FROM THE PASTOR: October 4, 2009
Last Thursday, I spent the day at a workshop at St. Anthony’s parish in Ambler. It was the title that sold me: “Becoming a Welcoming, Engaging and Affirming Parish.” Mind you, here at OSJ, we are already all of those things – we hear it from visitors and from parishioners old and new all the time. But there is always room for growth as we move forward with our shared mission, desiring “to be transformed through the action of the Spirit into a community united with Jesus Christ” (OSJ Pastoral Plan). And the promotional materials for the workshop made it sound like the presenters had a lot of hands-on experience which they were ready and willing to share.
The experience turned out better than I could have hoped or imagined. First off, the experience of visiting St. Anthony’s is uplifting in itself. This is a church that literally had to “rise from the ashes” after the old church burned down several years ago. The new building manages somehow to incorporate architectural elements that are in continuity with the past, yet creatively to re-imagine the space to serve the needs of a Catholic faith community in the present and future. And the spacious, well-lit parish hall is called “Friendship Hall” – what’s not to love about that?
But back to the “People Engagement Workshop”… It was very affirming to hear people who have worked closely with Catholic parishes and schools for 20 years strongly assert a truth that I have been sharing regularly with various OSJ leaders: “Belonging leads to believing.” In my own conversations, I have been laying out a vision based on personal and pastoral experience where even MORE of us at OSJ will become MORE engaged – mainly because I am convinced that engagement and involvement change the quality of one’s sense of ownership and belonging. That, in turn, that translates into deeper searching for and commitment to personal (and shared) faith and spirituality.
The presenter from the Institute of School and Parish Development went on to outline a comprehensive vision for parish wherein each and every individual in the community, every baptized member of the assembly, has his/her own role and responsibilities in making a parish who they are. I loved the way the ISPF defines development as “the meaningful involvement and engagement of people in your mission and vision for the future.” The focus is not on money – rather, it is on people, belonging, and relationships. I kept thinking of the self-help book which was popular a few years back: “Do What You Love: The Money Will Follow.”
Toward the end of the workshop, the presenter shared a “success story” of a parish in Slidell, Louisiana – actually, the home parish of the founder and president of the ISPD. Like St. Anthony in Ambler, Our Lady of Lourdes is a church that had to rise again – in their case, from the devastating flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. “Before the deluge,” OLL was a 75-year old parish with a thriving grade school and a membership of 2200 families. Of those families, about 200 were involved in parish ministries, and about 475 were “identified offertory givers.” The weekly collection averaged $7,400. The pastor of three years had replaced a Monsignor who had been in place for over 25 years. This former pastor had fostered a static model (“We’ve always done it this way”) and a top-down model (“Father’s parish”). The parish had no vision or plan for its future; and parishioner input was rarely if ever sought.
Three years later, having received the devastation of Katrina as an invitation and an opportunity to rebuild from the ground up – and not just the building! – the parish had created a vision plan. Parishioner input was now regularly sought and welcomed. The “new” pastor was engaging and inviting. Over 300 “new” families were involved in ministries (for a total of 500+). Parish members were asked formally to express their “belonging” at least twice a year. The faith community embraced stewardship as including prayer, ministry, AND financial support; and over 800 families were committed to participating in any or all of these three facets of stewardship. The weekly offertory was about $17,000 a week.
Now here’s the good news for OSJ as I see it. We have an excellent parish pastoral plan, and many of us are working hard to implement it more fully. We have the necessary internal leadership structures in place. We are accustomed and committed to a lot of parishioner input and lay leadership, and we are already known as a welcoming and inviting parish. We already have parish-wide celebrations (Mission Sunday, St. Joseph’s Day, Oktoberfest, St. Ignatius Day). We have well attended coffee socials after our 9:30 and 11:30 Sunday Masses, and we have our “Sabbath Evenings” after the 6:30 evening Mass. We have a parish directory. We have new parishioner “orientations” (begun last year). We send out welcome packets. We do movie nights; we thank people in our Bulletin; we send personal notes of thanks and condolence.
The better news: we can become even more “welcoming, engaging, and affirming.” We have the needed “time, talent, and treasure” – spiritual as well as material. We have the will. And I got a whole bunch of wonderful new ideas at my workshop. Besides, I know that many of you have ideas that the ISPD hasn’t thought of yet. In the lyrics of an old St. Louis Jesuits hymn adapted from Jesus’ own words in Matthew 9: “The harvest is plenty; laborers are few. Come with Me into the fields.” Get out your spades and hoes – let’s get our hands dirty!
©2009 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.