Giving Away the Trade Secrets: Part VI // One by One

Blog L'Alto-8.png

We heard from a lot of people who were excited about our organization and wanted to know more about what we were doing, so we decided, since we're all on the same team anyway, let's just tell everyone exactly how we go about transforming a parish culture. For parts one through five of our series, click here, here, here, here, and here!

Finally, we arrive at the end of our series! It is funny, looking back at these posts and at the work we have done in parishes already, I'm amazed by how much of moving a parish from maintenance to mission remains not captured even by a six-part series. Parishes are so complex, the variables so many, the realities of all of us fallen human persons working to build the Kingdom of God so fraught with difficulty. It is hard to capture it all in a few posts. That is the nature of all things on the Internet though, no?

Without further ado, here is our fifth and final key outcome or deliverable for our Parish Partnerships. 

5) CONSULT WITH VARIOUS MINISTRIES AT THE PARISH TO HELP THEM STRATEGIZE AROUND BECOMING MORE INTENTIONALLY DISCIPLE-MAKING

There are certain areas of parish life that should be aligned in a particular way with a vision for evangelization and discipleship, so, as part of our Parish Partnership, we give special, personal attention to those areas of ministry. What we are hoping is that, with the parish, they can set a clear vision for what they are attempting to accomplish and then ensuring that they themselves understand how the Win people for Christ, Build them into disciples, and Send them on mission. 

Though where we are asked to consult remains at the discernment of our parish partner, some of the major areas of emphasis we like to tackle are faith formation, RCIA, liturgy (Sunday experience), web presence, on-ramps into parish life (like Baptism and Marriage prep), and Easter and Christmas outreaches. We identified these as crucial areas to be very strategic around that required specific attention for mission alignment if a culture of missionary discipleship is going to be highlighted as the crux of a parish's mission. 

The areas of emphasis for each ministry consultation differ. To just zero in on a couple things we want to accomplish with two ministries, for RCIA, we really want to know that the program is not assuming that people come to them as already evangelized disciples who just need to be told what the Catholic things are but are instead providing people with opportunities to encounter Jesus and become His disciple as well. For faith formation, some kind of strategy to reach parents and involve them in the core mission of discipleship at the parish seems essential. Whatever the specific area of growth needs to be, one of our core tenets in these consultations is helping ministries understand what they are trying to accomplish and how they are going to accomplish it. If we are going to be doing ministry, let's at least do it on purpose and with conviction, right? Often, and I know this from my own experience of working in a parish, due to the overwhelming amount of hats that most parish staff wear, we are often, in our ministry, throwing darts at a board hoping something hits. One of the key steps to move from maintenance to mission is to recognize that even if we miss, let's aim. 

One point on liturgy: several conversations recently have tipped me off to a trend where some leadership at certain parishes that are more traditionally minded find all of this talk about forming missionary disciples somehow part of a more "progressive" mentality of the Church reminiscent of the "spirit of Vatican II" days that make them shudder. Let me be as clear as possible.  Forming. Disciples. Is. For. Every. Parish. There is no parish who is not called to understand intimately how it forms disciples whether you are the most traditional, Latin Mass loving parish in the world or you still have liturgical dancers prancing up and down the aisles (though, let's be real, you probably should not be doing that second one, right? ;-) ) A vision for missionary discipleship in the parish can, and even should(!), go hand-in-hand with a parish that wants to emphasize a more reverent liturgy.

These ministry consultations bring to mind my absolute favorite part about working on our Parish Partnerships. The myriad of variables and challenges presented in each parish, and even in each area of ministry within that parish, represent exciting opportunities to problem solve with dedicated parish leaders who really want to see Christ glorified in their particular area of work. To watch the Holy Spirit work in these conversations is thrilling and reminds me how deeply the Lord wants to see continued renewal in His Church through parishes become hotbeds for the New Evangelization. 

Giving Away the Trade Secrets: Part V // The Best Way To Get There Is A Movement

Blog L'Alto-7.png

We heard from a lot of people who were excited about our organization and wanted to know more about what we were doing, so we decided, since we're all on the same team anyway, let's just tell everyone exactly how we go about transforming a parish culture. You can follow the following links for parts one, two, three, and four of the series.

Having cast a vision for discipleship, built in a process for forming disciples, formed a leadership structure to sustain the initiative, we now turn to my favorite part of the whole process because it is the one that allows us to work with individuals to prep them for mission. Our fourth key outcome is: 

4) BEGIN A PROCESS OF SPIRITUAL MULTIPLICATION INTO THE life of the PARISH BY TRAINING/FORMING 8-12 DISCIPLE PARISHIONERS IN THE BUILDING OF EVANGELIZING, MULTIPLYING DISCIPLESHIP GROUPS THAT INCLUDE MENTORING RELATIONSHIPS FOR LAUNCHING NEW DISCIPLESHIP GROUPS

It is funny; discipleship has become such a buzzword in the Church that we have begun to use that term for any efforts of ours that resembles some kind of formation. In reality, though on the one-hand the word "disciple" refers to anyone who has given their life to become a follower of Jesus, "discipleship" refers to a specific, relational method of ministry. It represents a methodology derived from the time of Jesus, explicitly from the rabbinic tradition, where teachers would have pupils who they would mentor in their own way of life. It was a sort of mentorship relationship that involved the complete bestowal of a new identity on your pupil, more than the mere transmittance of information alone. 

It is this rabbinic model that Jesus Himself adopts in forming His disciples. This is why they call Him, "Teacher." At L'Alto, we believe that this kind of one-on-one, mentorship relationship is at the heart of helping lay Catholics grab hold of their mission as missionary disciples. By teaching those who are already at your disciples at your parish to be missionary disciples in the context of forming discipleship groups, and mentoring people one-on-one within those groups, all with a very relational spirit, you can begin a movement at your parish that begins replicating and bearing fruit exponentially. 

Let's do some basic math. Though it does not always work so perfectly neat and tidy in real life because people are not just projects, but instead have free will and walk at their own pace toward becoming a disciple of Jesus, the power of spiritual multiplication and the reason this kind of movement is important is displayed in the potential for real exponential growth. Let's say we form eight Catholics at a parish to reach out and build a discipleship group of five people where they are walking with people as they grow closer to Jesus. Over a period of time, they not only form them into disciples but also teach them how to also make disciples. What started as a small group of forty people, if each eventually grows his or herself into a missionary disciple, is now two hundred dedicated, passionate disciples. If a third generation is born over time of that process, one thousand people at the parish would be in a discipleship group, being formed as a disciple and being taught how to form other disciples. That is enough right there to change a parish completely. 

Again, the outcome obviously does not always work out as neatly as that, but the potential impact of a rolling boulder of discipleship that can be created by starting with a only few dedicated missionary disciples is enormous. 

I had a friend one time who, upon moving to a new parish with his wife and few small children, discerned a calling to reach out to other young couples in the parish who might not have really encountered Christ yet. After Mass each Sunday, they would find a couple they had not seen before, walk up to them, and introduce themselves. “Hey, we’re new to the parish and we don’t know many people yet. We were wondering if you wanted to join our family for brunch this morning.” Having developed a few friendships, they then began hosting a Bible study with a group of five or so of these couples in their house after Mass every Sunday. I encountered this group about a year and a half after it was formed. At that point, the fruits were already enormously apparent. They had made great new friends, many of whom were growing closer to Christ by the day having been semi-committed, nominal Catholics before. My friend was forming one of the other couples in the group to take over leadership of the Bible study so that he could begin a new one. Maybe most shockingly, it turned out that not a small number of the members of the group had not actually been Catholic when the group had been formed. They were simply joining their spouse for Mass on Sundays at their request. By the time I met the group, multiple of them had already been through or were currently in RCIA to become Catholic. This is extraordinary fruit from one couple’s effort.

Properly done, this is simply the most effective and personal way to reach a large amount of people. If you can have disciples who form disciples who themselves are capable of forming disciples, you've started an unstoppable movement that will radically transform your parish's culture over time. What begins as a movement of reaching out to one or two people at a time begins to grow exponentially

What is beautiful about teaching this kind of methodology to lay Catholics, too, is it provides them a format and a structure to understand their call to be missional and relational. Often, I have found, Catholics tend to prefer “volunteering” in less obtrusive or intensive roles. On the one hand, I think this is because being a lector or a greeter requires less vulnerability than what is required of building meaningful evangelizing relationships with others. Sometimes, an insidious trick of the Devil is to keep Catholics from evangelizing from a place of false humility that articulates itself as the feeling or belief that one is not “holy enough” or “does not know enough” to help walk with someone as they grow closer to Jesus. For that reason, many gravitate to safer ministries in a parish. Here, however, lay Catholic disciples that may be ready for a next step or to make a bigger impact can be trained and built up in confidence with a simple ministerial framework that will stretch them. This kind of missionary discipleship is at the heart of Pope Francis’ call and gives the insiders/frequent fliers at your parish a powerful way to lay hold of their call to go to the fringes and make disciples. 

Obviously, these missionary disciples require an enormous amount of training and formation to get them ready, but that is why there is a great joy in being able to work in-person, hand-in-hand with a parish, instead of at a distance. We can be on the ground building relationships and working with these people to get them ready to begin a spiritual movement. 

Coming soon, the final chapter of our series on our method for building missionary disciples!

 

Giving Away the Trade Secrets: Part IV // Who's going to do all of this, anyway?

Blog L'Alto-9.png

We heard from a lot of people who were excited about our organization and wanted to know more about what we were doing, so we decided, since we're all on the same team anyway, let's just tell everyone exactly how we go about transforming a parish culture. Click here for parts one, two, and three of our series!

Having cast a vision for missionary discipleship across all elements of parish life and created a really clear "how" for the path for creating missionary disciples at a parish, we turn to the third key outcome or deliverable of our Parish Partnership. 

3) BUILD AND TRAIN A STRUCTURE OF LEADERSHIP FOR THE EVANGELIZATION/DISCIPLESHIP EFFORT

Recently, a friend wrote on his Facebook wall, "To my friends in ministry, if you saw your work at your parish as a year-long consulting gig, what would you do?" I laughed because my work with parishes legitimately is a consulting gig that is about a year long. I thought for a minute and then responded that I would spend as much time as possible with a small group of individuals to train them to carry on the vision after I left. So much seems obvious right? Otherwise, the fruitfulness of your work ends when you do. You have a great year, a flash in the pan, and then all of your progress fizzles out.  If others can carry the torch for you though, the effort you began can compound over time.

This is the method of Jesus. During His public ministry, he has three years to accomplish the mission that the Father has given to Him, to "set the world ablaze." In doing so, He certainly spent plenty of time teaching large crowds and doing miracles, but the brunt of His efforts, His greatest "strategy," if you will, was to train twelve guys to carry the torch forward by creating the Church. You and I, dozens of generations later, needed to hear the Gospel, and if He was going to ascend into Heaven, He needed someone to carry on the mission for Him to make sure that we did.

The reality is, the work of instituting a culture change at a parish is going to be grueling and take place over a span of years. There needs to be a resilient, supportive, and balanced leadership structure in place to save any one individual from burning out and taking the whole initiative down with him/her. 

For us, the leadership structure that we create is simple. It looks like:

Pastor

Point Person

Evangelization Team 

The pastor has to drive any initiative toward evangelization and discipleship at the parish. The first reason is practical and obvious: people look to the pastor for leadership. If an effort toward discipleship is happening without the pastor as the primary driver, it will be seen as a fringe movement within the parish, not an entirely new vision for what it means to be a Catholic parish. The second reason is spiritual; the authority given to pastor's as spiritual Father of their parish is no joke. The Church's hierarchical structure was not something invented by some old guys in Rome during the Dark Ages; it was instituted by Christ. Those in positions of authority in the Church are given real spiritual authority over that which is within their purview. For these reasons, and, honestly, a thousand more, any real renewal has to begin with the pastor. 

However, the key person for executing and overseeing this disciple making initiative day in and day out cannot be the pastor. Between administrative, sacramental, and pastoral demands, most pastors simply do not have the bandwidth to get down in the weeds of what is going to be served for dinner at Alpha that night, nor should they. Frankly, it would be poor management for a pastor to NOT delegate much of this vision to someone else. A pastor simply cannot be responsible for the execution of everything that actually goes into evangelizing a parish. He'll either drop the ball or burn out. 

This is why we ask the parish to assign a point person, preferably someone who is already a full-time staff person at the parish, who is our key contact at the parish and who serves as the uplink between the evangelization team, responsible for the tactical achievement of the mission and the pastor, responsible for the strategic oversight. 

Lastly, to similarly save the point person from burnout as well, and to help more people at the parish grab hold of their missional calling as a lay person, we craft, recruit, and form an evangelization team. Note: I did not say an evangelization "committee." Committee's discuss issues. Teams get active about solving problems. The members of the evangelization team are further and even more intimately responsible than the point person for overseeing one aspect of the Win, Build, and Send steps of the pastoral strategy and ensuring that they are being pulled off to highest quality. This team commits to meeting together monthly in addition to leading in their areas of responsibility and will be formed in a missional vision at each meeting and will participate in opportunities to pray meaningfully. 

One thing we have not touched on yet in renewing a parish through an emphasis on discipleship is the value and importance of intercessory prayer. A key facet of that evangelization team is to have someone in charge of an intercessory prayer initiative. I like to say that intercessory prayer is the flame for the hot air balloon. Anywhere we get in terms of Kingdom breakthrough is a direct result of the backbone of prayer that is being applied to specific initiatives toward evangelization. One parish we are working with has set up a monthly night of intercessory prayer in the parish for renewal of their community. That is the definition of setting yourself up for fruitfulness!

The goal, here, with all of this, is long-term fruitfulness. Allowing God to work like an underwater river, slowly, over time, carving away a space for the Holy Spirit to work wonders in your parish. Forming disciples cannot be the next big buzz word in parish life. It is the perennial mission of the Church. A steady leadership team can help beat the steady drum of discipleship in your parish long after the initial enthusiasm of something big, shiny, exciting, and new has worn off. 

Giving Away the Trade Secrets: Part III // Win, Build, Send

Blog L'Alto-4.jpg

We heard from a lot of people who were excited about our organization and wanted to know more about what we were doing, so we decided, since we're all on the same team anyway, let's just tell everyone exactly how we go about transforming a parish culture. For parts one and two of our series, click here and here. 

In part two of our series, we talked about how we go into a Parish Partnership ready to encounter the myriad of variables each parish culture presents as advantages and challenges specific to that community, but, at the same time, how we also come in with five major looked-for outcomes or deliverables. 

Our first outcome was to cast a vision for discipleship across all aspects of parish life. Number two is...

2) CREATE AND IMPLEMENT A STRATEGIC PROCESS FOR FORMING DISCIPLES AS THE CORE OF THE PARISH'S EFFORTS BY HELPING THE PARISH PRIORITIZE, CREATE, AND LAUNCH KEY TACTICS FOR HOW IT: (1) WINS PEOPLE TO CHRIST, (2) BUILDS THEM INTO DISCIPLES, AND (3) SENDS THEM ON MISSION.

There are basically four steps to making a disciple as the Church articulates in the General Directory of Catechesis. They are:

1) Pre-Evangelization: prepping the soil including removing obstacles to the proclamation of the Gospel. Think of the parable of the seed and the sower. Anything that might not allow the "seed" of a relationship with Jesus to take root, must be uprooted, gently. This happens best in the context of personal relationships but could also include something like philosophical formation to help work around intellectual hangups or even a welcoming culture at your parish that can help to create an attitude of comfort in what is often an uncomfortable setting for many. I find that a lot of pre-evangelization happens surrounding the or "feel" or "vibe" of a parish or event. Much that is unspoken is still experienced. 

2) Evangelization: the proclamation of the kerygma, the core message of the faith proclaiming Jesus as savior and restorer of a relationship with the Father which leads to an assent of faith and someone making an intentional commitment of their life to God.

3) Catechesis/Discipleship: I use the word discipleship here interchangeably with catechesis because many see catechesis as education only. It is not, in the most full sense of the term, but, rather, the work of catechesis and discipleship is to bring someone who has given their life to Christ to full Christian spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and human maturity.

4) Apostolate: following a period of formation in the lifelong work of mission that is required of every Christian, a disciple should be given an opportunity to discern their charisms, or gifts of the Holy Spirit that are given for the building up of the Body of Christ, and the specific way in which the Lord is calling out to them to put those gifts at the service of the Church. 

For a parish to be effective at forming disciples, it has to know, cold, how it accomplishes each of these four steps and moves people through a process where they are given the proper formation relative to each. Then, it has to hold itself accountable by continuing to discern whether the tactical methods it is using to execute at each level is actually effective at serving its purpose and bearing fruit. If not, a parish has to be flexible enough to adjust as it moves forward.

These steps represent the work on the part of the parish to accompany individuals through the five thresholds of discipleship, made famous in the Catholic scene by Sherry Weddell in her work, Forming Intentional Disciples. These thresholds of trust, curiosity, openness, seeking, and intentional discipleship, represent the five basic movements of a human heart as it walks into a relationship of following Jesus. The efforts of a parish should be catered, not in a consumerist but in a pastoral way, to reaching out to individuals represented by each threshold and should be aimed at walking with them through a process of giving their life to Christ. If everything we do as parishes is just aimed at insiders, though, we run the risk of missing completely those in the earlier stages which is where a surprising amount of Catholics (certainly, a majority of those even in our pews on Sundays) are. 


As an aside, it has become vogue to say that only a person-to-person movement is needed to transform a parish into a disciple-making parish. While such a movement is essential to parish transformation (see key outcome #4), all of the efforts of a parish, including its programming, need to be transformed. Not all programs are bad. They are not ends in themselves, to be sure, but it is, in fact, okay for there to be some structure applied to our efforts at evangelizing. 

When we work with parishes, we like to present this four-fold structural effort from the GDC and retool it using the simple language popularized by several Christian and Catholic organizations of Win, Build, and Send. We combine the pre-evangelization and evangelization steps into the concept of Winning people to Christ, catechesis/discipleship is Build, and apostolate is Send. When rolling out our initiative to the parish, we encourage them to re-brand that lingo to fit their particular situation and to be more "parishioner facing" than reflecting our own efforts: what do you want THEM to do, not what are WE going to do. 

For example, here is how this looked for a parish we worked with in the western suburbs of Chicago. They called their overall strategic process for forming disciples Ignite @ SJN (an acronym for their parish's name) and the three steps were articulated as wanting parishioners to Encounter Christ, Grow in Christ, and Be Sent by Christ. To help people Encounter Christ, they launched the Alpha program and made efforts to teach people how to have a life of prayer. For people to Grow in Christ, we launched a discipleship process (more on that later) and they were going to ramp up their efforts at providing solidly Catholic catechetical formation programs. To help their parishioners Be Sent by Christ, they use an augmented version of the ReLit program to cast a vision for evangelization with their parishioners ready for leadership, help them discern their charisms, and then provide more outreach specific training for the ministry in which the parishioner decides to serve.

So, basically, it looks like this:

IGNITE @ SJN: 

Encounter Christ: Alpha / Prayer

Grow in Christ: Discipleship Groups / Formation Programs

Be Sent by Christ: ReLit / Charism Discernment

By having only two initiatives selected to achieve each goal, they avoid the risk of overwhelming parishioners with too many options. They also end up prioritizing a few things to do really well which ensures that they can devote more effort to each initiative remaining at a high level of quality. In 'n Out, a fast food chain on the West Coast, has an obsessive following due to a similar "recipe" for success. They use fresh ingredients and have limited options, but they do those few things really, really well. McDonalds initially made its mark doing the same thing. Now, as they continue to multiply menu options, they have created tremendous overhead for their franchises to keep up with, diluting profits. The conclusion? Excellence in fewer things is better than mediocrity in a multiplicity of offerings. 

Once that strategy is set, the mission becomes simple: do it! Start forming disciples! Train people who can be key leaders in each of these areas and let them start accompanying people. This process of transforming a parish will take many years and many cycles of walking with people into a relationship with Jesus Christ, helping them to mature into a fully Catholic disciple, and sending them to put their gifts and talents at the service of bringing others to Jesus. 

Part four of this series, on building a leadership structure to sustain the long haul of forming a culture of missionary discipleship, is coming soon! 

Giving Away the Trade Secrets: Part II // The Five Steps to Building a Culture of Missionary Discipleship

Blog L'Alto-3.jpg

We heard from a lot of people who were excited about our organization and wanted to know more about what we were doing, so we decided, since we're all on the same team anyway, let's just tell everyone exactly how we go about transforming a parish culture. For part one of our series, click here

Renewing a parish culture is inherently tricky business. There is no one-size-fits all solution. Each parish has its own quirks and culture. From working with parishes, though, we have learned that there are some key overarching strategic outcomes that can be universally applied in flexible ways to any possible parish community. This is because they are principles, more than programs, and so at ground-level can be adaptable to varied parish situations. 

These five outcomes form the backbone for our core outreach as an organization: our Parish Partnership. If you're not familiar with who L'Alto Catholic Institute is, I encourage you to peruse our website more, but, simply put, in addition to a parish mission aimed at helping people encounter Jesus personally and a four-part School of Prayer course hosted on site in parishes that forms Catholics in the fundamentals of the spiritual life to help them build a personal and transformative relationship with Jesus, our organization teams up with parishes for the aforementioned consulting relationship that we call a Parish Partnership. During this nine month partnership, we hope to set a parish on a trajectory that will lead to a major cultural transformation over the coming years. Two of our missionaries are sent in to a parish to become intimately acquainted with a parish's culture and then set about working with the pastor, parish staff, and key lay leadership to begin a movement toward building a culture of missionary discipleship. 

Our vision and process is simple; we want parishes to double down on building and promulgating a clear pathway to forming disciples in their parish. Simplify and clarify their mission and make progress moving forward. For more on our vision, visit part one of this series here.

Normally, our partnerships begin when a pastor reaches out to me to begin discerning a potential Parish Partnership together. Often, he'll ask me, "What exactly are you going to want to come and do in our parish?" I list for him exactly the same five outcomes that I am about to expound on for you over the next handful of blog posts. Every parish is different, unique. Each has its' own challenges and opportunities. However, there are some key building blocks, a handful of universal principles that can be molded to whichever parish with whom we work. The following posts will spell out those five in detail.

Before I begin, I think it should be stated that I think the reason pastors have been so excited about embarking on the journey of a Parish Partnership is that these five outcomes are not principles that we shout to a parish from a distance that they should really work on. We come close, walk with a parish to actually see these goals accomplished. It is that accompaniment with a pastor and staff, being there in person to work hand-in-hand, that really helps save priests and parish staff from the burnout and frustration that can come from trying to affect cultural change in addition to all of their other work.

Without further ado then, step one in our process is...

1) Cast a vision for the mission of the parish being to form disciples across all aspects of parish life (leadership, laity, programs, etc.)

Does everyone in your parish know that, as the seminal papal encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi tells us, "The Church exists in order to evangelize." If that is the mission of THE Church, then it is also the mission of YOUR church. Does everyone at your parish know that? If we interviewed twenty parishioners, would they be able to articulate that vision succinctly and clearly? 

Recently, I had to go get my tires aligned. As you know, if they aren't aligned it can cause damage over time. Parishes work the same way. Even small misalignments in vision mean that parishioners will take it upon themselves to try to wrestle your parish into various boxes that they think it should fit. They might want your parish to be just a social club, or a sacraments factory, or a social justice outreach center. All of those things are not bad things in themselves, but they are most fruitful when connected to the overall mission of the Church which is to evangelize and make disciples. So, start there. Align everything and everyone in your parish with that mission.  

How would you define the term "parish?" What is a parish in the first place? Why do they exist? Often when we think of a parish, we get the image of the church building where we congregate for most parish related activities, liturgical and otherwise. In reality, though, a parish represents a geographical area. The entire world is chopped up into little geographical areas. A pastor and the Catholic congregation that he serves and gathers in that geographical area do not exist to simply be a Holy Huddle unto themselves. This congregation is gathered in that area to be salt and leaven for the rest of the area. There is an entire geographic location that is the evangelistic responsibility of the Catholic community which resides in that area. The pastor sanctifies his lay parishioners so that they can go out and sanctify the world. This is the vision of documents like Christifideles Laici in which Pope St. John Paul II spells out a vision for all baptized lay Catholics to lay hold of their call to form disciples in the secular world. This is what our parishes are called to be!

If that is our calling as a parish, then that needs to be known, deeply, by every member of that community. There is nothing worse than someone who gives directions at the last minute, right? You're halfway through the intersection and suddenly they shriek, Turn left! It is the job as a leader to first have a clear vision in their head of where the organization is going, but, then, to invite others to see that vision with them. Show everyone the destination. There, right there, is where we are going. Others, talented disciples in the parish, will begin to find creative ways to self-actualize in helping your parish reach the of becoming a community of missionary disciples that you did not anticipate. Inviting others to share your vision is the best way to ensure that everyone embarks on the same adventure, together. 

Having the entire parish on the same page about where the parish is heading is not just exciting for parishioners, it is actually essential If you broke a football huddle without actually spelling out the play, chaos would ensue. The same is true for when we try to renew parishes without first spelling out our common mission and that mission should be pulled from the timeless teaching that the Church, and every parish, has a single "Why" behind its entire existence, and that is to evangelize.

Next post: Giving Away the Trade Secrets: Part III // Win, Build, Send

Giving Away the Trade Secrets: Part I // Introducing Our Vision

Blog L'Alto-2.jpg

Over the last few months, as word about L'Alto has spread, I have heard from a lot of people who were excited about our organization and wanted to know more about what we were doing and how we premise to go about partnering with parishes to transform their culture. I wanted to share more about our method for building cultures of missionary discipleship here on our L'Alto blog, The Heights.

This blog post series is intended to basically open up the inner workings of L'Alto Catholic Institute and reveal our special sauce to you. I am happy to share with you our process for renewing parishes because, if you are reading this, chances are you work for the Church or are interested in parish evangelization. That means you are on my team!  Our whole mission at L'Alto is seeing the Church bear as much fruit as possible in the world. We are trying to build the Kingdom of God with you so here is exactly how my organization works with parishes to change their cultures forever. Here is the best part: with the parishes we are currently partnered with, it. is. working. 

I want to apologize at the outset of this blog post though; if you came here looking for a silver bullet or FIVE! EASY! STEPS! to changing your parish forever, you might be disappointed, though five steps will be involved at some point. One of the sad realities of parish life is that we often try to take shortcuts in our ministry. We desperately wish that it was easier to invite the Kingdom of God into cultures, communities, people's hearts. In reality, significant cultural impact takes five years and total cultural transformation takes at least ten. In three years, you might start seeing fruit. After one year you'll probably just be really frustrated. 

The good news, though, is that while transforming your parish is not easy; it can be simple, and our entire Parish Partnership is predicated on that fact. 

Often, we come away from reading the latest book or going to the latest conference on evangelization with three hundred ways that our parish is failing to live up to the standard presented. Don't mis-hear what I'm about to say next because these books are incredibly valuable for helping to identify growth areas in parish life. However, a quick recipe for burnout is to just begin multiplying programs to make your parish fit whatever model worked somewhere else. Don't take your frustration and desire for cultural change and just charge forward into the next thirty things you need to do as a parish. Parish transformation is not just following the latest trend. Instead, renewing a parish means stepping back, looking at everything we're doing, and taking a serious assessment surrounding one timeless question: does our parish know how it forms disciples?

A disciple is defined positively as someone who has made a personal and conscious decision to follow Jesus in the midst of His Church. In the via negativa, it is the opposite of mere religious praxis or just church membership. I'm Catholic because my mom is Irish is the antithesis of what it means to be a disciple. Even if someone grew up Catholic, at some point, they will be asked to give an assent of faith which constitutes the handing over of their entire life to Jesus, making Him the Lord of their life. Getting to that point individually, though, is a process. 

A simple, clear, and normative process for how your parish forms disciples is the indispensable condition for beginning to create a culture of missionary discipleship at your parish. This process should be so effectively articulated and widely communicated that every staff person, parishioner, and, gosh, anyone who walks in the front door knows (1) that your parish exists to form missionary disciples and (2) exactly how someone meets Jesus and makes a conscious choice to follow Him at your parish.  If you do not have this in place, it is where you need to begin.

In simpler terms, start with communicating clearly WHY you exist as a parish (hint: it's to form disciples) and HOW you accomplish that mission of forming disciples at your parish. 

In the movie Remember the Titans, the new coach of the football team, played by Denzel Washington, is questioned by his assistant coaches for his minuscule offensive playbook. He responds, "I run 6 plays, split veer. It's like novocaine. Just give it time, it always works."

Anyone who follows football knows that a lot goes into even just running those six plays well. It means eleven different players working together, each doing their job perfectly, to carve up yardage. It does not mean no one's working hard. It just means they have prioritized a handful of things that they know work really well and can achieve their end goal.

We need more churches with that kind of vision, that are willing to commit to a simple strategy for forming disciples where everyone is involved in achieving a single vision. Then, as a parish, we cast one big net all together, instead of a thousand single fishing lines sporadically. Which do you think will be more effective in the long run? 

A culture of a parish is completely informed by its people. A church's culture the sum total of the expectations, hopes, dreams, and practices of the people who call that parish their home. If you want to renew a parish culture, then, your goal can only be accomplished by forming individual disciples, one at a time. A critical mass of disciples in a parish, then, leads to a culture of missionary discipleship. You will walk into a parish where even twenty percent of the parishioners are missionary disciples and be blown away by how different the "feel" is from every other parish you have ever attended. 

Basically, our mandate is this: simplify your efforts. Focus them instead of multiplying them.

For the five key steps for getting to that transformed culture over a span of years, tune in next time. 

Next post: Giving Away the Trade Secrets: Part II // L'Alto's Five Key Outcomes

 

 

How to Stop Being a Leaky Parish

In my time in ministry at multiple parishes, there is something that i have realized. Our parishes are often very leaky.

No, I'm not referring to what seems to be every parish's perennial issues with the pipes/boiler/AC. More devastatingly, we leak people.

People come to our parish all the time who are not affiliated and not necessarily even believers and, too often, we let our front doors be revolving ones for them. We let them detach again without really giving them a chance to hear what Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church are all about. 

One of the simplest things we can do to create a more evangelizing culture at our parish is to turn the situations where unchurched and dechurched people walk through our doors. These opportunities for evangelization include, but are not limited to, marriage and baptism prep, major Mass attendance days (Christmas, Easter, Ash Wednesday, and, weirdly, Mother's Day are the key ones for most parishes), and even parish office walk-ins. 

Let's resolve, together, to not let these opportunities slip us by without doing one, or ideally, all, of the following three things. These are three key steps to stop leaking as a parish.

1) Preach the Kerygma

The basic Gospel message is the WHY behind all of the WHAT with everything we do as Catholics. We need to lead with this message for the unchurched and dechurched. Ideally.in our preaching, there would even be a chance for pre-evangelization to remove any barriers to receptivity to the Gospel message. It's hard to tell people that Jesus matters if they don't believe God is real. 

2) Offer a meaningful relationship or at least a sense of belonging

Many in today's culture have to Belong before they Believe or Behave. The best way is to give people a relational touchpoint in the parish. This is why having an army of missionary disciples at your parish is crucial. If this isn't possible, at least find a way to communicate that they are welcome in your community. Our parishes have to avoid a country club mentality. 

3) Follow-Up

The goal is to continue to build a bridge into parish life through personal relationship. No one wants to show up to a party at which they don't know anyone. Also, if they're not involved at your parish, chances are that they're not reading your bulletin, the place where all of your programs are advertised. They may respond to a personal invitation though.

Get creative with this one. Did you do marriage prep for a couple in your parish? Did you send them an email after they get settled in their new life congratulating them on their big day and maybe even inviting them to Alpha and oh yeah you'll be there too and would love to see them come?

My insurance company has emailed me no less than a dozen times asking me how the process of filing a claim went after I hit a deer a couple weeks ago. Why are we less personal in our parishes than Farmer's is with their consumers? We can't expect people to just opt their way into parish life and navigate our confusing system of communicating events all on their own.


If we just got even a fraction better at building bridges for people into our parish life, we'd be taking a huge step in creating a culture of evangelization at our parishes. These simple steps are just a small way to get better at growing a welcoming and initiatory parish life always with the end goal in mind of preaching a message of conversion and forming intentional disciples. 

 

One Key Distinction Most Parish Leaders Fail to Make

Copy of What is a welcoming church-.png

One key distinction sits at the heart of turning a parish into a culture of missionary discipleship, that between vision and strategy. Most parish leaders that I talk to neither properly articulate nor delineate these two concepts. When trying to change a parish culture though, it is crucial that the leaders have a clear sense of the vision that they want and a trustworthy strategy for getting there. 

Vision is what you want your parish to look like. Whether we think we do or not, each leader has a vision for their parish. At some level, there is some ideal parish culture that we are trying to move our parish toward, the reaching of which being the desired fruitfulness of our ministry. Note: if we really do not have a vision, then we may have fallen into the trap of mediocrity and should pray for greater magnanimity in our role as leaders. Articulating and understanding what that vision is, and then holding that vision up against the perennial mission of the Church to form disciples, is a crucial and irreplaceable first step in building a culture of disciples at your parish. 

For me, the early Church community in Acts of the Apostles is my vision for what a parish community should look like. Sure, they have their squabbles, and everyone is clearly still on a journey of uncovering what "Church" should actually look like, but there is an urgency and a dynamism behind the way they live the Christian life. There is an ardent desire for holiness and a compulsion to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ that they had encountered.

Strategy, on the other hand, is how you are going to actually achieve that vision. If a leader is all vision, and no strategy, they will be perpetually frustrated. The first in intention is the last in execution, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us. The last thing that will result in a causal chain of events is the desired end: the vision of a culture of missionary discipleship. From that vision, a leader has to work backwards to plot out, step-by-step, how that vision is actually going to be achieved. That is strategy, the steps needed to impact a parish culture for good. 

If we start with strategy without first articulating a vision, we run the risk of becoming about activism because there is n If we develop a vision, but don't get serious about developing a strategy, we run the risk of burnout and frustration when it seems like our myriad efforts have been fruitless and aren't leading to real and lasting change. 

For more information on how L'Alto Catholic Institute can help your parish or diocese articulate a vision and develop a Spirit-led strategy for achieving that vision, contact us HERE.