As an adult faith formation leader in a suburban parish, I am inundated with program after program, ministry after ministry, event after event. In fact, I even hosted an event during Hurricane Harvey, for crying out loud! Few of the things that I do feels like it's doing much of anything. It’s a lot of work and stress with the same faces and little payoff.
I had an argument (well, several arguments, really) with some of my volunteer leaders over the work we were doing. I felt four years ago that it was too much, that it was too parish-campus-centric, and that we weren't moving people up and out into mission. We were locking people into an endless cycle of “content”, easily consumed with no action steps to follow. Just spectating, watching DVDs and sipping bad coffee, taking up space in a parish classroom, year in and year out.
The argument started when I suggested that our programs should be scaled back and limited so that we can double-down on each program’s effectiveness and increase the quality of each session we offer. You would have thought I murdered their favorite puppy in front of them. And, in effect, I kind of did. These were programs they labored over and here I was just coming in and sweeping them away.
But the point remains solid regardless of my tactless approach: we offer too much.
So what should we offer? If you had a clean slate, what would you offer as a simplified, coherent, kinetic plan to disciple Catholics in your parish?
These are the criteria I have been working with for programs that stay:
- the goal is the formation of a community of disciples in the parish
- there is a clearly defined start point and end point
- each ending point contains a “Next Step" that practically points people into a deeper immersion into the life of Christ
- hyper-focused on a particular stage of maturation
- equips the saints for spiritual growth in an essential, but incomplete, way
- has an absolute need to be held on campus rather than in the community
Let me flesh out a bit what I mean by “hyper-focused” and “equips the saints” in this context. I think we get lost in Bible studies and catechetics. Just because this is a well-done course does not mean we should host it here at the parish. Just because it’s great does not mean we should offer it. I go further: just because we have the time, energy, space, and staff still does not mean we ought to offer it.
A parish with a mission gives itself permission to say “NO!” to even great programs simply because it does not fit the mission. We ought to offer those programs that drive home what our mission is, and “general education” is not a mission. Mission has to be specific. A vision has to have a clear plan, or else it is just daydreaming. Offering classes or events for the sake of offering classes or events is the fastest way to lose the mission.
I realized three years ago in the midst of the argument I referenced earlier that just because our parish is not hosting the program does not mean we hate the program and are forbidding our parishioners from experiencing it, many of my leaders thought that was exactly what I was suggesting. “But people need to know X, Y, and Z!” they would say, “and you’re keeping them from this!”
My vision is to equip Catholics who have never read or studied the Bible to come to a three-week class on how to read, study, and pray the Scriptures, and then maybe a 4-8 week overview of Scripture where we do just that, then send them off to read, study, and pray on their own or in groups. I teach them how and that’s it. I do not need to keep doing it for them because they are now equipped to do it for themselves. They can buy Bible studies themselves or use our parish’s formed.org account. They can join lectionary-based prayer groups that meet around town and go from there. They are adults! There is only so much hand-holding that we ought to do.
I have a friend who did a parish-wide survey of her adults to see what were the parish’s needs. She told me those who rated themselves as possessing zero-to-little knowledge of the Bible said overwhelmingly they would not like to take a Bible study. Why? The majority said something along the lines of: “Because I do not know the Bible.” She was so confused. If you don't know the Bible then why not come to a Bible study? Her received clarity when some surveyors met with her later. "I don’t want to sit in a room and feel like an idiot because everyone else knows the basics and I’m still thumbing around the Table of Contents. I just don’t want to be embarrassed.”
The next month I launched a series in my ParentLIFE program (parents of our youth ministry students) called “PRESUME NO KNOWLEDGE INTRO TO THE BIBLE.” I jokingly based each once-a-month class on consuming alcohol.
- "BYOB: walking through the Table of Contents”
- “QUARTERS: a guide to the four gospels”
- “SHOTS! SHOTS! SHOTS! short readings with a big impact”
The ridiculousness of it all added humor and enough self-deprecation that almost 100+ parents showed up for each session. This was my first taste at creating a starting point for people. I was directly addressing the lack of knowledge and the very present fear of embarrassment in a way that truly let people admit they were beginners without rejection.
I equipped them on how to read, pray, and study the Bible and then sent them off to do just that. I gave them examples on devotional reading and lined up Scripture passages to read at home. People who had zero-to-little knowledge of Scripture now at least knew how to navigate their way around it. They got a sense of the flow between Old and New Testaments, why the Gospels are central, and how to grow in intimacy with Christ through Scripture.
That was about it, though, because I didn’t have this notion of Next Steps burned in my brain back then. In the future, I would love to connect them to a Next Step of starting an Unlocking the Mysteries of the Bible small group or something along those lines. Connect them to knowledge through community! That way we are building relationships and knowledge at the same time and not merely becoming passive students.