From Parish Volunteerism to Discipleship Culture

I cringe a little at using the word “volunteer” with regards to ministering in the local church. It makes it sound so optional, an extra add-on. The reality is that almost all of us who are followers of Jesus Christ have been given gifts to be used for the building up of the Body of Christ. A “right and duty” more than an “If I have time and if I’m needed…” option.

But 🙂 practically-speaking, the word “volunteer” in a broader, secular sense simply means one who is not paid for their labor/services. Our parishes and ministries are filled with volunteers. If you know of a disciple-making Catholic parish without lots of volunteers, I’d be interested to the the model–simply because it is so rare! For most of us then, volunteer management is a key component of our administration and leadership. Management of volunteers requires just as much intentional planning and attention to human resource practices as does management of employees!

With that in mind, here are 5 key questions to examine your own volunteer culture from Rich Birch, 5 Heart-Check Questions about the Volunteer Culture at Your Church | unSeminary.

All five may be useful, depending what stage your volunteer cultivation is at–but Birch’s #1 question on culture–Are you helping them grow in their relationship with Jesus?–shines a light into an area many of us can certainly improve in!

For Catholic ministries, there’s a more fundamental, critical question than Birch’s, and it’s this: has each of your volunteers had the foundational, fundamental conversion, i.e. the “conversion [that] means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple”? (Redemptoris Missio, 46).

Most (but not all) times I’ve volunteered in Catholic ministry, no one has asked me about this conversion, this decision. I suppose it was either assumed or considered not something relevant or worth talking about. And it wasn’t skipped because of my outward fruits, since in some cases I was brand-new to the Catholic community. To put in bluntly, a background check prior to working with children was a non-negotiable (for good reason!). But, any details concerning my conversion or present relationship with Christ were optional.

If we skip over the “growth as a disciple” aspect of volunteer culture, we’re sending folks into ministry who are not able to “give” what they have not yet fully realized they’ve received! While a volunteer may be baptized, if grace of baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit are not fully unleashed, their impact in ministry will be limited. We’re doing the volunteer (as well as those served) a disservice. Just think how hard it would be to sustain oneself in volunteer ministry without a daily walk with Jesus as friend.

Start with the basics–conversion and decision for Jesus Christ. Don’t turn away interested volunteers who are not yet conscious disciples, but instead enter into a new relationship with them to grow, mentor, and disciple them so that they are ready to make a decision for Christ and become the volunteers you [and our Church!] most deeply need.

You may want to develop a parish-specific version of this “Discipleship Road Map” from the FOCUS Catholic Ministry to help name the discipleship stages of your volunteers. By doing this you’ve created a path for growth, and set the conditions so that all are welcome to come and grow, i.e. if someone volunteers as a children’s catechist, and through an interview you discover that they aren’t sure about deciding to be Jesus’s disciple, maybe place them as an assistant with a more mature disciple, who can meet with them outside of class to serve as a spiritual mentor. Through this person’s presence in a catechetical setting where the kerygma is clearly proclaimed, he/she can experience foundational conversion and make a decision to yield one’s life to Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit!



Measuring Disciples By Fruit

One of the questions we’ll never have a complete answer to (since only God knows the depths of our hearts) is how much are disciples growing in our parishes/ministries? Yet even though there’s no empirical formula for this, we shouldn’t shy from some ways of measuring aspects of discipleship. Assessment (or measuring) helps us evaluate initiatives and programs, it helps us identify where to place finite resources, and it helps us re-imagine what’s clearly not working for our typical parishioners. If we care about souls, we should care enough to assess our actions in ministry.

Here’s a concrete follow up to a previous post on measuring discipleship growth from Cary Nieuwhof. Nieuwhof offers a Biblically-centered approach to looking for fruit, centered on Paul’s descriptions in his Letter to the Galatians 5:19-24. How to probe for this fruit? Interviews. Anonymous surveys. Opportunities for testimony. In various combinations, these could help give you a sense of if there’s movement within those you serve. Using combinations is important–if you simply ask for volunteers, you’ll likely capture affirmations–but not those on the margins.

Think about your parish or ministry. How is the “fruit” measurement among:

  • those initiated or received into full communion through RCIA (year after year…)
  • those on your “registered parishioner” list who rarely attend Mass
  • those who attend adult faith formation
  • those involved in liturgical service (i.e. musicians, lectors, etc.)
  • and so forth…

Start probing. You’ll probably find unexpected blessings and encouragement, as well as areas ripe for improvement!

No Stewardship Without Discipleship

“You can work the pants off money, but if you’re not deeply into Christ and the Spirit, all the talk, theology, biblical study, [and] suffering of the world won’t make any difference. It’s a spiritual problem. As long as we talk about  making stewardship more effective, it won’t work.” (Don McClanen quoted in Behind the Stained Glass Windows: Money Dynamics in the Church, 1996).

When it comes time to look back at the past fiscal year and consider future budget needs (as many ministries do in the summer months), it’s tempting to focus on the financial bottom line. Leading us to conversations like this: we need better stewardship–by which we really mean–we need people to give more money. More giving. Better fundraising. You know how it goes…

But here’s the thing, the Church and your local ministry/parish are not like any other charitable organization. Our givers make donations, but reducing them to “donors” is missing the big picture–and that bigger picture is discipleship.

Giving (in classic tithing or a different spiritual form) is an act of prayer, praise, sacrifice, and worship. Conversion must come first. The act of spiritual giving then becomes part of formation as a disciple. It’s a step along the path–much like taking the leap of faith to add more contemplative prayer time each day, or attend a weekly small group.

The good news is that more and more organizations and dioceses are starting to put forth the essential connection that discipleship comes before stewardship/giving. Check out this evidence from the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota. However, the real challenge is at the parish level. Though measuring foundational conversion, response to initial proclamation, and discipleship is a nuanced (and certainly not exact!) process, it would seem that most people registered with parishes have not had that life-changing response. So, we have to have the patience to wait on stewardship so that the conversion that changes the direction of one’s life, definitively, happens first (Deus Caritas Est §1). But what about the bills due this month? This year?!? Tough situation. In many cases it may be necessary to shrink materially, in order to prioritize conversion–knowing and trusting that God will provide through changed hearts and increases in giving disciples in years to come. This isn’t ordinary parish budgeting. It feels risky. But, deep down inside–most of us would admit it’s the right approach. Raise up disciples first, then stewards. The other key component of this approach, is that we actually have to have a strategy for forming disciples as givers within parish life. So, if a parish isn’t sure that most people are growing in any way as disciples to begin with–then it’s hard to envision how to add spiritual giving as a component of that growth process.

In a nutshell, a parish/ministry worried about finances should focus less on money and more on: 1) Cultivating life-changing foundational conversion to discipleship, 2) Growing disciples in all areas, and 3) Making sure one of the areas for disciples to grow in is spiritual giving. Then, and only then 🙂 is it time to sit down and worry about stewardship (or fundraising) strategies.

Huge cultural change. Huge opportunity for the Spirit to work. Start praying about it during these summer months.

Are You a Youthful Disciple?

What was it like when you first believed that Jesus has power over death? When you had that conversion that led to your personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

For me, it was (literally and figuratively) a springtime. A new part of my life had opened up. I was a disciple of Jesus. I was bursting with a new joy and a new assurance of eternal hope. My enthusiasm was youthful–completely untouched by the inevitable challenges of Christian living and experiences of living in a fallen world that more mature disciples of Jesus Christ grapple with.

This week’s Sunday collect prayer [collect=the prayer after the Gloria and before the first reading] encourages us to maintain a youthful spirit as disciples. Now youth is different than immaturity. We’re to pursue more mature discipleship at all times–growing in wisdom and friendship with God by yielding to the Holy Spirit more and more in our lives. The youthfulness we’re called to is about vigor, having a fresh and lively commitment to the Gospel, rather than one that’s gone stale, lukewarm, or complacent. Easter is the season for renewing our youth as disciples, invigorating our Gospel witness.

How do we stay youthful? Some insights from yesterday’s collect prayer:

1. Realize the what God has already done for you.

The collect prayer describes us as “rejoicing now in the restored glory of our adoption.” To be adopted by God is no small thing! It means that you’ve been, “snatched away from sin and led into the mystery of God’s love” and called to enter into a personal relationship with God in Christ” (Second Vatican Council, Ad Gentes §13). If your friendship with God has grown tired or emotionless, get back to this basic truth first.

2. Add confidence to your hope.

We throw the word “hope” around a lot. Sometimes, in our day-to-day conversations a “hope” is just a slim chance, a long shot. But Christian hope isn’t like this. In this week’s collect prayer we asked that “we may look forward in confident hope to the rejoicing on the day of resurrection.” Confident hope. Pope Francis explained that the essential knowledge of a preacher is that he “be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him and that his love always has the last word” (Evangelii Gaudium, §151). And this applies to all of us! We don’t have to invent doubt out of a misguided humility–our hope in our own resurrection is to be confident, and confidence leads to vigor.

3. When in doubt, ask God for joy.

In the collect, we prayed that God would let us “exult for ever.” This means rejoicing, exalting in good times and in bad because the ultimate victory has been won in Jesus Christ and we have been adopted by God in Jesus Christ. If you’re lacking a youthful, exuberant joy, ask God for joy. Ask God to allow you and all of his adopted children to “exult for ever.”

So far this Easter season we’ve heard stories of the youthful spirits of Mary Magdalene, the “other Mary,” Cleopas and the other disciple, Thomas, Simon Peter, and others as they came to believe that Jesus defeated death.

How does your youthfulness compare? No matter how long you’ve been a disciple, take time this Easter season to renew and refresh your youthful spirit!

This post originally appeared at

An Ever-Expanding Parish Circle: Large Parishes As Growing Parishes

Earlier this week we checked out some positive encouragement about the potential of large congregations (aka most Catholic parishes) to form disciples–based on what’s been demonstrated by many Protestant “mega churches.”

This week I want to highlight some [interrelated] differences between most Catholic parishes and most Protestant mega churches. Differences that we as Catholics shouldn’t necessarily be proud of. Here are 3 more insights from the report, Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches:

  • Nearly two-thirds of attenders have been at these churches 5 years or less.
  • Many attenders come from other churches, but nearly a quarter haven’t been in any church for a long time before coming to a megachurch.
  • New people almost always come to the megachurch because family, friends or coworkers invited them.

These trends are not the case in the vast majority of Catholic parishes in the United States. As Michael Gormley so helpfully depicts (citing Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, Ch 1), Catholic parishes in the United States “assume that religious identity is largely inherited and remains stable throughout one’s lifespan.”

While it’s certainly not a bad thing to retain as adults, those who were raised in a faith tradition as children, this way of thinking can no longer be the basis of pastoral practice. It’s a relic of a cultural/institutional “Christendom” society (or sub-society, in the case of the United States). We know that in our current cultural setting, mobility and individual choice generally trump any cultural affiliation with a set of faith beliefs. One can regret or complain about this–but it’s still the reality, and we must respond agilely.

Can you imagine your Catholic parish as a place where 5 years into the future (without increasing losses of current parishioners) 2/3rds of the new total membership has been attending 5 years or less?

Does this thrill you and inspire gratitude for God’s goodness? Or, does it make you a little unsettled or nervous. This is a tough question that many of us must honestly ask of ourselves and parish leaders.

Bottom line: In large congregations, there’s still room to grow! This is Jesus’ mandate that we see so powerfully played out in our daily readings from Acts this joyous Easter season. Let us be ever more inspired and filled by the Holy Spirit to do everything we can to expand and invite more people to enter into life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ in his Church.

Experiential Learning and Faith Formation

Experiential learning has become a trendy word in K-12 and university-level classrooms, for sure. But what about in faith formation and religious education?

Thankfully, in many Catholic circles the idea of faith formation or religious education as simply “classes” like any part of a school curriculum has faded away, in theory. Life change. Entering into a relationship of prayer, adoration, and deepening friendship with Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit is now a part of what many consider, “faith formation.” However, have our methods really changed? Or, is it still all based on the classroom model?

Enter this interesting report on Mariners Church, Moving Discipleship from Teaching Content to Life-Changing Experiences. Though not in a Catholic context, there are many takeaways that Catholic ministry teams can consider. This congregation:

  • Got rid of the “menu of options”–trying to offer something for everyone, all of the time and transitioned to one core program, offered repeatedly throughout the year [here’s some encouragement and a  Catholic parish that took that step!]
  • Increased the length of this program from 6-wks to 10-wks (church leaders had originally assumed that people would only sign up to do something for 6-wks)
    “We ran a lot of discipleship models before based on what we thought people would be willing to do…When we changed and went to a much higher demand with 10 weeks, 5 nights of homework, three additional meetings for experiences, we were concerned, no one would do it. What we learned was that people were willing to step up to where ever we set the bar for them.”
  • End program with a commissioning into ministry (towards community, congregation, etc.)
  • Focused more on training leaders to facilitate rather than teach content
  • Embraced experiential learning:“when it comes time for Rooted participants to learn about serving, for instance, the groups don’t get a sermon—they serve in the community together for a day. Learning about confession and accountability is an experience during which Rooted attendees are “super transparent,” confess strongholds and sin in their lives and every individual is prayed over to break the strongholds. Learning about prayer is a three-hour “prayer experience” participants can’t believe they’ve completed when it’s over. “Everybody always says, ‘There is no way I thought I could pray for three hours,’ Shelly says, ‘but I heard from God for the first time, we need to this more often.” I heard God’s voice.’”

Catholicism is inherently experiential–this is “the point” (to put it non-theologically) of our lives of liturgical worship. Yet, as the experience of Mariners Church reveals, there are concrete steps (that may require major change) to embracing experiential learning as part of faith formation–it can’t just be a theoretical approach. Even many forms of “liturgical catechesis” in Catholic parishes are more “classroom” than “experiential.”

Consider, what do you think the role of experiential learning should be in discipleship/faith formation/religious education? How can your parish make this a reality, rather than an unreached ideal?

Rebuilt and Forming Intentional Disciples: In Conversation on Discipleship

Without a doubt, Rebuilt (White and Corcoran) and Forming Intentional Disciples (Weddell) are two of the most important books on doing ministry that have come out in recent years. Yet, the books are quite different in focus. Forming Intentional Disciples provides an in-depth look at the movements and thresholds leading up to a person’s “drop the net” decision to be a disciple (and thus an intentional disciple) of Jesus Christ. Rebuilt, on the other hand, is a book about ministerial leadership and the role the Catholic parish should play in the lives of individuals and communities [Tools for Rebuilding, a follow-up guide of leadership/managerial applications, makes this focus even more clear].

The books do overlap when it comes to the theme of discipleship. The question is, are the visions for mature discipleship the same? Or different?

First turning to Weddell’s work, we find that intentional discipleship includes:

  • a “drop the net” decision
  • primary motivation from within, a “Holy Spirit-given hunger and thirst for righteousness”
  • worship and love of the Blessed Trinity with one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love of neighbor as one’s self as source and end of all things (p. 65-66)

The authors of Rebuilt use similar concepts to describe discipleship, explaining:

  • “Disciples are students who are growing to love God and love others as Jesus taught us”
  • Disciples experience conversion and on-going conversion (p. 68).

For both Weddell and White/Corcoran, discipleship begins with a decision/conversion, and then a willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit (Weddell) and Jesus as Teacher (White/Corcoran) into ongoing conversion and desire for righteousness lived out in love for God and neighbor. Seems pretty congruent. 

Okay, so how do Forming Intentional Disciples and Rebuilt envision the life of discipleship?

Weddell’s book specifically focuses on the growth leading up to the “drop the nets” decision of intentional discipleship, not a detailed analysis of what comes afterwards (and this is good! books need focus). However, she does explain that intentional discipleship is recognizable by its fruits.


In comparison, White and Corcoran use the language of actions. That disciples do certain things. Disciples…

Love God. As put into action in both corporate worship and daily quiet prayer. “Daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration, the Liturgy of the Hours, Marian devotion, especially the Rosary, and regular disciplines of Confession, penance, giving, and fasting can be serious tools for the mature disciple. On the other hand, a few minutes alone with God each day, away from texting and technology, can be a great place to start”  (p. 68-69).

Love People. Friends, family, neighbors, the oppressed, the lost–everyone. Self-care is important preparation to loving one another.

Make Disciples. This is the single promise Jesus made to the first disciples–“they’d be disciple makers” (p. 70).

I see huge overlap between the “fruits” Weddell names and the “actions” White/Corcoran discuss. Though some of the fruits are more specific, they all fit into the three much broader categories of Loving God, Loving People, and Making Disciples. Again, the vision for discipleship in both books seems highly compatible.

When it comes to naming what doesn’t make disciples. Weddell and White/Corcoran again seem to be on the same page. Both agree that Church/Mass attendance and parish/group membership (e.g. Knights of Columbus, Rosary Society) are no automatic indicator of discipleship. Both specifically push against the misconception of the liturgical Sacraments as some type of “magic” that makes a disciple without the proper disposition of the recipient. Both agree that knowing Catholic doctrine in an intellectual/academic sense does not necessarily lead to decision/conversion–and has been a downfall of much of the “religious education” in our country.

White and Corcoran have a slightly humorous, but very real section on p. 81 where they point out the [obvious] that even building campaigns don’t make disciples 🙂 I think the deeper point here is that there is no silver bullet. The only thing that makes disciples is [drumroll…] making disciples. Or, as Forming Intentional Disciples might teach us, the only thing that actually breaks the silence regarding relationship with Jesus in parish life, is breaking the silence. No new building, no one curriculum, etc. can do it. Bottom line, there’s no substitute, no way around the essentials when it comes to these central challenges in ministry. 

Overall, I’d say that Forming Intentional Disciples and Rebuilt are quite compatible and affirmatively Catholic on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  The challenge is this: Both are mere books. They’re conversation starters, not solutions. It’s up to each of us to prayerfully discern and creatively adapt and apply these critical messages to our particular setting.