Church Life

Bringing Change to Simplify Movement in a Parish

The real problem for us is that our programs don’t end so there is no sense of moving on. There is just more classes to take, more small groups to join, more reasons to stay in your seat. Without a hard ending there can be no next step outwards and without that next step, people will not mature in Christian discipleship. Jesus was clear about what he thinks of those who hear his words but do not put them into action.

I have already begun the process of building Next Steps into our educational programs. I started small and have asked every small group or class to choose one service project and do it as a ministry team. Most of the groups have done this. This allows students to move from spectators to participants and to do so in the safety of those they are familiar with. 

For example, one small group assisted a homeless mission and now three of the women go regularly together to serve the homeless under a Houston overpass every week. The hardest part is just getting people to taste mission work. Once tasted, it tends to draw people in. That's how I was with prison ministry and that work owns me now.

The next task for me was started last week. I had a ministry that was beloved by those who attended but was not pulling in the numbers. Of course, I don’t really care about the numbers except as an indicator that perhaps something isn’t aligned correctly. I gave that ministry to Liturgy, since it involved Adoration, and promised to build a series of talks with them so that our ministries would overlap. It was their baby now with me speaking at it as a guest. The goal is to constantly build bridges with Liturgy, especially since they interface with clergy so much, that everyone in key leadership positions sees the collaboration and finds value in it.

Next, I offered to lead a mini-retreat for the liturgy volunteers. If she got the location together then I would lead any form of instruction or spirituality presentation she felt they needed. I would handle the meditations and handouts. This removed a burden for her, as she had wanted to do something spiritual for her volunteers for a few years now but just hadn’t felt resourced enough to do this. Our clergy is truly tapped dry at this parish and asking the priests or deacons to do something new would just be insane. 

Offering this retreat for the volunteers of a whole separate department gives me some face time with them, allowing me to establish trust between us. With that established, the next step is to invite these volunteers into Adult Faith Formation classes, in particular, our “Start Here” session. This why we are not just educating our people but taking the time to spiritually feed our volunteers, preventing burnout and renewing their spiritual life.

My next goal is to drive some of my people into the Liturgy ministries, especially those who take communion to the sick and homebound and to pull some people from her ministries into ongoing adult faith formation classes and events. I’m happy to spend a year running my Start Here classes and building bridges as a way to forge strong and lasting bonds between departments. This will enable me to have clear Next Steps by Fall of 2018 in all my classes.

One of the problems with offering Exciting New Programs is that for many parishioners it becomes Just Another Program. But this can also be a benefit when bringing change to a change-adverse crowd. First, I am adding new programs alongside the old so the defensive reactions do not immediately kick in. I want people to see the new stuff’s value as it stands. I want them to say to me after a year, “You know, I’ve been recommending your class to a few new parishioners I’ve met.” I want the fruit to speak for itself. So I will start with “just another program” in order to bypass that defensive turf war.

But we cannot remain there. My next step, which comes only after demonstrating the effectiveness of the "Start Here” program, is to prune away the excess of existing programs. You cannot prune without with the right tools. For me, the first tool is consistency and repetition of the vision. Reminding people that we are pruning so that we can better focus helps take the edge off of the reality that I’m cutting their room requests in half or am moving them to a less desirable location. The "more is more” approach doesn’t work. They know that. So by adopting the language of pruning you are helping them see that cut away, simplifying, and clarifying will actually make their ministry stronger in the long run.

The next tool to help with pruning is to state and restate the vision so that they know I’m working a plan. The last thing you want to create in people is the thought that you are being petty or vindictive. Volunteer leaders gave their time and attention and money to these programs and love them. They are volunteers probably because they love their faith and want to see the parish succeed. So vision is necessary to communicate to them where their programs and ministries belong in the past, present and future.

For instance, three years ago I met with profound resistance concerning some changes I was making. Everyone presumed the worst about me, the “new guy”. I was angry. I’m the one who cares about the parish as a whole. I’m the one reading all of the books and attending the conferences. I’m the one who drafted our discipleship track. I’m the one who… who… who didn’t communicate well at all to my team or the volunteers and participants.

They had no idea what I was doing so it all looked arbitrary to them. I was out of control or petty or prideful, none of which are appealing characteristics of a Coordinator of Adult Faith Formation. 

If people hate you because you are changing their babies without communicating to them why you are doing this, then they are right and you are wrong. No one likes a dictator. No one likes a micro-manager. People love leaders who actually lead and inspire. Inspiration comes only from a vision that has been communicated to others. Leadership is sharing the vision what could be and what should be. 

I tell my people all the time, “Mission gives you permission to say ‘No’.” If your volunteer leaders, clergy, and coworkers all understand the mission and vision, then saying ‘No’ becomes a whole lot easier. “That doesn’t fit the vision of the parish” becomes your go-to phrase, which further reinforces the mission and vision of the parish. 

Change is hard. It always has been and always will be. There isn’t growth without growing pains, but the good news is that, if you are faithful to the Lord’s guidance and the vision He’s given you, He will pull you through it. Though, to be fair, it may seem like a crucifixion at times, but even that should comfort you because you would know your in good company.

Right now I am playing the long game with my parish. I want overall simplification within my ministries and movement between them. If Rome views the parish as the locus of the lay faithful’s formation, then I want to be sure they are fully formed in the parish and by the parish, and not just in a classroom. I want prayerful, Scripture-filled, knowledgeable, servant leaders. I want well-rounded Catholics. I want missionary disciples!