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.