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

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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

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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

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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

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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.