It’s Annual Report Time! Does Your Parish Have One?

For many Catholic parishes, summertime means it is time to close the books on the fiscal year and compile an annual report. While this may seem like something of only passing interest to pastors, pastoral associates, or other ministry staff, it is an opportunity to grow in faith through both the process of preparing the report and the messages you choose to communicate. Now, you might be thinking that this is sheer nonsense. But, think of how much care our Gospel evangelists took in communicating Jesus’ teachings on money. Each knew that for his first century audience, money mattered—and it does just as much for those we minister to today. How then can we follow in their examples in our modern context?

  1. Money is the How, Not the What

Financial resources enable parishes and ministries to be Church—to do and embody the work of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. An annual report that conveys financial data without sharing what impact the financial resources made misses the point. As Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. recently challenged ministers, “material health means nothing for a Church, unless it sets the stage for something more important:  renewing the heart and spirit.” Now, it is a good starting point for parishioners to know if the parish came in over or under budget for the fiscal year. At a minimum, communicating financial status creates an atmosphere of trust in a culture where many do not trust the Church when it comes to money. Managing with excellence matters and impacts ability to meet financial goals:

However, a parish that finishes the year “in the black” and able to cover all expenses may be doing so without having the impact the Holy Spirit calls us to. An annual report is an opportunity to move from the (commendable!) starting point of offering transparent financial data (an outstanding example from the Archdiocese of Atlanta) to sharing God’s work among disciples.

  1. Don’t Just Tell About the Parish. Tell About the Impact of God’s Action.

            Hearing stories of God’s action in our world is a powerful means of conversion. Consider the Acts of the Apostles—episode after episode of vivid testimony to God intervening in the world to reconcile and transform. Imagine what the Acts of the Apostles would be like if its author, Luke the Evangelist, simply provided us quantitative data—that Paul made sixteen visits to synagogues, the Hellenist deacons delivered eight pounds of food, that Peter baptized twenty-five young adults, etc. [Note: these figures are completely hypothetical and do not reflect any Biblical analysis.] Yet in many annual reports, the story of God’s work in the parish is told quantitatively, without emphasis on impact and transformation. Or, it is told as a list of “what we did” (that is usually also available on the parish’s website by looking at ministry lists) rather than the more essential kernel of “what happened, what was the impact?” Reports of conversion and transformation in the Acts of the Apostles became models of God’s action for Christians in the first century through today. But, the power of the Holy Spirit is not contained by history. Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thes. 5:11). It is hard to be a disciple of Jesus Christ while wondering about what God is doing in our present day, in one’s own community. Hearing stories and testimonies of God’s impact in the parish helps form the expectations of parishioners so that they too will be ready to look for the Holy Spirit intervening powerfully. Having examples of God’s impact in the annual report fosters common language and shared experience—suddenly, the victory is the entire parish’s, suddenly those who may be unsure of their faith or wonder how God works today might become curious, and all know that this parish is a place where (at least the ministerial staff) is ready to talk about such things.

  1. Introduce People.

Catholic parishes are big—according to a 2010 CARA study, the average U.S. parish includes 3,277 registered members. The annual report is a great opportunity to put faces, to names, to programs, and beyond. Instead of simply describing programs, introduce people. Include photographs of leaders, volunteers, and/or participants and share stories and testimonies. Think of the many individual encounters with Jesus in the Gospel of John—the evangelist does not merely give us generic summaries, but gives us names and personal stories so that the power and work of Jesus is more truly communicated. The annual report is also an opportunity to share stories of what spiritual giving means for those in your parish. For many, the parish is just another charitable option—but this is contrary to how a disciple understands and stewards money. By focusing on how money has been a means of conversion in the lives of real people, you can help transform the conversation so that finances become a pathway to conversion.

Motivated to make a change or do more? Check out more detailed tips from: 26 Lessons from 15 Church Annual Reports | unSeminary


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!

Resource Review of “”

Last week a new web resource called debuted. The website is a little sparse right now, but I’m assuming it’s meant to grow. The layout is clean and fresh, and easy to navigate.

What’s to Love:

  • the focus on parishes 🙂 all too often attention goes to lay movements, distinct apostolates, etc. as the places for “real” spiritual growth. The problem with that mentality is that the vast majority of people who need conversion and a path of discipleship are in parishes. This site responds to that need.
  • the seven traits of an amazing parish — what I really like about this is the split of naming 3 of the traits as foundational (a real leadership team, a vision, and prayer). Way too often, we in parishes start with the other 4 traits (Sunday experience, faith formation, small groups, and/or missionary zeal) before the foundation is in place. While this can have some success, I’ve never seen a real cultural change in a parish where the foundation isn’t in place.
  • a free conference for parish leaders. Many parishes don’t have big [any!] budgets for leadership training or development. Donors are helping keep costs to a minimum here. A nice step too, would be webcasting the conference or offering recordings of sessions for free download (for those of us who are volunteers and can’t travel to Colorado).

What’s a Little Off, Odd, Incomplete, or Curious:

  • Under Homilies, they write that the best homilies are “relatively short and too the point,” yet, their resources (and headline video for the Weekend Experience section) include Fr. Michael White from Church of the Nativity (Rebuilt parish), where preaching is usually 18-30 min long. Now, I love the preaching from Church of the Nativity, and think that part of what allows it to be of such quality, is the length. Encouraging Catholic preachers to be “relatively short” is kind of scary language for me, since more often than not, I hear great messages that end way too soon–before it’s repeated enough to make an impact, or before the action steps have time to sink in.
  • Preserving the Liturgy” just strikes me as an odd title. Liturgy isn’t some static item to be preserved. It’s not history. It doesn’t belong in a museum. It’s living. It’s the fully alive prayer of the Church. Embracing liturgy, living liturgy, etc. these would all seem to convey our beliefs better than “preserving.” As of this week, there are no resources in this section…so maybe as links are added it will become clearer.
  • How do we join the conversation? So far, the website brings together some good resources, but how do we who are working to form amazing parishes have conversation? Talk about these resources? Share ideas? A comment box might be helpful (though, I understand they can be a hassle to maintain). Maybe a designated hashtag? Something to encourage conversation would be great!

Overall, definitely a site to keep your eyes on. And, a great starting point for parish leaders who are new to forming a vision for how a truly excellent parish functions. 

Balance Between Large and Small in Catholic Parishes

Over at Reclaiming the Mission, David Fitch offered this interesting analysis of the balance between the small and large in Christian communities of faith: “How To Avoid Becoming a Cult (or for that matter A Large Consumer Mega Church): Oikos versus Ekklesia” While many of the commenters ask some good questions about his methodology and standards for what aspects of Christian history are normative and/or formative for today, I’m choosing to look at his points through the lens of what resonates for Catholic parishes?

Thought #1 – The Need for Large and Small Communities Fitch writes:

In a culture where we no longer can assume people are Christians, I contend we once again need to separate oikos and ekklesia in the local church. Perhaps in a Christianized world, say the 1950’s, we could afford to do both at the same time. We could hold large gatherings open to the public where we do the Eucharist and not lose its meaning, and central forming force. But today, in many places, we can no longer assume everybody knows what it means to surrender and be present to the very presence of Christ, his forgiveness, reconciliation and new life, in the bread and the cup. If we don’t maintain the oikos/ekkelsia distinction, bad things happen.

[Note Throughout: Fitch uses the terms “church” and “Eucharist” with different meanings that in Catholic theology.] The main point for us–parishes are pretty big these days. Maybe attending a large weekend Mass was “enough” at some point as a “central forming force,” I agree that today it is not. Small gatherings, among those in Christian fellowship or journeying/seeking together, provide a place for the formation that then makes the large gathering (i.e. Sunday Mass) able to be entered into fully.

Thought #2 – Small Spaces as an Antidote to Consumer Christianity
Another point from Fitch:

I contend, when the Sunday morning attractional event is so central, it determines the other smaller social spaces. People get trained into consumerist events as the basis of their Christianity.

Tom Corcoran and Fr. Michael White describe the “consumer exchange” mentality they observed in their large Catholic parish–and I’m sure they’re not the only place to experience this! Having a balance between the large and small in a parish helps parishioners realize that the Church is NOT a “consumer exchange.” While many perceive Mass as a failure if they don’t “get something out of it”–a small group makes it more obvious that Christians are present in all settings to both give and receive. Realizing that one has to be fully present and participate in a small group can be a gentle way of coming to the realization that Mass also requires the same sense of intentional presence and participation.

In closing…

Not surprisingly, I disagree with Fitch’s ultimate conclusions about how a church should worship, as he misses the visible aspects of communion that are essential to the Catholic faith. However, his observations about the consequences of a lack of balance between the large and small in Christian life offer interesting points of reflection for those of us in Catholic ministry settings and parishes.

“Cultivating Encounter with Jesus Christ in Parishes” in Church Life: A Journal for the New Evangelization & Summer Lull…

Things will be slower than usual this summer as I’ll have an increase in course load and am working on some larger writing projects…in the meantime, I’m happy to share that the latest issue of Church Life: A Journal for the New Evangelization is out, and I have a longer article entitled, “Cultivating Encounter with Jesus Christ in Parishes” (starts on pg. 72) that I hope leads to fruitful reflection and practical ideas.

Parish Celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours: An Underutilized Gem of the Second Vatican Council

One of the underutilized, hidden gems of the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical books that followed is the clear desire for more communal celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours, with participation of all of the baptized (not just clergy and religious, as was often expressed prior to the Second Vatican Council). [See, for example, General Instruction of Liturgy of the Hours (1971), para. 21, 33; Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), no. 27; or Laudis Canticum (Apostolic Constitution on the Liturgy of the Hours)].

In his preface to the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours, Archbishop Anthony Bugnini emphasized that although “the awareness of the Liturgy of the Hours as something belonging essentially to the whole Church has, regrettably, hardly been in evidence for many centuries,” they are not “private functions or reserved to groups of the elite…They pertain to the whole body of the Church.” Yet this desire of the Council has not become a reality in pastoral practice in the United States. In the 1970s, Fr. A. M. Roguet observed that for too many Catholic Christians, “the Mass seems important for our salvation, while the Liturgy of the Hours appears as a profusion of words without any particular effect, a leisure activity for the devout.” [1] Similarly, William Storey remarked that, “by and large the office is not regarded as liturgy in any normal sense of the word…little is expected of the Liturgy of the Hours because it is still unknown as a public, cultic, ecclesial event…as a cathedral or parish celebration [it] is a nonentity.” [2]

Nearly four decades later, I don’t think much has changed. With the exception of select cathedrals and academic/seminary settings, the Liturgy of the Hours is largely unknown to the vast majority of Catholics in the United States. Of those who are aware of this liturgical celebration of the Church, I suspect that even fewer are familiar with the option for preaching in this liturgical context. Most of us don’t have the opportunity to celebrate either of the major hinges of the Liturgy of the Hours–Morning and Evening Prayer–in our parishes.

I was blessed to discover the Catholic tradition of praying the Liturgy of the Hours communally in my local parish (St. Patrick’s) in Fayetteville, NC. I was familiar with the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but little did I know this was something a Catholic parish could celebrate in common. St. Patrick’s celebrated Sunday Evening Prayer during the Advent, Christmas, and Easter seasons (my memory might be slightly off on this…) — helping me truly experience the depth of these seasons through the lived experience of prayer. For a young adult with no exposure to the Liturgy of the Hours, this was liturgical catechesis in action.

I think it comes down to familiarity. When celebrated well with sound pastoral planning, communal Morning and Evening Prayer can be incredibly powerful prayer services. When celebrated without pastoral sensitivity or planning (i.e. just tossing Christian Prayer books in parishioners laps and reciting texts as quickly as possible), the entire concept and spirituality of the communal celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours is quickly lost. When people don’t have a good experience of a form of prayer, it does not get repeated. When people have never heard of the Liturgy of the Hours (or think it only as “that thing priests have to recite, right?”), it won’t be requested or integrated into parish life. But, I think in many parishes, the Liturgy of the Hours can play an important role in the New Evangelization. Just think, returning Catholics who many not be comfortable at Mass or unable to receive the Eucharist can be welcomed in a more flexible setting, with potential for forms of preaching beyond the specifics of a Eucharistic homily. Or, Liturgy of the Hours could be a venue for ongoing adult faith formation. Or, designed for children or teens as a form of liturgical catechesis. The possibilities abound.

What have your experiences been with parish celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours? What great uses have you seen? When has it not been well received? 

[1] A.-M. Roguet, Peter Coughlan, and Peter Purdue. The Liturgy of the Hours; The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Abbey Press, 1971), 84.

[2] William G. Storey, “Parish Worship: The Liturgy of the Hours,” Worship 49, no. 1 (1 Jan 1975), 3.

Surviving Without Online Communication? St. Mary of the Assumption (Elizabeth, NJ)

While travelling in New Jersey over the Christmas season, I caught some news stories about controversy over the reassignment of priests from St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, part of the Archdiocese of Newark. Without wading into the reasons for the dispute and perception of discord between some parishioners and the archdiocese, I hope this parish’s future will include an extension into digital/online communication. Right now, it seems surprising that the parish is attempting to sustain such a large breadth of ministries and outreach to a rapidly growing Hispanic community without it. 

I was baffled as I tried to find more information on this parish and the ministries mentioned in the news articles. For starters, I could not locate a parish website or social media feed. The externally maintained listing on accurately named only one priest actually mentioned by the recent newspaper reports as part of the pastoral staff. The parish listing on the archdiocesan website had no email addresses or names of staff, only phone and fax numbers. The parish’s food pantry was listed on two external sites (here and here), yet without a direct e-mail contact or donation button. The only social media use I could find was an online petition requesting a meeting with the Archbishop and a closed-member Facebook group — both established recently in response to the reassignment of the parish priests.

These external sites yielded nearly no substantive information on the ministry team/staff, ministries of the parish, parish finance council or parish council. Not a lot of transparency if I was interested in donating to support the parish’s valuable community ministries. Not particularly helpful if I was a Hispanic youth from the surrounding neighborhood using my smartphone to ask questions about God, faith, and where I could find a church home.

This all made me wonder, how can this parish thrive (or even survive) in evangelization, raising funding to support social services, and conducting general outreach given the neighborhood demographics? 

While by no means a precise characterization of the parish geographic boundaries, a quick look at demographic data from the parish’s zip code reveals a neighborhood that is about 51% Hispanic or Latino (mostly of Columbian or Cuban ancestry), with a younger-than-average median age of 34.

What do we know about Hispanics and internet/social media use? Some food for thought:

  • 61 percent of Hispanics use social media for personal purposes, business and self-promotion
  • 85 percent of young Hispanics between the ages of 18 to 29 utilize the Internet
  •  90 percent of Hispanics have cell phones and 53 percent use smart phones to access the Internet
  • 48 percent of Hispanics prefer to shop online 
  • Hispanics use Twitter at a rate of 18 percent compared to whites at 5 percent

So, if the neighborhood of St. Mary of the Assumption is becoming increasingly Hispanic, it would seem that a mobile-device enabled website and use of social media are essential for reaching the people of the community, especially younger Hispanics. How important is this? According to a recent Barna Group report (Hispanics & Faith in 2012), roughly 68% of Hispanic self-identified Catholics are “non-practicing.”  

One would also think that internet and social media resources would be useful for recruiting volunteers, financial support, and material donations for the dozens of ministries the parish hopes to sustain. While the parish has been able to continue its valuable ministries to this point without online communications, it’s important to ask if the lack of internet and social media presence is limiting the potential of St. Mary of the Assumption parish as it heads into the future.

As an outsider looking in, I’m making observations based on the limited info I could find.  If anyone has good links to more info on this parish and its ministries, please share! I would love to update this post with good news about how digital communications help support the vital mission of St. Mary of the Assumption.