Do You Have a Volunteer Pipeline?

One of the biggest hurdles that many parishes face when trying to dramatically improve the experience of attending or growing as a disciple is a feeling of complete and utter scarcity when it comes to “volunteers.” Now, I’m not a huge fan of the word “volunteers” as applied to our Christian service–but I’ll use it for the sake of clarity here.

Church of the Nativity (Timonium, MD) has been through various initiatives for volunteer recruitment and formation–most notably “First Serve,” a try-it-on-for-size volunteer opportunity and combines discernment and on-the-job training for potential and new volunteers.

In a recent Podcast, Nativity leaders reflected on realizing they needed to adapt their system to meet changing circumstances. While First Serve is effective in providing a steady trickle of new volunteer ministers, it doesn’t have the capacity to develop a large number of new volunteer ministers all at one time–something Nativity is anticipating needing. Many parishes might be in a similar situation when significantly changing or expanding programs. This is a classic example of the saying (quoted on the podcast), “Systems work. Until they don’t.”

What Nativity is considering for a “bigger pipeline” is a big push to first simply learn more about serving, then a meeting (really more precisely “an event”) that includes prayer, praise, and worship followed by more information on the specific opportunities.

While this sounds vaguely similar to the classic “ministry fair” Sundays at many parishes–I think it’s a bit different. “Ministry Fair” makes it seem like this is an optional extra, and something one is shopping for (like a consumer). In some sense each table with a different ministry is competing with each other for the same “pool of recruits.” At the most foundational level, the challenge is to ensure the pipeline is rooted in initial conversion in Jesus Christ and desire to continue as a disciple, while at the same time acknowledging that there are some who will be converted through the process of volunteer ministry (and having the reflective moments built in to foster these opportunities).

Whatever your strategy for cultivating ministry volunteers as a part of discipleship (because how many disciples are not called to serve?) Nativity always provides a firm reminder that desperation and nobody-but-I-can-do-this are attitudes that do not belong anywhere if we’re serious about sharing the Good News of relationship with Jesus Christ and the empowered discipleship that can ensue. Bulletin calls and no development/support might get you out of a short-term volunteer crisis, but it’s no way to form disciples. Similarly, insisting that you don’t need lots of empowered volunteers not only leads to current staff/volunteer burnout–but it also thwarts the possibilities of the Holy Spirit alive in other growing disciples.

As you head into the summer (a great time for volunteer development) consider, what is your volunteer pipeline? What’s the fruit? Does it cultivate disciples?

 

Pipelines
Image: “Pipelines,” licenced under Creative Commons 2.0 by Claus Gerull

 

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Spot On: Church Revitalization, Evangelization, and Discipleship

H/t to Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD for this short and simple list — Church Revitalization: 5 Reasons It Works When It Works.

Breaking apart the post, Fr. Michael White offers 5 critical factors that are present when church revitalization occurs, the parish:

1. Acknowledges that they have a problem.
2. Approach the problem in prayer.
3. Preaches the Gospel (evangelization/discipleship).
4. Lives evangelization and discipleship.
5. Have a clear, consistent, and challenging discipleship path.

The all important “step zero” is that fundamentally, the parish realizes that the only true revitalization is exactly what the Church has proclaimed for centuries–evangelization that necessarily includes discipleship. I have observed situations where parishes do mistake revitalization for something other than evangelization and discipleship (for example, boosting Mass attendance, a building project, a successful fundraising campaign, increasing engagement and participation of parishioners, etc.).

Praise the Lord, I believe more and more Catholic parishes are realizing Steps 0, 1, and 2, named above.

Steps 3 and 4, however, are a bit more elusive and challenging because they are inherently zero-sum propositions. To preach and live evangelization and discipleship means that, practically speaking, other things must go. This can be hugely challenging. A stumbling block that prevents parishes from making past steps 1 and 2. 

What is this “preaching the Gospel” all about, as Fr. White explains:

Preaching the Gospel, of course, automatically means an emphasis on evangelization and discipleship that begins in the pulpit. And these churches keep the message focused and simple.

There’s only so much “pulpit time.” Yes, it can (and should in many cases!) be expanded in parish life (see here and here).  But assuming the weekly pulpit time isn’t changing in a parish, then an emphasis on evangelization and discipleship means that some style of preaching, content, and forms the parish is used to, probably have to go.

Which leads into the challenge of #4,

Preached simply enough and often enough, the parishioners will get it, and live it. They don’t just talk about evangelization, or form a committee to talk about it, or confuse it with other things they are already doing. They do it. They intentionally share Christ with others, and make invitations to their unchurched friends to come to church.

Thinking the New Evangelization is complete by merely “talking about evangelization” or making (usually well intentioned, yet shallow/surface-level) changes to things the parish is already doing is a real temptation. It’s amazing the number of initiatives and programs that seem to be re-named or re-branded as “evangelization” over the past few years, as evangelization and discipleship have become the pressing and prominent topics they always should have been in parish life.

If a community truly recognizes #1 (we have a problem), then it’s not about making small changes or surface changes–fundamentally some activities of the parish need a new intentionality, a difference substance, purpose, and direction. Again, for most people and parishes, there’s the reality of limited time and resources–so the question becomes what can’t we do anymore, if we are to live evangelization and discipleship as the simple and driving principles within our church? I find Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger’s alignment principle to be especially helpful here. Also, take heart! This is hard for leaders outside of the ministry world as well, as parish minister Michael Gormley shares.

Making room for true priorities is not an easy conversation for any organization, much less a parish to have–but it’s a critical conversation that needs to be had in order for the New Evangelization to be more than a theological concept, but clearly and vibrantly lived in a parish, so that no one can miss it!

Parishes “Grappling With Culture, Conflict, and Identity” Instead of Evangelization?

In Parish-Level Evangelization: Grappling with Culture, Conflict, and Identity (part of the latest edition of the Institute for Church Life’s Journal for the New Evangelization), Brian Starks gives us a sociologist’s perspective on the New Evangelization, as he aims:

“to illustrate how strategies for attracting members differ [between two parishes] and how these contrasting strategies are rooted in distinct parish identities and develop out of alternative approaches to conflict” so that we can “recognize the entwined parts played by conflict and identity in shaping parish-level evangelization.”

Okay. I’m game. We all need to hear this, even if it’s challenging to our sense of parish life.

One of his first observations is the different perceptions each parish has the modern, American idea of “parish shopping” (or even denomination shopping)–the parishes grapple with this reality, one thinking that it has to be embraced, simply because it’s where the flock is at. The other parish, hesitating, because this is a consumer-oriented ethos at odds with the fullness of our faith.

This is a very real dilemma faced by many parishes and I think our response should be pragmatic. Accept that we can’t change people who aren’t yet in our pews–in order to form the ethos of service (vs. consumerism) we have to first get them in the doors. I think Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD does an excellent job of this–it’s a seeker-friendly Catholic parish, yet also a parish that  challenges insiders.

Through his interviews with pastors and leaders, Starks draws out a discussion of people going where they are most comfortable vis-a-vis a liberal or conservative parish theology (while noting one pastor’s acknowledgement of the limits of this spectrum). On the whole, this liberal/conservative language makes me shudder a bit–as I have no idea what a liberal or conservative parish theology is, and the terms confuse me. Is a parish that preaches conversion, relationship with Jesus Christ, and a life of discipleship liberal or conservative? Beats me! 🙂

Starks observes that one of the parishes (fictitiously named “St. Mark’s”) in essence embraces conflict [specifically with the hierarchy] as part of their self-identity. The other parish (fictitiously named “St. Luke’s”) takes a different approach, working to ensure that culture is not polarized in the parish, thus limiting conflict. Discussions of decline at St. Mark’s seem to be linked to the hierarchy, while decline at St. Luke’s is pegged to changing culture, demographics, and decline of the neighborhood.

What troubles me reading all of the comments from leaders at St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s is that Jesus Christ seems to be absent. I could easily re-write their statements centered around a nonprofit organization–and it would basically make sense. The parishes seem to function as nondescript organizations or social clubs, rather than the local church of called disciples (remember, ekklesia, the root of “church,” means to be called out).

Could decline have something to do with lack of authentic conversion to Christ? Missing fruits of the Holy Spirit? Lack of personal evangelization in the pews? These things seem just as likely as what each parish discusses.

Starks writes, “Catholic theology and especially ecclesiology give the Church a vision and goal of a unity which exceeds that found in, or even hoped for, in other types of organizations.” Bingo. Spot on. In plain terms, this means the local parish isn’t a club. It has a mission to evangelize and both of these parishes seem more interested in their members, culture, etc. than creating spaces for all people to encounter Jesus Christ and make a life-changing, foundational decision to develop a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Starks ends with these questions:

“I hope that my research allows for a deeper reflection on what kind of identity we desire to produce as a faith community, what challenges are keeping us from enacting that identity, and what creative strategies (especially regarding conflict and conflict resolution) this vision might require. What could parish identity look like if, rather than leveraging conflict or avoiding it, a parish tried to actively engage in conflict resolution, in peacemaking? And how might this
transform parish-level evangelization?”

The question of identity is key. But, I also think that our faith makes this clear. It’s not exactly an open question. Parishes are communities of disciples following Jesus and growing in relationship with Him. Parishes are the Church in a particular locality. In this spirit, I think solving conflicts starts with questions like these between those in conflict:

• Is God someone you would say you have a personal relationship with?
• Have you had any kind of moment when you felt particularly close to Jesus? If so, can you tell me about it? If not, have you ever wanted to?
• How would you describe your view of God? Jesus? Is He a reality to you or more of a vague concept?
[Question examples from Aggie Catholics and FOCUS Equip]

Why? Because coming to an authentic understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit and person conversion in each of our lives is what roots us as disciples. It’s what we base of discipling parish communities on. When these foundational realities become more clear, a unified vision is more likely to result. Trust is built and teams form, teams that can address conflict and truly make the peace only Jesus can bring.

In this glorious Easter season, I think of Acts of the Apostles as a key example of this. The disciples faced very real conflicts of culture and identity. But, they didn’t attempt to solve those problems like any old organization. They knew that they were Church. They knew the Holy Spirit was essential. And, they knew each other’s stories and had a trust based on a recognition of the powerful reality of conversion in each other’s lives.

Though Stark’s article might seem like just a sociologist’s study. It’s not. He provides a powerful, essential reminder of what we must guard against in parish life–resisting the distracting temptation to become just another charitable organization or social club, and instead seeking authentic relationship with Jesus and others in all we do.

In short, we need to avoid “Grappling With Culture, Conflict, and Identity” at the expense of evangelization. And instead, allow the urgency of evangelization and life-changing conversion to be the shared and essential foundation for dealing with conflict, culture, and identity.

Update: Extremely insightful response from Brian Starks over at the Catholic Conversation. Well worth the read!

Why Do We Have to Preach for Evangelization in a Catholic Parish? (aka Evangelistic Preaching: Part 15)

This is the fifteenth post in a series on evangelistic preaching in Catholic contexts.

The parish is the focal point for evangelistic preaching because it is near where most people are. Most non-Catholics and Catholics who are in need of evangelistic preaching are not going to attend a diocesan rally, a retreat, or large conference—but, they may be regularly attending a parish or make a one-time visit to a parish in a time of need or spiritual inquiry.

How does a parish become a focal point for evangelistic preaching? First, we need preachers. Most parishes already have a combination of priests, deacons, and/or general [lay] ministers with homiletic training. Baptized faithful who are “orthodox in faith, and well-qualified, both by the witness of their lives as Christians and by a preparation for preaching appropriate to the circumstances” can be admitted by the bishop to preach (with the exception of the Eucharistic homily, which is not ordinarily a primary place for evangelistic preaching).[1] Parishes can take steps to help faithful parishioners discern the call to evangelistic preaching by cultivating a culture of sharing personal testimony, reflecting on one’s own conversion story in small-groups, and recruiting from within the flock.

The second key step for parishes is integrating evangelistic preaching into parish life. Though Mass is not intended to be a place for initial proclamation, certain Masses, i.e. Christmas, Easter, Mother’s/Father’s Day, and harvest or homecoming Sundays in certain regions, tend to attract a large number of visitors, a prime opportunity for evangelistic preaching.[2] Additionally, when parish leaders know the spiritual state of those in their pews well enough, they can determine what type of preaching is most appropriate for Mass, i.e. if most people are not yet committed disciples or evangelized, and Mass is the only opportunity you have to reach them–then even ordinary Eucharistic preaching probably needs to be evangelistic at heart (while making sure there are then other opportunities for more catechetical or discipleship oriented preaching for mature believers).

Parishes can also consider adding a service designed for evangelistic preaching. For many parishes this requires a radical re-orientation from an nearly exclusive focus on the “already converted” to allocating quality resources for initial proclamation, seeking to attract and offer something designed for the nominal believer or nonbeliever. This shift is at the heart of the call to the New Evangelization in the United States.

What might this look like? Possibilities for parish services[3] that incorporate evangelistic preaching include:

  •       Taizé-inspired prayer services.[4]
  •       Modeling a service after the XLT (pronounced “Exalt”) nights popular with teenagers and young adults. XLTs “combine quality music and a dynamic teaching with worship of the Eucharist in an energetic and reverent setting.  In other words, you are sure to hear a fun and relevant talk, some of the best new worship music, and experience the intimacy of spending time with Christ in Eucharistic Adoration”[5]
  •        Reviving the Cathedral Vigil services (or other adaptations of the Liturgy of the Hours) popular in the Patristic era. A version of this is currently popular among young adults in Colorado.[6]
  •       Making use of services that do not include reception of the Eucharist, since receiving the Eucharist is often not applicable for someone in need of initial proclamation and allows for wider use of the baptized faithful as preachers of the Word or Liturgy of the Hours as a venue for evangelistic preaching (i.e. Liturgy of the Hours, Liturgy of the Word).
  •       Offerings modeled on small-group series, such as the Alpha Course,[7] or a retreat-based opportunity for preaching and decision, similar to a Cursillo.[8]

Finally, parishes can also bring evangelistic preaching outside the walls of the parish, to non-parish facilities. This includes offering evangelistic messages in public locations, virtually through the internet, using broadcast media, and in hospitals, Catholic schools, and prisons. Preaching in the public square is not limited to presenting a sermon. Processions and other visual aspects of the Catholic tradition offer settings where preaching could potentially be inserted, after the visual captures the attention and imagination of the audience.[9]

——-

[1] USCCB, “Complementary Norms: Canon 766 – Lay Preaching,” 2001.

[2] See “180 Week One: Easter,” a sermon preached by Fr. Michael White, March 31, 2013 as an excellent example of evangelistic preaching in an Easter Mass, http://churchnativity.tv/media.php?pageID=96.

[3] Charles Arn’s How to Start a New Service: Your Church Can Reach New People (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997) provides how-to steps on planning a new/additional service.

[4] See the Taizé community’s website for examples of contemplative ostinato music, intercessory prayer, and silence as characteristics of Taizé prayer: http://www.taize.fr/en.

[5] “XLT: Teaching – Adoration – Worship,” http://emmausyouth.squarespace.com/xlt/, accessed January 2013.

[6] “Young Adults Pray at Vigil Praise,” National Catholic Register, 13 April 2013, http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/young-adults-pray-at-vigil-praise/.

[7] See the Alpha USA website for more information: http://www.alphausa.org/Groups/1000065342/Alt_Home_page.aspx

[8] For a description of the Cursillo movement, see: http://www.cursillo.org/whatis.html.

[9] See “Lift the City: A Catholic Eucharistic Flash Mob,” http://youtu.be/cZ5aYoSr3Hg and “No, Not a Wedding, a Eucharistic Procession,” http://newevangelizers.com/blog/2013/04/30/no-not-a-wedding-a-eucharistic-procession/ as examples of how the visual can capture the attention of onlookers, offering a potential way for parishes to evangelistic preaching to the public square.

Evangelistic Preaching (Part 12) — Strategies

This is the twelfth post in a series on evangelistic preaching in Catholic contexts.

We’ve reached the point of discussing how to preach evangelistically in our Catholic context. Here are strategies 5, 6, and 7.

Slide23

Effective evangelistic sermons are memorable so that hearers can continue to ponder the message after it has ended, reviewing and considering (hopefully prayerfully) the call for action or decision. To help make a sermon more memorable, preachers consider clarity (if the one delivering the message can remember it without notes, then a hearer might also be able to remember the logic of the sermon and even potentially recount it to another person), repetition, not simply restatement, of key phrases, and use of illustrations.

Slide24

 

“Present-day audiences are oriented toward story in sight and sound in addition to verbal instruction,” and are indeed “accustomed to receiv[ing] and shar[ing] much of our communication through images.”[1] The use of multiple media to convey a message could be as simple as offering Scripture verses projected on a screen  for those who are unfamiliar with a Bible or Missal [photo example: Fr. Michael White of Church of the Nativity, Timonium, MD], or as intricate as the use of interwoven theater or drama to communicate a message. Medieval preachers, for example, used a visual homiletic that included drama, plays, and a specific repertoire of gestures known to audiences from paintings.[2] When incorporated with care and discernment, the use of a variety of media can make an evangelistic sermon more evocative, vivid, moving, and memorable.[3]

Slide25

In an evangelistic setting, where establishing the credibility of the preacher and a way for hearers to follow-up and continue to ask questions are of particular importance, creating multiple points of engagement can help create lasting impact for the sermon. This means considering opportunities for dialogue, discussion, interaction and questions after or during preaching, using the internet and text-messaging to offer opportunities for virtual engagement, and exploring how to make the audience part of the sermon moment.

——-

[1] Richard, Preparing Evangelistic Sermons, 155; Wright, Alive to the Word, 162.

[2] Thomas H. Troeger, Ten Strategies for Preaching in a Multimedia Culture, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 12.

[3] Wright, Alive to the Word, 164.

Review of “Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter”

Rebuilt fills a huge gap in Catholic ministry books. Finally someone (well two people—Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran) have given a demonstration of what a strategic leadership plan can look like in a parish setting. I highly recommend the book and encourage anyone working or volunteering in a parish to read it.

Now, this doesn’t mean I agree with every judgement and statement in the book. The most valuable aspect of Rebuilt is not that it provides easy “answers” or “to do” lists to become a vibrant parish, but that it shows how ministry leaders can think critically and work together with focus. It is change theory in action.

I’ve interacted with some who are turned off by the style of Rebuilt. Though it might seem a bit prescriptive, the authors (as stated at the 2013 Matter Conference) are very open about the caveats that go along with their work. Two of their key caveats are:

  1. We know what works in Timonium. We’re amateurs in your setting.
  2. What we know keeps changing.

Keep that in mind as you read Rebuilt. Your might be turned off by some of the choices made in this particular parish (Church of the Nativity) or know that something totally different would work for your setting–and that’s okay. Rebuilt is a book about vision and how it can play out in the life of the parish. Your vision should be different and should be tied to your particular setting. The question is are you critically thinking, analyzing, and examining everything from the perspective of the lost? 

This book also has a fantastic set of web resources that can be used by anyone (regardless of reading the book or not). It even includes podcasts that summarize the book (so, no excuse…download these and listen to them in your car, on the treadmill, etc.)

What I value most about this book is that it presents a quality, concrete case study of leadership and management in Catholic ministry. We need more of these—so that our leadership and managerial practices can truly support (and not inhibit) our powerful theology and Gospel message. Change is a hard process. Yet to preach the Gospel message, we must continually adapt and assess. This book can help inspire positive change and provide a much needed jolt to parishes that are stuck in maintenance-mode.  

Read this book to spur your vision of what parishes can be in the New Evangelization. If you’re already got your vision, and need to change your leadership, management, and/or administrative practices to better support your mission, then check-out this follow-up title from the same authors: Tools for Rebuilding: 75 Really, Really Practical Ways to Make Your Parish Better.