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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Christian Unity: The Unbusy Pastor

Christian unity means that we can look outside the “visible bounds” of Church to develop ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ. We can expect to find the life of grace worth sharing from outside our full, visible earthly communion (Decree on Ecumenism, para. 3).

For anyone in any level of leadership, I think this classic, written in 1981 (lest anyone think the temptation to busy-ness is something new or merely internet-driven) is one of the most important pieces for any ministry leader to consider when it comes to spirituality, work, discipleship, ministry, and ultimately glorifying God with one’s life.

On this Sabbath Day of the Lord, a practical, pastoral favorite from Eugene Patterson:

The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my wastebasket is the one addressed “to the busy pastor.” Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.

I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way in which it is used to flatter and express sympathy. “The poor pastor,” we say. “So devoted to his flock; the work is endless and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly.” But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront. Hilary of Tours diagnosed pastoral busyness as “irreligiosa solicitudo pro Deo,” a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him. Read more…

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Abundant Life as Sheep

The comfort God gives to us by giving us Jesus his Son as our Shepherd isn’t just some poetic, feel-good pasture scene that goes over well in Vacation Bible School or children’s catechesis. No–it’s a reality with hard-hitting promises and assurances.

John the Evangelist gives us the most detailed look at the relationship between Jesus the Good Shepherd and His sheep in Chapter 10 of his Gospel. The setting and build-up to this moment is intense. The first half of John’s Gospel is devoted to revealing the signs of Jesus, and examining how specific people respond. And it’s been a mixed bag, for sure! Early on, some respond to Jesus with belief–or at least genuine curiosity.

But then, hostility grows to a near-breaking point between Jesus and those who do not believe, those who oppose Jesus and those who profess belief in Him! This comes to a head as Jesus comes to the Temple at Jerusalem for the Feasts of Tabernacles (aka Booths or Sukkot) and Dedication (aka Feast of Maccabees or Hanukkah) and makes clear through symbolic declarations that Jesus is Divine, he is the Son of God, he is with God the Father in the most profound, eternal sense.

What to think?

As many Christian apologists have noted, when someone stands in a public place, on a great religious feast, and declares that he is God, we’ve really only got three logical responses, the person is either a pathological liar, a lunatic, or correct–truly the Lord God.

If you believe that Jesus is indeed the Lord God, well then what?

As today’s Psalm 100 answers:

“We belong to him, we are his people, the flock he shepherds” (vs. 3)

Being a sheep has serious consequences:

Sheep1. Jesus knows our name and calls us by name. We cannot remain anonymous to God. We cannot use our own sinfulness, anxiety, low self-esteem, or secret doubts about ourselves as an excuse as to why we are not “good enough” to be in relationship with God. It’s not about our goodness–we can know Jesus personally because he already knows our name and calls us by name (John 10:3-4).

2. “Whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9). If we remain in God through Jesus, “one can be confident of one’s present salvation” and “by looking at the course of one’s life in grace and the resolution of one’s heart to keep following God, one can also have an assurance of future salvation” (Catholic Answers). Do you have this confidence in your present and future salvation? What doubts are holding you back?

3. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Now, you might be thinking, “that sounds a bit like some ‘once saved, always saved’ falsehood.” And, the idea that a person’s salvation is guaranteed regardless of anything a person does, regardless of their free will in the future is indeed counter to Christian teaching (and even the most secular understanding of free well). Here’s the difference, though, in our Catholic teachings, confidence in God’s promises and acknowledgement of each individual’s free will coexist, as apologist Tim Staples writes, “our eternal life is contingent upon our choosing to abide in God.” No earthly powers, no other person, no harsh words or judgement from another can cause us to perish–only our free choice to leave Jesus’ flock. As the Church teaches:

There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss. (Catechism of the Catholic Church para 1864)

The only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit…and what does this mean? As Pope Saint John Paul the Great explained, “it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross” (Dominum et Vivifcantem, para. 46). So that’s it–only our free, knowing, and intentional will to reject the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy is what can remove us from God’s hand of love.

4. “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Does being a sheep bring you a deep joy and comfort? As one apologist noted:

Sometimes Fundamentalists portray Catholics as if they must every moment be in terror of losing their salvation since Catholics recognize that it is possible to lose salvation through mortal sin…But this portrayal is in error. Catholics do not live lives of mortal terror concerning salvation. True, salvation can be lost through mortal sin, but such sins are by nature grave ones, and not the kind that a person living the Christian life is going to slip into committing on the spur of the moment, without deliberate thought and consent. Neither does the Catholic Church teach that one cannot have an assurance of salvation. This is true both of present and future salvation.

And the beauty and fullness of joy is that this salvation is both present and future. We have eternal life that starts now, and stretches into eternity. And this life? It’s more abundantly “life” than anything a life without God’s friendship and Lordship offers.

We are God’s flock. You are (or can be) His Beloved Sheep full of joy and confidence in God’s eternal love and mercy. What’s holding you back? Wherever your heart is, pour it out to God, and ask Him for the blessing of knowing what it means to be a Sheep.

Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 via Flickr user Katriona McCarthy

a version of this post also appears at newevangelizers.com

When to Not Imitate Jesus

As disciples of Jesus, we seek to follow Jesus–to be like him as much as possible while on earth. This conformity to Christ is a foretaste of future glory, when, as John writes, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Yet today’s Gospel (Lk 6:6-11) offers an example of Jesus that we can’t follow. Something we shouldn’t imitate or even attempt! Here’s the setting: Jesus is teaching in a synagogue, where a man with a “withered” hand is present. Scribes and Pharisees are watching Jesus closely to see what he will do–will Jesus heal on the sabbath?

Jesus engages in demonstration (healing the man) and careful dialogue with the onlookers. These actions and words are deliberately provocative. Designed to elicit a response. And what kind of response? Well, it could be a response of radical conversion, of a new openness, of definitive life-change. On the other hand, it could be a response of anger, of circling the wagons, of increased frustration or outrage. Jesus indeed takes a situation that could have entrapped him and turns it into a question that “traps” the scribes and Pharisees, “is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”

As modern day disciples, we could look at this example and think to ourselves, That’s right! I need to think up questions that “trap” and provoke in a way that leads to rage on the part of those I converse with!

But, this would miss an absolutely important detail. A critical, humbling detail that reminds us that while Jesus is fully divine, we are simply human. Before the “trap” of this episode occurs, Luke the Evangelist explains that Jesus “realized their intentions.” Jesus knew the intentions of those who questioned him. Jesus completely understood their response and ramifications.

But us? No. We do not know the intentions of those we converse with. Of those we meet in the public square. Of those we interact with online. Of those who enter our churches.

Unlike Jesus, we are not in the position to know the intentions of others–their deepest motivations, longings, hurts, and (sometimes) hidden or emerging relationship with God. We can guess a little, but at best this is merely an assumption, especially if we haven’t developed a genuine relationship with the person.

Sometimes, in a society where conversation and dialogue can seem like a “battle,” it can be easy for us to make an idol of “winning” a conversation, making “an example” of those who disagree with us, or trapping others in a way that is less than charitable. Yet this is a dangerous path for us to take!

Unlike Jesus, we never know the full intentions of another. What presents itself as aggressive questioning of our Christian faith may really be a hidden wound or genuine curiosity. A question that comes across wrong or rudely may not be fully intended that way. As evangelizers, we must take the route of greatest charity, of greatest openness to the possibility that God is ready to work in those we meet.

Right now.

Even in the midst of an uncomfortable conversation or a debate that makes us feel a little defensive.

As we evangelize, let us remember this simple truth–Jesus knows the intentions of all. We do not. May the Holy Spirit grant us the wisdom and charity to speak and act accordingly.

a version of this post also appears at NewEvangelizers.com

Witness to the Good Life as Pre-Evangelization

The desire to live better, to live more deeply. To live in a way that is satisfying beyond wealth or material goods. This is a longing that has always existed, yet in our current cultural setting, is being spoken aloud and taken seriously with increasing frequency.

Consider, for example:

  • A recent study revealed that the Millennial generation places family and personal interests well above career or technology as “central to who they are” (this is, notably, a shift from the Boomer generation, that placed career as most central to identity).
  • Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek–a book that challenges cultural assumptions about “work for work’s sake” and deferring the “good life” until retirement, and instead suggests living more and working less–has spent seven years on the New York Times bestseller list.
  • TED talk phenom, Brené Brown’s popular message to embrace research that points to “wholehearted living” by cultivating play and rest, and “letting go” of exhaustion as a status-symbol and productivity as self-worth.
  • The gap between the actual hours spent by Americans on “leisure” activities, and our pervasive sense of feeling as if we lack free time.
  • Acknowledgement in business circles that “work-life balance” isn’t the real goal; instead, work-life integration or effectiveness is what more of us actually desire.
  • The New York Times defending the need for people to take enough time to enter into “the space to be still”

Taken as a whole, modern-day Western society is interested–really interested–in the deeper meaning of life. In a meaning that goes beyond work-productivity and wealth at any cost. Our society wants to know, how to live well? How to live the “good life”?

This is a moment, an opportunity for pre-evangelization, our Christian witness and dialogue (General Directory for Catechesis,§47-48) that doesn’t explicitly proclaim the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, but reveals how our basic human longings to live well, to live somehow better than what the status quo seems to offer, actually connect to our desire for right relationship with each other and with God, a longing for the transcendent–for something more. Pre-evangelization highlights and awakens these needs which may lie dormant or unnamed among those we meet, and through this the unevangelized become curious, open, or at least mildly interested in the ways of God.

By cultivating our own witness as Christians in this area, we have plenty to offer.

But that’s the tough part. Witness often speaks louder than words in pre-evangelization. We can’t convincingly talk about living the more authentic life God invites us to, unless we’re actually doing it.

By witnessing to the good life–satisfied, full of the peace only God can give, and in touch with our deepest longings as human beings–we can pre-evangelize the world around us, attracting and interesting others in that “something” that sets us apart as Christians.

Now, when it comes to living “good,” many think of material possessions, wealth, status, prestigue, or something along those lines. But, if you really sat down and talked with most modern-day Americans you’d find that a longing for something deeper, better is already present. As discussed in Part 1, our culture longs for something beyond the material, an integrated, fruitful use (or non-use) of time. This is where the long history of Christian discipleship enters in. Though the desire to live in “right relationship with time,” as Ann Garrido puts it, is relevant to us today–it’s a question and pull felt by believers throughout all ages (Redeeming Administration, p. 188).

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia [aka Norcia], a man of the early 6th century who sought integration in his life–not merely a “balance” or “divide” between the spiritual life, labors of work, and relationships with others–but an effective and fruitful integration. Reinforcement, not contradiction, in one’s life.

A mere 1500 years later 😉 Pope St. John Paul the Great would reflect on this same question of right relationship with time, in his 1998 letter Dies Domini, asserting that the intersection between the spiritual life and time isn’t merely on Sunday (though this does have a singular place, too). Instead, he explained:

Time and space belong to him. He is not the God of one day alone, but the God of all the days of humanity…All human life, and therefore all human time, must become praise of the Creator and thanksgiving to him (para. 14-15).

Challenging words, indeed!

Where to start? How to begin living in a way that witnesses this truth to the world? Garrido suggests praying with your calendar. Really. Pray with your calendar.

Here’s the thing, as Thomas Merton wrote:

“The spiritual life is not so much about choosing between good and evil, but discerning which particular good is meant for me.”

Meant for me. Now. In this season of my life. See, even work for “good” can be in opposition to our longing to live in right relationship with time. In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper observed:

“We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence…[and then] the world of work begins to become – threatens to become – our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.”

We become busy. Yet, imagine if more Christian disciples lived un-busy lives. Un-busy lives that inspired interest, attraction, or at least curiosity from the world. Writing in 1981 (if you notice the trend, the question of time it not something new, not a temptation inaugurated by social media or e-mail) Rev. Eugene Patterson made this bold assertion with regards to Christian ministers:

The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.

The same is most likely true for us as Evangelizers!

As evangelists we are called to not be caught up in a “rat race”–be it for a secular job, children’s hobbies, household concerns, or even parish activities. Integration is our goal, a life that resonates with the peace of the Holy Spirit, the fruitfulness of the “good life,” and a satisfaction that is beautiful, appealing, and even mysterious to the world around us in a way that gently, yet profoundly, introduces the Gospel.

Let us humbly ask that the Holy Spirit would guide us and embolden us to, as the Entrance Antiphon for today’s Mass proclaims, seek out “the habit of holy living” for our settings, as St. Benedict did in his age.

A version of this post originally appeared as part of a two part series at NewEvangelizers.com.

Review: “Room 24: Adventures of a New Evangelist”

Katie Prejean‘s new book Room 24: Adventures of a New Evangelist (Ave Maria Press, 2016) is a quick and easy delight to read that communicates the Church’s wisdom on the essence and spirituality of evangelization in a humorous and personal way.

What it’s not: This book is not about ministry leadership, planning, strategy, vision, or even best practices. So what is it then? This book is about you. The evangelist.

In addressing the spirituality of evangelization and the person of the evangelist in an approachable way, Prejean fills a huge void.

Here’s the reality–while there are many today who have swum in the waters of evangelizations nearly our entire lives and/or gobble up the massive number of Church documents describing evangelization (there are simply too many great ones to name since the Second Vatican Council!), there are a lot of Catholics in the pews, in volunteer roles, and even in pastoral ministry who aren’t quite sure about this “evangelization” stuff. It sounds “new” to them (even though it’s not). Evangelization comes across like a meaningless buzzword. They readily admit, when asked in a safe and supportive setting, that they don’t understand it, don’t know what it means, and don’t really own it or “feel” like it’s for them.

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In Room 24, Prejean takes her first-person experiences during her first year (or so) of teaching high school theology and focuses each on revealing different aspects of our Catholic theology of evangelization. She keeps it short. Though she’s theologically well-versed, she leaves out all the complicated magisterial document citations. If you’ve been wanting to learn about evangelization, but get turned off by the length and writing style of Church documents, this book could be for you. It’s like sitting down in a coffee shop and listening to a friend tell funny stories. And then walking away realizing you learned something. Learned a lot. And, probably want to go pray about it.

The book is entirely written using examples from teaching high school theology in a Catholic school. That being said–I think the lessons on the spirituality of evangelization are broadly applicable, and I’ll be teasing out some of those in future blog posts.

Recommendations? In conclusion, this book is short enough (at 138 pages) that it wouldn’t be a waste of anyone’s time to read it. If you know evangelization, this book is a good window into the spiritual lives of teens and an enjoyable reminder of why we do what we do–that you’re not alone out there! If you’re less comfortable with “evangelization” and have been hearing it more and more but just don’t want to feel “out of the know” while learning theology–this is a fantastic book to pick up. Read it to be encouraged and go deeper into touching what it means to be an evangelist of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Disclosure: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book for the purpose of review; opinions expressed are my own.