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.

FruitsofIntentionalDiscipleship

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.

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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 13) — Strategy Wrap-Up

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

Our final three–strategies #8, 9, and 10…

Slide26

The use of narrative structures in preaching, pioneered by homileticians such as David Buttrick, Fred Craddock, Thomas Long, and Eugene Lowry, has proved tremendously important for Catholic Eucharistic preaching since the Second Vatican Council—and for good reason, a faith community gathered for the Eucharist is participating in a meta-narrative that includes both the mystical and visible elements of Christianity. However, for the potential hearers of evangelistic sermons, this narrative is largely unknown and in a culture that displays tendencies of becoming increasingly episodic, rather than narrative in thinking, other sermons structures—i.e.  expository, textual, declarative, dialectical, rhetorical, polar opposites, pragmatic, topical, quadrilateral, etc.—may be better suited for evangelistic preaching.[1] Why not give some other structures a try?

 

Slide27

For those who have already made a committed response to Jesus Christ, any application of Scripture or doctrine to their life is implicitly an invitation to deeper relationship with God. Yet, for the audience of evangelistic preaching, more explicit invitation to a tangible action is essential for encouraging response to encounter with Jesus Christ. Catholic ministers, Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran emphasize the importance of preaching the “outcomes of the message” and “life-change”—without this a preacher can easily fall into the habit of “aim[ing] at nothing” and “hit[ting] every time.”[2]

 

 

Slide28

 

 

Stephen Wright observes a commonsense reality–response to the Gospel usually takes more than one pitch, more than one message. And, given our Catholic theology of the breadth of evangelization, we understand that any decision that flows from hearing an initial proclamation is just a starting point, not the final outcome. An initial encounter requires on-going conversion and life in the Christian community. Because of this, every evangelistic sermon should include an intentional what’s next—a clear step or follow-up action or opportunity for those who may have encountered Jesus Christ and are seeking a way to respond. It also points to the potentially fruitful use of series in evangelistic preaching, so that the preacher can offer multiple topics and build a relationship with a hearer.

Okay, so those are my top 10 strategies for preparing homilies [or sermons, or messages] with evangelization in mind. 

I’m not going to claim that these ten practical strategies for Catholic evangelistic preaching are the only techniques, but they are at least a solid a starting point, and every preacher will develop his or her own preferred methods and techniques. The underlying premise is intentionality, not just choosing one technique or imitating a particular preaching, but truly applying ourselves to the task of evangelizing our preaching. As the Venerable Paul VI wrote, “ evangelizing preaching takes on many forms, and zeal will inspire the reshaping of them almost indefinitely”—it’s our job to figure out how.[3]

—–

[1] Thomas G. Long, “Out of the Loop” in What’s the Shape of Narrative Preaching? Essays in Honor of Eugene L. Lowry, ed. Mike Graves, David J. Schlafer, and Eugene L. Lowry, (Saint Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008), 126.

[2] Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter, (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2013), 144.

[3] Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 43.

Tools for Further Conversation from “Tools for Rebuilding”

As mentioned in my initial mini-review and Top 10 Tools, Tools for Rebuilding: 75 Really, Really Practical Ways to Make Your Parish Better is an awesome book, especially for those interested in pastoral leadership, management, and administration. Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran note early on:

“You won’t agree with everything we assert, and that’s okay. We just want to further the conversation” (xiv).

In that spirit to further that conversation by naming some tools (chapters) from Tools for Rebuilding that are ripe for more conversation. This doesn’t mean they are “bad” tools–just the ones that seem a bit incomplete. Here they are, in no particular order…

Tool #12 Be A Control Freak (But Only About Your Building)
Clear signage for locations of video venues, areas of flexible seating, and children’s programs so that parents have the freedom to choose how to worship as a family (which might mean, putting the kids elsewhere so the parents can concentrate fully) is great. I wish more parishes offered it! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to search for an “easy exit” seat so that I’d be ready to leave if my child started to cry and there were no signs or helpful ushers to make being a visitor easier.

However, the attitude that “we are committed to freeing their parents to have an excellent worship experience” takes too much responsibility away from parents as decision-makers and primary models of faith for their children.

Both Fr. White and Corcoran note that Mass can be “incomprehensible” to young kids and do not buy into the theory that “proximity to the altar” can hold a child’s attention. These assumptions deserve more conversation. Parishes that have experienced Catechesis of the Good Shepherd might have valuable contributions to make here, as I have seen children in this program fully engaged in Mass at a young (pre-2nd grade) age. Much of this depends on the architecture of the sanctuary, but parishes with many alcoves and side exits (rather than just back exits) are great for families with young children because the children can see the altar and action–yet can quickly and discreetly be escorted out when crying/loud behavior arises.

Tough subject. Kudos to White and Corcoran for mentioning it. But, don’t give up on young kids at Mass–I’d love to see what a dynamic parish like Church of the Nativity could do in terms of using the Montessori principles of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to design an interactive parallel-Mass environment for the youngest worshippers.

Tool #34 Baptisms are Opportunities — Take Them
On the whole, this “tool” is solid. The conversation needs to be continued, however, with regards to introducing liturgical catechesis and mystagogy into the mix. Now, I’m not saying parishes should use these words with new parents! [that’d just be jargon.] But, real liturgical catechesis and mystagogy are relational, loving, and enable the new parents to fully experience the mystery of the Sacrament. Fr. White and Corcoran seem to assume that “relaxed” and “relational” is mutually exclusive with “sharing the treasury of Church teaching” and this, I think, is a mistake (p. 141). I could imagine the use of short-duration (say 4 wk) small groups for new parents that allow for everything they describe (i.e. story sharing) woven into the baptismal symbols and sacrament in a way that is fully loving, fully relational, and fully catechetical. Mystagogy might mean engaging the family for milestones (baptismal anniversaries, etc.) that help build those relationships.

Bottom line, lets start a conversation about how to do liturgical catechesis in parishes.

Tool #39 Beware of Self-Righteous Super Consumers
This chapter needs further conversation because it jumps into name-calling rather than seeking to know and participate in the conversion of those who may be in need of it. I find it hard to believe that all of the daily mass attendees at Church of the Nativity were indeed, “self-righteous” (p. 159). I’m far from perfect (and often resort to name-calling as well), but as ministers we should avoid this. Many of the “self-righteous super consumers” may be just as lost and in need of conversion as anyone outside on the street (or Timonium Tim for that matter), and should be treated as such. We need to challenge ourselves to love those prickly people as Jesus loves them, even when it’s tough. And, to follow the guidance from Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, “never accept a label in place of a story.” 

Note: Moving daily Mass from 9 am to 5:30 pm is a great idea for most parishes. And this chapter is an excellent example of how to deal with criticism. 🙂

Tool #59 Don’t Be Upset When the Wrong People Leave
I like this chapter a lot. I’ve had the experience of the “wrong people” leaving in organizations I’ve led outside of church ministry and know how important it is not to get sucked into drama or taking it personally. However, our challenge in ministerial life is remembering that the Church isn’t just any other organization. If I’m in a ministry that is making-disciples, and someone (even a “wrong person”) leaves to go to a place where that disciple-making may not occur, then I can’t be happy about this. While it may “make the parish healthier” (p. 239) in the short term, it might actually be a missed opportunity to learn how to minister to a certain type of person/family–and so in the long-term, the parish can suffer (not to mention the person who leaves and might not find themselves in another disciple-making setting). Tom Corcoran and Chris Wesley did a nice job on a recent Rebuilt podcast (Episode 23) encouraging listeners to look for the kernel of truth to learn from when receiving criticism, the same applies to when anyone leaves–there’s still a kernel of truth.

Bottom line, don’t get upset when the wrong people leave–but don’t anticipate it, be happy about it, or even be complacently content about it. Those attitudes can eat away at our calling to be part of God’s processes of making disciples and loving those most in need of conversion. There’s room for more conversation about the right spirituality of the evangelizer here.

Tool #29 Know What Season You’re In
Another solid chapter, however, the conversation I’d want to have is, since “the liturgical seasons resonate with us insider churchpeople” but not “with the average parishioner, much less the unchurched person,” then how does the weekend experience move people (average parishioners and the unchurched) into that space where the liturgy forms them? (p. 116). I think it has something to do with liturgical catechesis and mystagogy seamlessly woven into parish life. What might this look like at Church of the Nativity or other evangelizing Catholic churches? This is a conversation I’d like to see more of. I’m looking forward to reading Liturgy and the New Evangelization by Tim O’Malley to see if there are any practical tips in there.

Tool #26 Nobody is Growing in Christ Just Because of Your Pious Procession of One
Everything in this tool is very applicable. What I’d like to call out, however, is the retreat from liturgy. Fr. White and Corcoran write:

“We like to stay as far away from liturgical issues as possible; it’s safer that way. Plus, we don’t know what we’re talking about when it comes to liturgy anyway” (p. 107).

This just makes me sad. 😦 Liturgy is not some obtuse, optional aspect of theology. Liturgy forms what we believe. It’s for all of us. Don’t cop-out or opt-out on liturgy, Church of the Nativity, join in and further the conversation!

Tool #22 Churchpeople Don’t Belong in the Pews
Excellent chapter on some techniques for making it easier for people to serve in ministry. The question I’d like to see more conversation on is, how do disciples in the parish balance it? Do they attend multiple Masses (one to serve, one to worship at), have some good practices for weaving the spirituality of serving into Mass, etc. I think there might be a lot of fruit in this conversation, since parishes everywhere have people who want to serve, but also know that to some degree serving can be a personal distraction from growing as a disciple in worship. 

Tool #21 Vestments Are Like Golf Clubs
This tool would be a bit more complete with some discussion of beautiful vs. expensive. They aren’t always the same. Just as overly showy (expensive-looking) vestments can be a distraction, as White and Corcoran point out, visually displeasing, outdated, or clearly poor-quality vestments can also be a distraction to newcomers. There’s probably some room for conversation about inexpensive ways to acquire beautiful vestments that are not gaudy/showy (i.e. seeking talented seamstresses within the parish, using religious orders for labor, etc.)

Also, there are other examples ripe for conversation regarding wasting money in ministry [in general, not that this goes on at Church of the Nativity], for example:

  • expensive religious education curricula
  • music hymnals that have 300+ songs when you really only sing a core 100 of them
  • prepackaged adult retreats/small group materials
  • bulletin publishers, layout and artwork
  • annual subscription missals in pews (vs. re-useable 3-year bound books or plain Bibles)

Tool #53 Get the Right People on the Bus

Good chapter on basic human resource management. However, it’s not necessarily good for an organization to always follow the advice to:

“Be willing to wait and invest in the people already working for you (for free). The solution to whatever you’re trying to solve or staff is probably not ‘out there’; they’re most likely in your parish. Your next best hire is your current best volunteer, and your next best volunteer is in your pews” (p. 218).

This can be very true. But, there’s also a great benefit in bringing in ideas and experience from different settings in order to help your own organization maintain its agility and ability to adapt to changing conditions. It would be great to see a conversation about how to hire from outside, integrate into existing staff/vision, as well.

Okay, so those are, in my opinion, the tools that I think are most in need of further conversation to be more complete. Feel free to join in the conversation through the comments…what tools did you love? which ones need improving?

Top 10 “Must-Implement” Concepts from “Tools for Rebuilding”

As mentioned in my initial mini-review, Tools for Rebuilding: 75 Really, Really Practical Ways to Make Your Parish Better fills a huge gap in the literature available for those seeking to advance leadership, administration, management, and communications in typical Catholic parishes.

In the opening of the book, Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran set the stage for an implied purpose of the book–ongoing discussion–explaining:

“You won’t agree with everything we assert, and that’s okay. We just want to further the conversation” (xiv).

In that spirit I’d like to keep that conversation going by offering what I think are the top 10 “must-implement” concepts from Tools for Rebuilding. Some of these are individual tools (aka chapters) from the book, others are combinations. These are the big concepts and tools that I think are the most spot-on, urgently needed, and/or potentially significant for Catholic parishes (and in many cases, ministries in general) today in the United States. Then we’ll shift to the more questionable tools (in my opinion) from the book–these are the ones that are in  need of more conversation, caveats, alternatives, and engagement. They’re not “wrong” tools–just ones that seem a bit incomplete or easily misunderstood. This is going to take a couple of posts, so let’s get started…

Must-Implement Concept #1 — Staff Synergy
Tools #5 “Pull Down the Silos” and #14“Break Up the Nests” area all about this. Now synergy can be an overused and much mocked term, but it’s a powerful positive effect of staffs that can selflessly work together as a team, rather that merely exist as friendly neighborhood fiefdom leaders, who are not engaged with another’s “turf,” not truly sharing goals “of where the ministry as a whole is going” (p. 30).

While much of this change is about communication and planning processes, Tool #14 (Break Up the Nests) is a practical one. A way to make a physical change (office arrangement) that will yield more significant communications breakthrough. In the military, I’ve experienced the benefits that come from open office concepts. Give it a try—it’s amazing how ideas just start flowing, more staff members start to understand each other’s challenges (from hearing them on the phone, seeing what they work on, etc.) and more.

Also, don’t think that this doesn’t apply to you simply because your staff all gets along. People in ministry are usually nice. 🙂 It’s very possible (and common in parishes, based on my experience) to have a warm, caring, friendly, well-meaning, dedicated staff that is peaceful, but not actually creating synergy as a team.

Must-Implement Concept #2 — Excellence is the Standard (aka Always Be Striving)
Making true excellence the standard for everything (not just the theological or pastoral aspects) in parish life is what lies beneath Tools #7 (The NFL is the Enemy of the Church), #10 (I’m Not Interested in How Much You Love Jesus; Just Clean Your Nursery), and #54 (Talent Attracts Talent). White and Corcoran point out that in many parishes there is an awful lot of “celebrating and rewarding mediocrity” (p. 220). In some places this is indeed quite true–what I think is more prevalent is tolerating mediocrity. Allowing the standard for cleanliness, aesthetics, visual displays, websites, volunteer ministers, programs, liturgy, and more to be what’s adequate rather than excellent. It’s the attitude of thinking that the “job is done” once something exists (i.e. we have a sign that says “join our parish”) vs. continually striving for greatness and demanding this from all staff members.

My high school French teacher used to say, “Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until your good is your better, and your better is your best.” He was fairly annoying at the time, but hey…I still remember the mantra. And it’s true. Don’t passively accept the sub-par in your parish. Start making the difficult changes, start moving, and then never stop striving for excellence.

Must-Implement Concept #3 — Brand It. Name It. Bottom Line, Get Rid of Jargon.
Tool #18 (Look, They Have a Kidzone Too!) is spot on. In short, in most parishes, “we use churchspeak to designate what we’re trying to do, in a way that can seem like a foreign language to everybody but insiders–for example, RCIA, Sacraments of Initiation, and Catechetical Formation” (p. 79). These names are confusing for those on the outside (the “lost sheep” we want to offer the fullest, most joyful welcome to!). There’s nothing theologically wrong with calling RCIA something that’s catchier, more engaging, and more relevant to the population you seek to reach and serve in your ministry setting. It doesn’t detract from the richness of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults to use a different term for the program, small group, activities, etc. associated with the process itself.

Calling this “branding” (which is accurate) may be a turn-off for some. Fine. Forget branding–just call it “naming things better” in your parish 🙂 Don’t know where to start? Ask yourself, what phrase/name/term would attract interest, spark curiosity, or start a buzz within the group most in need of attending? If you’re unsure or coming up dry for names and logos reach out to those in your parish who might have relevant professional or volunteer experience in this area. You can do this!

Must-Implement Concept #4 — Communicating for a Whole Parish Movement
This concept draws on Tools #30 (Find Your Message; Then Stay on It), #31 (One Church, One Message), and #3 (Know Why, What, and And How). Modern American parishes (aka churches) are big. How do thousands of people get moved by the Holy Spirit and moving in a similar direction? It starts with preaching. Preaching is the primary way the Word of God is specifically discerned and broken open in a community (and churches are communities!).

Tool #31 is the first step. But, may not be entirely necessary if your parish has multiple gifted homilists who can work together to develop unified messages.

This means applying Tool #30 as a parish-wide extension of Tool #3 (which is primarily aimed at ministry leaders). Basically, the homily isn’t just about good exegesis of the Scriptures. Not at all. The USCCB’s preaching documents, Fulfilled in Your Hearing and Preaching the Mystery of Faith (2012), make it clear that the assembly matters. And this means the congregation as a whole matters as well. The homily “should form a consistent message that preachers and parish staff have all bought into” (p. 124). Additionally, the organization, programs, and actions of the parish should be consistent with the message as well.

In short, the homily isn’t a stand-alone part of the weekly routine. Instead it flows from and feeds into the entirety of the parish’s ministry.

Must-Implement Concept #5 — Streamline the Bulletin and Announcements.
Almost all parish bulletins are in need of an overhaul. This goes back to excellence. You might think the bulletin is meaningless–it’s not. It communicates a clear message about the priorities in the parish. In many cases, it’s a completely missed opportunity for solid initial evangelization.

Tool #16 (Stop Advertising [Other People’s Stuff] in Your Bulletin) gives some great advice. Parishes should, as the title says, stop filling bulletins with other stuff (even if it’s good stuff!), as this is a distraction from communicating a central message about what you want people to do to grow as disciples. Giving people lots of options does not necessarily “get more people engaged” if not all of those options are of equal quality as disciple-making settings (see “Why Less is More” here).

Once a parish trims down the bulletin, it might be small enough to not need advertising (which is great–as that reduces administrative work-hours that can now be applied to a more relevant disciple-making task or striving toward excellence in an overlooked area of your parish). Check out this example of a non-denominational Christian church with thousands of members that uses a simple, focused “weekly” (it’s both online and handed out in print form each Sunday.)

While Church of the Nativity (where the authors of Tools for Rebuilding minister) no longer uses a print bulletin, this may not be the correct decision for your setting. That’s okay. This tool is still for you. Focus on shrinking the bulletin so it conveys clear messages, which then allows you to stop spending time and money coordinating advertising and using an external publishing company that probably only “helps” by providing stock-graphics and bad layout. And, while you’re at it, shrink your announcements too! Focus on what’s important. Deliver the announcements compellingly (probably by a paid or volunteer ministry leader with “skin in the game” on the announcement itself, rather than the lector), as Tool #31 (Preach the Announcements) encourages.

Must-Implement Concept #6 — Grassroots Change and Relational Evangelism
More and more parishes are realizing that the New Evangelization means them too. They’ve got to do something. However, in my experience, many parishes immediately invest all resources in the programmatic–i.e. considering what faith formation curricula to use, doing specific renewal programs, etc. While none of this is bad, it misses the point that individuals have to be moved to discipleship and life-change. Spiritual multiplication has to begin. Growth by multiplication > growth by addition. Tool #74 (It’s Not an Air War; It’s a Trench War) is a great reminder that it’s not about the “Church” or “diocese” solving evangelization problems for parishes–the parish is indeed fundamental. And, within the parish, it’s not all about having the right programs, it’s about discipling individuals, who are then used by the Holy Spirit to produce more fruit.

Must-Implement Concept #7 — Everything in Money Tools!
Almost every parish can benefit by implementing changes in Tools 45 to 51–aka the “Money Tools.” Underneath, these Money Tools are about changing the way most Catholics/parishes think about financial stewardship and giving. And it’s seriously needed!

I spent many years in Baptist congregations. I’m glad I learned about tithing there, because honestly, I’ve never head solid teaching on it in Catholic parishes (with Church of the Nativity, Msgr. Charles Pope, and Msgr. David Brockman being notable exceptions).

In short, fundraisers, extra collections, “poor boxes,” and professional solicitation/campaign managers work against conveying a consistent message about the relationship between financial stewardship and the spiritual life. I’d add that all these “extras” also create additional burdens on staffs. Transparency is key, to include, not hiding the real cost of ministry. Church of the Nativity is the only Catholic parish where I’ve heard a sermon about money that mentions the importance of being able to compensate well enough to attract talented and devoted ministers. Amen! Compared to many non-Catholic congregations I’ve been apart of, many Catholic parishioners seem to think that ministry happens without financial resources–this simply isn’t true, and takes away from our opportunity to put our financial resources to work for God’s mission in the world.

Must-Implement Concept #8 — Dear Everyone, It’s Not All About Father.
Tool #68 (Father, It’s Not All About You) is very hard to implement, but it’s an important culture-change in moving from a consumer-culture to a disciple-culture in Catholic ministries.

Now, the authors call this chapter/tool, “Father, It’s Not All About You.” In reality though, I think it’s our culture and parishioners that seem to cultivate this mentality, rather than pastors themselves–as they explain:

“Everything in the culture insists that the priest be the center of attention, action, activity, and authority” (p. 270).

Fr. White’s comments about the perception of the presence of the pastor to validate meetings and ministries is spot-on. But, as the title indicates, the person with the capability to change this is indeed the pastor. Delegation and strong leadership on this issue from the pastor can set the right tone. And this isn’t simply about promoting self-esteem of others–not at all. This idea is critical because it comes back to spiritual multiplication. If the pastor is perceived as the only “real” spiritual leader in the parish, then his reach is limited. If more leaders can be cultivated, then more disciple-making can occur.

Tools #41 (Funerals Are Scud Missiles) and #33 (Preach the Announcements) can be understood as examples/extensions of this principle.

Must-Implement Concept #9 — Design Staff Positions Well
A key component of successful human resource management involves thoughtfully designing staff positions, really understanding what goes into a position in terms of competencies and the like. One very obvious part of this that many parishes get wrong in terms of job descriptions and staff roles comes down to work hours. Tool #55 (Work Weekends) is a great example of designing positions for success–both for the parish and the individual.

In my experience, many parishes don’t put the effort into really nailing down what times of the week a person “works” for a particular position, and instead simply start with a 9am-5pm assumption and allow shifts to occur. While this might seem okay, in actuality it does not create the right expectations among the staff and does foster a sense of “extra-ness” of working after business hours or on weekends. Instead, parishes should build on Tool #55 and think about the most-important hours “on the job” for every position. This might mean receptionists working from 3-8pm (when many people are off of work/school), planning on student and adult formation ministers working afternoons/evenings (since this is prime-time for individual discipleship mentorship or small groups), etc. This means understanding presence after Masses to build relationships with attendees or time for taking individuals out for coffee to talk about their spiritual journeys as an actual part of being a DRE, adult formation minister, etc. as not as an extra that’s in addition to sitting in an office from 9-5. You get the idea. Do the analysis within your ministry, figure out what people really should be doing, and design job requirements accordingly.

Must-Implement Concept #10 — Act Like People Under the Age of 18 Matter
Tools #42 (Do Something for My Kids, You Do Something for Me), #43 (After Second Grade, School Isn’t Cool), and #44 (Treat Students Like Adults) really speak to this. Everything in parish life (Mass, formation, mission, etc.) should be designed for people of all ages. Now, this doesn’t mean everything has to (or should be) intergenerational. No, the idea is as simple as changing your paradigm from adequate (i.e. “we’re having Mass”) to comprehensive excellence in reaching out to meet everyone (i.e. “we’re having Mass, and there is a quality option for those with babies, deliberate engagement of young children, specific relevance for teenagers, etc.). It’s a move from patting ourselves on the back for occasionally providing childcare at some adult formation events to understanding that every activity that happens as a part of parish life should be deliberately intergenerational or offer specific, high-quality alternatives for all ages.

Okay, so those are, in my opinion, the 10 concepts from Tools for Rebuilding that I see the greatest need for in Catholic parishes. Next time I’ll be discussing Tools from the book that are a bit incomplete, potentially misleading, and/or in need of further conversation–check back at the Tools for Rebuilding tag for that plus other commentary/notes on the book.

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.

Review of “Tools for Rebuilding”

Tools for Rebuilding: 75 Really, Really Practical Ways to Make Your Parish Better (Ave Maria Press, 2013) lives up to its name as a direct and action-oriented follow up to the broad vision compellingly described in Rebuilt.

The book is organized around different types (i.e. staff, communication, people, weekend, etc.) of tools. Each tool is a pithy phrase and concise explanation of how this could be put to work in a parish setting.

I highly recommend Tools for Rebuilding. It contains solid parish ministry applications for general concepts of leadership and management. For many readers, Tools might be a better fit than Rebuilt, because it’s less likely to be perceived as a one-size fits all solution [a critique that some readers had of Rebuilt]. Tools is clearly designed to be applied and adapted for your ministry setting. Inherent in the title of this book is the key idea that this isn’t a “how to” or “just copy this plan” type of ministry, but something that’s flexible and requires continuous work and improvement. Bottom line: Think like Fr. White and Tom Corcoran–but come up with an application and outcome unique to your parish setting.

In short, Tools for Rebuilding is a must-read for anyone in ministry–even or especially if you didn’t like Rebuilt. This would make a great read for a Pastoral Administration or Ministry Leadership course.

And, if you’re not really into reading yet another book, stay tuned here 🙂 as I’ll be highlighting the 10 most important ideas from this book, as well as some of the concepts that need a little more conversation to be complete.