By SAMANTHA SMITH | Published August 6, 2020
ATLANTA–Those who work or volunteer in religious education are invited to attend this year’s virtual Atlanta Catechist Conference (ACC) on Saturday, Aug. 22.
The theme for this year’s conference is, “Abide in His Love–Hand it On!”
Hosted by the Office of Formation and Discipleship of the Archdiocese of Atlanta for 14 years, the annual event includes local and national speakers who lead workshops on theology, spirituality, methodology and other topics. Sessions and resources are also available for RCIA leaders and school teachers.
Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., and Bishops Bernard E. Shlesinger III and Joel M. Konzen, SM, will bless and commission participants.
“The Atlanta Catechist Conference is a great opportunity to equip and serve our catechists,” said Andy Lichtenwalner, director of the Office of Formation and Discipleship. “I am looking forward to the chance to serve our catechists and all who work in the areas of evangelization and faith formation from children and youth to senior adults.”
This year’s first virtual conference is free for participants and available nationwide.
The coronavirus pandemic changed how faith formation is offered. Schools and parish religious education programs have incorporated more online learning and engagement since parishes and schools closed in March.
“The circumstances of COVID-19 have transformed much of the ministry landscape and have challenged us to think of new ways to reach our ministry leaders, volunteers and communities we serve,” said Lichtenwalner. “While these have been difficult times, they have also invited us to be creative, to utilize technology in new ways and to take advantage of the time before us to advance strategic changes.”
As virus cases in Georgia and other states continued to rise, and large events were cancelled, it became clear that the ACC needed to move to an online format.
“While it was hard to leave the in-person experience, it was a necessary decision with all the unknowns before us,” said Lichtenwalner.
Thankfully, most of the planning was completed before pivoting to a virtual experience. Speakers were willing to take a “leap of faith” and pre-record their presentations, said Joyce Guris, director of religious education and youth ministry at Transfiguration Church in Marietta. She has served on the planning committee for ACC since its inception.
Many program elements were already in place before going virtual, such as speaker photos and biographies, workshop titles and descriptions, said Michele McHale-Pickard, an associate director of faith formation for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. She brings more than 10 years of experience in youth ministry to her new role in the Office of Formation and Discipleship, which includes work at St. Thomas More Church in Decatur and St. Stephen the Martyr Church in Lilburn.
When God wants something to happen, things will start to fall into place, she said.
The planning committee partnered with Virtual Catholic Conference to provide the online experience. This new online platform held its first event in early April as Catholic events around the world were cancelled due to the coronavirus. The partnership with the digital platform has been great, said Lichtenwalner.
Pre-recorded videos will be available beginning Aug. 20. There will be a “live booth,” allowing participants to engage with presenters and peers. There will also be an online marketplace.
“Since we are virtual, catechists have the opportunity to hear more workshops than at the one-day conference and participate in the live booth discussions with the presenter and other catechists and ministry leaders from across the nation,” said Guris. “My prayer is that in addition to learning and growing, catechists also feel the love and appreciation for their ministry to faith formation,” she said.
Another benefit of the virtual conference is the ability to respond to immediate needs, said McHale-Pickard. No longer being confined by space, organizers were able to add a series on how to be a virtual catechist and workshops on how the Catholic Church responds to racism, she said.
“We would not have been able to expand with in-person,” said McHale-Pickard. “This allowed us an expansion and reaction time that we didn’t have available.”
As registrations continue to come in for the annual gathering, Lichtenwalner looks forward to serving catechists and youth ministers on a national level.
“My hope is that the virtual Atlanta Catechist Conference will be able to reach even more catechists and other ministry leaders and volunteers in the archdiocese and across the nation with solid and inspiring formation, building on the last several years of our growing in-person conference,” he said.