a big part of the journey. Anglicanism has uniquely given me space to work through this. The result has been lots of joy.

I don’t know what the future will hold. As someone living with a chronic disease, there are few certainties. What I do know is that my job is simply to be faithful. I show up, having worked hard to prepare, and try to be a conduit for the Holy Spirit to work. God has given me the ability to teach and wonderful, engaged Christians to teach. I do the work of a catechist because it’s what I love to do. In fact, I can’t think of much else – short of gazing on the risen Christ – that I’d rather be doing.

Posted by Kevin Dodge with