Parish Registration That’s a Conversation

Let’s face it–joining or registering at a Catholic parish can be one of the most non-relational experiences a person can have. What does it typically entail? A form to collect information. Reading or being told of “policies.” Being asked personal information, i.e. the dates of a child’s first Eucharist, something that might feel a bit like “judging” if one is unfamiliar with the terms of didn’t do it at the “right time.”

The “Problems” of Registration for Catholics

Many Americans who self-identify as Catholic carry baggage related to parish registration. That relative they remember who couldn’t get married at a certain parish because they weren’t registered. Not being able to join a youth sports team because of being registered in a different parish. Calling to request Anointing of the Sick for an aging relative and being told they cannot receive it because they are not registered or in “good standing.” The litany of ways people have taken offense during the process of “registration” is long, complex, and an exercise in empathy to hear! Now, as many familiar with the Code of Canon Law or liturgical books know, many of the situations I mentioned are filled with error/miscommunication. Yet, that factual reality does not change the actually experience of offense taken by that person who (without the benefit of an understanding of Canon Law or liturgical rites) felt excluded or unhelped in a time of need.

The “Problems” of Joining a Parish for Non-Catholics

For non-Catholics, whether they be seekers, “nones,” or our separated brothers and sisters, the experience of registering in a parish can be even more confusing. As an “outsider” to some of our unique language, what does “registering” even mean?

  • Is it like a mini-application? Will I get in?!? What if I’m a single parent? Will my kids get in if they’re not baptized yet? If I check a box that they have special needs?
  • What do you mean I’m not “registered”? I’ve been coming here for years and get email newsletters from the parish all the time?
  • I’ve been told only Catholics can register. So, I basically don’t really belong at this parish.

The Root Problem is That It’s Non-Relational

In any situation, the real problem is when parish registration is a non-relational experience, which I’ll define as an experience that does not form a personal connection between the person registering and a person in the parish. A kind secretary who “helps” someone fill out a form can be slightly more relational 🙂 [shout out to all of the amazing administrative personnel in parishes who are gifted enough to show love amidst ringing phones, fixing copy machines, and helping a young parent with a crying infant fill out a registration form!] however, these situations aren’t ideal for a conversation that allows a person to experience being known in a way our society doesn’t typically make space for. A conversation where a person experiences being welcomed unconditionally and listened to for the unique story and beauty they bring to the world!

From Here to There: Introducing Conversation to Your Parish Registration Process

  1. Identify people (clergy or lay, staff or volunteer, etc.) to be part of this conversation ministry. Organizationally, this might fall under the guidance of a parish Director of Evangelization, Director of Engagement, or a Welcome/Hospitality Committee.
  2. Train the leaders.
  3. Have the trained leaders then start to slowly expand the pool. Emphasis on slowly because you’ll need to tailor conversation guides/ideas for your unique local setting! By doing this first, your leaders will improve the concept as they do it, and then pass that on to others. This needs to be done well before it’s done “big” because of what a critical moment this conversation is for welcome, hospitality, and evangelization for those checking out your parish. [For those keeping track, 😉 you’d be doing what’s called “lean experimentation” with this style of growth/learning.]
  4. Decide the when/where. Be expansive. Remember, people work all sorts of hours, may not live close to your parish, etc. The advantage of having both staff and volunteers trained, is that staff can cover meeting with people for whom typical “office” hours and the parish office are convenient, and volunteers can cover evenings, weekends, off-campus meeting spots like libraries or cafes near their homes.
  5. Publicize to your parish! Parishioners are on the “front lines” of helping people move from “maybe I want to join St. Mary’s…” to making it happen. Parishioners are always hoping a friend or family member decides to give their beloved parish a try! When that person says to them, “our family wants to join St. Mary’s,” you want to empower your parishioners to have a ready and joyful answer (i.e. who to call or email) rather than a nervous “um, I think there’s a form” or worse, “no, just keep coming, no need to register” [because they want to shield others from their own negative experience registering!]  
  6. Once you know it’s functional [enough!] remove the printed registration forms from your welcome brochure racks, front office, website, anywhere they exist.
  7. As you’ve raised the level of engagement necessary to register, make sure there’s a low-risk/low-engagement way interested people can be in the communications loop at your parish. This might mean an online sign up for an electronic newsletter, a way anyone can join a parish smartphone app, etc. As Carey Nieuwhof writes, “the online world is the biggest front door the church has ever seen, suddenly we’re all connected.” Translate this for your local setting, even if online communications aren’t the “biggest front door” for your church, what is? The sign out front? Your bulletin? etc. Whatever it is, make sure that door to communications stays wide open for those who want to get in touch for months, years, or even decades, before they take the step to engage more and join/register.
  8. Continue to assess and improve this essential pre-evangelistic and evangelistic ministry, and how it flows into follow-up moments for connection.

Optional: Caveat on Canon Law and Parish “Registration”

Parish registration is such a commonly used term in the United States, it’s easy to think that it’s part of Church teaching–something that makes Catholics, Catholic. But it’s not.

The Church teaches that a parish includes all Catholics living within a certain defined geographic area [note: in some cases, non-geographic parishes exist] (Code of Canon LawCan. 518). By living in that defined geographic area, a Catholic officially belongs to the respective parish–no form, online registration, live here six months and start tithing, etc. as necessary to canonically be a part of that parish. [For more background, see the “Canon Law Made Easy” blog.]

I would love for someone to do a historical study on the rise and history of “registration” in parishes in the United States, as it’s a cultural custom that has become widespread and oft-appealed to here, in contrast to other parts of the world. My layperson’s hypotheses is that it has something to do with our  culture of registration and membership in societies/organizations in the U.S. in general and general cultural tendencies toward “order”  (i.e. compare a communion “line” in the U.S. to places where it’s a free-for-all mass movement to the front of a church to receive the Eucharist).

Depending on your local setting, it might make more sense to avoid using the word “registration” and talk about joining, connecting to, becoming a part of, or being a member at such-and-such parish–especially if you have a large number of non-Catholics who (when it comes to Canon Law) are simply “outside” of a canonical definition of “parish.” In order to have an accurate understanding of people in your parish who are under Canon Law and those who are not, you may need to add this in your parish database, or simply understand this difference by noting a person’s religion (i.e. Catholics would be Canonical members of the parish, non-Catholics are not). But 🙂 this isn’t a big deal, because of course you’d want to know those who’ve reached out and connected to you who are not Catholic! A wonderful blessing of those who already have trust and curiosity in knowing and worshiping the Lord with us!

Everything I’ve suggested above with regards to making the process of joining/registering in a parish more relational, does not in anyway suggest or intend to change our Canonical definition of a “parish.” Being more relational is about taking an American custom of “registering” via forms and allowing it to be filled with a spirit of pre-evangelization and evangelization, so that people experience authentic love and human connection when they reach out to us.

Registration is like a front door. How warm and welcoming is yours?

Front DoorImage: “Front Door” via LuxuryLuke (Flickr)

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How Do We Talk About Money at Church?

Okay. So, you buy into the idea that churches need to foster and form disciples who give, not simply because money is needed, but as an act of worship, an action inherently a part of discipleship. But now what?

The most important way to demonstrate and communicate this to a local church is through Sunday preaching. This is such a difficult topic for many to preach on (and for many to hear!) it’s well suited for a sermon series. This creates the space for meditation on the Scriptures, discerning God’s will, and helping form hearers into the full picture and vision of what God is doing in their life, in the life of the local church/parish, and in salvation history. (Yeah, unlikely most hearers could take all of that in during one sermon!).

Adam Hamilton and the Rebuilt pastoral team both give the great advice that these kind of sermon series should be done sparingly. It’s a deep topic for disciples, not the focus for every season of the year. This opens up time and resources for preparation and follow-up!

Blueprints
Image: Carmen Degelia @ Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

An Example of a Stewardship Series

As a great example of what an integrated series and follow-up can look like, check out Len Wilson’s project for St. Andrew United Methodist Church.

He explains:

“We broadened the message to include not just giving, but the entire spectrum of what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus – for us, that includes a four part strategy of Worship, Connect, Serve and Give.

This four part strategy is embedded in the story of Jesus calling Simon Peter the fisherman on the shore in Luke 5. We used this story as the basis for the campaign, which ran for four Sundays. Here’s a description of the series from the Creative Brief I wrote”

The “Creative Brief” is a great tool for getting a grasp on a sample format for concisely communicating main ideas and deadlines in a way an entire church can plan around, so that all ministries are aligned and integrated in the effort!

Do you have any great tools you’d like to share to help others plan stewardship sermons? Tell us in the Comment Box!

Lent: Rooted in Belonging

What is belonging?

When we belong, we experience fitting in, just as we are, right now. We experience being a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are able to share and give of our unique gifts, and know that these actions are welcomed and needed. We have a home, a place of acceptance, warmth, and love. The origins of the season of Lent indeed reveal the depth and power of belonging for Christians.

Lent: Not Just Individual Piety

Now, in our modern culture, many (if not most!) think of Lent as a season of individual piety for the most devout Catholic believers. Yet, the ancient origins of Lent lie in the practices of those preparing for baptism or to publicly reconcile with the Church.* These ones on the “outside” of the wider Christian community would prepare for full communion at Easter in symbolic imitation of the “40 days” of Jesus in the wilderness–an event with ties to both Moses and Elijah’s “40 days” (Mt 4:1–11, Mk 1:12-13, Luke 4:1–13, Ex 34:28, 1 Kgs 19:8). 

The Christian community implicitly grasped the profound significance of belonging. Instead of allowing those on the “outside”–the unbaptized, the un-reconciled–to engage in a Lenten preparatory period of spiritual growth alone, the entire Christian community entered into the same journey. The circle of belonging was not merely for those who were already baptized, for those who believed and behaved in ways that left no need for public reconciliation–it was for everyone. The actions of the early Church say, “We’re all in Lent together. We all belong here.” Joining the unbaptized in preparing for baptism shows that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace–we’re all imperfect yet being made perfect in love by the one who is Love.

Lent for Early Christians

What would the unbaptized, joined by the entire Christian community, actually do to prepare for baptism? Like Jesus during his post-baptismal time in the desert wilderness, Christians were encouraged to “satisfy themselves with the Word of God [more] than with bodily food,” in “bountiful benevolence” a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” to be “be filled with those kinds of food which feed us for eternity” (St. Leo, Sermon 40; Mt 5:6). Forgiving, living virtuously, caring for the poor and marginalized, and prayer become part of Lent. Acts of penance that are internal and individual, as well as external and social are encouraged (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 110). And, of special emphasis, fasting that reminds us our lives are not our own, we depend on God and others for life’s most basic needs. This culminates at Easter with a common font of the true water of life, where we all experience home–both those who are baptized and the wider community who renews baptismal vows with the same water. Jesus begins his desert time “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and at the end of his “40 days” overflows in the “power of the Spirit,” proclaiming in the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to announce the Good News” (Lk 4:1,14,18). We too can confidently expect the Spirit to lead us during Lent, and empower all of us who are anointed in baptism (even the most newly baptized) to announce the Good News.

In a 5th century Lenten sermon, Pope St. Leo the Great rallied believers:

“let us all together, without difference of rank, without distinction of desert, with pious eagerness pursue our race from what we have attained to what we yet aspire to.” (Sermon 40)

Becoming a church community where all experience belonging means putting aside “differences of rank”–of assuming that certain religious backgrounds, relationship statuses, family sizes, occupations, or types of people fit in the Church, your parish, or ministry, more than others. It means ensuring that we live out St. Leo’s exhortation to avoid making “distinctions of deserts”–implicitly judging or looking down on the spiritual and practical struggles of another. As St. Paul writes, “all have sinned and continue to fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).   

Lent: Icon of the Entire Year

If the baptismal character and roots of Lent seem a bit lost or murky in your practical and lived experiences of Lent, then this is something to address–a wonderful opportunity for your church community! As the bishops explained at the Second Vatican Council:

The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis. (Sacrosanctum Concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy], para. 109)

How to do this is left to your discernment, but the important part is to do it–allow Lent to be not merely individualistic penance, but also a powerful recalling and preparation for baptism, a solidarity among all rooted in our common need for God’s forgiveness, an authentic belonging.

This belonging embodied in Lent is what we are called to be at all times during the year. Just as the Prodigal Father runs out to meet his Prodigal, Older Son, our Lenten practices call us out of individualism and self-centeredness in our walk with Jesus to a deep solidarity with the unbaptized–a true experience of belonging for all (Lk 15:11-32). For each and every one of us, the roots of Lent reveal a call to be more humbly open to others, more open to belonging as we pursue “what we yet aspire to,” together in Jesus our Lord.  

Belong
Duncan Rawlinson @ Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

*Note The practice of imitating Jesus’ “40 days” symbolically (it was not universally precisely 40 days) was preparation for Baptism. After the Council of Nicea (325 AD), the Paschal Triduum (Easter) emerged as the ideal and preferred day for baptisms. With this, the “40 days” became more commonly located immediately prior to Easter, and the Paschal Fast that already was practiced during the 2 to 7 days prior to Easter. For those interested in the documentary evidence for this historical evolution, I recommend Paul Bradshaw and Max Johnson’s The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity (2011). 

Free Resources Grades K-12

Two options for free printable guides suitable for elementary school and middle/high school:

For elementary school, from the “Education in Virtue” Series of the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, a Lenten Journal featuring space to draw responses to Scripture and age-appropriate definitions of virtues to spur discussion in a classroom, catechetical setting, etc. –> https://educationinvirtue.com/free-resources-for-lent/

vision_saints20guide_november202017_finalFor middle and high school students, a monthly selection of short reflections on those who have lived tremendous lives of witness to the Christian faith. When we think of capital-T “Tradition,” it’s not something contained in mere words of a Catechism or Vatican documents, but a living transmission of the faith.

One source of this life is the witness of others, especially those later designated as canonized saints. These monthly Teaching with the Saints workbooks (free!) from the McGrath Institute of Church Life include reflective questions to help offer students a way to move beyond information to a connection with their own life as a disciple of Jesus –>  here.

 

Raising Up Disciples Who Give Consistently

If you were looking for more evidence that fostering consistent spiritual giving as an act of discipleship matters…

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Source: Tithe.ly, “Church Giving Research”

Interested? Read more about discipleship and financial stewardship here.

Church Culture: How to Assess it and Keep it Moving in the Right Direction

Culture is the social norms found in any group. You might think, “nah, my church is normal…we don’t have any special culture”–but you’d be wrong. Like it or not, there are norms of behavior that predominate in any group. The real question is, is your culture helping or hurting the mission and vision you understand your local church serving in the world? 

Peter Drucker famously quipped, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” meaning that culture isn’t just a side issue or one-time initiative, but something so important to success that it must be cultivated continuously to ensure a healthy and flourishing organization.

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Source: Twitter, Divine Renovation (@DivReno) January 15, 2018

 

How Do We Know How We’re Doing on Culture?

As the adage goes, “never accept a story without data, nor data without a story.” In church world, we lean a bit more toward accepting stories without data, so it’s important for us to seek out metrics for keeping a continuous pulse on how we’re doing on growing a healthy culture in our churches.

How to do this will vary from church to church, but a “scoreboard” or “scorecard” is a must-have. Whatever you call this, it’s something that’s concise–can be read/understood in 1-4 minutes, usually 1 page or smaller–that provides a “snapshot” of indicators of culture at the present moment. When teams of leaders at various levels review this regularly, it helps unite everyone around the common goal, see how different initiatives that each might be working on interconnect, and collaborate to make changes on the fly, for the sake of continuous improvement. Worrisome indicators can be addressed before they become huge “implosions” of negative culture (and really 🙂 everyone wants a more peaceful and relaxed life, right?).

What to Include on a “Scorecard” or “Scoreboard”?

Brainstorm about…

  • physical environment, aesthetics, and facilities
  • customs and habits
  • values and attitudes
  • structure/organization
  • resource use
  • process/program outcomes
  • leaders

…and see if there are quantitative or qualitative indicators related to any of these. Commit to a mix of both–50/50 discipline if this is a challenge for you! (And it is for most ministries). Keep a special mental “eye” out for leading indicators, meaning, indicators that give you a “heads up” on some larger, future goal, rather than the “lag” indicator that’s available, say, only after that big Christmas outreach has passed, for example.

Sample Church Scoreboards / Scorecards

There’s no one right format for any church. Here’s a very basic example of something that’s 1 page, can be read in <5 minutes, and incorporates both qualitative/subjective assessments of specific actions that are in-progress and quantitative lead indicators.

Sample Scorecard

A scorecard/scoreboard like this should be updated every time it’s viewed, and the Actions should change once completed. The lead indicators, if well chosen, should be relevant for many months (and even years), though as situational understanding evolves, you’re likely to discover that new ones emerge and some become less relevant.

Additional resources I recommend taking a look at:

Amazing Parish Thematic Goals — While the examples given are not about organizational culture specifically, they do show how to break down the goal of a healthy organizational culture into sub-goals. Why I wouldn’t recommend copying this example precisely, is the lack of quantitative measures. Assessing indicators as red/amber/green based on progress can be highly subjective, vague, and thus reduce the effectiveness of a scorecard/board as a tool for spurring collaborative action. [Note: some organizations do assign specific quantifiable metrics to red/amber/green, however, it can be a bit more confusing as it forces readers to reference a “key” to explain the colors.]

First West Church Scoreboards — These examples show various “scoreboards” for different areas within a church, in a form that includes plenty of quantitative leading indicators.

Now time for you to share! Do you have a great example of an assessment tool for culture? Tell us about it in the Comment Box. 

 

 

 

 

Why Is It Hard to Make Friends After 30? And What it Has to Do with the Church

 

Friendship
Image: Kleinefotografie

A few years ago the Alex Williams of The New York Times shared a story mixing anecdote and research called “Friends of a Certain Age.” The basic question is why is it so hard for American to make [good] friends after age 30? What did he find?

 

Sociologists consider these three conditions crucial to making close friends:

  1. proximity
  2. repeated, unplanned interactions
  3. a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in one another

By one’s 30s and beyond,

“you have been through your share of wearying or failed relationships. You have come to grips with the responsibilities of juggling work, families, and existing friends, so you may become more wary about making yourself emotionally available to new people. ‘You’re more keenly aware of the downside…You’re also more keenly aware of your own capacity to disappoint.” (Williams)

Friendship and Church?

John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Church (and movement), observed: “People come to church for a variety of reasons, but they stay for only one—friendship.” This principle drives the ambiance and culture of Alpha, but it can mean so much more for churches.

I’m in my 30s right now and it’s an interesting* decade of life. Many Americans are starting families, highly engaged with the bustle of school-aged children, or entering a new realm of parenting teenagers. Many of us have relocated, are relocating, or will relocate for jobs or family. Many consider changes in life style or career in their 30s, or struggle with questions of purpose, ambition, and vision (Miller, “The Ambition Collision”). Some go through a divorce/separation, or end a long-term dating relationship. For those who identify as no particular religion, it can be a time of completing a process of “adulthood” by forming some personal conclusions about the meaning of life, human nature, and more. For all these reasons and more, it’s a time when deepening or developing friendships can be a practical challenge, yet when the fruit of friendship is profoundly needed. 

Proximity, Repeated Interactions, and Openness

When churches can offer settings where adults can let their guard down, and engage in many, repeat, unplanned interactions, then friendships are born. Unfortunately, a lot of what many of our churches do well is exactly the opposite of this–classes, lectures, coffee/donuts, structured small group discussion, prayer, worship, etc. These things are good without doubt, but they are not the most fertile ground for forming new friendships.

Settings for being, not doing or accomplishing a certain task/learning are key. But they must be inviting. For decades, Youth Ministries have grasped the importance of informal socialization among teens. This human desire doesn’t disappear when teens become adults. It takes more creativity though to envision what this might look like for your specific setting–maybe it’s centered around certain career interests, maybe it involves hobbies or maker-spaces (note: many public libraries have evolved into offering these types of public gatherings–check out yours for ideas!), maybe it’s an appealing environment for families to gather and play, maybe it’s appealing food/drink. Many studies have shown Americans becoming less and less social. This is a challenge (because we work against this tide by cultivating opportunities for this through churches), but also an opportunity to help adults experience connection to each other, to develop friendships that will keep them coming back, maybe coming to something more overtly “spiritual.”

God is a communion of divine persons, the closest, most perfect friendship imaginable–something we can never completely experience on this earth. This longing for communion is written into us as human beings, created in His image and likeness. Our intentionality in helping adults cultivate friendship helps them experience God, even if in a very small way–something especially valuable for adults in their 30s, and more broadly, for all of us!

* = note, I’m only half-way through…so maybe the rest will be boring 😉 just saying…it’s always a possibility 🙂