Vision in a Homily

So your parish has a vision, and maybe even a catchy vision statement–now what?

Vision that’s not communicated broadly falls flat. Because the point of vision is that it guides everyone. Not just the elite. Not just leaders. Everyone.

VISION
How to communicate broadly in a Catholic parish?
The Sunday Homily.

I can hear the mental excuses now. All the reasons why your parish can’t communicate vision in homilies, how the people won’t like it, how it can’t be planned, there’s not enough time, etc. But, none of the excuses override the critical importance of preaching the vision, frequently and repeatedly, to the broadest parish audience.

As Fr. James Mallon, author of Divine Renovation and The Divine Renovation Guidebook, explains:

I remember catching myself saying once, ‘But I spoke about that in a homily last year.’ It is foolish for us preachers to think that most parishioners are going to remember something we said two weeks before, never mind a year before. In truth, if the sign on the bus is to be plainly recognized, we must speak about vision over and over again. In the last three years, I have committed myself to preaching some form of visioning homily at all the weekend Masses every three weeks. I am convinced that this is necessary (Divine Renovation, 255).

Sometimes it can be tempting to think, it’s in the bulletin right? We’ve got a sign up? The staff knows? It’s on the website? But that’s not enough, “there are no shortcuts when it comes to communicating vision: it takes time and intentionality” (DR Guidebook, 60).

Let’s start with the practical: what is a visioning homily?

  • not simply information, but the inspiration and motivation “to desire that preferred future and be wiling to make the changes necessary” (DR Guidebook, 60)
  • “A homily that attempts, in some way, to address the question of why are we here, where are we going and why we do the things we do, or are trying to do the things we are trying to do” (DR Guidebook, 62)
  • “Preaching about the mission of the Church and the future of your parish in a way that all your parishioners can hear and understand” (DR Guidebook, 62)

Does it really need to be repeated so often?

Answer: Yes. Here’s why: “If a parish is becoming truly missional and is innovating, there will be ongoing change within the parish. Change must always be explained in light of the vision” (Divine Renovation, 256). Most people don’t love change. By communicating the vision frequently (as Fr. James Mallon does, roughly every 3 weeks) the parish helps each and every person know and understand how concrete changes and decisions fit into the big picture, and help guide the efforts.

Okay, I’m ready. But what goes into a visioning homily?

Drawing from Divine Renovation (pg. 256-257), here are the key elements in a visioning homily, with examples from a visioning homily (Groundbreaking 05: Vision, April 24, 2016) at Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD.

  • Answer: why are we here? Remind the listeners why the parish exists, what God has called you to, what your mission is. For Church of the Nativity, it’s growing disciples while growing as disciples. This gets mentioned twice in the first four minutes (at 1:50-2:08 and 3:50-4:04).
  • Name: what’s not right at the gut level. Scratch the point of dissatisfaction that people are experiencing. Help everyone feel the need. For Church of the Nativity, it’s that it’s “hard to invite people to come people to church when there’s no place to park and no place to sit” (4:30-4:45). This is something tangible. Lots of people in the parish may have experienced this…tentatively thinking about inviting a friend to Mass, but wary of doing so because of the seemingly crowded experience.
  • Explain: why the current situation or past models won’t work. This might include some transparency or vulnerability. Or showing how the parish has “done its homework” in trying to address the point of dissatisfaction in the past. Aim to be clear and honest about how a particular [old] way of doing things isn’t working, but without blaming people, staff, specific groups, etc. Since Church of the Nativity is addressing how to accommodate growth, the leaders share what they’ve done in the past or tried (different times, off-campus sites, etc), and how these solutions don’t effectively lead toward the parish’s vision (1:00-1:22).
  • Inspire: capture imaginations, invite people to dream. Encourage everyone listening to join in the “imagine if…” for the parish. What could it be? This is a time, not for information, but to make our hearts leap, make even the most change-averse person in the pew have a momentary optimism about the future. In the example from Church of the Nativity, Brian Cook reminds the community of pieces of plywood the parish had “filled with the names of all your friends, family members, co-workers…people you’re praying for, that one day they’ll come to church and meet their Heavenly Father…this project is about making room for them, all of them” (5:30-6:00) and continues to spur the imagination as to the wider significance of the parish’s direction, that “This new building can stand as a hopeful sign that intentional growth is still possible…that God is still using the local church to change lives” (6:10-6:41).
  • Share: the plan for how we’re getting to where we’re going. This part is the most intuitive. We like to talk about what we’re doing. But remember, this is just one of five key elements. Without the other pieces, this part of a visioning homily can quickly become a litany of information, rather than the transformation that’s at the heart of vision and change leadership. Church of the Nativity puts it concisely: it’s about “creating empty seats at optimal times” and that phrase is used at least four times in the 7-minute vision-casting portion of the Sunday message (remember, repetition works!). The “how” is that as the parish responds to the call to “invest your treasure in the Church” this will result in hearts “connected to the Church” and the “growth in faith that comes somewhere outside of your comfort zone.”

A well-crafted visioning homily weaves these elements together, independent threads yet repeated and interrelated. There’s a logical flow from reminding who we are, to identifying and understanding the “situation” (Name & Explain), to inspiring, and only then speaking the plan.

A visioning homily doesn’t need to take a lot of time. While this entire message from Church of the Nativity is “long” (20 minutes in total) by most Catholic standards, the vision casting portion is solidly within the first 7 minutes. Visioning homilies can be done in any Catholic parish on a regular basis.

The other lesson from the Church of the Nativity example is that a parish need not have a singularly incredible, awesome, best-preacher-ever to communicate vision. Brian Cook, Tom Corcoran, and Fr. Michael White (the 3 speakers in the Church of the Nativity message) are ordinary folks, just like you. They stumble on their words (as we all do). It’s not always the most beautiful language. And think about it–if you’re preaching on vision once every three weeks, not every one is going to be your personal best. The point is, they commit. They do it. One doesn’t have to be an especially-gifted dynamic preacher to communicate vision. Check out their book, Rebuilding Your Message (and related podcasts) for practical tips on how any disciple of Jesus Christ can grow as a communicator.

Do you have a great visioning homily to share? Post a link in the Comment section to help us all grow in this essential area of parish ministry.

p.s. Download the “Groundbreaking 05: Vision” example I used here. All vision casting elements are present within the first 7 minutes. I’m not sure how long beyond March 2017 the download will be available, but all key excerpts are in this post–viewing is optional 🙂

Break the Silence: Talk About Money This Year

A new calendar year, when many Americans make resolutions about money. To try and save better. Spend better. Worry less. Enjoy more.

But what about your local parish church?

21 percent of pastors say the greatest challenge they face is financial. This is probably an area we all need to make some New Year’s Resolutions in then, right?

Try these two (which happen to be the most significant things any parish can do to increase generosity):

  1. Talk about spirituality and money regularly in parish life, about how all our resources are ultimately God’s and what this means for our lives as disciples. Do it once a month. An example in a sermon, part of faith formation, a testimony–integrate it so it becomes “normal.”
  2. Stop talking about your church’s needs and bills (or worse, bills from the diocese or national collections). Start talking passionately about spiritual growth, Gospel transformation, and missionary impact.

Change - Its A New Year

Can’t Imagine Parish Small Groups?

You know that connecting people to a group–a place to belong, a place that actually notices when you’re missing–is vitally important to the life of a Christian disciple.

Yet even though we know this, the reality of becoming a parish of small groups seems had to imagine. Just on the logistical and organizational levels alone.

For a dose of encouragement, check out some of the webpages from St. Anthony of Padua down in The Woodlands, TX that show how a parish can use technology to ease the logistical and organizational burdens of growing a network of groups:

  • Community Groups Landing Page with a short video trailer, longer message, and more
  • Recruiting and inviting group hosts
  • Custom search to find the right group options for you [seriously, I think this is my favorite part of the whole set-up]

So, time to share…how do you conquer the logistical challenges of boosting small/community group participation in your parish?

cloverleaf

 

Finding a Local Church to Call Home

From the Pew Research Center comes a new study ripe with implications for how we think about hospitality, evangelization, and growing disciples in our local churches.

Question #1: What to Americans look for in a new congregation? 

pf_16-08-23_churchesreport_whychange310px

Question #2: Why do Americans look for a new church home to begin with? 

pf_2016_08_23-overview-00

Let’s dig into each of these areas further to flesh out implications for how we share Jesus’ love with the world…

Becoming a Parish Ad Gentes

  1. For Americans with kids, 65% say that education/programs for children age greatly valued. How are your children/student programs? Do they run year round? Are they convenient? Are they high-quality enough that parents would choose to place their children there? Would they appeal to outsiders (not just those feeling an “obligation” to attend)? As the leaders of Church of the Nativity (Timonium, MD) often say “when you do something for my kids, you do something for me” is an important societal, parental value to respond to.
  2. When Americans go looking for a new church home, roughly half consider switching denominations (note: while this isn’t a term we use in Catholic theology, it’s common in vernacular conversation, so I use it in that sense here). This is a huge opportunity! Talk about opennessAs Catholic parishes we should ask ourselves, what kind of impression or perception would someone from a different faith background take away from setting foot on our campus or at our programs? 
  3. We may think that the unaffiliated don’t visit our parishes. But this would be a mistaken assumption. Almost “about three-in-ten current religious “nones” (29%) indicate they have searched for a new congregation at some point in their lives.” What’s for them at your parish? What would their experience be like? 
  4. How do typical Americans find a new church home? More than eight-in-ten adults who have ever looked for a new house of worship say they attended a service during their search (85%). And roughly seven-in-ten talked to members of the congregation (69%) or to friends or colleagues (68%) about the house of worship they were considering. What kind of recommendations or comments would your typical parishioners make about your parish? Would they be enthusiastic? Resigned? Unsure what to say? 
  5. Though it’s not the most important method for learning about potential local church homes, 59% of adults under 30 say they have incorporated online searches when looking for a new congregation. Your online presence matters. And, it should resonate with Millennials. 

Becoming a Parish for Catholic-Seekers

  1. What’s most important when choosing a new parish for Catholics? “nothing is more important than location. Fully three-quarters of Catholics who have looked for a new church (76%) say location was an important factor in their choice of parish.” Our first reaction might be to think (with relief or discouragement) there’s not much we can do then. But this misses something more significant–if Catholics are most likely to select a parish based on location, then it’s vitally important that every parish have a discipleship pathway, that every parish be intentional about ministering to people at every step of a disciple’s journey. We can’t be content to have some “powerhouse” parishes where intentional discipleship and fruits of the Holy Spirit are typical and then “maintenance” parishes for the rest. Taking this reality seriously might force us to think about collaborative organizational structures, networks or associations, and other ways to move more parishes from maintenance to mission. 
  2. Not convinced of the need for every parish to have pathways for intentional discipleship? Here’s another perspective: of affiliated Christians, Catholics are the least likely to ever look for a new congregation. Most Catholics will stay in the parish they’re at, unless the geography (location of household or parish) changes. What’s this mean? Our expectation must be that every parish be fully alive in the Holy Spirit, offering robust pathways for disciples to grow–otherwise, many Catholics will continue to exist in “maintenance” parishes.
  3. When Catholics are looking for a new parish, after location (76% rate as important), the next most important values are “feeling welcomed by leaders” (71%) and sermons (67%). This data supports the pitch made by Amazing ParishRebuilt, and Divine Renovation in recent years as to the importance of the “Sunday Experience.” Authentic welcome from leaders and good preaching aren’t accidents or “bonus” attributes of charismatic leaders–no, these are essential parts of ministry that must be planned, cultivated, and assessed for effectiveness.
  4. Though Catholics are less likely than other Christians to look for a new local congregation, when Catholics do go seeking, about one-in-three report exploring changing denominations or religions. This might come as a surprise to many of us–but it’s a reality we can’t ignore. The question becomes what’s going on in your parish, so that when parishioners do move or go looking for a new congregation, they seek out a Catholic one? 

Okay, so those are my takeaways from this study. What are yours? How might this data impact how you do ministry? 

Ambiguous Faith

One of the challenges is Catholic ministry is that we can sometimes speak in a code, of even non-technical terms, that is filled with embedded assumption. And this, prevents us from not taking those assumptions for granted.

Here’s what I mean, writing in the Introduction for a popular Catholic Bible Study, Andrea Lauren Jackson writes:

When Christians talk about “faith” the word is often used ambiguously. Consider these phrases:

  • “I was raised in the faith.”
  • “She is strong in her faith.”
  • “I would like to learn more about my faith.”

See the point?

We don’t really know what faith means in any of these phrases. It could mean anything. It could mean a generic hope that all things work out in the end, it could be a belief in a higher power (albeit one detached from everyday life), it could mean rituals, and it could mean one’s faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

This summer and beyond, let’s try and challenge ambiguity with loving attention, with conversation that gives life and precision to what people speak of as faith:

  • What is it someone has faith in?
  • What is your faith?
  • Tell me more about what you believe…
  • Who do you have faith in? Why?
  • How do you know that your faith is real?
  • Why does your faith matter? In this world, and the next?

And more!

Rebuilding Your Message: Big Idea #3, Even the Best Can Rebuild

Digging deeper (beyond a review and key takeawaysBig Idea #1: Series, and Big Idea #2, Always Be Evangelizing) with Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s Rebuilding Your Message (2015), today I’m pulling highlights about the systematic side of regular preaching–stuff that can benefit even the most spiritually graced preacher with natural and developed talents. These are ideas that can help a parish with a prayerful and gifted preaching pastor (or pastors) move from a place known for transformative and authentic individual Eucharistic homilies, to a place where that powerhouse preaching of the Word of God spills over, shapes, and colors entire systems within the parish.

communicationCommunication is always a two-ways endeavor. The best preaching (on paper/in theory) isn’t the best if it’s not fully heard in a way that leads to life-changing shifts in attitude or action. The most gifted and well-formed preachers and communicators can benefit by considering the process and systems for communication as a whole in the parish. How does the Sunday Eucharistic homily connect to everything in parish life?

Key Lessons for Great Parishes/Preachers from Rebuilding Your Message:

1. Have a Preparation Process that’s More than One. Outstanding preachers already know that preparing takes time.  But what about when there are more and more demands on your time (especially as a priest)? Have a process. “If you develop a basic process for preparation and presentation, you will find it much easier to survive and even thrive in communication” (41). And, bring all of your assets into this process/system, “while only [Father] Michael can preach it [Eucharistic homily], several people help to write the message” (41). This sets the conditions for sustainable quality.

But, don’t let it end with proximate preparation for a Eucharistic homily. Have a system for the message to overflow! [Patrick Lencioni does a great job describing this in The Advantage, naming it cascading communication.] “Regardless of the size of your parish, and the size of your staff, a team of people is the key to effective communication” (202). “This requires internal communication that precedes your general or church-wide communication” (202). The odea is that every children’s liturgy of the word leader, every usher, every deacon, etc. are all on the same page about the key messages of a particular homily/series

2. Use Series (p. 128-129). Now, we’ve talked about series in general before (and here’s Fr. White’s personal blog-pitch) but what I want to emphasize here is that using a series is not a crutch. Not some type of aid for those who “aren’t good” at preaching God’s Word. Taking the time to systematically plan series of sermons into the liturgical year is about the hearers, especially the unevangelized or those needing to take further steps as disciples. Here’s why: a) series develop into conversations among hearers–conversations keep the message in our minds and spur us to go deeper, b) a single message rarely converts minds or hearts (see strategy # 7 here), and c) a series creates alignment and focus in the parish, to “move the parish in a disciplined direction,” with a series (vs. a stand-alone, one Sunday theme) adult formation, youth ministry, and children’s formation can all move together, so that families and friends can support each other–so that synergy happens. It takes momentum to get things rolling in people’s lives, and the power of a series theme to align everything in parish life for a particular season helps create that momentum.

3. Plan Long Term. “You should plan all your communication as far in advance as possible. If you’re preaching, plan out a season or even an entire liturgical year. If you’re teaching or responsible for adult faith formation, look ahead each semester to the next semester (56).” This ensures all of the communications (preaching and teaching especially) tend toward a central vision, and every key leader in parish life can align their work and ministry to support it optimally. This also saves time–since by having a “lens” of a long term plan, staff and key volunteers can be on the lookout for examples and opportunities to connect to preaching themes. [Because seriously, emphasizing local testimonies or examples is way better than using an Internet search engine to find “off the shelf” pastoral examples for preaching!]

4. Resound the Message. Find ways to re-emphasize and repeat (with slightly difrerent messengers, twists, formats, etc.) your well-planned Sunday Eucharist messages. One of my favorite ways Church of the Nativity (the authors of Rebuilding Your Message) do this is by using what they call endnotes. Endnotes happen after Mass and include another statement of gratitude and encouragement to visitors, “sum up the homily,” and “remind people what our basic message was and the challenge offered to them in the message”–“a bottom line that they can carry with them out of Mass and into their week” (108-109). Usually this  includes a concrete action-step, something that week they can do that supports the main message of the homily. For example:

  • A prayer card after a message on worry
  • Breakout talks/sessions on relationship issues (i.e. married couples, caregiver relationships, parents of teens, etc.) after a homily series called “Tough Love”
  • Invitation cards to hand out to unchurched friends after a homily series on evangelization

Endnotes are rehearsed, not a reading of announcements (at Nativity this happens before Mass, since “regulars” more so than guests are likely to be there early and have a need to hear announcements). The speaker for Endnotes is polished and is aiming to make a solid impression. It’s key that the speaker (ideally) not be the celebrant or homilist–since having different faces and voices for the same message helps it to resonate more, to be more memorable, and to potentially give an alternate path to “hearing” if someone had a “block” (of language, internal bias, etc.) that impacted the hearing of the homily.

5. Integrate Concrete, Local Action. Let the Eucharistic homily truly be for this particular community. If a homily is about relationships in the Christian life, talk about small-groups (and ideally be having small-group launches soon in your parish!). If it’s about repentance, talk Confession times, etc. (162).

6. Go from Audience to AudiencesSpeak to different places of faith. “Comfort outsiders” by acknowledging them, but also making it clear what’s not for them–i.e. discerning percentile giving (aka tithing), praying about how to take a step into local mission, etc. (182). Say it aloud. This is not for you. On the other hand, make it clear that for longtime parish attendees, you’re asking them to take concrete steps in discipleship, to commit to prayer, to serve, etc. Don’t be afraid to speak to different audiences (i.e. youth, parents, etc.) in giving applications for a homily focus (198).

Interested in learning more? Check out these podcasts and share your insights in the Comment Box.

Rebuilt Podcasts (related to this post):

Image Credit:  “uncoolbob” via Flicker, CC BY-NC 2.0

 

Three Website Statements for Evangelization

Stumbled upon a (relatively) newly revised parish website from St. Adalbert and St. Casmir Parish in South Bend, IN. Now, the parish website hasn’t yet been fully built beyond the landing page–but I want to highlight the outstanding use of open and evangelizing statements right up front!

Here they are:

  1. It is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith.
  2. A place where unconditional love changes lives.
  3. Helping people find their way back to God.

These bold proclamations are hitting at many levels. #1 counters an awful lot of cultural baggage about works-based salvation, “Catholic guilt” about not being holy enough, and a lack of joyful confidence when it comes to our eternal salvation. #2 says “we’re open”–we want to love you unconditionally, no matter what. #3 says, “being away is okay”–we’re not going to be shocked by your journey.

Looking forward to seeing the rest of this website roll out. Blog readers, got any other great parish websites that are evangelizing? Share them below and point out the elements that are exceptionally well done!