Vision in a Homily

So your parish has a vision, and maybe even a catchy vision statement–now what?

Vision that’s not communicated broadly falls flat. Because the point of vision is that it guides everyone. Not just the elite. Not just leaders. Everyone.

How to communicate broadly in a Catholic parish?
The Sunday Homily.

I can hear the mental excuses now. All the reasons why your parish can’t communicate vision in homilies, how the people won’t like it, how it can’t be planned, there’s not enough time, etc. But, none of the excuses override the critical importance of preaching the vision, frequently and repeatedly, to the broadest parish audience.

As Fr. James Mallon, author of Divine Renovation and The Divine Renovation Guidebook, explains:

I remember catching myself saying once, ‘But I spoke about that in a homily last year.’ It is foolish for us preachers to think that most parishioners are going to remember something we said two weeks before, never mind a year before. In truth, if the sign on the bus is to be plainly recognized, we must speak about vision over and over again. In the last three years, I have committed myself to preaching some form of visioning homily at all the weekend Masses every three weeks. I am convinced that this is necessary (Divine Renovation, 255).

Sometimes it can be tempting to think, it’s in the bulletin right? We’ve got a sign up? The staff knows? It’s on the website? But that’s not enough, “there are no shortcuts when it comes to communicating vision: it takes time and intentionality” (DR Guidebook, 60).

Let’s start with the practical: what is a visioning homily?

  • not simply information, but the inspiration and motivation “to desire that preferred future and be wiling to make the changes necessary” (DR Guidebook, 60)
  • “A homily that attempts, in some way, to address the question of why are we here, where are we going and why we do the things we do, or are trying to do the things we are trying to do” (DR Guidebook, 62)
  • “Preaching about the mission of the Church and the future of your parish in a way that all your parishioners can hear and understand” (DR Guidebook, 62)

Does it really need to be repeated so often?

Answer: Yes. Here’s why: “If a parish is becoming truly missional and is innovating, there will be ongoing change within the parish. Change must always be explained in light of the vision” (Divine Renovation, 256). Most people don’t love change. By communicating the vision frequently (as Fr. James Mallon does, roughly every 3 weeks) the parish helps each and every person know and understand how concrete changes and decisions fit into the big picture, and help guide the efforts.

Okay, I’m ready. But what goes into a visioning homily?

Drawing from Divine Renovation (pg. 256-257), here are the key elements in a visioning homily, with examples from a visioning homily (Groundbreaking 05: Vision, April 24, 2016) at Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD.

  • Answer: why are we here? Remind the listeners why the parish exists, what God has called you to, what your mission is. For Church of the Nativity, it’s growing disciples while growing as disciples. This gets mentioned twice in the first four minutes (at 1:50-2:08 and 3:50-4:04).
  • Name: what’s not right at the gut level. Scratch the point of dissatisfaction that people are experiencing. Help everyone feel the need. For Church of the Nativity, it’s that it’s “hard to invite people to come people to church when there’s no place to park and no place to sit” (4:30-4:45). This is something tangible. Lots of people in the parish may have experienced this…tentatively thinking about inviting a friend to Mass, but wary of doing so because of the seemingly crowded experience.
  • Explain: why the current situation or past models won’t work. This might include some transparency or vulnerability. Or showing how the parish has “done its homework” in trying to address the point of dissatisfaction in the past. Aim to be clear and honest about how a particular [old] way of doing things isn’t working, but without blaming people, staff, specific groups, etc. Since Church of the Nativity is addressing how to accommodate growth, the leaders share what they’ve done in the past or tried (different times, off-campus sites, etc), and how these solutions don’t effectively lead toward the parish’s vision (1:00-1:22).
  • Inspire: capture imaginations, invite people to dream. Encourage everyone listening to join in the “imagine if…” for the parish. What could it be? This is a time, not for information, but to make our hearts leap, make even the most change-averse person in the pew have a momentary optimism about the future. In the example from Church of the Nativity, Brian Cook reminds the community of pieces of plywood the parish had “filled with the names of all your friends, family members, co-workers…people you’re praying for, that one day they’ll come to church and meet their Heavenly Father…this project is about making room for them, all of them” (5:30-6:00) and continues to spur the imagination as to the wider significance of the parish’s direction, that “This new building can stand as a hopeful sign that intentional growth is still possible…that God is still using the local church to change lives” (6:10-6:41).
  • Share: the plan for how we’re getting to where we’re going. This part is the most intuitive. We like to talk about what we’re doing. But remember, this is just one of five key elements. Without the other pieces, this part of a visioning homily can quickly become a litany of information, rather than the transformation that’s at the heart of vision and change leadership. Church of the Nativity puts it concisely: it’s about “creating empty seats at optimal times” and that phrase is used at least four times in the 7-minute vision-casting portion of the Sunday message (remember, repetition works!). The “how” is that as the parish responds to the call to “invest your treasure in the Church” this will result in hearts “connected to the Church” and the “growth in faith that comes somewhere outside of your comfort zone.”

A well-crafted visioning homily weaves these elements together, independent threads yet repeated and interrelated. There’s a logical flow from reminding who we are, to identifying and understanding the “situation” (Name & Explain), to inspiring, and only then speaking the plan.

A visioning homily doesn’t need to take a lot of time. While this entire message from Church of the Nativity is “long” (20 minutes in total) by most Catholic standards, the vision casting portion is solidly within the first 7 minutes. Visioning homilies can be done in any Catholic parish on a regular basis.

The other lesson from the Church of the Nativity example is that a parish need not have a singularly incredible, awesome, best-preacher-ever to communicate vision. Brian Cook, Tom Corcoran, and Fr. Michael White (the 3 speakers in the Church of the Nativity message) are ordinary folks, just like you. They stumble on their words (as we all do). It’s not always the most beautiful language. And think about it–if you’re preaching on vision once every three weeks, not every one is going to be your personal best. The point is, they commit. They do it. One doesn’t have to be an especially-gifted dynamic preacher to communicate vision. Check out their book, Rebuilding Your Message (and related podcasts) for practical tips on how any disciple of Jesus Christ can grow as a communicator.

Do you have a great visioning homily to share? Post a link in the Comment section to help us all grow in this essential area of parish ministry.

p.s. Download the “Groundbreaking 05: Vision” example I used here. All vision casting elements are present within the first 7 minutes. I’m not sure how long beyond March 2017 the download will be available, but all key excerpts are in this post–viewing is optional 🙂


Do You Have a Volunteer Pipeline?

One of the biggest hurdles that many parishes face when trying to dramatically improve the experience of attending or growing as a disciple is a feeling of complete and utter scarcity when it comes to “volunteers.” Now, I’m not a huge fan of the word “volunteers” as applied to our Christian service–but I’ll use it for the sake of clarity here.

Church of the Nativity (Timonium, MD) has been through various initiatives for volunteer recruitment and formation–most notably “First Serve,” a try-it-on-for-size volunteer opportunity and combines discernment and on-the-job training for potential and new volunteers.

In a recent Podcast, Nativity leaders reflected on realizing they needed to adapt their system to meet changing circumstances. While First Serve is effective in providing a steady trickle of new volunteer ministers, it doesn’t have the capacity to develop a large number of new volunteer ministers all at one time–something Nativity is anticipating needing. Many parishes might be in a similar situation when significantly changing or expanding programs. This is a classic example of the saying (quoted on the podcast), “Systems work. Until they don’t.”

What Nativity is considering for a “bigger pipeline” is a big push to first simply learn more about serving, then a meeting (really more precisely “an event”) that includes prayer, praise, and worship followed by more information on the specific opportunities.

While this sounds vaguely similar to the classic “ministry fair” Sundays at many parishes–I think it’s a bit different. “Ministry Fair” makes it seem like this is an optional extra, and something one is shopping for (like a consumer). In some sense each table with a different ministry is competing with each other for the same “pool of recruits.” At the most foundational level, the challenge is to ensure the pipeline is rooted in initial conversion in Jesus Christ and desire to continue as a disciple, while at the same time acknowledging that there are some who will be converted through the process of volunteer ministry (and having the reflective moments built in to foster these opportunities).

Whatever your strategy for cultivating ministry volunteers as a part of discipleship (because how many disciples are not called to serve?) Nativity always provides a firm reminder that desperation and nobody-but-I-can-do-this are attitudes that do not belong anywhere if we’re serious about sharing the Good News of relationship with Jesus Christ and the empowered discipleship that can ensue. Bulletin calls and no development/support might get you out of a short-term volunteer crisis, but it’s no way to form disciples. Similarly, insisting that you don’t need lots of empowered volunteers not only leads to current staff/volunteer burnout–but it also thwarts the possibilities of the Holy Spirit alive in other growing disciples.

As you head into the summer (a great time for volunteer development) consider, what is your volunteer pipeline? What’s the fruit? Does it cultivate disciples?


Image: “Pipelines,” licenced under Creative Commons 2.0 by Claus Gerull


Fastest Way to Grow in Faith? Evangelize.

I just listened to the kick-off sermon in a new series called “Next Steps” from Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD. (You can listen to “Next Steps 01” here). Within this homily, Fr. Michael White asserted, “the fastest way to grow in your faith, is to share your faith” [my paraphrase].

I’ve personally experienced this. At one point as a teenager, I didn’t yet have full confidence that Jesus had accepted me as a disciple–that Jesus was truly my Lord and Savior (and not just in the abstract). Praise be to God 🙂 that during this time, somehow the Holy Spirit let me to sacrifice some of my valued-teenager-time 😉 to do person-to-personal evangelization with a missionary-minded group of Christians. I shared the Good News of God’s grace in train stations and door-to-door…probably on a monthly basis. Thinking back to that time, that experience probably contributed more to my growth in faith than almost any sermon I heard or any spiritual book I read. 

Why was this the case? It wasn’t because I became “good” at apologetics (I didn’t!) or was spiritually gifted in praying for the needs of those I met (I wasn’t!). I think it was because it forced me to rely on God. I knew I was inadequate. Very inadequate. Any time I walked away knowing that my conversation wasn’t a disaster was an experience of knowing that Jesus was working in me, was using me as his disciple.

The [Too] Long Road to Sharing

For whatever reasons, much of Catholic/parish culture in our country seems to somehow communicate the message that it takes a long time before someone is ready to share the Gospel. Look at the proportion of organized adult faith formation opportunities in comparison to the proportion of organized opportunities to share the faith. From a programmatic analysis, it seems that the unspoken consensus is that we need a lot of organized faith formation, but not organized opportunities for sharing the faith or discipling others. And I’m not knocking faith formation 🙂 here–I’m all about that too! But, the difference in most ministries and parishes is striking enough to wonder about.

In contrast, I’ve noticed how two campus organizations in particular, FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and The Evangelical Catholic, do embody the idea of “growing in faith by sharing the faith.” Both FOCUS and Evangelical Catholic expect (based on their experiences) that new disciples of Christ can become disciple-makers–leaders of small groups and person-to-person evangelizers relatively rapidly (by parish standards). These ministries and other campus ministries (like the Aggie Catholics) with a focus on sharing the faith, are indeed places where many have noted seemingly exceptional growth in the faith. Especially when compared to the speed with which many parishes move from maintenance to mission.

Test It

I encourage you and your faith community to test this idea. Make it a regular part of your spiritual practices. See if Fr. White is correct–that sharing the faith leads to growth in faith.

Six Discipling Resolutions for Fall Ministries

It’s that time of year when many ministry staff and volunteers are preparing to launch or re-start initiatives, groups, programs, and more, as students and adults transition back from summer vacation season. Sometimes we can get caught up in the complexity or scale of our plans and forget our key foundations.

I’ve been reading Chris Wesley‘s Rebuilding Youth Ministry, and while the book is a great strategic guide for youth ministry, it has a straightforward clear message for all of us–from RCIA to adult small groups to kids faith formation and beyond. Drawing from Rebuilding Youth Ministry, here are six resolutions to help keep a more personal, discipling focus in your fall ministries.

1. Remember, the vast majority of people are “relationally driven,” not event-driven. Make sure forming friendships and relationships are an ordinary, intentional part of your ministry.

2. Never assume a particular point in one’s spiritual journey or baseline religious knowledge from any participants. Yes, the bulletin announcement may have read, “grow deeper in the faith through a Bible Study of John’s Gospel,” but the reality is that some who attend may be functional agnostics, others might have erroneous notions of “Church teaching.” And this is a good thing :-) as long as you stay away from assumptions and get to know participants.

Read more here

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. 😀

Being Intentional About Human Capital in Ministry

This is a question that most parishes, dioceses, and ministries don’t have a ready answer for. If one were to call around and ask parishes this question, you’d probably get answers like, “EMHC at Mass or to the homebound, usher, lector, etc.” But after that, awkward silence.

And here’s why it matters–when we talk “resources” in parishes or ministries, we often think of our facilities, equipment, books, curricula, technology, etc.–but the greatest resource of any ministry is people. This isn’t because we work on our own strengths, but because of the Holy Spirit. As baptized believers, God pours our the Holy Spirit in our lives so that we have gifts for building up the Church. For spreading the evangel to every strata of society, to the farthest, most marginalized people, places, and situations on earth.

While there’s nothing wrong with catechesis or serving in a liturgical capacity [there are the gifts of some and are essential and important]–those are not the end-all/be-all roles for using gifts in service of Christ and His Church.

Think about the diversity of gifts described in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4, for starters).

Envision all of the ways those gifts could be used in combination with natural/human skills and developed competencies to enrich the Church. Think about the professional experience many people in our pews (yes, even young adults) have.

But, as our starting-Tweet quoting Javier Bustamante pointed out, sometimes our stereotypes get in the way. Especially when it comes to age, social-class, race, or ethnicity. A few months ago, in a conversation with Jonathan Sullivan, I observed:

one of the struggles I’ve seen is trying to break the stereotypes of what a diocesan leader, parish pastoral associate or DRE looks like. In many places, it’s presumed that this person is someone older than 40, who has been around the area/parish a long time, etc. A highly qualified younger adult should probably stick to “Young Adult Ministry” or “Youth Minister” positions. Assessing based on church websites (not a scientific study by any means!), you’re much more likely to see under-40 leaders in ministry in other Christian traditions, rather than in the typical Catholic parish.

In the business world, there seems to be a much greater openness to (and even expectation) that someone can come out of business school in their late 20s or early 30s and be ready for serious leadership–in parishes, not as much (though there are many exceptions!). I’ve observed similar expectations and opportunities in the nonprofit sector, government/military, and many nondenominational Christian ministries/churches.

This applies to volunteers as well.

What to do? Changing culture takes time, but there are practical ways to intentionally build human capital in your parish:

1. Have a new members orientation/class/gathering. This can be a great opportunity for finding out what the natural gifts of new members of your community are [and laying the groundwork for a future conversation of spiritual gifts.]

2. Think about how your parish on-boards or does orientation for volunteers? Are volunteers empowered to take on unique, significant, and strategic roles? Or, are these solely reserved for staff. Are staff skilled in delegation and supervision, so that volunteers can be leveraged? In some situations, staff feel that if they use volunteers too much, they will be viewed as “lazy.” But this is not the case–managing volunteers is worth the effort in terms of the benefits for both the parish and individual as he/she is able to encounter God through the use of his/her gifts. As Tony Kriz writes, “Secular cooperatives manage to run with an expectation of full participation by the full community, so why not a church? Instead of having a select few who are paid to have faith, could everyone be invited into community participation.” Pastoral leadership sets the tone here.

3. Transparency. If your staff is worried about a trend or problem on the horizon, or enthusiastic about a new opportunity–do your parishioners know? Is the parish aware of what you’re thinking in terms of finances, growth, real estate, planned giving, etc? If the parish doesn’t know what the real world challenges and opportunities are, it’s less likely that individuals with the unique training and skills to effectively assist will know to step up.

4. Have a plan to build your bench. Here’s where staff management is key–in a faith community larger than a hundred families or so (aka most Catholic parishes) it would be hard for any staff member to be familiar with every person’s potential skills and/or spiritual gifts. Consider doing an annual (or bi-annual) survey with an expansive list so that parishioners can check-off what natural/developed talents they might have to share. When it comes to spiritual gifts, programs like “Called and Gifted” or home-grown programs like this one at my parish can help all of us identify how God might be calling us to serve. If you sense that cultural barriers may be preventing you from identifying and integrating all of the human capital in your parish, check out some of the USCCB’s resources to help build trust, cultural competency, and more effectively communicate.

5. Remember, multiplication trumps addition. If you’re able to incorporate others for the building up of the Church, then they too will follow your example and invite others. A multiplication of gifts. A multiplication that brings more diversity than any one person’s ability to “add” over time [since most of us tend to know, know the gifts of, and turn to those who are like us in age, ethnicity, etc.]. Leading others to identify and invite sharing of gifts in others is a valuable service. Without Barnabas, we wouldn’t have the Apostle Paul. And Paul was quite the outsider to the church at Jerusalem! Recruitment and encouragement mattered in the early Church and still do today.

New Members: Invite Them In

Awesomely detailed report out of Chicago on the potential of a new members gathering/class (h/t Gotta Sing Gotta Pray: Intentional Hospitality: Old Saint Pat’s: Wow).

Most parishes don’t have “new members” classes or gatherings, period. The best a “new member” (note: not a canonical term, but it’s American vernacular…so I’m running with it) could expect from a parish is to for the staff who help them to register to not be blatantly rude, or for the parish to have an easy online registration form.

Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters do utilize new member classes with some regularity–so maybe we should consider why it’s a good practice in all Christian communities (even Catholic parishes!)…

  • We live in a post-Christian/post-church age — we shouldn’t take it for granted that everyone who sets foot in the sanctuary has any idea how to live out their calling as a Christian in parish community
  • Americans move a lot. The Body of Christ isn’t just mystical. Someone coming to your parish might want to actually meet other believers.
  • So many Gospel narratives (lost coin, lost sheep, prodigal son, etc.) demonstrate the joy of God’s beloved returning home. This isn’t to say every new person at the parish has been “lost” for some time–but you never know. And there’s no sin in being too joyful and loving towards the “stranger.”
  • Opportunity to build trust. To converse and learn stories. A person who visits your parish and wants to join might be far from God. Simple and authentic acts of hospitality build trust. This is pre-evangelization–helping people experience the personal love of God through our actions.

As Dr. Jerry Galipeau explains,

That intentional hospitality is just that: intentional…[it] takes work but, more than that, it takes hearts and minds convinced that reaching out and throwing a banquet of welcome is worth every penny, every minute of time, and every ounce of energy.

Wonderfully challenging words!

Does your parish also have a great new members class/gathering/program? Please share!

p.s. Here’s another good example out of Nativity Church in Maryland.