Review of “Rebuilding Your Message: Practical Tools to Strengthen Your Preaching and Teaching”

I was super-excited to get my hands on a copy of the latest in the Rebuilt Parish family of books, Rebuilding Your Message: Practical Tools to Strengthen Your Preaching and Teaching (2015). Here’s why–way back in 2011, when I first started paying attention to Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD, it was because of their preaching. Homilies lasted longer than 12-minutes. They were in carefully crafted series. They were pre-evangelistic and kerygmatic. They always included action steps. I loved it. Live-stream videos of Nativity sermons were my go-to for edifying listening anytime I was cooking, doing dishes, or road-trip driving 🙂

Okay, so what’s the book like?

Rebuilding Your Message is written in the same style as Tools for Rebuilding, really short chapters (like 2-4 pages each) centered on a Bible verse and axiom with explanation. The mini-chapters are arranged around four themes: 1) the role of the communicator, 2) the context of the message [warning: this section is largely a repeat of ideas from Tools for Rebuilding], 3) delivery, and 4) outcomes. The benefit of this style of organization is that it would be a great book club read for a parish staff, where a short chapter could be assigned each week (or day!) and then discussed together. Be forewarned, the downside is that it means each idea is presented quickly without a lot of depth. This means that if you’re wanting to study preaching or homiletics beyond an introductory level, you need more than this book has to offer (and to be fair, writing an in-depth preaching text isn’t the authors’ goal).

Where does this book shine?

Rebuilding Your Preaching is at its best in Parts 1, 3, and 4 as an excellent easy-to-read primer for preachers, teachers, and communicators–especially those in a parish setting. Here are some of the most relevant and needed tips they offer:

  • Tell stories from your life (21)
  • Find your burden–“the one thing that holds your heart and weights on your mind when it comes to your message” (34)
  • Know that you have to earn your audience’s trust in a post-Christian, post-modern era (37)
  • “Be creative, not original” as a Catholic preacher (48) [this is an especially good axiom for the New Evangelization, as St. John Paul the Great explained in 1979, the “new” in Evangelization is about “ardor, method, and expression”–the message is still the original]
  • Stick to a single passage with a single challenge (54) (here’s more on picking a Scripture passage)
  • Practice out loud (62). Yes! Record yourself. Watch and listen to yourself.
  • Everything connects to the Good News. As White and Corcoran explain, “The basic and the ultimate message of our faith is that God loves us, despite what we have done wrong. We have and hold good news that sin and selfishness are not the last word: life is stronger than death, and loves wins no matter what. All good news” (118). This evangelistic content is essential.
  • Always be able to have a clear answer to: What do you want them to know? Why do you want the to know it? What do you want them to do? Why do you want them to do it? Otherwise it will never be clear in your messages! (140-141)
  • Don’t read manuscripts. “Notes, outlines, and even complete texts are all fine; it is a question of knowing how you hold and remember information, how you think on your feet, and basically what works for you” (144). “Don’t ever refer to them [notes] when you are asking people to do something or issuing a challenge. Make sure you are looking your audience in the eyes when you do that” (145).
  • Plan your messages long-term. Don’t be afraid to use series to help emphasize and develop a point more fully than you could while sticking to a single passage/challenge focus (128-129).

And this inspiring exhortation:

“Preaching is a craft. Craftsmanship requires both formulaic knowledge about how to do something—the ability to actually do it—and dedication to constantly fine-tune that ability. Any genuine craft also requires an artist’s touch that springs from a pure love of the work…Take time to discern your gifts when it comes to communication, and determine the skills you need to develop to improve your craft” (153).

These are outstanding basics for preaching (or would they want me to say ‘communicating’? I like preaching better. It’s a powerful word we should claim more often!). These sections of the book would be excellent reading for those preparing for catechetical ministry, RCIA, youth ministry, etc. and I’ll be recommending some of them to my own students as they prepare to give oral reflections on Biblical texts.

Characteristic to Be Aware Of? Singular Focus

This book is a great primer on evangelistic communications for the Catholic community. However, there are huge (probably deliberate) silences from the authors when it comes to how to go from exegesis to message with Biblical texts, the particular craft and liturgical theology of the Eucharistic homily, and preaching outside of the context of Mass. You’re not going to get concrete guidance on ways to preach with/without notes, organizing messages, etc. You’re not going to get details on the art and movement of evangelistic messages. You’re getting the basics–that’s it. It’s a singular and limited focus–which might be great for some readers, but leave others a bit disappointed.

Recommendation?

If you work in parish or campus ministry, read this book. And don’t worry about being too experienced for the introductory approach, use it as an examination of your own work–though much of it is basic, you’ll probably find areas to improve in and new ideas.

But here’s the real key–don’t keep it on your shelf 😉 find someone to pass it on to. Rebuilding Your Message is written as a “first word,” not a “last word.” Start a conversation, start encouraging others to care about developing great Catholic communicators, start honing your own skills, and keep the conversation going, as we’ll be doing here in coming weeks–discussing some of the concepts in Rebuilding Your Message worthy of much more attention.

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

Spring Cleaning: Unclutter Your Parish. Seriously.

It’s easy to think that all of the ways we need to respond to the call to evangelize are deeply spiritual. Movements that must be discerned carefully and prayerfully over a long period of time. Ideas that involve new appreciation of what might initially seem to be challenging, intimidating, or hard to understand theological truths.

But that’s not the case. As Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran explain in a chapter from Tools for Rebuilding, it can be as simple as recognizing, “Christmas Is Over, So Throw Out the Dead Poinsettias.” And then, of course, doing something about it and actually cleaning up your parish. Making the narthex look great, easy to navigate, the best foot forward for your guests and visitors. Transforming nurseries and children’s spaces into appealing places where parents can’t wait to bring their children.

Taking care of physical space and facilities goes beyond what regular parishioners and guests might see, however. In many parishes, due to years of hand-off of ministries, projects, and initiatives, clutter piles up in the back closets. In the basements. And who knows where else.

As one Methodist pastor explained:

In my current church, we spent my first year clearing out massive amounts of clutter. One day early in my tenure I walked into the nursery where the children are cared for during Sunday morning, and there was an aisle to walk through that led to a station with toys in the back of the room. The first thing I saw when I stepped into the room was a big sign that read “Do Not Come in Here without an adult!” I understood the sign because the area really was a danger zone. The “aisle” was actually a little path that cut through tall stacks of equipment, papers, toys, boxes, books, and papers. There was so much stuff crammed into the room that it was massively depressing.

As we began cleaning out the nursery, we found old vacation Bible school papers from four decades prior. While they were fascinating to see in a memorabilia sort of way, they weren’t doing any good stacked in boxes and cluttered piles in the nursery. As we began throwing this stuff away, there was a lot of pain around letting it go. The people worried that they might need that curriculum, since it was expensive to buy new VBS materials. They thought perhaps we needed to store it somewhere, just in case it might be needed.

They groaned, grieved, held tight, and fought as we all pried our fingers off the stuff of our history.

If you lead, work, volunteer, minister, or serve in a parish in any way, take some time this spring (or maybe plan to do it during any summer less-scheduled time) and unclutter.

 

Small Groups for Kids (aka breaking out of classroom catechesis)

Just listened to Rebuilt Podcast #25.*  And I have to say, it was one of the most value-added Rebuilt podcasts yet–and by that I mean, it went well beyond what’s in the book(s) and Rebuilt website about the goals, vision, and practical nuts and bolts behind ministering to children from ages 6 months to 5th grade, including kids with special/individualized needs.

It also gave some insight into the parish’s vision for families–a family attends at one time for children’s small groups/parent ministry service and a separate time for family worship (which includes a Children’s Liturgy of the Word). I think this answers some of the concerns about kids being encouraged not to attend Mass. Clearly this isn’t what Church of the Nativity is aiming for, and Children’s Liturgy of the Word does allow families to celebrate the Eucharist and worship together for a substantial (usually over 50%) of Mass.

I definitely felt the pain/challenge of the hosts and guest when they talked about first action steps. One of the challenges for any parish is, how to start a practice (like investing in kids!) that requires a lot of volunteers? Part of this comes back to a key message from Rebuilt and Tools for Rebuilding–the importance of the pulpit and having a clear message for the entire church community that service is part of discipleship. I know that in many parish settings making this a unified message is a real challenge, since Children’s ministry/religious education/parish school of religion has often, both culturally and organizationally, existed in a silo apart from the pastor/associate’s sermon messages, the parish council’s focus, etc.

Bottom line, if you’re a DRE (Director of Religious Education) or minister to kids in a parish, you should definitely give this episode a listen. And, I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve tried anything similar!

———
*Amusing note: I ended up listening to this episode while watching SportsCenter cover the NCAA basketball tournament from an elliptical at the gym, so clearly I was adopting the same pedagogical hermeneutic as the hosts 😉 or I like to multi-task. Either way. Win.

Recommended Books for Pastoral Administration Courses

I know first-hand that many professors/instructors of Pastoral Administration (or similarly titled) courses in seminaries, lay formation programs, and graduate schools struggle to find quality, relevant texts for teaching this type of course.

On one hand, there’s plenty of literature on management, administration, and leadership in general–and a good amount that specifically applies to the nonprofit sector. But, parishes just seem different. So there can be a hesitancy to try to mold materials designed for a different setting into a Catholic pastoral administration course.


But, search no more. There are some books that work well on a syllabus and in various combinations could provide an outstanding base for a course. First up, The Parish Management Handbook, ed. Charles Zech (Twenty-Third Publications, 2003).

Chapter 1 provides an excellent integration of human resource management, information, consultation, conflict management, stewardship, leadership, decision-making, and liability. This chapter shows students (who might think of administration as an “extra” bonus, instead a fundamental skill of a minister) how important good management is and how it impacts theology made present in a parish or other ministry setting.

The entire book is of high quality and relevant updated material. I’d especially recommend Chapter 7 “Developing Stewards in a Parish Setting” and Chapter 9 “Parish Information Systems — Resources for Ministry” as top chapters to be included on any course syllabus.

My next recommendation moves from concepts and theory to action-oriented techniques. Though Tools for Rebuilding by Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran (Ave Maria Press, 2013) is a follow-up to Rebuilt (2012), the book can stand-alone as a primer on some basic managerial concerns. I’d recommend using:

  • all of the Strategic Tools (p. 11-34)
  • Building Tools #8-11 (p. 41-54)
  • all of the Office Tools (p. 63-72)
  • all of the Communication Tools (p. 73-88)
  • all of the Money Tools (p. 189-212)
  • all of the Staff Tools (p. 213-230)
  • all of the Critical Tools (p. 231-254)
  • and, all of the Fun Tools (255-268)

Then, depending on the duration and scope of your course, if more material was needed, I’d add in A Concise Guide to Catholic Church Management from the Vincentian Center for Church and Society (Ave Maria Press, 2010).

Now, despite being more recent that Zech’s work, this book feels a bit more dated and more maintenance-focused (rather than evangelization oriented).

Chapters 1-4 and 7-8 are too basic and bland to provide that much value to a course, but Chapters 6 (The Parish and Service Quality), 9 (Evaluating Parish Performance), 10 (Human Resources), 11 (Legal Principles), and 12 (Stewardship) are all value-added.

The Vincentian Center also offers a similar Concise Guide to Pastoral Planning. This book is not very tied into the need for parishes to be centers of evangelization, but it does provide good templates for pastoral planning (especially in Part 3). I wouldn’t really recommend this book, unless your course specifically needed an in-depth discussion of pastoral planning models.

In conclusion, Tools for Rebuilding and the Parish Management Handbook are the two texts I’d most want to see in a pastoral administration course.

Do you have any recommendations for pastoral administration courses or training? Please share in the comments!

Tools for Further Conversation from “Tools for Rebuilding”

As mentioned in my initial mini-review and Top 10 Tools, Tools for Rebuilding: 75 Really, Really Practical Ways to Make Your Parish Better is an awesome book, especially for those interested in pastoral leadership, management, and administration. Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran note early on:

“You won’t agree with everything we assert, and that’s okay. We just want to further the conversation” (xiv).

In that spirit to further that conversation by naming some tools (chapters) from Tools for Rebuilding that are ripe for more conversation. This doesn’t mean they are “bad” tools–just the ones that seem a bit incomplete. Here they are, in no particular order…

Tool #12 Be A Control Freak (But Only About Your Building)
Clear signage for locations of video venues, areas of flexible seating, and children’s programs so that parents have the freedom to choose how to worship as a family (which might mean, putting the kids elsewhere so the parents can concentrate fully) is great. I wish more parishes offered it! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to search for an “easy exit” seat so that I’d be ready to leave if my child started to cry and there were no signs or helpful ushers to make being a visitor easier.

However, the attitude that “we are committed to freeing their parents to have an excellent worship experience” takes too much responsibility away from parents as decision-makers and primary models of faith for their children.

Both Fr. White and Corcoran note that Mass can be “incomprehensible” to young kids and do not buy into the theory that “proximity to the altar” can hold a child’s attention. These assumptions deserve more conversation. Parishes that have experienced Catechesis of the Good Shepherd might have valuable contributions to make here, as I have seen children in this program fully engaged in Mass at a young (pre-2nd grade) age. Much of this depends on the architecture of the sanctuary, but parishes with many alcoves and side exits (rather than just back exits) are great for families with young children because the children can see the altar and action–yet can quickly and discreetly be escorted out when crying/loud behavior arises.

Tough subject. Kudos to White and Corcoran for mentioning it. But, don’t give up on young kids at Mass–I’d love to see what a dynamic parish like Church of the Nativity could do in terms of using the Montessori principles of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to design an interactive parallel-Mass environment for the youngest worshippers.

Tool #34 Baptisms are Opportunities — Take Them
On the whole, this “tool” is solid. The conversation needs to be continued, however, with regards to introducing liturgical catechesis and mystagogy into the mix. Now, I’m not saying parishes should use these words with new parents! [that’d just be jargon.] But, real liturgical catechesis and mystagogy are relational, loving, and enable the new parents to fully experience the mystery of the Sacrament. Fr. White and Corcoran seem to assume that “relaxed” and “relational” is mutually exclusive with “sharing the treasury of Church teaching” and this, I think, is a mistake (p. 141). I could imagine the use of short-duration (say 4 wk) small groups for new parents that allow for everything they describe (i.e. story sharing) woven into the baptismal symbols and sacrament in a way that is fully loving, fully relational, and fully catechetical. Mystagogy might mean engaging the family for milestones (baptismal anniversaries, etc.) that help build those relationships.

Bottom line, lets start a conversation about how to do liturgical catechesis in parishes.

Tool #39 Beware of Self-Righteous Super Consumers
This chapter needs further conversation because it jumps into name-calling rather than seeking to know and participate in the conversion of those who may be in need of it. I find it hard to believe that all of the daily mass attendees at Church of the Nativity were indeed, “self-righteous” (p. 159). I’m far from perfect (and often resort to name-calling as well), but as ministers we should avoid this. Many of the “self-righteous super consumers” may be just as lost and in need of conversion as anyone outside on the street (or Timonium Tim for that matter), and should be treated as such. We need to challenge ourselves to love those prickly people as Jesus loves them, even when it’s tough. And, to follow the guidance from Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, “never accept a label in place of a story.” 

Note: Moving daily Mass from 9 am to 5:30 pm is a great idea for most parishes. And this chapter is an excellent example of how to deal with criticism. 🙂

Tool #59 Don’t Be Upset When the Wrong People Leave
I like this chapter a lot. I’ve had the experience of the “wrong people” leaving in organizations I’ve led outside of church ministry and know how important it is not to get sucked into drama or taking it personally. However, our challenge in ministerial life is remembering that the Church isn’t just any other organization. If I’m in a ministry that is making-disciples, and someone (even a “wrong person”) leaves to go to a place where that disciple-making may not occur, then I can’t be happy about this. While it may “make the parish healthier” (p. 239) in the short term, it might actually be a missed opportunity to learn how to minister to a certain type of person/family–and so in the long-term, the parish can suffer (not to mention the person who leaves and might not find themselves in another disciple-making setting). Tom Corcoran and Chris Wesley did a nice job on a recent Rebuilt podcast (Episode 23) encouraging listeners to look for the kernel of truth to learn from when receiving criticism, the same applies to when anyone leaves–there’s still a kernel of truth.

Bottom line, don’t get upset when the wrong people leave–but don’t anticipate it, be happy about it, or even be complacently content about it. Those attitudes can eat away at our calling to be part of God’s processes of making disciples and loving those most in need of conversion. There’s room for more conversation about the right spirituality of the evangelizer here.

Tool #29 Know What Season You’re In
Another solid chapter, however, the conversation I’d want to have is, since “the liturgical seasons resonate with us insider churchpeople” but not “with the average parishioner, much less the unchurched person,” then how does the weekend experience move people (average parishioners and the unchurched) into that space where the liturgy forms them? (p. 116). I think it has something to do with liturgical catechesis and mystagogy seamlessly woven into parish life. What might this look like at Church of the Nativity or other evangelizing Catholic churches? This is a conversation I’d like to see more of. I’m looking forward to reading Liturgy and the New Evangelization by Tim O’Malley to see if there are any practical tips in there.

Tool #26 Nobody is Growing in Christ Just Because of Your Pious Procession of One
Everything in this tool is very applicable. What I’d like to call out, however, is the retreat from liturgy. Fr. White and Corcoran write:

“We like to stay as far away from liturgical issues as possible; it’s safer that way. Plus, we don’t know what we’re talking about when it comes to liturgy anyway” (p. 107).

This just makes me sad. 😦 Liturgy is not some obtuse, optional aspect of theology. Liturgy forms what we believe. It’s for all of us. Don’t cop-out or opt-out on liturgy, Church of the Nativity, join in and further the conversation!

Tool #22 Churchpeople Don’t Belong in the Pews
Excellent chapter on some techniques for making it easier for people to serve in ministry. The question I’d like to see more conversation on is, how do disciples in the parish balance it? Do they attend multiple Masses (one to serve, one to worship at), have some good practices for weaving the spirituality of serving into Mass, etc. I think there might be a lot of fruit in this conversation, since parishes everywhere have people who want to serve, but also know that to some degree serving can be a personal distraction from growing as a disciple in worship. 

Tool #21 Vestments Are Like Golf Clubs
This tool would be a bit more complete with some discussion of beautiful vs. expensive. They aren’t always the same. Just as overly showy (expensive-looking) vestments can be a distraction, as White and Corcoran point out, visually displeasing, outdated, or clearly poor-quality vestments can also be a distraction to newcomers. There’s probably some room for conversation about inexpensive ways to acquire beautiful vestments that are not gaudy/showy (i.e. seeking talented seamstresses within the parish, using religious orders for labor, etc.)

Also, there are other examples ripe for conversation regarding wasting money in ministry [in general, not that this goes on at Church of the Nativity], for example:

  • expensive religious education curricula
  • music hymnals that have 300+ songs when you really only sing a core 100 of them
  • prepackaged adult retreats/small group materials
  • bulletin publishers, layout and artwork
  • annual subscription missals in pews (vs. re-useable 3-year bound books or plain Bibles)

Tool #53 Get the Right People on the Bus

Good chapter on basic human resource management. However, it’s not necessarily good for an organization to always follow the advice to:

“Be willing to wait and invest in the people already working for you (for free). The solution to whatever you’re trying to solve or staff is probably not ‘out there’; they’re most likely in your parish. Your next best hire is your current best volunteer, and your next best volunteer is in your pews” (p. 218).

This can be very true. But, there’s also a great benefit in bringing in ideas and experience from different settings in order to help your own organization maintain its agility and ability to adapt to changing conditions. It would be great to see a conversation about how to hire from outside, integrate into existing staff/vision, as well.

Okay, so those are, in my opinion, the tools that I think are most in need of further conversation to be more complete. Feel free to join in the conversation through the comments…what tools did you love? which ones need improving?

Top 10 “Must-Implement” Concepts from “Tools for Rebuilding”

As mentioned in my initial mini-review, Tools for Rebuilding: 75 Really, Really Practical Ways to Make Your Parish Better fills a huge gap in the literature available for those seeking to advance leadership, administration, management, and communications in typical Catholic parishes.

In the opening of the book, Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran set the stage for an implied purpose of the book–ongoing discussion–explaining:

“You won’t agree with everything we assert, and that’s okay. We just want to further the conversation” (xiv).

In that spirit I’d like to keep that conversation going by offering what I think are the top 10 “must-implement” concepts from Tools for Rebuilding. Some of these are individual tools (aka chapters) from the book, others are combinations. These are the big concepts and tools that I think are the most spot-on, urgently needed, and/or potentially significant for Catholic parishes (and in many cases, ministries in general) today in the United States. Then we’ll shift to the more questionable tools (in my opinion) from the book–these are the ones that are in  need of more conversation, caveats, alternatives, and engagement. They’re not “wrong” tools–just ones that seem a bit incomplete or easily misunderstood. This is going to take a couple of posts, so let’s get started…

Must-Implement Concept #1 — Staff Synergy
Tools #5 “Pull Down the Silos” and #14“Break Up the Nests” area all about this. Now synergy can be an overused and much mocked term, but it’s a powerful positive effect of staffs that can selflessly work together as a team, rather that merely exist as friendly neighborhood fiefdom leaders, who are not engaged with another’s “turf,” not truly sharing goals “of where the ministry as a whole is going” (p. 30).

While much of this change is about communication and planning processes, Tool #14 (Break Up the Nests) is a practical one. A way to make a physical change (office arrangement) that will yield more significant communications breakthrough. In the military, I’ve experienced the benefits that come from open office concepts. Give it a try—it’s amazing how ideas just start flowing, more staff members start to understand each other’s challenges (from hearing them on the phone, seeing what they work on, etc.) and more.

Also, don’t think that this doesn’t apply to you simply because your staff all gets along. People in ministry are usually nice. 🙂 It’s very possible (and common in parishes, based on my experience) to have a warm, caring, friendly, well-meaning, dedicated staff that is peaceful, but not actually creating synergy as a team.

Must-Implement Concept #2 — Excellence is the Standard (aka Always Be Striving)
Making true excellence the standard for everything (not just the theological or pastoral aspects) in parish life is what lies beneath Tools #7 (The NFL is the Enemy of the Church), #10 (I’m Not Interested in How Much You Love Jesus; Just Clean Your Nursery), and #54 (Talent Attracts Talent). White and Corcoran point out that in many parishes there is an awful lot of “celebrating and rewarding mediocrity” (p. 220). In some places this is indeed quite true–what I think is more prevalent is tolerating mediocrity. Allowing the standard for cleanliness, aesthetics, visual displays, websites, volunteer ministers, programs, liturgy, and more to be what’s adequate rather than excellent. It’s the attitude of thinking that the “job is done” once something exists (i.e. we have a sign that says “join our parish”) vs. continually striving for greatness and demanding this from all staff members.

My high school French teacher used to say, “Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until your good is your better, and your better is your best.” He was fairly annoying at the time, but hey…I still remember the mantra. And it’s true. Don’t passively accept the sub-par in your parish. Start making the difficult changes, start moving, and then never stop striving for excellence.

Must-Implement Concept #3 — Brand It. Name It. Bottom Line, Get Rid of Jargon.
Tool #18 (Look, They Have a Kidzone Too!) is spot on. In short, in most parishes, “we use churchspeak to designate what we’re trying to do, in a way that can seem like a foreign language to everybody but insiders–for example, RCIA, Sacraments of Initiation, and Catechetical Formation” (p. 79). These names are confusing for those on the outside (the “lost sheep” we want to offer the fullest, most joyful welcome to!). There’s nothing theologically wrong with calling RCIA something that’s catchier, more engaging, and more relevant to the population you seek to reach and serve in your ministry setting. It doesn’t detract from the richness of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults to use a different term for the program, small group, activities, etc. associated with the process itself.

Calling this “branding” (which is accurate) may be a turn-off for some. Fine. Forget branding–just call it “naming things better” in your parish 🙂 Don’t know where to start? Ask yourself, what phrase/name/term would attract interest, spark curiosity, or start a buzz within the group most in need of attending? If you’re unsure or coming up dry for names and logos reach out to those in your parish who might have relevant professional or volunteer experience in this area. You can do this!

Must-Implement Concept #4 — Communicating for a Whole Parish Movement
This concept draws on Tools #30 (Find Your Message; Then Stay on It), #31 (One Church, One Message), and #3 (Know Why, What, and And How). Modern American parishes (aka churches) are big. How do thousands of people get moved by the Holy Spirit and moving in a similar direction? It starts with preaching. Preaching is the primary way the Word of God is specifically discerned and broken open in a community (and churches are communities!).

Tool #31 is the first step. But, may not be entirely necessary if your parish has multiple gifted homilists who can work together to develop unified messages.

This means applying Tool #30 as a parish-wide extension of Tool #3 (which is primarily aimed at ministry leaders). Basically, the homily isn’t just about good exegesis of the Scriptures. Not at all. The USCCB’s preaching documents, Fulfilled in Your Hearing and Preaching the Mystery of Faith (2012), make it clear that the assembly matters. And this means the congregation as a whole matters as well. The homily “should form a consistent message that preachers and parish staff have all bought into” (p. 124). Additionally, the organization, programs, and actions of the parish should be consistent with the message as well.

In short, the homily isn’t a stand-alone part of the weekly routine. Instead it flows from and feeds into the entirety of the parish’s ministry.

Must-Implement Concept #5 — Streamline the Bulletin and Announcements.
Almost all parish bulletins are in need of an overhaul. This goes back to excellence. You might think the bulletin is meaningless–it’s not. It communicates a clear message about the priorities in the parish. In many cases, it’s a completely missed opportunity for solid initial evangelization.

Tool #16 (Stop Advertising [Other People’s Stuff] in Your Bulletin) gives some great advice. Parishes should, as the title says, stop filling bulletins with other stuff (even if it’s good stuff!), as this is a distraction from communicating a central message about what you want people to do to grow as disciples. Giving people lots of options does not necessarily “get more people engaged” if not all of those options are of equal quality as disciple-making settings (see “Why Less is More” here).

Once a parish trims down the bulletin, it might be small enough to not need advertising (which is great–as that reduces administrative work-hours that can now be applied to a more relevant disciple-making task or striving toward excellence in an overlooked area of your parish). Check out this example of a non-denominational Christian church with thousands of members that uses a simple, focused “weekly” (it’s both online and handed out in print form each Sunday.)

While Church of the Nativity (where the authors of Tools for Rebuilding minister) no longer uses a print bulletin, this may not be the correct decision for your setting. That’s okay. This tool is still for you. Focus on shrinking the bulletin so it conveys clear messages, which then allows you to stop spending time and money coordinating advertising and using an external publishing company that probably only “helps” by providing stock-graphics and bad layout. And, while you’re at it, shrink your announcements too! Focus on what’s important. Deliver the announcements compellingly (probably by a paid or volunteer ministry leader with “skin in the game” on the announcement itself, rather than the lector), as Tool #31 (Preach the Announcements) encourages.

Must-Implement Concept #6 — Grassroots Change and Relational Evangelism
More and more parishes are realizing that the New Evangelization means them too. They’ve got to do something. However, in my experience, many parishes immediately invest all resources in the programmatic–i.e. considering what faith formation curricula to use, doing specific renewal programs, etc. While none of this is bad, it misses the point that individuals have to be moved to discipleship and life-change. Spiritual multiplication has to begin. Growth by multiplication > growth by addition. Tool #74 (It’s Not an Air War; It’s a Trench War) is a great reminder that it’s not about the “Church” or “diocese” solving evangelization problems for parishes–the parish is indeed fundamental. And, within the parish, it’s not all about having the right programs, it’s about discipling individuals, who are then used by the Holy Spirit to produce more fruit.

Must-Implement Concept #7 — Everything in Money Tools!
Almost every parish can benefit by implementing changes in Tools 45 to 51–aka the “Money Tools.” Underneath, these Money Tools are about changing the way most Catholics/parishes think about financial stewardship and giving. And it’s seriously needed!

I spent many years in Baptist congregations. I’m glad I learned about tithing there, because honestly, I’ve never head solid teaching on it in Catholic parishes (with Church of the Nativity, Msgr. Charles Pope, and Msgr. David Brockman being notable exceptions).

In short, fundraisers, extra collections, “poor boxes,” and professional solicitation/campaign managers work against conveying a consistent message about the relationship between financial stewardship and the spiritual life. I’d add that all these “extras” also create additional burdens on staffs. Transparency is key, to include, not hiding the real cost of ministry. Church of the Nativity is the only Catholic parish where I’ve heard a sermon about money that mentions the importance of being able to compensate well enough to attract talented and devoted ministers. Amen! Compared to many non-Catholic congregations I’ve been apart of, many Catholic parishioners seem to think that ministry happens without financial resources–this simply isn’t true, and takes away from our opportunity to put our financial resources to work for God’s mission in the world.

Must-Implement Concept #8 — Dear Everyone, It’s Not All About Father.
Tool #68 (Father, It’s Not All About You) is very hard to implement, but it’s an important culture-change in moving from a consumer-culture to a disciple-culture in Catholic ministries.

Now, the authors call this chapter/tool, “Father, It’s Not All About You.” In reality though, I think it’s our culture and parishioners that seem to cultivate this mentality, rather than pastors themselves–as they explain:

“Everything in the culture insists that the priest be the center of attention, action, activity, and authority” (p. 270).

Fr. White’s comments about the perception of the presence of the pastor to validate meetings and ministries is spot-on. But, as the title indicates, the person with the capability to change this is indeed the pastor. Delegation and strong leadership on this issue from the pastor can set the right tone. And this isn’t simply about promoting self-esteem of others–not at all. This idea is critical because it comes back to spiritual multiplication. If the pastor is perceived as the only “real” spiritual leader in the parish, then his reach is limited. If more leaders can be cultivated, then more disciple-making can occur.

Tools #41 (Funerals Are Scud Missiles) and #33 (Preach the Announcements) can be understood as examples/extensions of this principle.

Must-Implement Concept #9 — Design Staff Positions Well
A key component of successful human resource management involves thoughtfully designing staff positions, really understanding what goes into a position in terms of competencies and the like. One very obvious part of this that many parishes get wrong in terms of job descriptions and staff roles comes down to work hours. Tool #55 (Work Weekends) is a great example of designing positions for success–both for the parish and the individual.

In my experience, many parishes don’t put the effort into really nailing down what times of the week a person “works” for a particular position, and instead simply start with a 9am-5pm assumption and allow shifts to occur. While this might seem okay, in actuality it does not create the right expectations among the staff and does foster a sense of “extra-ness” of working after business hours or on weekends. Instead, parishes should build on Tool #55 and think about the most-important hours “on the job” for every position. This might mean receptionists working from 3-8pm (when many people are off of work/school), planning on student and adult formation ministers working afternoons/evenings (since this is prime-time for individual discipleship mentorship or small groups), etc. This means understanding presence after Masses to build relationships with attendees or time for taking individuals out for coffee to talk about their spiritual journeys as an actual part of being a DRE, adult formation minister, etc. as not as an extra that’s in addition to sitting in an office from 9-5. You get the idea. Do the analysis within your ministry, figure out what people really should be doing, and design job requirements accordingly.

Must-Implement Concept #10 — Act Like People Under the Age of 18 Matter
Tools #42 (Do Something for My Kids, You Do Something for Me), #43 (After Second Grade, School Isn’t Cool), and #44 (Treat Students Like Adults) really speak to this. Everything in parish life (Mass, formation, mission, etc.) should be designed for people of all ages. Now, this doesn’t mean everything has to (or should be) intergenerational. No, the idea is as simple as changing your paradigm from adequate (i.e. “we’re having Mass”) to comprehensive excellence in reaching out to meet everyone (i.e. “we’re having Mass, and there is a quality option for those with babies, deliberate engagement of young children, specific relevance for teenagers, etc.). It’s a move from patting ourselves on the back for occasionally providing childcare at some adult formation events to understanding that every activity that happens as a part of parish life should be deliberately intergenerational or offer specific, high-quality alternatives for all ages.

Okay, so those are, in my opinion, the 10 concepts from Tools for Rebuilding that I see the greatest need for in Catholic parishes. Next time I’ll be discussing Tools from the book that are a bit incomplete, potentially misleading, and/or in need of further conversation–check back at the Tools for Rebuilding tag for that plus other commentary/notes on the book.

Review of “Tools for Rebuilding”

Tools for Rebuilding: 75 Really, Really Practical Ways to Make Your Parish Better (Ave Maria Press, 2013) lives up to its name as a direct and action-oriented follow up to the broad vision compellingly described in Rebuilt.

The book is organized around different types (i.e. staff, communication, people, weekend, etc.) of tools. Each tool is a pithy phrase and concise explanation of how this could be put to work in a parish setting.

I highly recommend Tools for Rebuilding. It contains solid parish ministry applications for general concepts of leadership and management. For many readers, Tools might be a better fit than Rebuilt, because it’s less likely to be perceived as a one-size fits all solution [a critique that some readers had of Rebuilt]. Tools is clearly designed to be applied and adapted for your ministry setting. Inherent in the title of this book is the key idea that this isn’t a “how to” or “just copy this plan” type of ministry, but something that’s flexible and requires continuous work and improvement. Bottom line: Think like Fr. White and Tom Corcoran–but come up with an application and outcome unique to your parish setting.

In short, Tools for Rebuilding is a must-read for anyone in ministry–even or especially if you didn’t like Rebuilt. This would make a great read for a Pastoral Administration or Ministry Leadership course.

And, if you’re not really into reading yet another book, stay tuned here 🙂 as I’ll be highlighting the 10 most important ideas from this book, as well as some of the concepts that need a little more conversation to be complete.