Church Life

passing thoughts: reculturing parishes

I recently had lunch with a friend of mine, Ennie Hickman of the Hickman Family and Adore Ministries here in Houston. Besides playing catch up in each other's lives, we spent a lot of the time asking questions and thinking crazy thoughts about what would make ministry- especially youth and young adult ministry- better, more effective, more lasting. This was primarily a conversation about dreaming and, to steal the cliche, "thinking outside of the box."

The "box" in this case was parish-based ministries.

Why the Box may not be enough. As the priest crisis continues in the U.S. we are seeing nervous bishops doing some extreme things to keep their churches in order, sometimes making very unpopular decisions, like closing and consolidating churches. With fewer priests to go around, the Church is tasking deacons to take over more priestly functions. Rising also in this environment is lay ministry, people from the pews getting theology degrees and pastoral training in order fill in the gaps. There are an explosion of national organizations that are there to assist weary pastors in their work of evangelization and catechesis.

It was at this point in the conversation that Ennie spoke some wisdom about our times. We both went to Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, which is know from cranking out young men and women who set up shop after graduation in parish-based ministries. It was in this context that Ennie remarked how parish work needs discernment on behalf of everyone that desires to do ministry. "It's tough," he said, "but for too many people it's their default job place. They chose it without discerning God's call."

Catholic parishes can be painful places to work. The stresses on the pastor are huge and constant, which in turn affects the overall environment of the parish. Something always has a claim on the time and energy of the priest, so the staff feels cut off and left to themselves. There is a lot of hurt and untended wounds. And there are a lot of turf wars, hostility, and an implicit need to discount other people's ministry compared to your own. Many of the people are burned out or just plain grumpy. 

Priests are afraid to fire and mediocre ministers are afraid to quit. So burn-outs hang around, stress increases, gossip and back-biting abounds, and staff prayer and spirituality is more often than not a punchline than a reality. A staffer once said in reference to our parish staff retreat: "I get paid to work, not to pray." This is not the case! Our work is our prayer, and prayer is our work. It is sacred work, contemplative action.

But what if it didn't have to be this way? 

 What would it look like if we re-cultured the priorities of parish life in America? How could we change this all-too-common experience of parish life and work? Let's throw out some dreams, suggestions or wild assertions and get some fresh ideas about life in a parish.

Click "Comment" and blow my mind with your dangerous, anti-status quo, outside-the-box thinking.