Why Serve in a Parish

Parishes (or local churches) can be frustrating places for many an enthusiastic, devoted, and mission-oriented follower of Christ. Often due to human sin and blindness of a variety of sorts, people cannot find a place to belong, to be accepted in service. This shouldn’t be the case, but, it’s a reality (and it can hurt, take time, and require great discernment). I wanted to share an encouragement, from my own life, on why it’s worth it to keep trying and hang in there–even when one’s local church/parish feels like it’s [or you’re!] falling, we can at least be falling together.

My husband and I began serving on the Alpha Team for our parish’s first season of parish-wide Alpha in fall 2017. Going into it, we knew from all of the homilies at Mass how important this was–to follow Jesus by being love to others, making space in one’s life for conversation and relationship-building. I’d already been quite immersed in Divine Renovation and the DR Guidebook, and had been incorporating Alpha content into classes for years–so we were “low hanging fruit” to our Pastor and Senior Leadership Team’s exhortations to get involved with Alpha.

What I didn’t know, was how much God was going to make His presence known in my life through the Alpha Team experience. After serving as a Table Host and Session Leader, I was invited to join the Alpha Core Team. My focus was on developing volunteers as Table Hosts and Helpers, helping us build more and more amazing interpersonal, relationship, and conversation skills so that we truly connect with those we encounter.

This has changed me, personally, as it’s drawn me to be attentive to who I’m called to accompany in my own life–and to treat those relationships, no matter now nascent, as a priority, as if they were a “calendar event” I need to keep making time for, keep trying to schedule…no matter how many failed attempts it takes.

Being given this specific mission from staff and those of a different generation at my parish has been an experience of shared trust and mutual accountability, of being invested in by brothers and sisters in Christ in a way that isn’t just about Alpha, but is personal. This is something new. Many parishes are places where generations “guard” certain ministries, hold on to leadership roles, or simply don’t trust (or give the benefit of the doubt) anyone who’s “new” or thinks a bit differently due to different life experiences.

God shows His loving presence so much through my co-workers on the Alpha Team who intercede, both in prayers and actions, for me. Service within a parish can transform relationships (even while some, inevitably, remain painfully broken within the Body of Christ, especially a the local level). It doesn’t erase pain, but good can still come forth. Bottom line, we must not give up on it, but pursue it. 

I think this ancient hymn sums up both the challenge and grace:

English Translation (Ubi Caritas)

Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ’s love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
As we are gathered into one body,
Beware, lest we be divided in mind.
Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease,
And may Christ our God be in our midst.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
And may we with the saints also,
See Thy face in glory, O Christ our God:
The joy that is immense and good,
Unto the ages through infinite ages. Amen.


Why Is It Hard to Make Friends After 30? And What it Has to Do with the Church


Image: Kleinefotografie

A few years ago the Alex Williams of The New York Times shared a story mixing anecdote and research called “Friends of a Certain Age.” The basic question is why is it so hard for American to make [good] friends after age 30? What did he find?


Sociologists consider these three conditions crucial to making close friends:

  1. proximity
  2. repeated, unplanned interactions
  3. a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in one another

By one’s 30s and beyond,

“you have been through your share of wearying or failed relationships. You have come to grips with the responsibilities of juggling work, families, and existing friends, so you may become more wary about making yourself emotionally available to new people. ‘You’re more keenly aware of the downside…You’re also more keenly aware of your own capacity to disappoint.” (Williams)

Friendship and Church?

John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Church (and movement), observed: “People come to church for a variety of reasons, but they stay for only one—friendship.” This principle drives the ambiance and culture of Alpha, but it can mean so much more for churches.

I’m in my 30s right now and it’s an interesting* decade of life. Many Americans are starting families, highly engaged with the bustle of school-aged children, or entering a new realm of parenting teenagers. Many of us have relocated, are relocating, or will relocate for jobs or family. Many consider changes in life style or career in their 30s, or struggle with questions of purpose, ambition, and vision (Miller, “The Ambition Collision”). Some go through a divorce/separation, or end a long-term dating relationship. For those who identify as no particular religion, it can be a time of completing a process of “adulthood” by forming some personal conclusions about the meaning of life, human nature, and more. For all these reasons and more, it’s a time when deepening or developing friendships can be a practical challenge, yet when the fruit of friendship is profoundly needed. 

Proximity, Repeated Interactions, and Openness

When churches can offer settings where adults can let their guard down, and engage in many, repeat, unplanned interactions, then friendships are born. Unfortunately, a lot of what many of our churches do well is exactly the opposite of this–classes, lectures, coffee/donuts, structured small group discussion, prayer, worship, etc. These things are good without doubt, but they are not the most fertile ground for forming new friendships.

Settings for being, not doing or accomplishing a certain task/learning are key. But they must be inviting. For decades, Youth Ministries have grasped the importance of informal socialization among teens. This human desire doesn’t disappear when teens become adults. It takes more creativity though to envision what this might look like for your specific setting–maybe it’s centered around certain career interests, maybe it involves hobbies or maker-spaces (note: many public libraries have evolved into offering these types of public gatherings–check out yours for ideas!), maybe it’s an appealing environment for families to gather and play, maybe it’s appealing food/drink. Many studies have shown Americans becoming less and less social. This is a challenge (because we work against this tide by cultivating opportunities for this through churches), but also an opportunity to help adults experience connection to each other, to develop friendships that will keep them coming back, maybe coming to something more overtly “spiritual.”

God is a communion of divine persons, the closest, most perfect friendship imaginable–something we can never completely experience on this earth. This longing for communion is written into us as human beings, created in His image and likeness. Our intentionality in helping adults cultivate friendship helps them experience God, even if in a very small way–something especially valuable for adults in their 30s, and more broadly, for all of us!

* = note, I’m only half-way through…so maybe the rest will be boring 😉 just saying…it’s always a possibility 🙂

Christian Unity as a Millennial

We’re nearing the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (aka the Octave of Christian Unity, signifying the eight days of prayer stretching from January 18 (Feast of the Confession of St Peter in older calendars) to January 25 (the enduring date for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul). A desire for greater and greater unity among Christians has been on my heart since my teenage years, and the very first time I submitted anything theological for publication, it drew from ecumenical experiences (“A Catholic’s Gratitude to Evangelicals”).

Indeed the fruits of ecumenism too influenced my conversion of assent to the Catholic faith, a true praying of, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Prior to that full conversion, my parish had undertaken a shared reading and discussion of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) with a nearby ELCA Lutheran Church, something that allowed a Baptist-shaped Catholic like myself to experience a true home in Catholicism.

This all happened in the 2000s, and as Kimberly Belcher recently wrote:

Among ecumenical theologians, the years of the 1990’s and 2000’s (even to the present moment) have sometimes been called an “ecumenical winter.” It is funny to consider that all my experiences of ecumenism have occurred during this winter, but of course, when the seeds are germinating, you don’t see the growth above ground. There is no doubt that the Spirit continues to work with the churches.

Among millennials and younger Christians, I see both a stronger commitment to practices and beliefs that are particular to each tradition (Eucharistic Adoration, for example, which raised concerns for ecumenism in the 1980’s and before) and a stronger commitment to honor brothers and sisters in other traditions as Christians. In other words, ecumenists of my generation and those younger than us love our diversity and long for our unity. (Read more in “What Can Catholicism Still Draw From the Wells of Ecumenism?”)

As a Millennial, the 2000s have not been an “ecumenical winter,” but a time when the fruits of ecumenism have permeated my life and led to growth, knowing and understanding more and more the awesome mystery and power of our intimate, personal relationships with Jesus, experienced within the Body of Christ.

I do feel a sadness that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity seems lost amidst the busyness of our Christian lives in January. I cannot help but chuckle each January, when I’m reminded that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the USCCB’s Poverty Awareness Month, the 9 Days for Live all overlap. Not to mention some years, when National Catholic Schools Week (which starts the final Sunday in January) also overlaps. 🙂 My finite ability to enter into each one fully in prayer and spirit is simply not enough. I’m sure I’m not the only person without the focus to pray and act for all of these things well at the same time.

Yet as Cecilia Cicone reminds us via Twitter, division–the opposite of Christian Unity–impacts our ability to eliminate poverty, to understand what a truly Catholic education is, to demonstrate the intrinsic value of life in all forms, and more.

Christian Unity Still Matters

Just last week, a devout Christian shared with me how he perceives the Catholic Church as viewing him as unworthy as not a Christian. This can be shocking and heart-breaking to hear as a Millennial Catholic! As I’ve grown up in a Christian world where the clarity of baptism and the Body of Christ seem obvious (and this is a good thing, a blessing I’ve inherited).

As I shared with him the reality that I cannot dispute his perceptions, experiences, and opinions, I asked if he’d be willing to hear what the Catholic Church does say about him. He agreed, and I read him this:

Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of all praise.

Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church…

…Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of all praise.

Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church. (Decree on Ecumenism)

How blessed and thankful I am to be living in a time that, while some aspects may be as a “winter” season, it is nonetheless a winter filled with overflowing fruit as we await with joyful hope the true, eternal, and everlasting unity of Christ’s Body.

Is Your “Church” the Same Age as Your “Parish”?

Torrance CA
What’s the average age of those attending your church?

Is it the same as the average age within your parish ? (Remember, a parish is generally a geographic area–it’s not simply those who attend, but all within a designated area. Think of it as your pre-defined mission field!)

If not, what do you make of this divergence between “registered” or “attending” parishioners and the rest of the parish? For example:

  • Is it good for church attendees to be demographically quite different from those in their surrounding neighborhoods?
  • Is the difference a cause for alarm?
  • Does it evoke a response of hopefulness and opportunity, or defensiveness and fait accompli?

Lee Kricher suggests some basic steps if your registered parishioners are aging way faster than the rest of your geographic parish (and, these would also be useful if, say, your Mass attendees are ethnically, racially, or linguistically different than your parish neighborhoods):

  • Take key staff or lay leaders on “field trips” to healthy churches that have every generation well represented
  • Regularly weave into weekend messages the importance of reaching the next generation
  • Proactively engage church members in one-on-one discussions and conversations in small groups about the importance of becoming agents of change instead of blockers of change
  • Make a commitment to develop young leaders [paraphrase]

What have you seen work (or not work) in terms of practices and spirituality as your church has adapted to and with the parish area surrounding it?

Millennials in Ministry: Lencioni Thinking

Too often, people in church-world speak of “reaching” Millennials as if we’re some “foreign entity” (h/t Tim O’Malley) or a group solely in need of being reached/served/ministered to, in contrast to being baptized-believers whom God is already at work in and through–right now.

Patrick Lencioni, co-founder of Amazing Parish, offers these thoughts on Millennials:

As it turns out, there is a better way to think about hiring good people than focusing on a person’s generational stereotype. It comes down to looking for three simple, timeless and observable virtues that are reliable predictors of whether someone of any age will be a good team player. Thankfully, while generations change, the nature of teamwork does not.

I agree! A healthy organization is a healthy organization not because of the particular generational identities of its members, but because of their common commitment, the way the relate, and the way they make decisions together.

Millennials are largely missing from the teams of leaders in many church ministrieswhat holds us back? Maybe, a better appreciation of what makes a healthy organization and what cultivates effective teamwork is a missing piece. We don’t know how to “talk” about being an effective ministry organization because we lack the vocabulary, and so we default to stereotypes, thinking it’s because of a person’s age, marital status, regional identity, race, gender, etc. that “we can’t work well together” or “we always communicate poorly.”

As I’ve said before, I highly recommend Lencioni’s The Advantage for anyone in ministerial leadership. And 🙂 as a Millennial, I’m looking forward to reading Lencioni’s latest book, The Ideal Team Player, to see how it connects with each of our own baptismal vocations in ministry and some of the classic scholarship on “courageous followership.”

Have you read “The Advantage” or plan on reading “The Ideal Team Player” through a ministry lens? Share your thoughts in the Comments.

Millennial Scrabble
Jeff Djevdet (Flickr), CC by 2.0

Unique “Goods” of the “Good News”: The Baptized Audience of the New Evangelization

Mission to places “where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel” is a defining aspect of the call to a New Evangelization, spoken of by Popes for over three decades (Redemptoris Missio, 33). While we often speak broadly of the people we are sent to in this mission field–our friends, neighbors, family, co-workers, and acquaintances among them–there’s indeed a tremendously diverse spectrum of “lost” and “sense of the faith.”

Bishop Robert Barron, summarizing one of his professors, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, observes:

with the rise of Protestantism and modernity, an integrated Catholicism blew up and its twisted pieces now litter the contemporary intellectual landscape. As I survey today’s cultural scene, I often think of Sokolowski’s observation: one can see Catholicism everywhere, but often in odd and distorted form

These “odd and distorted” forms are in many cases the why and the what of a lost sense of the living faith. People lose a living sense of the faith because they only perceive or experience an odd or distorted notion of it. On a secondary level, as a person goes through the process of losing faith (even if an odd and distorted set of beliefs) the people around them are not likely to reach out to them with the true, radically Good News that grounds and founds the fullness of the meaning of Jesus Christ and his call to follow him as disciples, if those people also have an odd or distorted sliver of the Good News.

Curtis Martin of FOCUS ministries often recalls that when asking Catholic young adults, “How’s that Catholic thing going for ya?” the overwhelming response was, “This Catholic thing is really tough!” I heard Martin speak a few months ago at my own Diocese of Lansing’s Called By Name Assembly and he explained further, that for many young adults, it was as if the deposit of faith was like a shinny, new, fully accessorized SUV. They could get in it, and maybe even coast a little down hills. It was so much that could seem so good.

As a Millennial myself, I think this makes sense for many in my generation. We’ve never had a strongly enforced cultural/institutional religion to rebel against (as many Baby Boomers seemed to). We certainly have lived in a world where a crumbling idea of the common good and various social compacts has contributed to human suffering. We’re caricatured sometimes as “non-committal,” yet the flip-side of that is openness, curiosity, and a willingness to explore new beliefs and ways of living. In short, the image of being behind the wheel of a brand new SUV works for the experience of many emerging young adults when it comes to encountering Catholicism as an adult.

However, here’s where the problem comes. At some point, that downhill incline ends. Rolling along in this great SUV comes to a halt. The driver has to get out, and start to push that SUV–maybe even up a hill, maybe push just to keep it from rolling backwards! In Martin’s words, this is because the driver had never been given keys to the ignition. Even the shiniest car can become a burden when the engine’s not running. A SUV without a running engine is a distortion of what a vehicle is meant to do.

So, what of other situations, especially in non-Millennial generations? There’s as much diversity within generations as between, but here are some adaptations of Martin’s SUV metaphor to describe some of the incomplete or distorted notions I’ve observed while while teaching Catholic adults:

  1. Pushing a lightweight sub-compact around. This person is in shape. They’ve been pushing around a lightweight sub-compact car for years. They can make the car move, and that’s good, because in their mind, you gotta do the moving to get to heaven. Most everyone around them is moving too–no matter what they’re driving (or walking, or biking). Except for those few maniacs who deliberately wreck their vehicle in spectacular ways (think mass murderers). Everyone’s pretty much earning heaven by being a basically good, moral, and civic-minded person. And they stop and think about it, “heaven” isn’t even really the point, it’s being a good person now that matters.
  2. Driving a hideously ugly car. This person is aware of how hideously ugly their car is. In fact, that’s kind of what makes it the right car to be driving. They put keys in the ignition and drive this ugly whale of a car around as if under daily orders to do so. Because the car is just so ugly and clunky, they assume the car’s manufacturer is like a rigid military commander–out to “catch” them not following orders if they don’t drive. They worry that even by following the car manufacturer’s orders, they’ll never please him. But, they drive on nonetheless, because Hell is awful and any driver turning the ignition key could accidentally end up there. You can never tell with car manufacturers.
  3. Cruising in a reliable sedan. This person loves their sedan. The values. The smell. The familiar dashboard. The owner’s manual in the glove compartment. The eternal reliability. The way other sedan drivers behave on the road. Yeah, maybe things were better when more people drove sedans, but nonetheless, the sedan is still the the only car that’s got it all. This person is exited to learn more and more about their sedan, even tips to show off the best of the interior design. They’d welcome anyone who wanted to take a ride, but that doesn’t happen very often because the invitation, “Sedan driving has the best sedan-values and best sedan rewards program” doesn’t seem to attract many passengers.

Now, all of these are metaphorical caricatures–all images “limp” at some point (as Barbara Morgan so often notes in her talks) and when it comes to evangelization of any type, “never accept, a label in place of a story” (Sherry Weddell). But, if these sketches ring a bell for you in terms of naming the wide range of the “baptized” that are an audience of the New Evangelization, I encourage you to dig deeper in your own setting. My list is not exhaustive, and may not fit your setting at all.

Really think about the audiences of baptized you’re trying to reach–what makes each unique? What unique theological affinities or distortions might each be prone to? What connects each group to the Church to begin with at this point in their lives? This process of imagining the baptized “lost” in your mission field (i.e. one example from Church of the Nativity) paves the way for being able to not only “smell like the sheep” (as Pope Francis exhorts pastors) but think like the sheep, and only then design your strategy accordingly. As Jonathan Sullivan has explained, there’s no such thing as “average” catechesis. And the same goes for the New Evangelization, especially when it comes to the audience of the baptized.

ancient symbol of baptism. unique + uniquely weathered. image source @ceasol (Flickr) CC BY-SA 2.0



Finding a Local Church to Call Home

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

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


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


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

Becoming a Parish Ad Gentes

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

Becoming a Parish for Catholic-Seekers

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

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