The Necessary Discomfort

The intersection of organizational health and redemptive suffering is an uncomfortable one.

We need healthy parishes, “The parish is where the Church lives” (USCCB, Communities of Salt and Light, p. 1). The concrete community where Jesus comes in Word and Sacrament is the embodied local center of a growing, evangelistic Church, not an appendage to be merely tolerated while movements and apostolates substitute in the “real” evangelization. Being a healthy organization as a parish takes leaders dedicated to people, more than programs, buildings, a new technology, or the latest “silver bullet” solution. As Patrick Lencioni, a leading proponent of the value of organizational health and co-founder of Amazing Parish explains:

the biggest reason that organizational health remains untapped is that it requires courage.  Leaders must be willing to confront themselves, their peers, and the dysfunction within their organization with an uncommon level of honesty and persistence.  They must be prepared to walk straight into uncomfortable situations and address issues that prevent them from realizing the potential that eludes them (“The Last Competitive Advantage”).

The core of a healthy ministry starts at the top. If leaders aren’t functioning in a healthy way, then the newest members of the parish won’t be functioning in an organizationally healthy way either (though the signs would be less obvious, as the parishioner can simply disengage from the parish as an organization with a mission, a relate to it simply as a place for private liturgical matters). Healthy ministerial leadership means not relying on authoritarian, restrictive, command-and-control leadership, but instead earning and attracting courageous, disciplined, entrepreneurial, proactive followers through our clear message of the Gospel, lived out here and now.

Paul understood this well, and wrote to one of his trusted leaders, Philemon, “although I have the full right  in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love” (Philemon 8-9). This is the essence of a healthy organization, when we in the local Body of Christ are not ordered, guilt-ed, or commanded, but are encouraged and respond out of love, because the Gospel of God and our actions in response have been put forth so compellingly that we begin to take the initiative, to move in and toward the Kingdom of God in an uncontrollable number of ways that, though diverse, tend toward the same goal, the same end because of the clarity of the Gospel message for our unique here for our unique now.

There’s a wonderful detail in Acts of the Apostles that shows the possibilities of empowered, proactive followers, we hear that it’s the vast number of ordinary believers, especially Greek-speaking Jews, scattered and pushed out of Jerusalem who first bring the Gospel of salvation to Judea and Samaria (8:1). It’s not the Apostles, who are able to safely remain in Jerusalem. This is a sign of organizational health, that clarity of communication from the Apostles, while all were in Jerusalem was such that these scattered, Greek-speaking Jews could run with it, and be running in the right direction, without the need for the Jerusalem leaders to dictate and carefully control every step of the plan.

Organizational health reflects how we’re called to relate in imitation of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. By knowing each other’s unique strengths and weaknesses, we acknowledge the beauty and dignity of being created so differently, yet each in the image of God. By committing to a new, relevant direction together and wholeheartedly supporting one another, we live out the reality that God shares his divine life and mission with us–that we are co-workers with a God who is Love, larger than our wildest human dreams. By manifesting the courage to confront another, to hold each other accountable, and engage in constructive conflict, we witness to the reality that sharing in God’s work matters–we are compelled in joy to strive for excellence, strive for the best, for the sake of the Gospel, in response to God who poured out salvation in His Son for us in a way we can’t repay in the slightest.

But what of redemptive suffering?

As Lencioni emphasizes, leadership to grow a healthy organization inspires us to, “walk straight into uncomfortable situations,” rather than letting them fester, rather than allowing suffering to simply take its course. This creates a theological tension as we labor in the vineyards of our local parishes.

For example, in the customary “Morning Offering,” we offer Jesus our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of the day. Our suffering means something, does something. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (1:24). An unhealthy organization of divisiveness, factions, and secrecy generally leads to low morale. Believers don’t find the local church to be a place where their unique spiritual gifts contribute to a mission bigger than themselves. In an unhealthy parish, parishioners aren’t inspired to take ownership, to walk toward a common vision of the Gospel here and now. This creates a suffering in the Body of Christ. In suffering in and with the Body we are uniquely conformed to Jesus our Lord, who–even in his resurrected glory–has wounds (John 20:27). Christ’s wounds are a substantial, undeniable, unchanging element of His glory. This is Jesus’ obedience, even unto death, that leads to the greatest exaltation possible, the “foolish” logic of the Cross (Phil 2:8-9, 1 Cor 1:18).

Is striving for organizational health ignoring this? Is taking the steps to be a healthy parish organization, where people don’t experience as much of this suffering in the Body of Christ, avoiding this part of our faith?

The answer is no–all because of that core Lencoin emphasis on people. A healthy organization builds up leaders, gifts, and responsibilities at every level–from the Pastor’s closest advisers to the newly registered members of the parish. Paul’s work in ministry reveals how striving for health requires the suffering that comes with sacrifice, with giving oneself.

In recalling his ministry in Thessaloniki, Paul portrays his work like that of a nursing mother, a father teaching his children, and a true sharing of his very self  (1 Thes 2:7, 8, 11). A nursing mother accepts some suffering–lack of nighttime sleep, physical discomfort, challenges in a baby’s “latch,” anxieties about insufficient weight gain–yet this is all on a trajectory, toward a specific purpose, the child’s growth and development to the point where nursing is no longer needed.

Suffering in parishes to become and remain healthy organizations is like Paul ministering as a nursing mother. It’s suffering that contributes to an end, the clear message of the Gospel taking hold and growing here and now–whatever your parish’s unique here and now is. Transformative change takes courage and commitment. No parish organization can undergo the transformative change to become a healthy organization without accepting, in Christ, the redemptive power of suffering. At the same time, no parish organization should be content to dwell in suffering, or embrace suffering flowing from unhealthy organizational relationship as a spiritual discipline, as dutiful conformity to Christ. No, Christ’s suffering was redemptive. Our Savior lives–He did not remain in the grave. He did not remain on the Cross. Evidence of past suffering marks his Glorified Risen Body, yet the victory has come.

The suffering in a parish organization journeying to become truly healthy should be the suffering of confronting situations, exposing unhealthy relationships and assumptions, of mutual openness among leaders, of facing difficult situations head on. This suffering is not weakly accepting unhealthiness in the Body, but boldly, in the Spirit pursuing the ultimate good for the glory of God. Becoming a healthy parish organization means walking in the Spirit to distinguish the suffering of dysfunction and the suffering of transformation, so that we can flee the former and embrace the latter.

I’ve been writing less this Lent as an opportunity to engage in different forms of prayer and almsgiving. In this “thick” space of tension today, with you all, awaiting Hope, living redemptive suffering, I pray that the eternal Spirit–at work in even the darkest of times–will lift each of us up, as we live the mystery of the Body of Christ in our here and now.

Image Credit: John Grantner (CC by NC ND 2.0)

Apprenticeship in Work and Faith

Is “parish” all too synonymous with a building [set of buildings] or a group of people who have voluntarily registered? Yes.

But how do we change that mis-perception? Actions speak louder than words. To see the parish as the full geographic entity that it is–a collection of baptized, non-baptized, de-Churched, and more–we need to do the parish well beyond the walls of the church in a way that’s intentional.

Jonathan Sullivan (building on James Pauley) kicked off some practical, catechetical reflections on what apprenticeship has to do with forming disciples and creating a more authentic manifestation of “parish life” in our communities. Christian apprenticeship is this:

something that happens outside the immediate orbit of the parish…It could center on a stable, long-term group or activity. It could involve strangers coming together for a short time…What distinguishes apprenticeship from other pious activity is a desire to come together as followers of Jesus Christ with the aim to grow in holiness through specific, intentional acts of faith

By way of example, taking teens to serve at a soup kitchen could be an act of Christian apprenticeship if it is more than just a “service trip” — that is, if it integrates various facets of Christian living, including prayer, fellowship, and theological reflection.

One I’ve been thinking about is something picking up on the Center for Faith and Work initiative of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC. When we think about what occupies a significant portion of time of any person–especially single people–one’s job often comes to mind. And this work, regardless of its essentially secular character, in most cases, is still part of our Christian lives. It spiritually forms us (for better or worse). It enables us to integrate our works of creation, service, etc. with how God models this.

But, it’s awfully hard to do this alone.

While the work itself is likely not an intentional act of faith, the decision to meet, pray, and talk with others seeking to integrate faith and work would be an act of faith. And, as Zach Yenter suggests, this may be especially important for Millennial generation adults.

The Bible and Church teachings offer a wealth of passages worth pondering in mentoring pairs or groups of those who work in similar fields/industries. Not to mention questions of discernment or particular intercessory prayers that may be relevant to specific sectors of employment. And, the common bond of a particular field of labor can help build community and affinity for actually being intentional off-parish-grounds about meeting, praying, and sharing life.

Check out Jonathan Sullivan’s recent blog posts on this topic, how could you imagine “apprenticeship” re-shaping catechesis in your parish? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He later adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

How long should Mass be?

 In Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish, Fr. James Mallon offers these insights and reflections for figuring out what’s right for your parish community when it comes to Sunday Mass:

Worrying about Mass as a production is the wrong concern. He writes, “to the accusation that everything is a production, I am tempted to say, ‘Thank you, I’m so glad you noticed.'” While Mass isn’t a “production” in the literal sense of the term, it should be treated with the utmost planning and concern for quality and transformation of those present.

Remember the 80/20 rule. In most parishes, “the only time we see 80% of our people is on the weekend,” yet what proportion of time goes into preparing for this crucial weekly moment?

“The Church is, of course, not a mere business, it is mystery, but grace still builds on nature and there is an essential truth here. The priority of any parish, and any priest, ought to be about preparing for and celebrating the Sunday Eucharist to make it the best possible experience for the maximum number of people.”

Mass might need to be longer than you think. Or like. Or are comfortable with. Fr. Mallon observes, “The days of the 50-minute get-it-over-and-done-with Mass must end…if the weekend celebrations are to be a priority, then we must have sufficient time on Sunday mornings to gather, celebrate and connect afterwards…We need to honestly look at our Mass schedules, and ask what we truly value. Do we value meaningful and transformative celebrations of the Eucharist, or is our primary value convenient and static Mass times?”

In the end, it is not really a question of how long the Mass ought to be or could be, but whether this value leads us to health. I believe it does not. It contributes to a “get it over and done with” mentality that turns our Eucharistic celebrations into something to be endured rather than something that endures.

What values does your Mass schedule, length, and culture project? Fr. Mallon asserts:

Minimalism and convenience cannot be the primary values of a healthy church. Minimalism and convenience have no place in the life of the disciple who is called to save his or her life by losing it. Someone once said that Jesus doesn’t ask for much – he asks for everything. If our liturgies are to be meaningful and transformative “productions,” they need to be able to breathe and not be constrained by a rigid one-hour rule. Likewise, there needs to be enough time between Masses so that those who are hungry for God are able to linger with one another after Mass to encourage and support one another.

In summary, I think a key is moving from the question how long should Mass be? or how long should a homily be? to addressing the intended outcomes. What is Mass to do? What is the outcome of the homily? Then, work backwards to determine how much time this takes in your setting and context. At the same time, begin to consider how to assess if these desired outcomes, effects, and fruits are happening among those present to worship. Challenging, but worth it to unleash the full power and fruits of the Eucharist amid our worshiping assemblies! 😀

Want to read more? Check out these longer excerpts from Fr. Andrew Carrozza, read Divine Renovation yourself, or listen to Fr. James Mallon’s podcasts on topics related to this great ministry book!

Review of Chris Wesley’s “Rebuilding Youth Ministry”

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

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

The Big Picture

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

Nuts and Bolts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Summary

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

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

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

Big Doesn’t Have to Be Bad: The Potential of Large Parishes

Sometimes we’re quick to dismiss ideas or assume that “xyz can’t happen in Catholic parishes, because were just so much larger than such-and-such nondenominational church.”

Yet a study of 25,000 attendees of “mega churches” (defined as Protestant congregations with +2000 weekly attendees across all services) reveals that being a population-blessed 😉 [aka large!] parish or congregation doesn’t have to be an excuse for why attendees aren’t growing spiritually, aren’t serving, etc.

Inspiring tidbits from the study for Catholic parishes grappling with a large parish community?

  • 55% of megachurch attendees volunteer at the church in some way (this is higher than at smaller churches)
  • attenders report a considerable increase in their involvement in church, in their spiritual growth, and in their needs being met
  • despite misconceptions, “large churches today are making good progress in reaching people and moving them from spectators to active participants to growing disciples of Jesus Christ”

Now, this doesn’t automatically mean that just because a Catholic parish is large, it is doing these things. But 🙂 the good news is that size doesn’t have to be an obstacle to forming disciples in a local church setting. Large parishes often have more resources and can use these well to evangelize, to attract the unchurched, and help lead many to real relationship with Jesus Christ.

Bottom line? Whether your parish seems like a tiny house church of Acts or the church on the day of Pentecost, it can, should, and must be a place where individuals come to meet Jesus Christ and his Church.

Background: Budget resources in parishes; Size of Catholic parishes; other statistics on mega churches

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starks ends with these questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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