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

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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.

If you don't think missionary discipleship is the cure, you might not grasp the disease.

For this blog, I want to riff off of a recent Crux interview with the head of Communion and Liberation, Father Julian Carron. The interview itself is great, worth reading, and can be found here: https://cruxnow.com/interviews/2017/06/21/dont-think-francis-cure-dont-grasp-disease-cl-head-says/

The title of the interview was drawn from a remark made by Fr. Carron regarding why Pope Francis is such a compelling and controversial figure in our time. Even though Father himself is the head of an organization known historically for its conservative lean, he speculates that the reason many conservatives struggle with Pope Francis' gestures is that they may not have grasped the dire cultural situation in which we find ourselves in this post-modern era. Pope Francis is a radical antidote to a radical problem. 

This idea made me think of parish evangelization, especially in light of a couple of conversations I have had lately. With any movement, including the "missionary discipleship/parish renewal" movement the Church is currently being led through by the Holy Spirit, there is the danger of language being co-opted for reasons other than its original intention. Now familiar buzzwords like "discipleship," "stewardship," and "parish renewal" are no exceptions.
 
Recently, I was told by a Catholic company that the best thing a parish can do to renew itself is to, "present itself as a vibrant parish," meaning, of course, buy their marketing products. Thousands of parishes, they claimed, have been already presenting themselves as vibrant parishes by using their products and are seeing amazing renewal because of it. The only thing I could think was that if their products are so effective, why are we seeing wide scale abandonment of the faith by consecutive generations?

I do not think that this company is maliciously attempting to swindle Catholic parishes. I just think they might not understand the dire nature of the problem we are facing. The rapid and mammoth cultural changes that have happened in the last fifty years, predicted by the Second Vatican Council, have left us with a situation where we need to get radical about the solutions we propose.

It can be hard as Catholic "insiders" to really think into the minds and hearts of those who are leaving the Church or still consider Her and Christ with suspicion, but it is clear that we will not bring them back by slicker marketing campaigns alone or seeming really active as a parish. That approach may have worked even as recently as a decade or two ago, but the world has changed even since then.

I think it's tempting, as overwhelmed parish leadership, to jump at the latest "quick fix" to turnaround a parish that has begun to decline. Given the uniquely challenging dynamics of the cultural situation in which we currently find ourselves, though, something much deeper is needed than painting a veneer of vibrancy over our parish life by implementing "best practices" from the business world. 

Is organization health important? Totally. Do we often fail as a Church at marketing and communications? Yup. Should we get better at that? As soon as possible, please! I have seen parishes, though, that look extremely vibrant and do not seem to be making many lifelong disciples at all. Activity does not equal discipleship. Our marketing campaigns have to be at the service of a deeper call. 

The only real solution to the current cultural context is a radical commitment as a parish to forming disciples. As Fr. Carron states emphatically in his interview, Christianity, primarily, is an event. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ stands deeply in the heart of human history as a event that we as a Church must help people to encounter and be transformed by. This process is slow, often painstakingly slow, and it requires much of us. Perhaps part of the motivation to begin this long journey toward forming intentional disciples will come when we finally recognize that it is, in fact, the only way forward.  

Last year, as our family prepared to make a move, we had to sublet our apartment. A young couple, late 20s, not married (cohabitating), had just moved to the area from Boston and came over for a walkthrough of the place. I had to laugh a little wondering if the explosion of blatant religious imagery (icons, crucifixes, Mary statues, oh my!) concerned them a little but the awkward sideways glances at the walls were overall limited. We got to talking. Both were successful, worked in the tech industry, and were fallen away from whatever faith that they grew up in. 

A conviction developed in me as we chatted. If I wanted to evangelize this couple, it would have to be done by me personally, and over time. I would have to develop a friendship with them. Go out for beers with them and my wife. Have them over for dinner at some point. Grow in relationship and trust and only after a period of months would they probably take me up on an invitation to some event at my parish that would be an encounter with Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

This couple could not care less if the parish down the street "presented itself as vibrant." They likely would never step through its doors anyway - barring a great miracle. Best practices might work to create an overall more positive atmosphere for those already inside the parish. If we are going to renew the Church in the current cultural arena though, more than that is needed. We need apostles, people whose "sandals" are dirty from trying to bootstrap this thing. 

I think about this couple sometimes and hope someone in the area is taking an active interest in helping them develop a relationship with Jesus Christ. I pray that this is the case. 

7 Reasons Why Archbishop Vigneron's "Unleash the Gospel" Is Perfect

A few days ago, Archbishop Vigneron of Detroit released a document that he hopes will form the vision for his archdiocese for, in his words, hundreds of years to come. You should go read it: unleashthegospel.org.

Even while attempting to restrain my hyperbole, I can't help but say that, his document is, in a word, genius. To have this kind of vision coming from the very top of a large archdiocese will, if implemented correctly, almost certainly create a culture of vibrant, evangelization-focused Catholicism in southeast Michigan. However, it's even greater potency, potentially, comes in the example it can provide for dioceses around the country. It can only be hoped that Unleash the Gospel will inspire many more bishops to present their flock with a similar clear-sighted vision for making disciples. 

The only way I felt that I could express my elation with the release of this strategic plan was in the form of a list-blog. Here are 7 reasons that Unleash the Gospel left me giddy.

1) The language is so normal.

It is not uncommon to find a lot of "insider" language in church documents of any kind, because, frankly, most of them are written for insiders. This document is accessible enough (while remaining profound) to be read by and inspiring to normal "in-the-pew" Catholics and high-level Church officials alike.

2) It was preceded by intercessory prayer and encounters with Jesus.

The Archbishop's letter is not the first thing that he has done to renew his flock. Two years ago, they had an entire year of praying for a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the diocese. Last year, they sent around to all of the parishes a team that presented a night of preaching with praise and worship and Eucharistic adoration to help facilitate encounters with Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. The way was prepared for this kind of sweeping initiative through prayer and fasting.

3) The mission could not be more clear.

"This means that the Archdiocese, following the call of Pope Francis, is resolved to undergo a “missionary conversion,” a change in our culture, such that every person at every level of the Church, through personal encounter with Jesus Christ, embraces his or her identity as a son or daughter of God and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is formed and sent forth as a joyful missionary disciple." - Archbishop Vigneron, Unleash the Gospel, page 3.

Doesn't get any better than that.

4) It provides specific, challenging, and achievable action items.

This document was prepared "in committee." The Archbishop had not only his own internal teams of organizers, but there were listening sessions done with 11,000 members of the archdiocese. Often, when documents are prepared in committee, a tendency can be to file down any "edges." The language becomes so general and bland so that it can be unthreatening enough to make it through the committee.

This document is the exact opposite. There is an entire section on action steps and they are just, simply put, on point. A few highlights:

For families:

1) Marriage preparation as a "second Catechumenate"
2) Family discipleship groups gathering in people's homes
3) Focusing all parish events (even social ones) as an opportunity for encounter with Jesus

For parishes:
1) Recommitment to personal prayer as the highest priority for parish leadership and parishioners
2) "Generous availability" of the Sacrament of Reconciliation
3) "Shallow entry points" for people who are seeking Jesus
4) Transformational Sunday experience (Hymns, Hospitality, Homily)

When I read these (and all of the other great ones I didn't list here), I seriously said to myself, "This bishop just gets it." These are so spot on.

5) It has specific timelines.

Only the bishop has the authority to tell his parishes that such-and-such strategic goal has to be implanted by a certain date. This document is filled with explicit dates for parishes to be aiming to have finished implementing a particular element of the evangelization strategy...and almost all of them come in the next few years. Luckily, the archbishop also outlines all of the ways that his Central Services will be supporting these efforts. The message remains clear, though, we need to change and we need to change quickly.

6) It neither fears "best practices" nor leans on them too heavily.

There is a temptation in certain books or articles I have read on parish renewal to rely too heavily on tactics lifted from the business world as the main source of our hope. The Church is not a merely human organization; if renewal happens in our parishes, it will not be as a result of us applying our natural wisdom alone. A powerful movement of the Holy Spirit is necessary for us to form disciples. A revolution of holiness will precede a revolution of parish life. 

That having been said, Archbishop Vigneron does not throw out the baby with the bath water. He recognizes that organizational health and a certain level of excellence and professionalism is crucial for parishes to be effective at their mission to form disciples. Anyone who has worked at a parish for more than two months can tell you that we would be a lot better at our mission if we were a bit more professional and organized. 

7) It just is.

My whole experience of reading this document was just watching my jaw drop closer and closer to the floor. What is perfect about this document? Just everything. From the opening three chapters laying out the background and theological vision, to the entire section on person-to-person discipleship, to multiple chapters focusing on the role of the Holy Spirit, to the attainable and specific goals for each parish and family, this document is just exactly right. Why is it perfect? Because it just is. I'll leave you with this quote  because I just can't get over it.

As your shepherd, exercising the prophetic office of Christ, I speak in the name of Christ to you, the Church of Detroit: “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! The Lord is breathing his Spirit into you to bring you to life! He is awakening you to what Christ came to give you, the fullness of life that comes from knowing him and receiving the free gift of his salvation. He is renewing his Church in her identity as God’s beloved people, the bride of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit, sent forth to transform the world in the light of the Gospel.
— Archbishop Vigneron

I am honestly so happy for the Archdiocese of Detroit to have this kind of vision. I am equally grateful to the archbishop myself, not only for the great encouragement that the Church truly can become effective at forming missionary disciples, but tremendous language with which to express that fundamental mission of parishes. My sincere hope is that this document shows a path to renewal for all of the dioceses of the Church in America. Thank you, Archbishop. 

Tim Glemkowski

 

 

Three Reasons Forming Disciples Saves You from Burnout

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Burnout. The ugly "B" word in ministry.

Every Catholic cleric, lay staff member, and even many of our volunteers will struggle at some point in their apostolic work with the effects of burning out. More than just physical fatigue, burnout is an all-encompassing experience best described as a loss of motivation and enthusiasm for the mission. The factors contributing to burnout are many: disappointment, things not turning out the way you had envisioned them while getting your degree, failure, fruit coming at a slower pace than you had hoped.

It can be overwhelming, when you are mired in the midst of burnout, or even just recovering from your latest brush with it, to think about trying to turn around your parish's culture form a consumerist one to one that aims all of its efforts at forming missionary disciples. These three reasons (and countless others) show why righting the ship can actually help to insulate you as a parish leader from burnout.

1) It focuses us on the core of our mission.

We often get burned out because we are spending too much of our time focusing on the less important aspects of our ministry. No one got into ministry to do spreadsheets and make permission slips. Prioritizing making disciples re-energizes that part of each evangelist's heart that wants to see people's lives changed by Jesus Christ.

Even more commonly in many parishes I encounter, the events that seem to lead most commonly to burnout are those sacred parish totems that have gone on forever and seem to have lost their "point" a long time ago. We clutter up our parish's schedule with "good things to do," burning out our paid staff and distracting ourselves from the most important mission of our parish: forming disciples.

2) It drives us to our knees.

A Catholic evangelist I look up to very much once told me that "burnout" is just a ministry buzzword meaning, "I stopped praying." While I think he was speaking a bit hyperbolically, there is a point in there. Making disciples is hard, and, in trying to do so, we very quickly remember that we cannot bear fruit alone. The greatest cure for burnout is being fed by the Holy Spirit in prayer. Attempting to make disciples should drive us back to that place if we have wandered from it.

3) It helps spread out our load.

As lay parishioners become missionary disciples, they will be set on fire to partake in the Church's mission. A competent and visionary pastor or lay staff member will be able to help direct this newly found zeal in ways that will then form more disciples who will themselves want to take up the Church's mission. See how quickly this can work?

Consumerist churches burn out their leadership. Hotbeds of missionary discipleship are entirely different. In these communities, leadership simply has to channel evangelical zeal in the right direction, a much simpler and more life-giving task.

 

What is a welcoming church?

The other day, I was having a fascinating conversation with a friend about what it means to have a hospitable church. You see, often, when we think about what it means for a parish to be welcoming or hospitable, we immediately gravitate to images of hyper-caffeinated greeters, painfully awkward forced introductions at the beginning of Mass, and the hit "contemporary" hymn "All Are Welcome" played a half dozen times per Mass.

Often, experiences like these have turned a lot of people off to the idea of hospitality as a part of the Sunday experience of parish life because they find it can produce a sort of shallow motif of community where true intimacy is not present but a community mentality is being proclaimed. 

Great hospitality, though, meaning a truly welcoming parish atmosphere, is essential to becoming a vibrant parish.

I am amazed sometimes when I see parishes who are running large-scale, door-to-door evangelization efforts neglecting to take a a serious look at what the experience of a newcomer to the parish might be like.  Now, don't get me wrong. Door-to-door evangelization might be a super effective way to reach your overall community. Kudos to any parish actually reaching otu to their community in that way. However, you have to keep in mind, as you invite these fallen away Catholics or non-believers back to your parish life, what parish are you asking them to return to? When they come back to Mass at Easter or at whatever other event you are inviting them to, will they find anyone willing to encounter them? 

It is often true of parish life that the most effective method of making a change is the longest and most difficult. It is easy to slap programs at problems like a Band-aid and think the issue has been resolved. It is a lot more difficult to create an entire parish culture where it is a given that people are mobilized to welcome newcomers and form real community. 

This whole culture of programmatizing things that should be naturally a part of our lives as Catholics flows from the mentality that the work of a parish is primarily accomplished by the pastor and his staff. We have the feeders and the consumers. If you are committed to becoming a parish of intentional disciples though, this is one area where you can quickly begin to help people who are comfortable with that idea get a little uncomfortable. 

I had a friend who, every Sunday with his wife, would go up to a random couple that they had not seen before, and invite them to their home for brunch. Over time, these invitations had become the basis for a weekly Bible study that produced multiple conversions including one of its members being baptized Catholic. 

Now, forming your parishioners to see hospitality this way and go after it takes lot of time and effort. It requires homilies preaching consistently on the culture of encounter. It requires that your parish itself is feeding your parishioners with opportunities to experience authentic community and be fed by real friendships themselves. It requires helping those with the charism of hospitality discern that call and then be activated to practice it. 

In the meantime, by all means, form a better greeter ministry. Have kiosks in your narthex where people can request more information about your parish with someone ready to follow-up with a phone call to them that week. But, more than anything, form hearts that are capable of truly welcoming another human individual to their parish community.