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. 😀

Ideas for Genuine Inquiry in RCIA via Garry Poole’s “Seeker Small Groups”

In Seeker Small Groups: Engaging Spiritual Seekers in Life Changing Discussions (2003) Garry Poole proposes small groups led by ordinary Christians as the best way to engage and evangelize seekers.

Okay, so what does he mean by seekers? For him seekers=non-Christian, a spiritual seeker, a seeking friend–it’s interchangeable for someone who has not personally received Jesus Christ as forgiver and leader, no matter how far along they are in their spiritual journey (p. 32). The Christian’s goal then, “is to understand a seeker’s perspective and figure out the best ways to challenge that seeker about what it means to know God. And, then prayerfully attempt to give him or her opportunities to receive Jesus Christ as the only means of finding forgiveness and true relationship with God” (p. 33).

A Seeker Small Group (SSG) is 2-12 seekers and 1-2 Christian leaders who meet to discuss the seeker’s spiritual concerns, questions, and issues. What a huge point! The leader doesn’t really set the agenda or decide that the seekers should hear about, say, styles of prayer, the Catechcism, what RCIA is like, etc. [and yes, I know that these things happen during RCIA’s inquiry phase in many parishes]. Poole notes that Christians often spend time answering questions that seeker’s aren’t asking. We just want to share the Good News before even engaging with the seeker’s actual objections, confusion, etc. SSGs are  place to understand the seekers’ past religious experiences, Biblical understanding, spiritual questions, barriers/objections, and places of spiritual blindness (=where the seeker holds a theology that misrepresents Christianity).

Seeker Small Groups get started through relational evangelism. People in the church inviting friends, relatives, co-workers, acquaintances, and the like. Of course, many people hear about Seeker Small Groups on Sunday–but there’s always a bridge of trust. “If we build it, they will come” simply doesn’t work for seekers. We need to build the relationship and interest first–whether trough church events or conversation at a softball game. Churches can establish affinity-based seeker groups (e.g. men, women, neighborhood, etc.), launch them before or after a popular Sunday service, or jump-start many of them through a large weekend event or outreach moment.

My thoughts on how this might translate for Catholic parishes:

1. I think we’d have a much more difficult time convincing/empowering typical parishioners to feel comfortable/competent in leading one of these groups. In principle, any Catholic Christian should be able to facilitate one of these seeker groups and have the basic ability to discuss core, kerygmatic beliefs. Unfortunately, the perception I observe is that most parishioners feel that there’s a tremendous amount of catechetical knowledge that’s essential for them to have before they “lead” any group. But, this misses the point–the seeker is wrestling with core issues, like does God exist? and any Catholic Christian should be able to share with authentic conviction how he/she came to this belief.

2. We’d have a different theology of who is a seeker. We wouldn’t call a “seeker” synonymous with “non-Christian,” since for us, seeker would also likely include many of the baptized who have drifted away or not responded to their baptismal vocation. We’d likely have many seekers who consider themselves “cultural Catholics.” This is all okay–just something to be aware of when reading Poole’s book.

3. Seeker Small Groups could function as a pre-inquiry or inquiry phase for RCIA. The fact that these groups are relatively small and meet for a defined, but short (6 wks or so) length of time means that–bam!–problem of not knowing how to start year-round RCIA is solved. 🙂

4. Poole writes that Seeker Small Groups show that seekers really matter (p. 34). Seekers matter to God, so they should matter to our parishes. When I think about typical parish offerings–eh, there’s not always a place set aside for seekers. We need to to that, instead of expecting seekers to conform to our ideas of how they should come to know/meet Jesus in the midst of the local parish.

Sound intriguing? Poole’s book is easy to digest and is basically a handbook on how to lead these small groups. I’ll be covering some of the basics in future posts, but if you’re an RCIA leader or involved in adult faith formation–I definitely recommend this book. For me it presented a whole realm of new ideas on how much seekers can actually be engaged through the local church.

 

Cru Inspired Thinking

I recently had the privilege of getting to attend a Cru (formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ) vision dinner (also called a “fellowship dinner”–here’s an example of one from a different region and some tips that explain what these are all about). I left filled up with thoughts, ideas for evangelization, and a curiosity about the many legacies of Cru in my life. Here’s a few thoughts:

1. The dinner was filled with real life testimony. Call it telling “glory stories” or celebrating “wins,” but the idea is the same. There’s something powerful about affirming the presence of God and the blessings of the Holy Spirit in our ministries. Read more…

2. The quickness of “win, build, send.” Like FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) the mantra or process for discipleship is the simple, “win, build, send.” One of the students sharing her testimony had her adult re-conversion (aka the “fundamental decision” in the language of Pope Emeritus Benedict in Deus Caritas Est, §1) to Jesus Christ in the fall. By the next summer she was doing initial proclamation of the Gospel and relational evangelism overseas on a summer-length mission. FOCUS operates similarly. While it’s not explicitly rejected, it seems like in typical parishes, we don’t expect or support this in adults. Many adults have the sense that the amount of formation before one can be “send” to verbally share the Gospel is quite high–that it requires vast intellectual formation that would take years to acquire. While on-going formation is a lifelong Christian discipline, there is something important about encouraging and affirming people in their ability to authentically share the initial proclamation of the Gospel, the kerygma right away. Authenticity and realness of conversion goes a long way.

3. Spiritual surveys can bear real fruit. I was reminded how these are a mainstay of building a ministry for Cru. Spiritual surveying is about conversation first, collecting data second. They are easily adaptable as an evangelization technique in Catholic parishes. Crupressgreen.com has some great resources and how-to articles, just search for “survey” or check this list.

4. Indirect influence matters. As I listened to the various speakers talk, I thought about how, though I’d never gone to a Cru (then Campus Crusade) small group Bible study during my undergraduate years, I was indeed touched by their ministry. The last time I moved, I found a box of papers from college. In one folder was a collection of “Every Student” newspaper ads with apologetics and/or evangelistic messages. I’d cut these out in college. Because they spoke to me and gave me ways to defend my faith in a skeptical, indifferent, and sometimes even politely hostile college environment. I’m also pretty sure that Cru helped to sponsor some of the many auditorium-filling Christian speakers that came to our campus to speak about the rationality of our faith, the created order, and more.

5. Cru’s Catholic legacy. For anyone familiar with Cru and FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), it’s pretty obvious that FOCUS is a “grandchild” of Cru [with FOCUS founder Curtis Martin as the first generation fruit of Cru, so to speak]. As I left the dinner, I was thinking about how amazed Cru founder Bill Bright might have been, back in the 1950s or 1960s, if someone had told him that in just a few decades there was going to be a Catholic version of Cru on campuses across America. Oh how the Holy Spirit can work, well beyond the limitations of our vision or imagination!

This made me a bit curious about Bill Bright, and so I found a library copy of Bill Bright & Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America and gave it a read. Interesting to hear about the struggles Bright had with seminary education in contrast to his evangelistic ministries, his belief that denominational churches weren’t really ready to disciple and continue to form the “converts” made by Campus Crusade, his various initiatives that were not specifically focused on the relational evangelism that I’ve always identified with Cru, and more. It seems that he started out a bit anti-Catholic (thinking that the election of JFK would be the last free election in America, due to JFK’s relationship with the Vatican), but really evolved throughout his life–becoming open to Catholicism through the charismatic renewal, receiving support for the 1979 Jesus film through Catholic channels, and eventually signing onto the Evangelicals and Catholics Together ecumenical statement in 1994.

The relationship between Cru and FOCUS reminds me of some of the glorious truths in the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), §3-4:

  • the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them [separated brethren] as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to 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
  • 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.

In that spirit, as a Catholic in a parish blessed to be hosting FOCUS missionaries who minister at our neighboring university, I’m thankful for how God used Bill Bright in a way that is indirectly producing spiritual fruit in my very own parish.

Small Group Nuts and Bolts — Some Concrete Tips from Ben Reed

There’s both a vision/strategic side of growing small groups for catechesis and evangelization in your parish, and a nuts and bolts side that addresses practical questions. This podcast (and transcript…so you don’t have to listen!) from Ben Reed via UnSeminary.Com offers some much appreciated nuts and bolts operational tips.

When to launch groups? The main times are January and August because these are two times of the year when people are looking to make new commitments or schedule changes. Other times for smaller new launches might be April or October, or specific outreach building off of a conference at the church. For Catholic parishes, maybe this means an opportunity for launching small groups right after a summer festival/feast or other popular community event involving the parish?

How to get people into groups? Have an easy on-ramp. Meaning, have a small group presence at the event/time period that’s going to propel people in. For Catholic parishes, I’d say this means something special after Masses on Christmas Eve/Day and Easter to give a tangible “next step” for those who might be coming back to Church, new to the parish, or in a “pre-discipleship” stage of their faith journey.

Who should be a small group leader? First off, having a “robust leadership development process” is critical because it enables Reed to take risks on people who haven’t previously led groups or wouldn’t be one of the “usual suspects” within a parish for such facilitation/leadership. Given the size of Catholic parishes (median 1050 or so families) in order to reach a large portion with small groups, most parishes will need to develop many more volunteer leaders than currently utilized in parish life. Reed also acknowledges that getting existing leaders (i.e. ministerial staff, deacons, parish council members, Knights of Columbus leaders, etc.) is important too, and I’d add that for these folks, serving in small group leadership positions shows how important this is to the parish. It models discipleship for the rest of the parish. It shows a team effort (staff/clergy/volunteers/laity) rather than one group placing a burden on another. 

Okay, what’s this robust leadership development process at Reed’s church? Reed uses 5, 1-hr seminars to coach and develop small group facilitators. The first two seminars happen before a group launches. Then the leader is linked up with a coach who will provide one-on-one mentorship as the leader is continuing with a group over many months. During the actual group leading time period (months, years, etc.) the leader will complete the remaining three 1-hr seminars. The seminars are about information transfer, the one-one-one coaching/mentorship is the relational aspect of training. 

When and where do small groups meet? Reed explains:

we define a small group as a group of people who are taking steps of faith together. It doesn’t matter where you meet. It doesn’t matter how long you meet. And so we have chosen a unified vision. Some churches have chosen kind of different paths for small group and Sunday School classes, but we have chosen a unified path that allows us to have a streamlined training process, a streamlined development process.”

I think the streamlined leader development and training process could be a huge “win” for many understaffed/underresourced Catholic parishes. By using small groups as the process or way of delivering discipleship, evangelization, catechesis, pastoral care, formation for service/justice, acts of mercy, liturgical service, etc. within the parish [read more about that here], a parish could up the quality of training, but decrease the various types of training for a more efficient and “deep” model within the parish.

Reed also notes that the church provides childcare at least one time during the week (Sunday nights) so that groups that choose to meet at this time have an option at the church building that makes it easy for families. Definitely a great idea for parishes! In many parishes childcare/nursery simply can’t be provided at most formation activities because the activities are spread throughout the week–but by massing formation groups at one time (and giving them an off campus option, say at a coffee shop near the parish) childcare coverage can stretch over a large number of groups.

And, final words from Reed on where to start:

One more thing that I would say is if you are kind of wrestling through how do we get groups going? What does it take to get groups off the ground? We don’t even know…we are exploring small groups we may do those, we may not….I would say this: grab 2, 3, 4 maybe even 8 people you know that you say these are leaders. Whether they are spiritual leaders or just natural leaders, grab those people and spend 8 weeks with them and invite them into your home. Just do life with them for the next 8 weeks and see if you like that. See if they enjoy it. I can almost guarantee that they will grow. And then you can kind of choose from there to launch out potentially 8 new groups out of that, but to start small groups, the easiest way to do that is for you to start your own small group. Gather the people that you know and start investing in them.

Definitely a challenge for me personally, especially since I’m not a staff member at my parish. My parish has many grassroots small groups of 4-8 folks, but we haven’t really been multiplying. Hmm….Come, Holy Spirit!

Resources for “Forming Intentional Disciples”

Here’s a list of links to resources that might be helpful for those who are reading Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples and looking to put some ideas into action personally–to begin to “break the silence” with others.

For starting conversation, questions, and/or assessing spiritual journeys:

Aggie Catholics: Questions To Ask Others When Evangelizing

Tell Me Your Story: The Art of Asking Intentional Questions (FOCUS)

Examples of combinations/variations of the 3 Spiritual Journeys

Sharing your testimony or story:

Canadian Catholic: Sharing Your Testimony 101

Telling the Great Story:

Catholic Christian Outreach Canada: The Ultimate Relationship

Have other suggestions to share? Add them to the comments. And, I’ll be posting study guides, diagrams, and other resources from a recent presentation under this tag in the coming weeks.