Book Review: The Rebuilt Field Guide

Are you a parish that just can’t seem to get started on moving from maintenance to mission?

A place where money, staffing, your community (and more) have been viewed as insurmountable barriers to evangelizing?

A parish that gets (or has gotten) bogged down in long-term strategic planning or any attempt to do something “big”?

The Rebuilt Field Guide: Ten Steps for Getting Started (Ave Maria Press, 2016) fills a niche by providing one of the most concise and all-in-one starter tools available to help parishes become evangelizing environments. At less than 100 pages and less than $10, this is a book that anyone can make it through, that any team can use to avoid becoming paralyzed by the myriad of (great!) ideas for evangelizing, and instead get to doing, learning, and adapting in one’s own parish setting.

Coauthors Tom Corcoran and Fr. Michael White pull together ten hands-on chapters, each a stand-alone exercise designed for a small (5-8 person) group of parish leaders. There’s a devotion and prayer prompt, excerpts from Rebuilt series books, discussion questions, space for your personalized parish reflections, and a final “rallying cry” to implement and preserve in single steps to move from maintenance to mission in the typical experience of parish life. Some exercises might take a week to complete, others months–the overarching point is to get moving. Start the engine. Begin driving, rather than merely watching the New Evangelization in whatever circumstances your parish may find itself.

How is this book different than the original “Rebuilt” or “Tools for Rebuilding”? At it’s core–this is much simpler. Very little back story on Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD (the authors’ parish), not a focus explaining the roots of our theology of evangelization, and no advanced steps that presume a level of staff capability and past progress. If you doubted that Rebuilt was relevant to your parish because Church of the Nativity just seemed so “different,” then this is the book for you, because it’s all about your parish, your community, your unique setting to live out Jesus’ instructions to go and make disciples (cf. Matt 28:19). This would be a boring book to read by yourself–because it’s all about the future of your parish.

The coauthors are spot-on as they explain:

It matters not at all what kind of parish you have: big or small, urban or rural, affluent or struggling. To undertake these exercises, you don’t need any particular resources, additional staff, or budget, and you won’t have to hire a consultant. You really only need one thing: a team. (viii)

And this matters. While there are more and more parishes implementing concrete changes to be evangelizing places for all who enter, sadly, the reality is that most Catholics are not in these parishes. The typical American Catholic experience is of maintenance, not mission. And in these churches there’s not a groundswell of action. Instead, there is often slow decay, sadness, hopelessness, or a sense of inevitability–that “religion” just isn’t a thing anymore, that the best that can be imagined is a well-managed decline.

The Rebuilt Field Guide offers the concrete basics to get moving. And moving counts, as Fr. White and Corcoran note, when “you apply or adapt what you think might work in your setting” the process itself teaches you “more about what actually does work for you.” Waiting to have a perfect grasp of Catholic theology of evangelization, dynamics of a healthy and learning organization, ministerial leadership, and more before starting will likely only keep you waiting. This book provides a path for learning by and while doing.

If you’re searching for a deeper theological understanding of the New Evangelization or comprehensive guide to parish renewal, leadership, and planning–this isn’t it. It’s something wholly different and uniquely suited to help parishes get moving. To take the first steps on a journey the world needs each and every parish to take.

Disclosure: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. The opinions expressed are my own.

1 Minute Review: Fr. Robert Spitzer’s “The Spirit of Leadership”

413zbf28xcl-_sx315_bo1204203200_I was excited to take a look at Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J.’s book The Spirit of Leadership: Optimizing Creativity and Change in Organizations (2000) since I study/teach leadership, management, and ethics [in both secular and faith-based settings] and rarely see books that specifically explore change leadership written from a Catholic theological perspective.

Spitzer’s work is truly unique. It’s deep. I mean deep into the psychological and philosophical background that guides well-formed and ethical leaders. He doesn’t talk theology (on the surface) often. It’s not as much a “take it into the trenches with you” guide like many other modern leadership books. This book provides a solid foundation for anyone seeking to better understand the person of the “leader” in today’s organizations. It’s a complex book (not an “easy” read), but done in a way that brings psychology, philosophy, and moral theology into a secular world without requiring a background Masters Degree in Theology–and this is greatly needed!

So who’s this book right for? I think it is understood best as a form of pre-evangelization. Something for the unevangelized, spiritually seeking/open, or curious secular leader to use that (beyond helping him/her grow as a leader!) might prompt this person to new curiosity about the ethical life and spirituality. Spitzer provides such a comprehensive philosophical and ethical background, that this could easily spur someone to begin thinking about God and human existence. Spitzer compellingly shows that our deepest human longings shape how we interact with others and the world–and this is magnified for those leading organizations.

I would not recommend this as a “how to” leadership development book for those in ministry formation or already working in ministry. Why not? Because those folks are likely past the pre-evangelization stage and need something more practical. They probably don’t need to be convinced of the ethical and spiritual foundations of leadership, and instead they need to know how to lead and manage. [As a caveat, I would offer that reading this book might be a useful for those in ministry as a way to see how to use virtues, spirituality, and moral theology to connect with secular leaders and managers.]

For a taste of the unique style of this book, check out Spitzer’s website, which includes
tidbits like this that show how he connects an understanding of the human person with a foundational spirituality of leadership.

Review of Jared Dees’ “To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach”

heal_proclaim_teach-3dOkay, so I’m not going to lie. When I first picked up Jared Dees’ new book, To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach: The Essential Guide to Ministry in Today’s Catholic Church (Ave Maria Pres, 2016), I was initially underwhelmed. Even a little bored. I mean, Dees was just saying stuff that’s obvious over and over, that people in ministry know, right?

But I kept reading. And as I worked my way through the book, I realized that these characteristics are precisely what makes this book so valuable. Absolutely needed in American parish life. I cannot think of another book that summarizes the essential theology of evangelization in such an approachable, easy-to-reference way.

But this book is more than theology–it moves to a basic framework of practice that places all functions of typical parish life (that so many like to silo and separate) within the unity and fullness of evangelization. Dees explains:

Church leaders have talked and written and read about evangelization so much in recent years that we have placed it in a category of actions all to itself—as if evangelization were one mode of acting and speaking that ministers undertake completely separate from the work of other ministries. It would be a very big mistake to think that only those with offices and titles that include the word evangelization are responsible for it. It can be easy to separate, and our minds, the good work of managing soup kitchens are planning weddings or educating children in Catholic schools from the work of evangelization. But all ministries must be characterized by an evangelizing spirit, and all efforts at evangelization must be rooted in the ministerial priorities of Jesus (13-14).

In a thorough (almost 300 pages), yet remarkably readable way, Dees goes on to present the evangelization basics that lie behind parish transformation books like Rebuilt and Divine Renovation and provides the broader context for Sherry Weddell’s best-selling book on conversion, Forming Intentional Disciples.

The need for a book like this is real. As an adult educator, I get to know Catholic ministry volunteer leaders and parish staff from a wide range of backgrounds. Lots of different dioceses. Off the beaten path parishes. While it’s easy to look online and hear about Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, MI or the Amazing Parish work, and think that this is the big picture, it’s not. My husband and I are reminded every time we travel that “typical” Catholic parish life involves ministry staff and leaders who are in maintenance mode of a status quo that isn’t suited for our current evangelistic setting. There are huge gaps when it comes to having any sense of how authentically Catholic evangelization is and how it should organize and define all of parish life (rather than be sidelined as a burdensome “add on” or “new” ministry).

When engaging these well-meaning staff and volunteer leaders in conversation, there’s often a bit of hopelessness. A sense that there’s nothing “we” can do about the slow death of their parishes. Dees confronts this head on, explaining:

one possible response [to our setting] is to blame an uncontrollable consumer culture and simply admit defeat… but another possible response is to look at ourselves as Christian leaders and the work we have been doing to see if there’s something we can do differently to meet the spiritual—indeed, religious—needs of Americans today (viii).

He later adds:

We in Catholic leadership, in ministries complex and simple, are left with a choice. We can continue acting only as teachers resenting those who don’t “get it”, all the while wishing there were more people at mass on Sunday. Or, we can do things differently (9).

There you have it. A call to transformative, transforming, change leadership. A call for every baptized person–especially those comfortably self-identifying as catechists or religious educators–to own the mantle and privilege of evangelization.

The concrete practices he offers are simple. And really, what should we expect? Evangelization isn’t about a silver bullet or magic-perfect-program, it’s about the most fundamental motions of the faith. It’s about first being evangelized and surrendering to Jesus Christ as Lord, and then sharing this personal Good News as if divinely empowered to do so (Pentecost spoiler alert: we are!)

Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone who (like pastoral theologian, Zeni Fox, on the back cover) experiences discomfort with “evangelization.” Anyone who expresses concern about, or wants to know how Rebuilt, Divine Renovation, and Forming Intentional Disciples are solidly rooted in the Church’s teaching on evangelization. Anyone seeking a foundational “textbook” or “desk side reference” for catechesis or RCIA ministry [in fact, I’m pretty sure this will be on a required book list for some classes I teach in the future…]

If you’d like a peek, a free chapter is available for download here.

Disclaimer: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book. The opinions presented in this review (and all other posts referencing To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach) are my own.

 

 

 

Review: “Room 24: Adventures of a New Evangelist”

Katie Prejean‘s new book Room 24: Adventures of a New Evangelist (Ave Maria Press, 2016) is a quick and easy delight to read that communicates the Church’s wisdom on the essence and spirituality of evangelization in a humorous and personal way.

What it’s not: This book is not about ministry leadership, planning, strategy, vision, or even best practices. So what is it then? This book is about you. The evangelist.

In addressing the spirituality of evangelization and the person of the evangelist in an approachable way, Prejean fills a huge void.

Here’s the reality–while there are many today who have swum in the waters of evangelizations nearly our entire lives and/or gobble up the massive number of Church documents describing evangelization (there are simply too many great ones to name since the Second Vatican Council!), there are a lot of Catholics in the pews, in volunteer roles, and even in pastoral ministry who aren’t quite sure about this “evangelization” stuff. It sounds “new” to them (even though it’s not). Evangelization comes across like a meaningless buzzword. They readily admit, when asked in a safe and supportive setting, that they don’t understand it, don’t know what it means, and don’t really own it or “feel” like it’s for them.

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In Room 24, Prejean takes her first-person experiences during her first year (or so) of teaching high school theology and focuses each on revealing different aspects of our Catholic theology of evangelization. She keeps it short. Though she’s theologically well-versed, she leaves out all the complicated magisterial document citations. If you’ve been wanting to learn about evangelization, but get turned off by the length and writing style of Church documents, this book could be for you. It’s like sitting down in a coffee shop and listening to a friend tell funny stories. And then walking away realizing you learned something. Learned a lot. And, probably want to go pray about it.

The book is entirely written using examples from teaching high school theology in a Catholic school. That being said–I think the lessons on the spirituality of evangelization are broadly applicable, and I’ll be teasing out some of those in future blog posts.

Recommendations? In conclusion, this book is short enough (at 138 pages) that it wouldn’t be a waste of anyone’s time to read it. If you know evangelization, this book is a good window into the spiritual lives of teens and an enjoyable reminder of why we do what we do–that you’re not alone out there! If you’re less comfortable with “evangelization” and have been hearing it more and more but just don’t want to feel “out of the know” while learning theology–this is a fantastic book to pick up. Read it to be encouraged and go deeper into touching what it means to be an evangelist of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Disclosure: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book for the purpose of review; opinions expressed are my own.

Collaboration Meets Complexity: Review and Lessons from “Team of Teams”

Since reading Jonathan Sullivan’s free eBook, “17 Books Every Catholic Leader Should Read,” I’ve been extra-motivated to take a second look at many of the non-church-related leadership and management books I’ve encountered over the years and ask, what does this say to us as church leaders? Because I teach leadership (for the Army, in a public university) it’s all too easy for me to quickly glimpse over opportunities for integration between my work and life as a Christian, and so I’m (to use Sullivan’s phrase) aspiring to shape my imagination by seeking to be ever-more integrative in this regard.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, I picked out Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, by General (Retired) Stanley McChrystal (+Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell).

The Main Point

McChrystal and his team argue that in today’s rapidly evolving, complex world, organizers will be most successful when leaders give small groups the freedom to experiment, while cultivating shared consciousness, information, and awareness across the entire organization.

Recommended Reading for Catholic Leaders? Maybe

Because I served in Afghanistan and Iraq during some of the time periods that McChrystal draws examples from, I found the backdrop-of-foreign-policy aspects of the book quite engaging. However, while the organizational leadership and management ideas in this book are innovative, challenging, and certainly useful for many in ministry, I think the high proportion of detailed examples from military operations, history, and business could be a bit overwhelming and/or distracting for those looking for more of a pure focus on organizational effectiveness (i.e. Patrick Lencioni‘s books) or anecdotes with a broader appeal (i.e. Heifetz and Linsky’s Leadership on the Line, which made Sullivan’s 17 Books list). I wouldn’t give this book a general recommendation as a leadership read, unless you’re also a person who also enjoys historical and foreign policy reading as well. However, this book would also be a good fit if you’ve read a few more generic leadership/management books and are looking for something a bit different to give some concrete techniques and tactics to the broad idea of collaboration.

Mixed recommendation for reading aside, what were some of the leadership and management lessons uniquely presented in Team of Teams and especially relevant to pastoral ministry?

Take-Away #1 — A Team of Teams Fosters Collaboration

First, let’s get to the basic definition of a “team of teams.” A team of teams is a way of thinking of organizational structure. Typical organizations (i.e. parishes, ministries, etc.) often think of their organizational structure as something like this:

CommandOrgChart
Illustrations by Relajaelcoco, via FastCompany

We might call this a “command” or “hierarchical” organizational structure (not to be confused with the theological meaning of hierarchy as sacred order). In an organization that operates this way, the primary relationships, pathways of concern, shared visions, and communications are between subordinates and supervisors. This might be a relationship of employment or a volunteer-relationship, depending on your parish/ministry setting. The problem with an organization that operates this way is that it can create silos and prevent the necessary inter-connectivity and “shared consciousness” between different parts of the organization–i.e. between the evangelization committee and the Knights of Columbus in a parish.

TeamOrg

TeamofTeams

It’s not about everyone knowing everyone else, but knowing someone on every other team–no silos, no implied rivalry or competition for the pastor’s attention, no judgement on the worth of another volunteer leader’s focus in ministry, etc.

It’s also not anarchy. As McChrystal writes:

“The Task Force still had ranks and each member was still assigned a particular team and sub-sub-command, but we all understood that we were not part of a network; when we visualized our own force on the whiteboards, it took the form of webs and nodes, not tiers and silos” (251).

Take-Away #2 — Stop Blaming and Changing all the Wrong Things

Leadership requires change. Why? Because to lead is to have a vision–a vision of a future different than the present. To move towards this vision, an organization must change. But oftentimes organizations (ministries and churches included!) start by changing all the wrong things. Tactics, technology, programs, processes, curricula…you name it. But, ultimately these changes won’t have the desired impact unless there’s a cultural change within the organization when it comes to the “approach to management” (32).

Reflecting on the Joint Task Force he led, McChrystal explains:

“The Task Force had built systems that were very good at doing things right, but too inflexible to do the right thing” (81).

Hmm. This fits a lot parishes/ministries–tried and true systems and processes that do what they were designed to do very effectively, but too inflexible to change to meet our new and current circumstances. As Fr. James Mallon observed in Divine Renovation, almost everything about the sacramental system/religious education program in his parish was an effective system, but effective for a different era, for different conditions.

You can have a good system that does the wrong thing. Or, a good system that’s doing the right thing right now, but can’t possibly adapt fast enough to retain value.

There’s a challenge in making these kind of big internal changes when it comes to how we manage or organizational culture. McChrystal writes:

“There’s a temptation for all of us to blame failures on factors outside our control: ‘the enemy was ten feet tall,’ ‘we weren’t treated fairly,’ or ‘it was an impossible task to begin with.’ There is also comfort in ‘doubling down’ on proven processes, regardless of their efficacy. Few of us are criticized if we faithfully do what has worked many times before. But feeling comfortable or dodging criticism should not be our measure of success” (8).

We see this a lot in church leadership. Implicitly or explicitly blaming secular culture, parents who won’t bring children to faith formation, diocesan policies, Biblical literacy of parish adults, etc. While there is a healthy place for acknowledging that we can’t change the setting we minister in when it comes to cultural forces or the environment, this shouldn’t be an excuse that distracts us from adapting as leaders and managers in ministry.

Take-Away #3 — Collaboration is a Day-to-Day Reality

Team of Teams offers a mini case study on US Airways Flight 1549 (Captain “Sully” Sullenberger landing unpowered plane in Hudson River…) After the event, analysts concluded that while the “crew’s technical training had been completely irrelevant to the solution they achieved…it was their interactive adaptability…that proved crucial.” “US Airways 1549 was saved not by one mind, but by the ability of the captain, the first officer, and the flight crew to come together and pull toward a common goal” “quickly” “almost intuitively in a close-knit fashion” since “because of time constraints, they could not discuss every part of the decision process” (111).

As Br. Loughlan Sofield and Sr. Carroll Juliano note in Collaboration: Uniting Our Gifts in Ministry, it’s common in Catholic ministry for “collaboration” to be pushed during pastoral planning or major decision-making, but then all but forgotten in the day-to-day reality of ministry.

To work together quickly and intuitively in a close-knit fashion–this is the real fruit of collaboration. But it can’t be pulled out for an emergency if it doesn’t exist in the day-to-day. McChyrstal describes how daily office operations changed to build this shared consciousness, for example:

  • using “cc” line of e-mails liberally “whenever it seemed that even the second- or third-order consequence of the operation discussed might impact them” (163)
  • taking lots of calls on speakerphone–even when it made others uncomfortable or surprised them (163)

Are we able to almost instinctively work closely together in day-to-day ministry? Do I understand what’s going on with other teams/departments? There are signs of collaboration.

Take-Away #3 — Leader as Gardener

McChrystal describes his uncomfortable transition from a self-image of “heroic leader” to “humble gardener” (225).

He writes:

As a leader, “I needed to shift my focus fro moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem. Paradoxically, at exactly the time when I had the capability to make more decisions, my intuition told me I had to make fewer. At first it felt awkward to delegate decisions to subordinates that were technically possible for me to make “(226).

To be a leader doesn’t mean you must make every decision and seek to wield more and more authority–powerful leadership also comes from enabling others. A multiplier effect. [Again, I was amazed at how relevant these concepts were to collaboration in ministry!]

McChrystal explains:

“If the garden is well organized and adequately maintained, and the vegetables are promptly harvested when ripe, the product is pretty impressive. The gardener creates an environment in which the plants can flourish. The work done up front, and vigilant maintenance, allow the plants to grow individually, all at the same time…I began to view effective leadership in the new environment as more akin to gardening than chess…nurturing the organization..to enable the subordinate components to function with ‘smart autonomy’…as in a garden, the outcome was less dependent on the initial planting than on consistent maintenance. Watering, weeding, and protecting plants from rabbits and disease are essential for success. The gardener cannot actually ‘grow’ tomatoes, squash, or beans–she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so…Creating and maintaining the teamwork conditions we needed–tending the garden–became my primary responsibility…I found that only the senior leader could drive the operating rhythm, transparency, and cross-functional cooperation we needed. I could shape the culture and demand the ongoing conversation that shared consciousness required” (225-226).

This is where the rubber meets the road in many church organizations–only the senior leader can set the tone to make a collaborative organizational culture a reality. [Which brings us back to #2…stop blaming and change the right things…]

Take-Away #4 — Trust and Common Purpose. Trust First.

This diagram comes at the end of Team of Teams. For it to make sense, order matters.

Source: GoogleBooks preview (p. 245)
Source: GoogleBooks preview (p. 245)

It starts in the center–with trust and common purpose. This reminds me of Patrick Lencioni’s emphasis on trust as the foundation of organizational health. If leaders and teams can’t trust each other in ministry, then that’s the first step, period. Out of a healthy organization comes (looking to the right side of the diagram) empowered execution–when individuals know that their leaders trust them, provide the resources, guidance, and freedom to do good (and occasionally fail!)–and shared consciousness–knowing what’s important beyond one’s own team. An organization that operates with these two characteristics has demonstrated adaptability. And, adaptability is what enables an organization to act with the speed and multi-dimensional approaches necessary for today’s complex challenges.

As I reflect on this, I see a connection to how many parishes/ministries have approached the New Evangelization–treating it as a program or static “problem” that can be analyzed and planned well in advance and executed by a small group of individuals. But, the call for a New Evangelization is certainly evidence of complexity in today’s cultural and religious environment. In many cases, a “team of teams” approach is greatly needed in order to break down silos, improve the speed of change, and re-build the trust that all missionary disciples must have to truly be free to labor most fully and fruitfully in the vineyard.

Review of “Rebuilding Your Message: Practical Tools to Strengthen Your Preaching and Teaching”

I was super-excited to get my hands on a copy of the latest in the Rebuilt Parish family of books, Rebuilding Your Message: Practical Tools to Strengthen Your Preaching and Teaching (2015). Here’s why–way back in 2011, when I first started paying attention to Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD, it was because of their preaching. Homilies lasted longer than 12-minutes. They were in carefully crafted series. They were pre-evangelistic and kerygmatic. They always included action steps. I loved it. Live-stream videos of Nativity sermons were my go-to for edifying listening anytime I was cooking, doing dishes, or road-trip driving 🙂

Okay, so what’s the book like?

Rebuilding Your Message is written in the same style as Tools for Rebuilding, really short chapters (like 2-4 pages each) centered on a Bible verse and axiom with explanation. The mini-chapters are arranged around four themes: 1) the role of the communicator, 2) the context of the message [warning: this section is largely a repeat of ideas from Tools for Rebuilding], 3) delivery, and 4) outcomes. The benefit of this style of organization is that it would be a great book club read for a parish staff, where a short chapter could be assigned each week (or day!) and then discussed together. Be forewarned, the downside is that it means each idea is presented quickly without a lot of depth. This means that if you’re wanting to study preaching or homiletics beyond an introductory level, you need more than this book has to offer (and to be fair, writing an in-depth preaching text isn’t the authors’ goal).

Where does this book shine?

Rebuilding Your Preaching is at its best in Parts 1, 3, and 4 as an excellent easy-to-read primer for preachers, teachers, and communicators–especially those in a parish setting. Here are some of the most relevant and needed tips they offer:

  • Tell stories from your life (21)
  • Find your burden–“the one thing that holds your heart and weights on your mind when it comes to your message” (34)
  • Know that you have to earn your audience’s trust in a post-Christian, post-modern era (37)
  • “Be creative, not original” as a Catholic preacher (48) [this is an especially good axiom for the New Evangelization, as St. John Paul the Great explained in 1979, the “new” in Evangelization is about “ardor, method, and expression”–the message is still the original]
  • Stick to a single passage with a single challenge (54) (here’s more on picking a Scripture passage)
  • Practice out loud (62). Yes! Record yourself. Watch and listen to yourself.
  • Everything connects to the Good News. As White and Corcoran explain, “The basic and the ultimate message of our faith is that God loves us, despite what we have done wrong. We have and hold good news that sin and selfishness are not the last word: life is stronger than death, and loves wins no matter what. All good news” (118). This evangelistic content is essential.
  • Always be able to have a clear answer to: What do you want them to know? Why do you want the to know it? What do you want them to do? Why do you want them to do it? Otherwise it will never be clear in your messages! (140-141)
  • Don’t read manuscripts. “Notes, outlines, and even complete texts are all fine; it is a question of knowing how you hold and remember information, how you think on your feet, and basically what works for you” (144). “Don’t ever refer to them [notes] when you are asking people to do something or issuing a challenge. Make sure you are looking your audience in the eyes when you do that” (145).
  • Plan your messages long-term. Don’t be afraid to use series to help emphasize and develop a point more fully than you could while sticking to a single passage/challenge focus (128-129).

And this inspiring exhortation:

“Preaching is a craft. Craftsmanship requires both formulaic knowledge about how to do something—the ability to actually do it—and dedication to constantly fine-tune that ability. Any genuine craft also requires an artist’s touch that springs from a pure love of the work…Take time to discern your gifts when it comes to communication, and determine the skills you need to develop to improve your craft” (153).

These are outstanding basics for preaching (or would they want me to say ‘communicating’? I like preaching better. It’s a powerful word we should claim more often!). These sections of the book would be excellent reading for those preparing for catechetical ministry, RCIA, youth ministry, etc. and I’ll be recommending some of them to my own students as they prepare to give oral reflections on Biblical texts.

Characteristic to Be Aware Of? Singular Focus

This book is a great primer on evangelistic communications for the Catholic community. However, there are huge (probably deliberate) silences from the authors when it comes to how to go from exegesis to message with Biblical texts, the particular craft and liturgical theology of the Eucharistic homily, and preaching outside of the context of Mass. You’re not going to get concrete guidance on ways to preach with/without notes, organizing messages, etc. You’re not going to get details on the art and movement of evangelistic messages. You’re getting the basics–that’s it. It’s a singular and limited focus–which might be great for some readers, but leave others a bit disappointed.

Recommendation?

If you work in parish or campus ministry, read this book. And don’t worry about being too experienced for the introductory approach, use it as an examination of your own work–though much of it is basic, you’ll probably find areas to improve in and new ideas.

But here’s the real key–don’t keep it on your shelf 😉 find someone to pass it on to. Rebuilding Your Message is written as a “first word,” not a “last word.” Start a conversation, start encouraging others to care about developing great Catholic communicators, start honing your own skills, and keep the conversation going, as we’ll be doing here in coming weeks–discussing some of the concepts in Rebuilding Your Message worthy of much more attention.

Disclosure: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. Opinions expressed are my own.

Review of Chris Wesley’s “Rebuilding Youth Ministry”

Rebuilding Youth Ministry: Ten Practical Strategies for Catholic Parishes (Ave Maria Press, 2015) is the third in the “Rebuilt parish” series–following Rebuilt and Tools for Rebuilding. I recommend this book for anyone in a specialty/functional area parish ministry–i.e. youth ministry, adult faith formation, young adult ministry, children’s religious education, RCIA, etc.

Now, this might strike you as a curious recommendation–I mean the title says youth ministry and it’s about youth ministry–but the value of this book as a resource for ministry leaders goes well beyond youth ministry.

The Big Picture

Rebuilt and Tools for Rebuilding focus on renewal from the perspective of a parish leader–a pastor, pastoral council, or pastoral associate. Rebuilding Youth Ministry is different. It’s a shorter, more focused primer on how to plan and specialty/functional ministry in the parish–through the lens of youth ministry. It’s an easy read filled with clear explanations of leadership and management basics, ideal for someone who has theological training, but wants to be more effective in ministry, without the detail that HBR or SSIR articles on leadership and management provide. Wesley writes for youth ministers, but what he says is so practically applicable, any leader of a parish formation/catechetical ministry could benefit from reading this. Read it and substitute your functional area (i.e. adult faith formation, RCIA, etc.) for youth ministry 🙂 it’s a fun and useful thought experiment.

Nuts and Bolts

The starting premise (provided by Rebuilt parish authors Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran in the forward) is simple:

Students…are an important part of the Church right now. God very much desires a growing relationship with them and has granted them gifts and talents to serve him and his family. (vii)

Basically, if you’re only concerned with youth ministry for the sake of the future, you’ve got an inadequate view of how the Holy Spirit can use all believers, today, for the sake of the Gospel.

So how to respond? Have a sense of irresistible, joyous urgency that “every even remotely interested teen living within your parish boundaries needs to be connected to a small group that is focused on evangelization and discipleship (growing a relationship with Jesus and learning how to serve him)” (25).

Whoa! (You might be thinking). That’s impossible. Youth ministry in my parish has been a struggle of kids not showing up, burn out, parents forcing kids into Confirmation, etc. If Church of the Nativity is having success, I want whatever program they’re using…

And this is where Wesley urges us to change our thinking. Stop with programs, retreats, and events as silver bullets–“teens are not event-driven; they are relationally driven. The last thing they need is another program” (9). [Note: kids and adults are probably the same way 😉 hence why I recommend this book to those with no connection to youth ministry.] Wesley accurately observes, “you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the concept that relationships are essential to a person’s faith journey” (29). But putting this into practice is a challenge in many parishes because we try and think big too quickly–skipping the critical step of building a “structure of authentic relationships” (29).

To build strongly means to grow a solid foundation of vision, mission, a volunteer team, parish buy-in and resourcing, prayer, personal ministerial identity, and more–and this is what the ten strategies of Rebuilding Youth Ministry help walk us through. Each chapter dissects one strategy and includes concrete “First Steps” that ministry leaders can immediately begin to discuss and take action on, developing (step-by-step) the sustainable ministry Wesley describes.

In Summary

Overall, Wesley focuses on ministerial strategies rather than specific tactics/techniques, programs, curricula, events, or formats–and this is a good thing. It’s a discussion of how to think, envision, and build/develop–rather than a simple prescription of what to do. All too often parishes focus on what to do and doing more, rather than on the deeply rooted, essential vision and relationships behind ministry growth. Rebuilding Youth Ministry challenges the assumption that “more is better” in when it comes to ministry (or parish) health. It’s an outstanding guide for anyone ready to honestly assess and renew youth ministry in a parish setting. And, (if you can think outside the box a little) it’s also widely applicable for all parish ministers–something I’ll be diving into over the next few weeks with some of my favorite takeaways from the book.

Your thoughts? Have you read this book or applied parts of it? What were your experiences? Share here or on Twitter using the hashtag #RebuildingYM to continue the conversation.

Disclosure: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. Opinions expressed are my own, completely honest enthusiasm. 😀