Strategic Reconsideration of Your Parish Bulletin
The bulletin has been a cornerstone of parish communication for generations. While the digital age has transformed how we share and receive information, the print medium still remains unique. People shopping for a parish might not visit your social media pages, but every person in the pews will leave with a bulletin in hand. What do you want them to see?
When you approach an update or redesign of your bulletin, it’s about more than rearranging content. Creating a bulletin that engages everyone can be challenging. Different members of the parish staff likely have different priorities. Still, it’s possible to be strategic, collaborative, and to communicate like Jesus.
Jesus Had a Communication Strategy
Jesus had a communication strategy that appealed to everyone. By the beauty of his actions of love, he attracted new visitors. By the goodness in his teaching and stories, he inspired the crowds to conversion. By communicating the truth of his teachings, he informed disciples and equipped them to change the world.
If we consider our bulletin through the lens of Jesus’ communication strategy, we can identify a few different areas of approach.
Attracting the Vistor
You’ve heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Much of our in-person communication is non-verbal. What we see matters! Attractive bulletins feature beautiful imagery that draws in the reader. They are neatly laid out with complementary colors and fonts.
Inspiring the Crowd
People are drawn to new ideas by the power of story. Inspirational content can include parishioner profiles, stewardship testimonials, and brief articles about past events in the parish. It can also provide parishioners with information on inspirational events, like faith-sharing groups and parish missions.
Informing the Disciple
Every parish has formational programming. A large part of most parish bulletins consists of announcements of their details. What about using the bulletin as a vehicle for formation? Designate some space for stories of saints with feast days that week or a Catholic Q & A. Even the pastor letter often falls into this category.
Reconsidering the bulletin content involves a number of stakeholders. Sit down with your parish leadership team and say, “We’ve got Good News to share. How do we attract the visitor, inspirethe crowd, and inform disciples?” Give yourselves permission to think outside the “events-only” model and incorporate new ideas.
As you consider how to rebuild your bulletin, there are practical questions to consider.
How Much Space?
Determine what percentage of your bulletin you want to dedicate to each element — attract, inspire, and inform — and where it should go. This means considering your bulletin with the different audiences in mind. For example, many parish bulletins have a photo of the church on the cover. New visitors already know what your church looks like. They showed up on Sunday! Consider placing an attractive piece of art on the cover of your bulletin. If they’re drawn to something beautiful, they just might turn the page! Next, include inspirational content to draw in the reader. They might see someone they know or read a story that relates to their life. Finally, information about events, faith formation opportunities, and other programs can follow later in the bulletin.
Where is the Content Coming From?
When you’re implementing new content, it’s important to have clear communication on where it’s coming from and who is responsible for gathering it. Depending on parish roles, gifts, and strengths, consider delegating someone to source stories from parishioners. Think beyond the bulletin editor! A member of the Stewardship Committee, the Communications Director, or even an aspiring journalist in the youth group could be possibilities. >For imagery and formational content, consider curating content from other sources. LPi’s Art & Media Portal offers a variety of beautiful artwork in modern and traditional styles, as well as text-based reflections on the Gospels, liturgical seasons, and stewardship.
What Events Should We Include?
It can be easy for the bulletin to become an events page, not only for your parish but for the broader community and diocese. As a staff, you need to consider the criteria for including events in your bulletin, as well as the amount of detail. If a program recurs every week, it probably needs less detail than an event that occurs only once.
Regarding events from other parishes or the diocese, are there other ways for this content to be shared without putting it in your bulletin? Rather than taking up space from your parish, consider including this information in the general announcements or in flyers provided by the other organization. Or have a designated “around the diocese” space on your parish website.
Organizing Your Content
Most bulletins contain a lot of information. It can be a lot easier to navigate if it’s presented in an organized way.
Group Content by Category
Rather than placing announcements wherever they fit, organize pages or sections by category. This helps readers to find what they’re looking for more easily. The type of organization can vary based on the needs of your parish. You might want to organize by event type — social event, volunteer opportunity, faith formation, etc. If you have an active multi-generational parish, you may want to organize by demographic — elementary school, youth, young adults, families, the elderly, etc. Other categories could be future events and past news or one-time events and ongoing programming.
Establish Ground Rules
Determine a consistent format for essential details. This should include a word count. Remember that not everything needs to live in the bulletin! If the event is primarily for empty nesters, you may need more of an event description in the bulletin. If the event is targeting young singles in the parish, only the bare minimum is needed in the bulletin. Share the rest of the information on your parish website.
Remember, You’re the Editor
When ministries submit their information to you, you don’t need to place it in the bulletin “as is.” It may be too long, repeat information, or include odd spacing. You’re the editor! You can adjust the section to fit the organization of your bulletin.
Great Catholic Parishes
How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive
In 2012 I started Parish Catalyst, an organization devoted to supporting the health and development of Catholic parishes. Our goals were to: 1) identify pastors across the country who are leading vibrant parishes, 2) gather them together to collaborate with one another, and 3) challenge them to grow that vibrancy in order to have an even greater impact on their own community and on the Church as a whole. In short, we wanted to connect church innovators together to fuel further innovation.
We began by reaching out to diocesan offices, ministry leaders, pastoral professionals, and people we personally knew across the country. We asked them to name pastors and parishes they viewed as models of healthy, vibrant parishes. Our research team, myself included, conducted a total of 244 interviews with pastors from every state in the United States. Once transcribed, the interviews amounted to more than 3,600 pages of information on life in exceptional American Catholic parishes.
Based on their thoughtful, candid responses to our open-ended questions, we were able to ascertain the most prevalent strengths and most persistent challenges experienced by these pastors. In Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive, we share the wisdom gleaned from these interviews, presenting both descriptive statistics and quotes from the pastors themselves that exemplify the trends we observed in this rich dataset.
Behind each of the 244 pastors we interviewed, there are 244 parish communities with their share of challenges and concerns but also their own wonderful stories of vibrancy and engagement. There is no single thread by which we can connect all these parishes; there is no “silver bullet” for parish ministry in the modern Catholic Church. However, our research uncovered four essential qualities that these communities have in common.
Essential Practice Number One: Great Parishes Share Leadership
One thing that came through loud and clear in our research is that shared leadership is fundamental to the success of today’s flourishing parish. Indeed, four out of five of the pastors we interviewed said they used some form of shared leadership. Leadership in ministry that is truly shared does not happen simply because people work together or cooperate with one another in some way. It is a gradual and mutual evolution of new patterns. The shift to shared leadership represents a marked change from the traditional Lone Ranger model of pastoring. Teamwork and communication between clergy and lay leaders become essential to decision-making processes. The pastors we interviewed who share leadership take pride in their strong, professional staffs and volunteers and are intentional and creative about how they go about it. We identified three styles of leadership sharing among them: Collaborative, Delegative, and Consultative. Many pastors combined these styles, using one style over another depending on the situation, but most had a dominant tendency toward one of them.
Essential Practice Number Two: Great Parishes Foster Spiritual Maturity and Plan for Discipleship
Our second foundational practice has to do with the spiritual formation and discipleship of parishioners. Over ninety percent of our pastors considered the spiritual growth of their people to be the strongest characteristic of their communities, while at the same time, seventy percent saw a need for continued improvement in this area. This is not a contradiction. Spiritual growth is a journey, not a destination, and it was of paramount concern to the pastors we interviewed. They set spiritual growth as an explicit goal for the parish community, and actively look for ways to address the spiritual hungers of their people. Most importantly, they understand that spiritual growth, or disciple-making, requires dedicated resources as surely as raising a new building does. So they allocate both the financial and the human resources required to implement spiritual growth initiatives.
The initial step in disciple-making is the decision to align all programming and training in such a way that every parish opportunity begins and ends with encountering Christ. For some pastors and their catechetical teams, success began through reimagining and overhauling traditional religious education programs. Other pastors began with small groups.
“At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth… the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ.”
—St. John Paul II, Catechesis in Our Time, 5
But the goal of nurturing discipleship development is not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of goal. A parish culture that revolves around inviting individuals to take the next step in their relationship with Jesus Christ requires a certain amount of patience and flexibility on the part of parish leadership because, once articulated, the goal of encouraging discipleship must continually be revisited and adapted to address the various and evolving stages of faith developing in their parishioners.
One side benefit to leadership’s strategic commitment to the ongoing spiritual growth of the community is the strong impact these deepened disciples have on their parishes. They develop a greater connection to the parish, are more committed to its spiritual health, more likely to invite outsiders to parish events, and more inclined to give generously of their time, talent, and treasure.
Essential Practice Number Three: Great Parishes Excel on Sundays
The third area that came up in many of our interviews is the experience a church attender has when he or she comes to Mass on Sunday.
In Great Catholic Parishes you will find data and quotes from pastors describing the importance of good music, well-crafted homilies, and a warm welcome to all. One of our pastors referred to this as: Hymns, Homilies, and Hospitality. Here are some of the highlights.
- Hymns: When it comes to music there is no optimal style. It varies from place to place. Good music requires financial investment in both equipment and the best musicians a parish can afford.
- Homilies: This is the most critical piece of all. Our pastors are disciplined and carve our large chunks of time to prepare their homilies. One standard we heard in our interviews was that every minute of preaching required one hour of preparation. One experienced pastor interviewed remarked that he could now prepare his homily in about half that time.
- Hospitality: Sunday morning hospitality begins long before the weekend. You might say it begins with the parish website where people feel welcomed and drawn by an active, vital community. For many parishioners it begins when they pull into the parking lot, where someone in the parish welcomes them. Young children are invited to a separate Children’s Liturgy of the Word and friendly people are clearly present to welcome and answer your questions.
In today’s vital parishes the Sunday experience is more holistic than it used to be. Still centered on the Eucharist, of course, but including many moving parts. For the homebound or those who are traveling, the Sunday experience doesn’t even happen at the church building. It happens online, when they participate in their home Mass via Internet.
“The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open.”
—Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 4
Essential Practice Number Four: Great Parishes Evangelize
There are approximately eighty million Catholics in the United States, of which sixty-four million are affiliated with a parish. With those numbers, we pack a whole lot of potential punch. Unfortunately, historically, Catholics have been terrible at evangelization. Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but I think all Catholics can agree that we were not raised to wear our faith on our sleeves.
Whatever the reasons for our holy hesitation, evangelization has always been an explicitly stated goal of the Catholic Church, and happily we seem to be getting better at it. Almost fifty percent of the pastors we interviewed consider evangelization to be a strength of their parish. Others are beginning to take the concept of invitation beyond the door of the church to the local neighborhood and to the world at large. More than half of the pastors (58.6%) have evangelization in their sight, but reported that their efforts need further development. One of our pastors put it this way: “We can no longer leave the light on for people; we now have to bring the light to them.”
Many of the parishes interviewed have changed the culture of their parish in order to become intentional, evangelizing parishes. As it is sometimes said, they have moved from maintenance to mission. This is not a change in doctrine; it is a change in attitude. It is extraordinarily difficult for a culture of invitation to take root if only a few scattered individuals are willing to move toward a more evangelical outlook. Scale is important, meaning that the whole parish community needs to be on board to keep evangelization afloat.
Evangelizing parishes disciple parishioners through homilies, listening sessions, small groups, Bible studies, and other opportunities that deepen discipleship as well as encourage parishioners to discuss their faith, which makes them more at ease about sharing it with others. They are also intentional about creating easy entry points for people outside of the church community who are searching.
There is nothing revolutionary about these four themes. At first glance they can appear deceptively simple. But one must admit that for some reason these particular parishes are thriving in a time and climate when many people no longer find value in organized religion. These pastors, parish leadership teams, and parishioners have developed a unique clarity of vision. With a deepened understanding of just how critical the eucharistic celebration is to the mission of the Church, they have become intentionally strategic about advancing two things: the discipleship of their own people and the Gospel mandate to evangelize.
About the Author Bill Simon Jr. is the founder of Parish Catalyst, a network of pastors with demonstrated creative leadership skills. Parish Catalyst offers free online resources and facilitates Learning Community cohorts for pastors and their teams to connect, imagine solutions, and formulate workable plans. Bill is the author of Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive and has coauthored Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation with Michael Novak.
The Mobile Church App
I joined the staff of Saint Pius X in Greensboro, NC, in 1992, and I was a young guy right out of divinity school. My job was to catechize and evangelize the community. I was armed with many books, the Bible, my faith, a Smith Corona word processer, and a mimeograph. (If you are reading this and have never heard of those last two things, you are really young. But I am still not fifty, so it really wasn’t that long ago.)
My Smith Corona was basically a typewriter with a two-inch tall screen. I would save my document to a disk, print it out, and then make copies with purple ink on the mimeograph machine. And yes, I would smell the ink every time. Imagine my joy when I convinced my pastor I could get a computer after only one year on the job. It had Windows 3.1 and I was in the fast lane. It only took two more years for me to get something called a Web browser and actually read content on something they called the World Wide Web. Awesome!
It sounds funny to us now, doesn’t it? When I think back on how technology improved and changed the way I did things in just the twenty-two years I was in a parish, I cannot help but be amazed. Today, I receive email on my watch, read books and magazines on a tablet, and watch TV shows provided by a little Internet stick placed into a slot on my HDTV. Technology has completely changed the way I live my life and how I communicate with the world around me. Some will say much of the communication is impersonal, but I have found that used correctly, it actually enhances the relationships I have and helps to keep some relationships alive where otherwise they would disappear due to lack of time or face-to-face engagement. And at the center of my communication system is my smartphone. Yes, I do use it to call people, but it also serves as my GPS, my reservation service, my news outlet, my email provider, my music player, and a way to keep my shopping addiction alive. My faith is also supported with this device, as it serves as my prayer book, my Bible, and my source for Catholic news. One thing it doesn’t do is connect me with my parish community, because in the midst of all the other apps I use on a daily or weekly basis, my church community does not have a mobile app. The place where I experience “the source and summit” of my faith is not represented on my smartphone, the center of my communication universe.
“Harness the latest technology to connect people to the body of Christ.”
When Is That Event Again?
If you have been around long enough in some form of parish leadership, I am sure you have been amazed at how hard it is to have an informed and engaged parish community. Have you ever announced an event for weeks, detailed that event in the bulletin, talked about it on your website, and sent out emails, only to have someone ask you the week after the event, “When is that event again?” You are not alone. Where there is a community of human beings, there is a struggle to communicate and make that communication meaningful. And the good news of Jesus Christ is the most meaningful message ever to be communicated. Beyond the desire of any parish community to communicate the details about events exists the primary reason for those events, Jesus.
At LPi, we know that to get a parish to sign a contract with us as its new bulletin provider it will take, on average, seventeen points of contact over time. Those contact points will be email, mailings, face-to-face meetings, visits to our website, etc. Also, a good marketing firm will tell you that it will not only take a quantity of contacts to get the message across, but success will depend on the quality of that communication. A parish has a goal of much greater importance than convincing someone to sign a bulletin: evangelization and catechesis. Can you afford not to try seventeen times to bring Jesus into someone’s heart? Should you not try to harness the latest technology to connect people to the body of Christ? Along with all the other ways you seek to build parish engagement and share the message of Jesus, you need to have a voice in the primary arena of communication used today: the mobile app.
Why the Church Mobile App?
Mobile apps, whether used on a smartphone or a tablet, have changed how we think about and use mobile technology. Studies show that when people use their smartphones, eighty percent of the time they are using apps. It is how we connect ourselves to all those things that mean something to us. Look on someone’s smartphone and you will catch a glimpse into what that person finds important. You will find the games they like to play, the organizations they belong to, they services they use, and the music they like. Should there be anything more important to those in your parish community than their faith? The initial value in a church app is that downloading it is an exercise in belonging. If you belong to something that has value in your life, downloading the app from that entity reinforces your connection.
After reinforcing belonging, the ability to communicate and engage parishioners is a value unsurpassed by other forms of technology. I have apps on my smartphone from other parishes throughout the country. When I give talks about church engagement, I use them to show people I meet how this technology works. I like to tell a story about how effective a church app can be when used to increase engagement.
One day, I was driving between churches, and my phone buzzed. It was a notification about an event coming up that weekend. I looked at my phone and it mentioned a big Italian festival coming up that Saturday. When I pulled over for gas, and saw the event was at Saint Pius X. I thought, “That’s my parish!” Then I thought, “I am home this weekend!” Then I started to dream, “A night of Italian food, music, and wine tasting? I am there!” Then I finally realized that the notification came from a church app and my parish does not have a church app. The event was for another St. Pius X somewhere in the US. I was happy to be going home that weekend, but I wasn’t going to be at any Italian festival. What a bummer!
If that notification had come from my parish, they would have gotten me. I guarantee I would have been there. I realized then how effective a phone app could be for engaging a community. I imagined all the other opportunities for engagement besides the big events.
If I had still been on staff at the parish, I would have loved to use it for cancellations due to weather, calls to prayer in the face of tragedies, and schedule changes due to unforeseen circumstances.
Imagine the positive effect it would have had on a day like 9/11. I remember trying to think of all the ways to communicate that we were having a prayer vigil that night and time for people to simply be together. To send out a notification through a mobile app would have by far had the greatest impact.
Of course, communication can be abused. I know of some schools that need to communicate with parents by phone tree seemingly every other day. It gets to the point that many just ignore the call. That is often because every school group has access to the phone tree. You are unable to select when and from whom you want to receive a call. A good mobile app gives the user the option to opt in and out of certain types of notifications. That also means that a good app offers a parish options for its many different ministries and groups.
In your parish, imagine the Knights of Columbus, parish council, youth ministry, and the parish school all wanting their own app. If your app allows the user to opt in and out of notifications for all the different groups in your parish, then all groups can use the app like it was their own. On top of that, the message put forth to the community is that all these groups make up one parish; no group is an entity unto itself. This is such an important message in creating a fully engaged parish walking a stewardship way of life.
You are also making parishioners aware of all the ways they can give of themselves in the parish. They can look at your app and see the long list of opportunities for their time, talent, and treasure. The vitality of your parish is on display through your app.
Finally, a good church app should serve as a means of good catechesis and evangelization. Links to sacred Scripture, prayers, and the liturgical calendar help users fill their day with faith. Blogs written by parish staff or outside reliable content creators can provide good formation for users, wherever they find themselves. People are able to take their parish with them 24/7, and if they take full advantage of this reality, they can grow in their faith as well.
The New Evangelization
The New Evangelization is a call for the Church to re-propose the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world and those in the Church who need to strengthen their faith. I would say that includes all of us. We are called to engage people with catechesis and reengage those who have lost a sense of the importance of faith in daily life. Daily life in the modern world, for most, is filled with technology. Young adults, those we seem to be losing at a rapid rate, are the most engaged with technology. By using a church mobile app, a parish has the chance to engage and catechize the future generation of the Catholic Church.
My hope is that my parish community, as well as yours, will seize the opportunity to create an app to reach more people for Christ. I would love to put my parish icon on my phone next to my sports, media, and travel icons. It’s time for all parishes to embrace mobile app technology as a ministry tool to meet people in the cyberworld where they already exist. It is a way to demonstrate that we are taking the call for a New Evangelization seriously.
About the Author Tracy Earl Welliver, MTS, serves as Director of Parish Community & Engagement at LPi, and has taught and presented all over the US in parishes and at conferences in the areas of stewardship, catechesis, and strengths theory for over two decades. To bring Tracy to your parish, email him at twelliver@4LPi.com.
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Tools to Grow Your Giving
Most Catholic parishes have either run an increased offertory program or have at the very least considered one. Many finance councils and business managers find that the increase they see as the responses come back are only temporary. All too often, parishioners fall back on past giving habits, leaving the parish with no real-long term change in offertory patterns. Tim Potrikus, LPi’s Vice President of Custom Services, takes a look at how to build a culture of sustained generosity.
If you’re Catholic, you’ve seen them. Heck, if you’re responsible for the fiscal well-being of your Catholic parish, you may have even created them! I’m referring to the ubiquitous mailing campaign and pew card responses where we call on our parishioners to “be a bigger part of our church” and ask for an additional $5 each week. When we ask, parishioners respond. But when we fail to talk about the future, parishioners tend to go back to old habits. They place $5 or $10 in the envelope—most weeks (39 out of 52 according to most surveys)—or perhaps toss a stray $20 in the weekly collection basket. Unfortunately, that can leave our churches with strained budgets, and lacking the financial resources they need to truly fulfill the mission of their parish.
Unfortunately, we can’t publish a paper and tell you how to fix it. I’ve had the pleasure of presenting to groups of parish leadership throughout the US over the past several years. People from somewhere near two thousand different Catholic churches in total have attended over that time period. They come from parishes that are urban or rural, large or small, wealthy or financially struggling. I have yet to find two parishes that are identical—each has its own unique strengths on which it can build its spiritual and fiscal health. There are, however, some common threads we can use to evaluate, recommend, and deploy strategies to change offertory patterns for the better.
Change Parishioner Giving Habits
The best place to begin creating a sustained change in parishioner giving habits is to define current behaviors and understand the elements that drive those behaviors. We recently worked with a parish on an assessment of its parishioner giving habits, and I was questioning one of the line items on its income statement. It turns out that the parish has one regular, recurring collection that is recorded outside the normal offertory so as to “avoid the diocesan tax” on part of its offertory. In another case, parishioners were disappointed at the loss of a chapel (due to budget issues), and those who supported the chapel voted with their offertory. They simply stopped giving—some even started attending Mass at a different parish. In both cases there were issues at work in the parish culture that affected not only giving patterns, but participation in the parish. Understanding those elements and working toward clarifying the vision for the parish begins to address the issues of engagement, both in the parish mission and its fiscal health. They are irrevocably tied together.
In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Dr. Stephen R. Covey states, “Begin with the end in mind.” We agree with this principle wholeheartedly! A letter campaign is fine, but how do you measure success? Perhaps responses come in, but successful programs establish a baseline for the regular recurring offertory at a given point of time, perhaps the prior calendar or fiscal year. The “end in mind” that Covey speaks of is best expressed as short-term (thirteen-, twenty-six-, and fifty-two-week) goals and longer-term projections for two and three years forward. Ideally, the parish sets goals for a trend toward sustainable growth. More importantly, the plan and its progress is shared with parishioners on a regular basis.
Most parishioners become a more active part of their parish when they feel they are not only aware of, but also a part of, the planning process on the work the church does. One conclusion that can be drawn from the Notre Dame study Unleashing Catholic Generosity is this: Catholics are twice as likely to give when they feel their parish has communicated their mission and vision in an excellent fashion.
Effective communication goes beyond the current fiscal year. In an effort to develop fiscal discipleship, parishioners need to be aware of both the shortterm and long-term needs of the parish. Funding a religious education program is an annual event, as are salaries and parish operating expenses; these routinely show up in church budgets and financial discussions. More uncommon is the parish that is setting funds aside for larger projects, and communicating those needs to the parish at large. A good yardstick is to review the insured value of parish property, and set aside a budget reserve of two to three percent annually for maintenance, repairs, and asset obsolescence. A parish with $2–3 million of insured value in buildings, property, and assets may be stunned to think about $40,000–90,000 annually for repairs and maintenance. But remember, some years will have minimal needs, and other years might require roof, HVAC, or parking lot repairs that can easily tip an otherwise balanced budget. Smaller projects—plumbing repairs or replacement of outdated sound equipment—can be easily paid for out of the funds set aside through the reserve line item. The benefit to this approach is that the need to ask parishioners to “give to the roof project” is replaced by prudent fiscal policies that ensure good stewardship of the properties and grounds entrusted to the parish.
“Celebrate the work you do that changes lives, and invite others to become part of that work.”
One of the self-assessment questions I like to ask parish councils, finance councils, and leadership is this: What does your parish do? Search Catholic websites and it’s very likely that Mass times are posted. A Catholic Church celebrating Mass is not unique. While Mass times should surely be on the website, the website should also be engaging people to become part of the parish community through the charitable work of the parishioners. Celebrate the work you do that changes lives, and invite others to become part of that work. Share with donors the successes and the struggles of your work, but more importantly, let them know on a regular basis that without their generosity—as volunteers or as donors—these changes simply could not occur.
A good friend of mine who now works in development with the Catholic Church once said to me that any commercial company would absolutely love to have the customer base knowledge that the Catholic Church has. “We know when our customers are born!” he said. Yet as a church, we do very little with that information as it relates to true participation in our faith. Today’s technology provides the ability to work with data that already exists in most Catholic parishes. Asking a widowed retiree living on Social Security, or a family facing a personal struggle at home to give more can have a negative effect on a parish campaign and people’s perception of their church leadership. On the alternate side of the spectrum, sending a major benefactor a form letter asking for a token increase could have an impact that is directly opposite the intended message. An overview of average gifts, median giving levels, and gift frequency—including parishioners with no record of giving and/or no record of ministry service to the parish, helps to define a custom outreach message to various groups in the parish. Understanding parishioner data and how to incorporate it into a long-term plan for sustained giving should not be left undone if the goal is to facilitate a permanent change in generosity.
Successful campaigns go far beyond a letter asking for money; they involve plans for spiritual engagement, growth in stewardship as service, and growth in offertory results over a period of time from one to three years. At some point in that cycle it is necessary to have “the money talk” with parishioners—but not every time; and not even every year.
What’s a Good Time To Start
During initial conversations with many of the parishes we’ve served, we are often asked, “When is it a good time to start an increased offertory program?” I like to respond with a question of my own: “It depends. What would you do with an additional $75,000 each year?” While there’s never a good time to ask for money, there’s never a bad time either. The more important decision is how to integrate an offertory program with other elements affecting the parish, community, and diocese.
Catholics are easily confused by myriad local, diocesan, and national collections—plus annual appeals, capital campaigns, endowments, school needs, and emergency appeals. The messaging becomes critical for each of those activities, yet there is a greater need for an overall message of charity to parishioners.
Parish leadership and staff likewise needs to recognize that everyone cannot respond to every opportunity. Those with a passion for Catholic education are much more likely to respond favorably when they know their gifts will be used for education; those with a desire to help the hungry will readily respond to an appeal related to hunger. In its national study on US Catholic giving habits, Catholic Relief Services realized that most Catholics who are in a demographic that can support charitable work no longer believe that world hunger can be eradicated. However, they do believe that their contributions to drill a well for clean water can have a positive impact on individuals in a defined community. Creating a message that adds a tangible or visible perceived result has a profound impact on the response rate to an appeal. Further, once engaged in the work being done, donors are far more likely to respond favorably to future appeals.
“Successful campaigns are the result of deciding to move forward with meaningful direction.”
A clear message deserves the attention of an entire audience. Expressing the mission and vision, and distributing the message, extends far beyond the volunteers, the paid staff, and the weekly parishioners. It needs to extend beyond the walls of the church. Moving content beyond a posting on the bulletin board or a snippet in the weekly bulletin requires additional work; however, keeping parishioners informed is a key component of sustaining engagement. Typical distribution might also include prominently featuring stories on the parish website of parishioners at work in the community. Encouraging parishioners to promote events and their role in your ministries on their personal social media sites extends the range of community or unfamiliar with the parish. These works of charity and sacrifice build a personal relationship between the volunteer and the mission of the church, and results in a deeper feeling of belonging to the parish—and wanting to see it succeed.
Celebrate the successes. As Catholics, we are often humble in the work we do, perhaps to a fault. While it may not be wise to broadcast every detail of our work, it is beneficial to engage our faith community on both the work we do, and the responsibility each parishioner has in those endeavors. We celebrate strengths as Catholics, often identified as the gifts we are given through the Holy Spirit. Yet few Catholics realize that when their top four strengths are placed in order of strongest first, only one in nearly 250,000 will have the same strengths in that same order. Churches can realize a sustainable change in their parish culture when they evaluate parishioner strengths, then express to them that it is not someone else’s responsibility, but that it is rather each individual’s responsibility to respond to the needs of the church. When done as part of a plan for long-term success, parishioners become inspired to be a living example of their faith.
For those doing the hard work of changing their parish, it is important to understand that sustainable change happens slowly and happens over time. One of the most difficult parts of implementing and executing a plan will be the inevitable setbacks or unmet goals. However, the plan becomes a roadmap and, like a map, if a route becomes blocked, an alternative route can be evaluated and the ultimate destination achieved. Myriad decisions need to be made in developing a true plan for sustainable generosity. Often the most important decision is the decision to start. Each week that passes takes us closer to the close of another fiscal year; one that can close with a positive improvement in fiscal health or close with the financial challenges that seem to plague our churches year after year. Successful campaigns are the result of deciding to move forward with meaningful direction.
About the Author Tim Potrikus and his team work with churches throughout the country to evaluate parishioner giving habits, recommend development plans, and work in partnership with parishes to ensure continued success. Join the team for a LIVE webinar on Sustaining Generosity. Check LPi’s website for upcoming dates.
Recorded webinars are available online at www.4LPi.com/webinar
Taking Evangelization to the Streets
It was around 6:00 pm in the evening as I was standing on a busy street corner in downtown Phoenix, AZ. I was surrounded by Catholics who had just completed a two day workshop on how to share their faith and now here we are, in the middle of the city, actually doing the work of evangelization. It seemed crazy—Catholics doing street evangelization. Could this possibly work?
There had been objections, claims that street evangelization normally doesn’t work and could push people away from the faith. So what would happen tonight? Let’s take a look at a ministry that has spawned over two hundred local chapters or teams in just three years.
St. Paul Street Evangelization (SPSE) was founded in 2012 in response to the call of St. John Paul II to commit all of the church’s energies to a New Evangelization. SPSE is a grassroots, non-profit Catholic evangelization organization, dedicated to responding to the mandate of Jesus to preach the Gospel to all nations by taking our Catholic faith to the streets. We do this in a non-confrontational way, allowing the Holy Spirit to move in the hearts of those who witness our public Catholic presence.
A local team consists of two or more Catholics who evangelize for a couple of hours on a busy street corner, festival, parish event, or local shopping centers or airports. They never stand on soap boxes or use megaphones, but instead seek to listen, form new relationships, and build a bridge of trust from the public square to the local parish.
Armed with rosaries, miraculous medals, pamphlets, Bibles, and other items both fun and spiritual, SPSE team members listen, befriend, proclaim the Gospel, and invite people to come and encounter Jesus Christ through the church he founded. As Catholics we are rediscovering our roots to be apostles in the modern world. St. Paul went to Athens (Acts 17:16-32), and in the midst of a bustling metropolis proclaimed that Jesus is the one true God and Savior. When he planted seeds, some converted, others mocked, and some said that they would “hear from him again.” Our evangelists have gotten the same response as they go to the street.
The modern world presents unique challenges in evangelization, but two-minute conversations with others can bring about conversion, or plant a seed at the very least. Raymond Cardinal Burke recently said of us: “This apostolate … is doing a tremendous work in bringing Christ and his truth and love to all parts of the United States and also in other nations. I give my wholehearted support to the work and I pray for it daily that it will continue and grow for the sake of the salvation of many souls… I am happy on this occasion to recommend to you St. Paul Street Evangelization and urge you to become involved with it.”
So what happened as I was standing on a Phoenix street corner? My friend and SPSE Regional Missionary, David Tucker, and I were sharing the rosary with people passing by during the city’s “First Friday” event that drew thousands outside. A young woman approached me and opened with, “Thank you so much for not being like that guy down the street, because I do have questions.” That guy down the street? What guy? Where? She had run into another street evangelist with a different group that was screaming at pedestrians, holding a Bible in hand, and telling them that they were sinners who were going to hell. This only frustrated the woman standing in front of me who did have questions on her mind and heart about God, but needed someone who was calm to talk to. Someone who would listen to her.
“You see, I have a lot of questions about God, and I never knew who I could ask. If you have a minute, I want to ask you.” Well, certainly, I told her. That is why we are here. “I have been a scientist my whole career and it would be wrong to say that scientists do not think about God. Many of us approach the subject of God with a critical eye and an air of suspicion. I have always felt that God was used to explain our gaps in the understanding of the universe, and the more we discovered, the less we needed God. I am no longer comfortable with that explanation. Could you help me understand why you believe in God?”
It is a common mistake to think that you have to be an expert apologist or have all of the answers in order to be a great evangelist. In my own journey ten years ago into the Catholic faith I met Catholic apologists who kept me way from the Catholic faith longer by the way they treated me. Just like those street preachers who still stand on soap boxes and yell “sinner” at passersby, how you treat people really matters. We must be bold in calling people to repentance and conversion, but we can do so with a sense of solidarity and compassion.
I took the time to get to know the person I was talking to. She wouldn’t be the first or the last to thank us that night for being approachable, joyful, and kindhearted as Christians. I always tell my first time evangelists (who are usually a healthy mix of excited and terrified) not to worry about making any converts. I tell them to go and have fun. “Let others see your joy and good humor.” Pope Francis remarked:
“When the Church summons Christians to take up the task of evangelization, she is simply pointing to the source of authentic personal fulfilment. For ‘here we discover a profound law of reality: that life is attained and matures in the measure that it is offered up in order to give life to others. This is certainly what mission means’. Consequently, an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral! Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that ‘delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow… And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ’” (Joy of the Gospel, 10).
As we got to know one another, I provided the woman who had stopped to talk with some reading material and information on the Catholic faith about science. I tried to explain that the Catholic Church is a patron of the sciences and is not opposed to scientific pursuit. Nor do we see it as a threat to faith. She thanked me for her time and told me she was seriously considering becoming Catholic. Once a person shows interest, our teams can accompany them through the journey of discipleship.
In order to build a civilization of love, we must first create a culture of evangelization. Many people approach our teams with urgent spiritual and worldly needs. There is a brokenness and hunger for God in the world. We meet them where they are, try to put them in touch with the many charities of the church, and pray for them on the spot. Many people are not sure where to turn, outside of state aid, for assistance. When we evangelize on the street we can invite people into our community for help. All Catholics are called to be evangelists, and evangelists are called to be holy, sharing their lives with other people in the spirit of abandonment and the cross. It is only in giving our lives as a gift to others that we find true joy.
How It Works
- A team of at least two Catholic evangelists choose a place in their city or town with a moderate to high level of pedestrian traffic. Examples of suitable locations include an open-air market, such as an art fair or farmers’ market; a bus stop or subway station platform; a public park.
- The evangelists “set up shop” with a sandwich-board sign and a collection of materials: assorted pamphlets on aspects of Catholicism, holy cards, rosaries, Miraculous Medals, etc. A small table or blanket is often useful for displaying the materials and drawing the attention of passersby, but it is not essential.
- The evangelists then say a prayer, invoking the Holy Spirit to guide their efforts for that day, asking to be courageous, humble, and docile to his promptings. They ask through Our Lady’s intercession for the Lord to send them the people he desires them to encounter, and they pray that all may be done for the greater glory of God.
- At this point, the evangelists simply wait for passersby to draw near and offer them free rosaries. When someone stops to take a rosary, the evangelizers also provide a pamphlet on how to pray the rosary and attempt to further engage the person. A question that is often effective is, “Are you Catholic?” as the answer can provide a springboard for further conversation in many different directions. By asking follow-up questions, the evangelizer can discover whether a person is a practicing Catholic, fallen away Catholic, Protestant, New Ager, atheist, etc.—information that is key in guiding a conversation to meet that person where he or she “is at.”
- The evangelist then shares the Gospel with the person. We share the good news (that God loves you and has a plan for your life), the bad news (that we are separated from a relationship with God because of sin and sin leads to hell), the good news (that Jesus Christ died for our sins and it is through faith that we are saved), and the invitation (that Jesus stands ready to give us God’s grace and we can approach him in prayer, repentance, and join the family of God.)
- The evangelist makes an invitation to the faith, welcomes them to any local parish events or to other follow-up opportunities, and asks if the person has any prayer requests. Each team keeps a prayer request book and offers to pray for each person they meet.
Resources Provided by SPSE
- Live Evangelization Training Workshops—SPSE provides live evangelization training, not just for street evangelists, but for everyone. Parishioners who feel ill-equipped or lack confidence do not get involved in the work of evangelization. We can help you overcome that hurdle in your parish. We travel to parishes throughout the country offering one- and two-day workshops. We also offer conference talks and retreats. The workshops include Basic Evangelization Training, the Catholic Hospitality Training Institute, 10 Ways to Be a Great Evangelist, Evangelical Apologetics, and more.
- Local Teams—SPSE has two hundred local teams worldwide. It is very easy to set up a new local team in your area, and we will provide the resources and training you need to be successful. Many parishes order our parish starter kit to run a team out of their own church.
- Regional Missionaries—SPSE has more than two dozen highly trained regional missionaries who are ready to help street teams, parishes, campus ministries, and others in their goals to create a culture of evangelization.
- Member Website—SPSE has a comprehensive member website with hundreds of free and downloadable evangelization resources, including online training.
- Team Development—SPSE offers team development resources for street evangelists, diocesan offices, parishes, door-to-door ministries, and individuals. From short monthly formation guides for parish groups to evaluation resources, every parish will find something useful to its evangelization efforts.
- Publications—SPSE has dozens of handouts, pamphlets, audio tracts, books, and more that are free to download, copy, and distribute for all of our members.
- Online Store—SPSE offers an exclusive online store for Supporting Members with evangelization materials such as holy medals, holy cards, T-shirts, pamphlets, and more.
We Need Your Help
As a grassroots apostolate we are a collaboration of ordinary Catholics seeking to evangelize in the world in which we live. We need your help to be able to continue our work:
- Follow us: Join our newsletter and follow us on social media such as Facebook. We provide weekly updates on stories from our teams, the latest news, and prayer requests.
- Pray for us: We provide an avenue for people to come together and pray through our prayer warrior page on Facebook. You can read prayer requests from the street there, and add your own.
- Join us: Go to streetevangelization.com to learn where our teams are and to start a new team or join a current team. You’ll be surprised at how easy and fruitful it is and how much fun you’ll have.
- Support us: Our work is funded by monthly supporters who pray for us and give a donation out of the gifts God has given them. Consider going to streetevangelization.com and becoming a monthly supporter today.
About the Author Adam Janke is Vice President and Program Director of St. Paul Street Evangelization. After converting to Catholicism from biblical fundamentalism, Adam obtained his BA in theology and catechetics from Franciscan University of Steubenville. While working as a full time Director of Religious Education and Coordinator of Youth Ministry, he also obtained his master’s in theology from Franciscan. He has been active not only in parish ministry, but also served as a team member for Lansing 40 Days for Life and diocesan coordinator of the National March for Life. Adam has been featured on EWTN Television and Radio, Catholic Answers Live, the Radio Maria Network, The Son Rise Morning Show, The Mike Allen Show, as well as in several Catholic news publications. He resides in Michigan with his wife and five children.
The Parish: Maintenance or Mission
I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.
—Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, 27)
Pope Francis is calling on all of us, as Church, to focus on mission, rather than maintenance (or self- preservation), in everything we do. And when it comes to stewardship, I want to reaffirm Pope Francis’ call, from my own perch as a sociologist, by acquainting you with recent social science research detailing how a mission-focused approach to stewardship can help unleash Catholic generosity within the United States.
First, some basic information regarding my research: I conducted it with Christian Smith at the University of Notre Dame (under the auspices of the Institute for Church Life and the Center for the Study of Religion and Society), and we used nationally representative survey data, gathered in 2010, to explore religious giving among US Catholics. Importantly, we compared Catholics with members of other faiths in the US and asked questions about how money is discussed within congregations, allowing us to examine the impact that mission-focused discussions of money in parishes and congregations has on religious giving. Put simply, we find that greater generosity flourishes in mission-focused parishes. Unfortunately, too many Catholic parishes currently focus on parish maintenance, rather than mission.
The Catholic Giving Gap
Let me start by revealing a troubling overall lack of generosity among US Catholics. In our data, American Catholics are less likely than the rest of the population to report giving money to the Church, with fewer than one in five self-identified Catholics indicating that they gave to a solely religious cause in the past twelve months. Catholics are also less likely to report giving ten percent or more of their income as voluntary contributions to good causes (tithing). Indeed, the terrible truth is that a full 40% of Catholics surveyed failed to donate to any charitable cause, religious or otherwise, in the previous year. Let me repeat that: 40% of self- identified Catholics failed to donate to any charitable cause in the previous year, and fewer than one in five self- identified Catholics reported giving directly to the Church.
How big is this giving gap when we compare ourselves to other Christians? The following graph depicts it visually. Catholics are only about half as likely as Evangelical Protestants to give to the Church.
Catholics not only give less often, but, on average, give far less money than members of other religious groups in the US. When examining those who actively give to religious and/or non-religious charities, the average amount given to charities in the previous twelve months by Catholics was a mere $501 a year. This is the total amount given to all charities, both religious and otherwise, in the past twelve months. For a household with an income of $50,000, that constitutes just 1% of income—and notice, these analyses exclude completely the 40% of Catholics who do not give to charity at all, which would depress these figures further. If we analyze Mainline Protestants in our data in a similar fashion, we find their average total giving is $923/year—almost twice as much as Catholics, and for Evangelical Protestants, it is $1,437/year—almost three times the average for Catholics. These differences in charitable giving between Catholics and other Christians in the US are what I term the “Catholic Giving Gap.”
This Catholic gap in giving is not new. In the 1990s, Villanova researcher Chuck Zech wrote a book entitled Why Catholics Don’t Give … And What Can Be Done About It. Even earlier, in the 1980s, sociologist and priest, Andrew Greeley wrote a book with Bishop William McManus, entitled Catholic Contributions, which detailed the relative decline in giving among Catholics as compared to Protestants from the 1960s to the 1980s. Our current research reiterates the existence of this Catholic giving gap, but also finds that the discrepancy between Catholics and Protestants in religious giving appears to be growing, rather than receding, over time in the US. In order to explain this gap, we need to explore how parishes discuss money and how this shapes giving cultures within parishes. As I will show, differing congregational cultures are crucial for understanding the giving gap (and in reducing it).
“Paying the Bills” vs. “Living the Mission”
Survey respondents actively involved in a parish (or congregation) were asked questions about how their parish discussed money. They answered with regard to their own parish or congregation, and our survey revealed two distinct ways that parishes and Christian congregations tend to discuss money. We called these two approaches “Paying the Bills” and “Living the Mission.” “Paying the Bills” means that a parish tends to focus on budgetary items identified by need or scarcity, with a consistent emphasis on parishioners’ responsibility to pay the congregation’s bills. It is focused on parish maintenance and, we argue, this approach has the tendency to separate discussions of money from the spiritual mission of the Church.
On the other hand, members of “Living the Mission” parishes report very different discussions of money. Rather than a focus on parish maintenance, they are asked to fund the mission and vision of the parish in which they are spiritually invested. This approach opens people’s eyes to opportunities for spiritual growth and for world transformation. It requires pastors and parish leaders to successfully communicate the mission of the parish to its members. It is also associated with a more participatory parish culture, and can lead to greater engagement with the surrounding community.
When we compare Catholics to other Christians in the US, we find Catholics are less likely than other Christians to report a “live the mission” approach to discussions of money in their parish, and instead describe a greater focus on “paying the bills.” For instance, we asked, “When your religious congregation talks about giving money, does it tend to talk about people’s responsibility to help pay the congregation’s bills or does it focus on opportunities for spiritual growth and vision for the religious congregation’s mission?” Whereas almost nine in ten Evangelicals and eight in ten Mainline Protestants indicate that mission and spiritual growth are emphasized in discussions of giving money, only about six in ten Catholics similarly indicate this. The remaining Catholics (almost four out of every ten) report a focus on their responsibility to “pay the bills” within their own parish.
This lack of focus on mission is further substantiated when we explore specific questions on communication and planning regarding mission and vision. For example, only 18% of parish-connected Catholics strongly agree that their parish does an excellent job of communicating its mission, as compared to 32% of Mainline Protestants and 49% of Evangelical Protestants who strongly agree with the same statement.
We found additional items illustrating Catholic parishes’ lack of success in engaging and collaborating with parishioners when it comes to mission, as Catholics are less likely than other Christians in the US to agree with statements such as:
- I personally feel part of the planning of the vision and mission of my religious congregation.
- I feel a lot of personal “ownership” of the process of developing the priorities, vision, and mission of my religious congregation.
Obviously, other Christian groups are doing a better job than Catholics of creating cultures that successfully communicate their mission and of encouraging adherents to participate in it.
Today, many US Catholics do not feel like full and active participants in the mission of the Church. Moreover, many parishes are failing to successfully communicate their mission and priorities. As a result, many Catholics feel their Church is focused on “paying the bills,” on parish maintenance, on self- preservation, rather than on “living the mission.” If we, as Catholics, want to affirmatively respond to Pope Francis’ invitation to live in a “missionary key,” our data suggest that we have plenty of work to do… there is plenty of transformation in language and structures still required in our parishes and in our lives to be true missionaries.
But Does Our Lack of Focus on Mission Matter?
Yes, a lack of focus on mission matters. I strongly suspect it matters in many varied and important ways, but since our study explored religious giving, I can say for certain that it matters in terms of whether or not people give to the Church. Whereas 60% of respondents who strongly agreed that mission and priorities were communicated in excellent fashion by their congregation gave to their church in the previous year, only 17% of those who strongly disagreed did so.
Similarly, over 70% of those who strongly agreed that they felt a part of the planning of the vision and mission of their congregation gave to their church in the past year, as compared to 22% of those who strongly disagreed. Our inability to successfully communicate and engage parishioners in mission is linked to their lack of generosity to the Catholic Church.
Why Does Mission Matter?
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
—Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, 49)
When parishes focus on mission, they inspire their parishioners to grow. They see the Church as a body not just looking out for itself, but going forth and giving of itself. They see a Church willing to venture outside of itself, outside of its comfort zone, in order to grow.
As I have explained elsewhere, the single biggest factor explaining the Catholic giving gap is the fact that Catholics often separate money from religion, failing to recognize how the two are connected. Rather than linking their use of money to their relationship with God, Catholics tend to consider money and material possessions as having little or no connection to spiritual or religious issues. When, however, Catholics begin to see their money as ultimately God’s money—as a gift from God—and begin to see their use of money and material possessions for God’s purposes as a part of their spiritual life—as their gift to God, Catholics become just as generous as other Christians.
One of the most important reasons that mission matters is because it forces the Church to give of itself. Ideally, our Church is, at its core, an ongoing elaboration of that original self-gift on the cross by which Christ created the Church. When the Church embodies this ideal, it becomes a model of spiritual growth for its members. People are inspired by ideals, not merely by needs.
Unfortunately, as Pope Francis rightly emphasizes, when we as a Church become focused on self-preservation, on merely “paying the bills,” we become spiritually sick. Indeed, I have begun to imagine the Catholic giving gap as a sort of indicator, or underlying symptom, of this spiritual sickness within the Catholic Church in the US. When we engage in mission, and give materially of our collectives ourselves, then we grow spiritually as a Church.
My research shows that as parish members, in a true style of discipleship, mimic this form of spiritual growth, we will all begin to see an amazing amount of generosity unleashed on this world. This is the truth that Pope Francis has been proclaiming boldly and joyfully in his papacy.
About the Author Brian Starks, PhD., is Associate Professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University. Dr. Starks is a sociologist of religion, and his research has explored Catholic identity, the impact of religion on generosity, and much more. In 2013, he conducted a national survey of Catholic Diocesan Directors of Religious Education and is currently working on “The American Parish Project” a collaborative effort to revitalize parish studies. He has spoken in dioceses across the country, and his publications have appeared in top academic journals. Prior to arriving at Kennesaw State, he directed the Catholic Social and Pastoral Research Initiative at the University of Notre Dame.
Forming Intentional Disciples
When I teach about charisms, I often reassure people that God won’t suddenly remove a long-term charism and replace it with something totally different. No one goes to bed a happily married administrator and wakes up the next morning as a celibate exorcist! But over the past four years, I’ve been reminded that God can throw you some astonishing curves. God will not radically alter your charisms while you sleep, but he’s quite capable of altering your life with dizzying speed.
The only thing to which I can compare the impact of Forming Intentional Disciples on my life is being struck by lightning. In July 2011, I had just outlined the basic thesis and twelve chapters of a book on evangelization. At 6:30 am, an OSV editor heard about it and asked me to send her everything I had on the book. At 2:30 pm that afternoon, I got a phone call from OSV saying, “We want it,” and my life turned on a dime.
The response to Forming Intentional Disciples (FID) is still a bit of a mystery. To my great surprise and that of everyone else concerned, FID went viral almost immediately. I kept hearing from people who read it and then bought twenty-five… fifty… one hundred copies for everyone they knew, including their pastor and their bishop. FID has sold over 100,000 copies in three years and is routinely referred to discussions about evangelization around the English-speaking world. The Spanish-language edition of Forming Intentional Disciples will be available in October.
What made FID possible was the eighteen years we had already spent helping tens of thousands of American Catholics in hundreds of parishes discern charisms and evangelize. That breadth and depth of experience gave us a rare bird’s-eye view of the American Catholic Church and of the chasm between our rich theology of evangelization and discipleship and the lived spiritual experience of the majority of our people.
One of our discoveries—one that readers tell me that they find most helpful—was that twenty-first-century people process issues of faith differently than earlier generations did. They usually don’t become disciples in a single step. Instead, they typically pass through a series of “thresholds” or stages of conversion before they are ready to consciously follow Jesus Christ as a disciple in the midst of his Church. Each transition to a new threshold is a genuine work of grace that is empowered by the Holy Spirit but moving into each threshold is also is a deliberate choice. “Conversion” for post-moderns is typically an ever-increasing commitment to a deeper and deeper “yes.” The thresholds of conversation that I describe in FID are trust, curiosity, openness, seeking, and intentional discipleship. If we understand where an individual has been and is now in his or her spiritual journey, we can respond in a way that is truly helpful.
I wrote Forming Intentional Disciples for the “Core,” the roughly three million American Catholics who are active in their parishes and dioceses in addition to attending Mass and who determine almost everything that happens at every level of the Church’s life. What has surprised me is that reading and discussing Forming Intentional Disciples together has turned out to be the fastest, least expensive, and most effective way for a group of leaders to quickly and fruitfully absorb paradigm shifts essential to moving a parish from maintenance to mission. The first question that naturally arises for many readers is, “Am I a disciple myself?” A number of highly engaged Catholics, including those in full-time ministry, have told me that they did not know that they could have a personal relationship with God before reading FID. Some have told me that they have experienced significant personal conversion through reading the book.
What has been incredibly exciting is to see the dramatic change in the national conversation over the past three years. There has been a dramatic growth in the use of the magisterial and scriptural language of relationship, personal faith, conversion, and discipleship. Creative initiatives to foster intentional discipleship are popping up in parishes and dioceses all over the country. Pastors and leaders are beginning to view their parishes as missionary communities of disciples rather than maintenance institutions for those who are already Catholic. Whole dioceses are well on their way to their goal of making conscious discipleship and disciple-making the center of ministry. All this is music to our ears because the Catherine of Siena Institute (CSI) was founded in 1997 to equip parishes to form lay disciples and apostles for the sake of their evangelizing mission to the world.
The Institute grew out of my collaboration with Father Michael Sweeney, OP, whom I met in Seattle when he became pastor of my parish. We come from very different backgrounds. I grew up in a fundamentalist family in the Deep South, became a serious disciple as an undergraduate, and entered the Church in Seattle as a young adult. I had already created the Called & Gifted discernment process and had been teaching it for three years by the time Father Michael and I got to know each other. Father Michael was raised in Vancouver, BC, and is a Dominican priest, and a cradle Catholic. He has long been fascinated by the Church’s teaching on the mission and formation of the laity while I come from a world where lay mission and apostolic initiative was considered absolutely normative. Mutual friends kept telling me, “You and Father Michael are always talking about the same things.”
One moment stands out from the day before the Catherine of Siena Institute was even a dream. A group of young Catholic friends were spending the evening with Father Michael. Some of us were recent converts, some lifelong Catholics. We were all eager to live as disciples and apostles. I can’t remember what triggered it, but suddenly Father Michael turned to us and said something I have never forgotten: “You are the evidence that my priesthood is bearing fruit.” I didn’t understand what Father Michael meant at that moment. It was years before I realized that he was talking about a reality that the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts this way: “…the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians” (1547).
In the early days, I used to bombard poor Father Michael with emails about astonishing initiatives that lay men and women from other Christian traditions were undertaking and asking, “Why aren’t Catholics doing things like this?” I loaned him books that he found so irritating that he threw one against the wall! It wasn’t rapport at first sight but we began a remarkably fruitful collaboration that was fueled in part by our differences.
Word of mouth about the Called & Gifted discernment process spread rapidly and we were invited into hundreds of different parishes all over North America and beyond. Gifts interviews—private one-hour sessions with individual discerners—has always been an integral part of the Called & Gifted process. Many people, including pastors and leaders, tell us stories about their experience of and relationship with God and how God had used them in the lives of others that they have never shared with another person before. I always tell trainees that doing gifts interviews is the most fun you can have legally! Gifts interviews give pastoral leaders moving glimpses of the Holy Spirit at work in their communities as well as a window on the lived spiritual experience of their parishioners and a priceless source of pastoral information. Our work in evangelization grew out of our work in discernment.
“when we fail to call our own to discipleship, we are unwittingly pushing away the vast majority of the charisms, vocations, and leaders God is sending us.”
My own turning point was eleven years ago while doing an interview with a woman who was a leader in Canadian diocese. The interview wasn’t going very well so I finally asked her a question that I had never asked anyone before: Could you briefly describe to me your lived relationship with God to this point in your life? After thinking carefully for a few moments, she responded briskly, “I don’t have a relationship with God.” I came away certain that I had just sat through the most amazing interview I had ever done and that we should ask this question more often! As we did so, we began to realize that many Catholics were struggling with discernment because they had little or no lived relationship with God and that “being active” at the parish level was not necessarily an indicator of discipleship.
We learned that the Holy Spirit is planting charisms and vocations of amazing diversity in the hearts of all his people. Like the graces of the sacraments, they are real but they are not magic. Just as the gifts of children must be fostered deliberately and with great energy by parents if their children are to reach their full potential, so charisms and vocations must be fostered by the Church. In this area, we are not asking for too much… we are settling for too little. God is not asking us to call forth the gifts and vocations of a few people; he is asking us to call forth the gifts and vocations of millions. Our problem is not that there is a shortage of vocations but that we do not have the support systems and leadership in place to foster the vast majority of the vocations that God has given us. Most fundamentally, when we fail to call our own to discipleship, we are unwittingly pushing away the vast majority of the charisms, vocations, and leaders God is sending us.
As Father Michael wrote at the time of the Institute’s founding:
“My Order was founded to preach, most especially to the unchurched. One thing has become utterly clear to me: if we are to evangelize our world, we must mobilize our laity. I cannot afford to think of the laity as a chaotic agglomeration of personal and pastoral ‘needs’; they must be my collaborators in a common work. Having met Sherry—and so many others in our parish and beyond with whom I have begun the adventure of a real collaboration—I am happy to report that ‘needs’ are no longer our agenda. Our laity have been endowed with supernatural gifts which, from a pastor’s point of view, are ripe for the harvest. We are to work together, not simply to administer and maintain our parishes, but to bring Christ to the world.”
In 2015, most of us realize that traditional immigrant cultural Catholicism is no match for the power of post-modernity. It is clear that we stand on the edge of a massive demographic and institutional decline unless we change our practice radically and make intentional disciples and form apostles of the already baptized. We have worked with dozens of US parishes who are already seeing the tremendous fruit that emerges when the parish leaders set out to double the number of intentional disciples in their communities in five years. We call it the “double in five” challenge. What if a thousand US parishes set out to double the number of disciples in their communities in the next five years?
There is nothing magical about the numbers but there is something profoundly transforming about pursuing the goal. Having the conscious goal of making disciples and systematically going after it changes parish leadership, culture, and practice. Most critically, the lives of many thousands of Catholics change in amazing ways. What God will do through the fruit of their personal “yes” will change Catholicism’s future.
To change the course of history, we must vigorously take advantage of the enormous evangelization and disciple-forming potential of the only truly universal Catholic institution: the local parish. As Pope Francis wrote in Evangelium Gaudium (28):
“The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration.  In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers.  It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach.”
About the Author Sherry Anne Weddell created the first charism discernment process specifically designed for Catholics in 1993. In 1997, she co-founded the Catherine of Siena Institute, an affiliated international ministry of the Western Dominican Province, and currently serves as Co-Director. Sherry has developed numerous unique formation resources that are used around the world and trained and helps lead an international team who have worked directly with over 100,000 lay, religious, and ordained Catholics in hundreds of parishes in 137 (arch)dioceses on 5 continents. When not hanging around airports, Sherry enjoys tending her high altitude Tuscan garden in the Colorado Rockies.Download PDF
Extending the Catholic Community
In a busy town, in the heart of America, there is a Catholic community that serves as the center of the social universe for a few thousand people. It is not enough for these Catholic pilgrims just to worship together on a Sunday. Instead, their identities are tied to their parish community seven days a week. This connection helps them to see the presence of Jesus Christ everywhere they go.
Three aspects of their parish experience influence their lives. First, they are present to their parish family during the week at the many activities held: multiple Bible studies, service organization meetings, social events, and even sporting events. The vibrancy of the parish provides many opportunities for interaction with each other.
Second, due to the frequency of activity with those in their parish family, many have met their best friends in that community. Their social time is often spent, therefore, with those who believe as they do and share the same values as they do. Their parish family has, in essence, become their real family.
Finally, their wants and needs are often met by those in the community, or connected to the community in some way. Their doctors, dentists, plumbers, and contractors are all members of the same parish community. Many of the places they eat, the places they get their cars worked on, or the places they shop, are owned by parishioners, or they are supporters of the parish community by financial contributions or advertisements in the parish bulletin or newsletter.
All three aspects contribute to this experience of a vibrant parish community where people feel they belong and their lives and personalities are shaped by the interactions with that community. And this parish is not a myth, because there are places like this springing up all across the country due to a renewal of evangelization, a commitment to stewardship, and a desire for increased engagement. My parish of Saint Pius X in Greensboro, NC is one of them.
The Overlooked Tool of Engagement
Most people can understand the first two aspects mentioned above. A parish with much activity not only draws more people into itself, but also increases the faith and commitment of those who become a part. In turn, spending more time with people who share your faith and a desire to belong leads to great relationships. If our faith is the most important thing in our lives—and it should be—then finding people who have that in common is crucial to maturing as a disciple of Jesus Christ. But often times, the third aspect mentioned is overlooked, misunderstood, or even disregarded.
In the early part of the twentieth century, much of the Catholic landscape in the US was shaped by ethnic communities who lived in close proximity to each other. This was due partially to an anti-Catholic sentiment in a Protestant dominated society. There was strength in numbers. In those communities, people not only found support to live a Catholic lifestyle that others might find foreign, but they also found a support system that reached beyond Mass, the Catholic school, and the catechism classes that provided apologetic answers to tough questions. The support system featured bakers and restaurauteurs, plumbers and electricians, retail store owners and service workers. As the decades went by, due in large part to the Catholic education system created in the US, the communities began to include Catholic professionals such as doctors, dentists, and lawyers. The interconnected web of businesses and patrons provided support for those Catholic communities not just in services, but also in creating its own micro- economy. Everyone got his or her baked goods, especially their first Communion and wedding cakes, from the same local bakery. In turn, that baker would support his parish in contributions, to both weekly collections and special projects. Some of these communities might even have been considered ethnic “ghettos” with a population living below a middle-class standard, but they survived because of the patronage of one another.
As time went by, and certainly after the Second Vatican Council, these communities began to diversify and even break apart. Today, some communities still exist on a smaller scale, especially in the Northeast US. But most Catholics cannot conceive of this reality because they live at a time when lives are sectioned up into segments that have strong dividing lines. Often times, work, play, family, and church are four separate realities. Unfortunately, this experience helps lead to a faith that does not permeate all of life. There seems to be no real sense of what a Catholic community could be, or why that would be important. However, in today’s Catholic landscape more parish communities are embracing principles of stewardship, working toward greater engagement on the part of parishioners, and are helping to create more mature disciples. In fact, when one experiences a truly vibrant parish and then is forced to move to a different locale, one searches for a similar experience, for one will accept nothing less.
This experience of community is enriched when the community celebrates the talents of those who belong to it. In fact, those that support the community who are outside the community of belief are often celebrated as well. Businesses are listed in parish directories, appear on bulletins and newsletters, and sponsor events like parish fairs and fundraisers. To look at these people and their businesses as simply advertisers totally misses the point. They are important parts of the new parish community that seeks to be more than just a building people visit on a Sunday. They are, in fact, extensions of the Sunday experience.
Tales from the Community
One day a colleague of mine when I worked in parish ministry bought pizza for a youth ministry gathering. They had not been at the parish for very long and they used a national chain that everyone would recognize. When the receipt was turned in my pastor showed much concern. He wanted to know why the order had not been placed at two of the pizza parlors owned by parishioners. My colleague said she hadn’t really thought of it. My pastor explained that the owners of the places he mentioned not only were parishioners, they supported the parish with ads in the bulletin and were also vendors at our yearly Fall Festival. He made it clear that the next receipt he saw for pizza needed to be from one of those two places. There began my colleague’s education in the importance of the extended parish community.
These two pizza parlors were not just places that supported our parish. Due to encouragement from our pastor and the staff, they remain to this day gathering places for parishioners. Also, large numbers of parishioners go to doctors, dentists, and insurance agents that belong to our parish. It is about more than patronizing those who can support the parish with gifts of treasure or buy ads in a bulletin. It is about a traditional view of taking care of one’s own.
Of course, not every supporting business to a parish is owned or run by a parishioner. However, we must remember that every business that chooses to align itself with a Catholic community due to some form of financial or substantive support has done so willingly and without reservation. Not all faith communities are the same, and not all businesses are the same either. This reality became clear to me about fifteen years ago when I was soliciting donations of food for our yearly Our Lady of Guadalupe party. Every year we would approach Mexican restaurants in the area for donations of ethnic cuisine for our party. We began with our bulletin advertisers and any establishment that had supported us in some way in the past. This year I decided to visit a new eatery in town to ask for support. When I said where I was from, the manager told me the restaurant was owned by Christians, and since we were Catholic and not really Christians, they would rather not donate anything. That day I learned that an advertisement in a bulletin or a donation of product to a parish event was more than just an exchange of goods or part of a marketing plan. It was about relationships. And I realized that if a business was going to choose to align itself with our community, we had a responsibility to support it just like it had supported us.
Bound for Heaven, but Living in the World
I have always appreciated being a Catholic because our worldview does not cut us off from the world. On the contrary, as good stewards we see all that has been given to us as gift. The material world is not a fleeting reality filled with meaningless temporal things. We live in a world given to us by God and we decide if things of this world will be used for good or not. We have the power to claim things and experiences for Christ.
The extension of our community into the workplaces of those who are with us or support us is more important than we sometimes realize. To show good faith in a relationship with a business can easily become an opportunity for evangelization. I have witnessed several conversions due to our pastor and parishioners frequenting an establishment. If you recall the two pizza places mentioned previously, one of them is owned by a family that for years never went to church. I remember how when their children were younger they would show up every few years, seeking a letter for permission so one of their little ones could receive first Communion in Italy. It bothered me, but our pastor at the time would sign the letter anyway. When our current pastor arrived and we really turned our stewardship way of life into overdrive, we were encouraged at every turn to make this family feel a part of our family by patronizing them. We were encouraged not to see this relationship as just some temporal arrangement that would pass away. This family claimed to be in our parish and did support the community through the bulletin and donations of food to events, and regardless of Mass attendance at the time, we were connected through more than money and food. After some time, they began to be seen from time to time. Today, they never miss a Sunday and are active in the faith life of the parish. One member of the family has even been an RCIA sponsor! We must never be fooled into believing that what we see or experience has only a worldly dimension. All of life has a spiritual dimension, and by inviting God to be more present in our everyday experiences, the ordinary can become extraordinary.
Practical Ways of Building Up the Extended Parish Community
Relationships and community do not just happen. They must be cultivated and grown. Here are a few easy ways to begin that process:
- Encourage parishioners to patronize supporters and parish businesses.
- Highlight parish supporters in your bulletin and newsletter.
- Encourage parishioners to share with businesses why they are patronizing them.
- Suggest to bulletin advertisers to use their bulletin ad as a chance to offer parishioners a discount.
- Take the time to thank your supporters at least once a year. Don’t rely solely on your bulletin company to communicate their value to the parish. It is your relationship.
- Have a business fair, much like a stewardship ministry fair, after Mass so parishioners can meet business owners.
- Have daily Mass-goers consider continuing their experience of community at a supporting restaurant after Mass.
- Don’t be afraid to offer feedback to the establishments on their service and quality of product. That feedback gives evidence of a relationship, not just another business transaction.
- Regularly pray for your supporters.
About the Author Tracy Earl Welliver, MTS, serves as Director of Parish Community & Engagement at LPi, and has taught and presented all over the US in parishes and at conferences in the areas of stewardship, catechesis, and strengths theory for over two decades. To bring Tracy to your parish, email him at twelliver@4LPi.com.
Perhaps you didn’t hear about the latest Dead Sea Scrolls found in a cave at Qumran! They offer new insight into the great commission Jesus gave to his followers before he ascended into heaven. Most are familiar with the words already contained in Matthew 28, but now additional text has been discovered that sheds light on the disciples’ response to Jesus’ command. The following text combines the previously known Scripture with this newly found source material:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Then one of the disciples interjected, “We will accomplish these things by printing bulletins with Mass times and news of events, and we will repeat the same information over and over again with websites, e-mail, and Facebook!” Jesus responded with a voice faintly heard from above, as he was ascending into the heavens, “Are you kidding me?”
Okay, so there was no great archeological find of scrolls “ detailing one disciple’s vision of how churches everywhere actually communicate to the world around them, but hopefully you get the point. Churches everywhere struggle to create vibrant communities and have great difficulty imparting information to those in their communities. Most of the time it is simple: There isn’t a whole lot of substance being communicated. Basic information is always important. People need to hear the “who, what, when, where, and how” of things. But as church, every time we give out a bulletin, send out a newsletter, or update a website, we have the opportunity, and responsibility, to do more than impart facts. We need to share the good news.
The Command to Communicate
In the words of Jesus, we find a directive to evangelize, baptize, and teach. This is the plan laid out for us. Jim Kelley, former president of the International Catholic Stewardship Council, frequently reminds listeners in his presentations, “Keep the main thing the main thing.” This is the main thing.
However, too often we forget the main thing in our parishes and dioceses. We become consumed with implementation of programs, maintaining budgets, running events, and weekly schedule making. Our evangelization committees are sometimes afterthoughts, our liturgy committees are overly concerned with showmanship, and our stewardship committees are focused on numbers and increased money in the collection. And all of that, for better or worse, ends up detailed in our church communications. But all of that is not the main thing.
The epistles of Paul are letters of encouragement, teaching, and sometimes chastisement, to communities struggling to survive and maintain this new way of life in Jesus Christ. In the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in a similar situation. Atheism is in vogue, and Christian voices play a diminished role in the public square. For many of those who enter through the doors of a church on a Sunday, what they see, hear, and take home with them will be the only communication concerning Jesus Christ they will encounter that week. There is an opportunity there to be like St. Paul and provide something that makes a difference in their faith lives. In fact, it just might make all the difference.
Proclaiming the Good New
The word kerygma is perhaps not widely used by most Catholics. It is a Greek word, which essentially means preaching or proclamation, and it is used in theology to mean the basic, fundamental aspects of Jesus’ message, the central kernel of what the good news is all about. Our theology moves past the kerygma and develops because we grow in understanding and maturity of faith. But at the heart of who we are as Christians, lie the basic truths about Jesus, his role in our salvation, and his message of a new life in him. In the mandates given to the disciples in Matthew 28, the message to be communicated is this kerygma. A mature discipleship is only possible after one’s life is changed by this message.
In the church, we too often assume that people have been given an opportunity to accept this kerygma and then develop into mature disciples. By the sheer numbers of young adults that leave the church each year, we know this is not the case. Some will say the problem is that the kerygma is all they have received and because they never advanced past that, therein lies the problem. However, the early church had no Scott Hahn to teach them more about the Scriptures, and no Matthew Kelly books to help them reflect on their faith. The power of the kerygma, powerfully and consistently represented in preaching and word, was the main thing that transformed an upper room of disciples into a movement that ultimately changed the course of history. Today, we must never assume people have internalized and are conscious of why they are who they are as Christians. The church must constantly evangelize and teach those who would seek to follow him the kerygma of Jesus Christ.
Our Channels of Communication
Lord Byron, the British poet of the early nineteenth century, said, “A drop of ink may make a million think.” Most people wouldn’t put church bulletins, newsletters, websites, and e-mail in the category of poetry. However, that doesn’t mean that those things deserve less care and creativity in their creation. In fact, where good poetry may move one’s mind and heart, good church communication can actually help lead someone toward heaven.
The church bulletin is certainly the oldest and most common channel of communication used by parishes. How it is used and what is included as content varies greatly from place to place. But too often, it is seen as little less than a handout containing dates, times, and advertisements for programs. The potential of many a bulletin is left completely untapped.
You could create a dozen different ways of communicating in your parish, but the bulletin is the only way to communicate to all Mass attendees and visitors. Even as the digital world expands, that paper bulletin is gold in terms of evangelization value, because you get it right into their physical hands. Imagine the Catholic who has returned after years away, the young adult who showed up for the first time not sure whether church is even relevant in her life, and the young family that is church shopping and had a difficult time just getting all the children out the door, all at your church on a Sunday morning. What is contained in that bulletin you place in their hands that might make all of the difference? Does the ink tell of only news, or does it clearly celebrate the good news?
Digital Media & Online Presence
Digital media is certainly permeating our culture and our church. Even the pope tweets! You must start using digital communication tools if you are not already. It’s where our world is today. However, many churches are currently abusing these tools instead of using them to proclaim the good news. In the kerygma of Jesus Christ there is tremendous joy! If your website, Facebook page, and e-mail exhibit no joy, why would you think anyone would be drawn to worship with you? Churches that haven’t updated a website in months are really communicating that they have nothing much to say. Most importantly, digital media is too often just another means of giving facts and more boring information. Those people mentioned previously who are attending your church are the same people who will look online to see what you are about. They are unsure of their place in this world, and how will it benefit them if they see online that you aren’t sure of your place in this world either?
Charles Zech, the Villanova professor and writer on stewardship, found in his research that employing four or more means of communication was the most effective way of producing engagement and increased stewardship in a parish. That should be obvious to any marketing professional. Look how brands like Coca-Cola and McDonalds have become so prominent in US culture due to the brand being pitched to us at every turn. So, all means of communication are necessary to get the attention of those living in a busy world. But Zech also found there is one means of communication that trumps all others in effectiveness, and it is probably the least used by parishes: the parish newsletter.
The real value of a newsletter is twofold. First, a parish sends it to all registered households, making it possible to reach shut-ins, infrequent Mass attendees, and lapsed parishioners. Of course, it also shows up in a mailbox, making it more likely to get into a home instead of the bulletin whose journey only made it to the backseat of the car. No other medium has the potential to reach so many. Also, it is easy for someone to forget about church when they have been away. The newsletter puts the church right in front of their face. Second, the newsletter has the ability to go deeper than a bulletin, e-mail, or many online media. Whereas the previous channels of communication provide a way to proclaim the kerygma, the newsletter provides an opportunity to explain the kerygma and give testimony of the power of Jesus Christ.
The newsletter allows us to tell the story of our parish community, share about the lives of our parishioners, and lay out our plans and dreams for the future. It has the capacity to explain how the kerygma is changing people’s lives. Will everyone read it? The answer, of course, is no. However, if you make it appealing in content and appearance, it will draw most to investigate. If they see that it speaks to their experience as a human being, they will read more. If they feel moved by what they read, they will read it again next time it arrives at their home. Keep in mind that you may have already made an impression because not only did you care enough as a parish to create and send a newsletter, but because it came to people at their homes; they actually belong to something. You aren’t getting a copy in the mail unless you belong to something. The great Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy liked to say, “Belonging leads to believing.” They are part of a community that preaches the good news of Jesus Christ. Through a newsletter, as well as all forms of church communication, you have the tools to evangelize and form them so they may believe.
Kerygma Can Be Dangerous
There is a book entitled, Dangerous: A Go-to Guide for Church Communication, published in print and digital media by Center for Church Communications. The various contributors speak of how churches can stand against the ideas that the church is no longer relevant, that it has embraced the status quo, and that old parishes can’t learn to do new things and do them differently. They point out that it is not primarily about how you communicate, but the fact that you are willing to “tell the greatest story ever told.” Yes, paying attention to the how has always been very important. You have never heard of the Sermon in the Valley, because preaching from a mount allows for people to see. Attention to details may dictate whether or not a person hears what you have to say. But what you say, that’s the main thing, the kerygma, the good news of Jesus Christ. And that message can be dangerous. Why? Because when people start to hear it and are moved, there may be no stopping them. The message might actually get to all nations and the ends of the earth.
About the Author Tracy Earl Welliver, MTS, serves as Director of Parish Community & Engagement at LPi, and has taught and presented all over the US in parishes and at conferences in the areas of stewardship, catechesis, and strengths theory for over two decades. To bring Tracy to your parish, email him at twelliver@4LPi.com.
FOCUS Is Making a Difference
Staying strong in one’s Catholic faith during college has never been easy since it is a time for freedom and for discovering one’s sense of self and purpose. It is especially difficult for students today due to the daily temptations from the media—and their peers— promoting sexual promiscuity, drugs, and other practices that oppose Catholic doctrine.
FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, is changing the culture on campus—and beyond—by instilling Catholic virtues with students during these formative years. Inspired by Pope Saint John Paul II’s call to a “New Evangelization,” Curtis Martin founded FOCUS in 1998. He met the Holy Father that year and shared his hope and vision, to which the pope replied: “Be soldiers.”
Reaching Thousands Each Week
In 1998, FOCUS started on one campus with four missionaries; today, the apostolate has grown to more than four hundred missionaries on one hundred campuses this academic year. More than seven thousand students on these campuses meet regularly for Bible studies. FOCUS offers hope to the future of the church, one campus and one student at a time.
“I went through Catholic high school and learned all the essentials about the faith, but never really encountered God in those textbooks,” said Brendan Keane, a senior at George Mason University (GMU).
“Just learning about who God is was not powerful enough for me to stand against the societal norms and pressure of partying in high school and then college.”
This was Brendan’s lifestyle until FOCUS introduced him to a Bible study and their SEEK conference. “I really encountered God there for the first time,” said Brendan. “And I have been able to continue fostering this relationship with God by both participating in and leading FOCUS Bible studies.”
Investing Time with Students
As recent college graduates, FOCUS missionaries devote two or more years of their lives to on- campus outreach, spending time with students and helping them deepen their faith and love for Christ and his church. The missionaries go with the approval of the local bishop and work with the already established Newman Center or campus ministry.
FOCUS builds a joyful, Christ-centered community and support network on each campus, where students join the missionaries at Mass, Bible studies, and daily prayer. FOCUS develops disciples of Christ who fulfill their baptismal call and Pope Francis’ desire for Catholics to “proclaim and bear witness to the good news of the Gospel.”
Church Leaders Applaud FOCUS for Developing Virtuous Leaders
FOCUS encourages students to discern God’s calling through prayer and mentorship. Nearly 500 of the more than 13,000 FOCUS alumni who have participated in FOCUS activities since 1998 have decided to enter religious life: 400 men and 95 women. In the last academic year alone, that includes 96 alumni—81 men and 14 women—who decided to pursue religious vocations.
“If you’re looking for hope, look to FOCUS. If you’re looking for the future of the church, you’ve found it in FOCUS,” stated Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York.
The values and attitudes developed in young adulthood guide one’s behaviors and decisions throughout life. Many people may ponder how their personal journeys would have been different if FOCUS had been around during their college years to strengthen their Catholic faith. “No one does a more dynamic job reaching college students for Christ than FOCUS,” said Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap. This strong foundation in Christ at a young age helps guide graduates through tough decisions as they start families and careers.
“FOCUS is one of the best examples of the New Evangelization today, letting loose the power of the Gospel on campus,” said Father Robert Barron. “They are forming our future leaders, so that these graduates will not just go on to be lawyers, teachers, and business people, but Catholic lawyers, Catholic teachers, and Catholic business people who will impact society and the world by spreading the fullness of truth found in Jesus Christ and his church.”
By 2022, FOCUS expects 75,000 alumni to be involved in the 17,400 Catholic parishes across the country, leading others with strong Catholic values. They’ll continue to spread Christ’s love and word in small communities and throughout major metropolises, as they are doing now in the Washington DC metro area.
FOCUS Transforming Culture in Arlington and DC Metro Area
“Throughout my adolescence, I was constantly exposed to the comfort of our world’s pleasures,” confided Connor Xavios, now a senior at George Mason University (GMU). “By partying, lusting for women in relationships, or succumbing to the manipulation of my own ego, I believed happiness would soon present itself through such engagements.”
As Connor entered college, he continued this pattern and hit rock bottom, realizing he’d been living a vicious lie. Then Craig Pytleski, a FOCUS missionary at the time, began to personally invest in Connor.
“Craig modeled the life of a true Christian gentleman and showed me compassion when I’d fall to the temptations of my past,” added Connor. “I began to experience fullness in this new lifestyle of seeking God’s love, and the fleeting euphoria of pleasures transformed into the unyielding peace of joy. Craig introduced me to the greatest person in my life: Jesus.”
Connor became a FOCUS student leader his sophomore year and now invites others into a growing relationship with Christ and his church, fulfilling his baptismal call as Scripture encourages us, “And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well” (2 Tm 2:2).
Salvation from the Party Scene
Neither gender is exempt from the many temptations of young adulthood. As our culture continues to blur the lines of gender roles and promote promiscuity among girls, it can be tougher for women, even preteens. Many women arrive to college and seek happiness in the wrong places.
After experiencing a confusing freshman year when she took any opportunity to drink or smoke at parties, GMU student Lauren Murray found FOCUS. She remembers being intrigued by how these people “could be so happy without the typical party scene.”
“Slowly, I began to stop heading out with my friends to the ‘thirsty Thursday’ parties and instead accepted Carmen’s invitations to Mass and supper at the chapel,” said Lauren. “At the Easter Vigil of that school year, I was fully received into the church with baptism, first Communion, and confirmation. FOCUS not only encouraged me to come to the Catholic faith but also taught me how to live it and share it with others.”
Stories of transformation through Christ’s word and the power of the Holy Spirit happen every day on FOCUS campuses across the US.Download PDF
Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response in a Nutshell
It contains 3 Primary Convictions
- CHALLENGE — Mature discipleship requires a decision to follow Jesus Christ no matter the cost.
- CHOICE — This commitment leads to a way of life, not just a series of actions.
- VISION — Then, with the first two being true, stewardship is transformational.
The letter is organized in 5 sections that reflect on the reality and source of the above convictions:
- The Call:
- The call to stewardship is personal and with a purpose in mind for each individual.
- He call is never made in isolation, with the community assisting in the discernment process. We are asked to respond to the call, knowing the cost may not be small.
- Jesus’ Way: — Jesus himself is the primary teacher of stewardship. His parables especially show us a true image of a good steward. This way of life is not followed because of reward, although it is a source of great joy. Our activity as stewards is valuable because it is bringing about a Kingdom of God that exists here and now as well in the hereafter.
- Living as a Steward: — We are called to collaborate with God in the work of creation, redemption, and sanctification. This is a stewardship in a profound way. In this manner, human productivity on any scale is seen as God’s work.
- Stewards of the Church: — Each member of the Body of Christ has an obligation due to baptism to build up that Body. A stewardship way of life leads the member to evangelization, human solidarity, social justice, ecumenism, and the Eucharist. The members are called to bring these fruits into all spheres that they work in: the diocese, the parish, the domestic church, and the world.
- The Christian Steward: — Good stewards see the evidence of God in all things, small and large. This leads to fruits of love, trust, accountability, and generosity. Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary serve as their examples. They give without measure.
Four years after the 1992 publication, an appendix was added to future printings. This was an attempt to deal with criticisms from the traditional development side of the Church who felt that finances were too de-emphasized, and also to offer further clarification of key terms and concepts. Several characteristics of stewardship are discussed in the initial two sections.
- Is collaborative
- Involves trust in God
- Calls for a commitment to formation and resources
- Is a lifelong process
- Needs a comprehensive approach on all levels of the Church
- Is for all ages
The third section focuses on development and finance. It focuses on key elements of the stewardship of treasure, including capital campaigns, planned giving, and endowment funds. The fourth section includes a basic outline of seven key steps for overall stewardship success in promoting all forms of gifts.
Those 7 key steps are:
- Personal witnessing
- Commitment of leadership
- Hospitality, Evangelization & Outreach
- Communication & Education
- Recruiting, training & recognizing gifts of time and talent
- Encouragement of gifts of treasure
This appendix ends with a glossary of key stewardship terms. An additional appendix was also added of stewardship resources. At this time, many of the resources listed are out of print or outdated. Also, not all the resources are of a Catholic nature. Still, the list offers the reader a chance to find further discussion materials and practical resources for stewardship.
Christian stewardship did not begin in 1992 with the US Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response. It did not start with the formation of the International Catholic Stewardship Council in 1962. It is not a current trend in the Catholic Church or the latest pop theology. Real stewardship has its origins in holy Scripture, from David’s longing to repay his God for all his blessings in Psalm 116 to Jesus’ command to love God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul. God has entrusted us with so many gifts and talents, the breath of life, and the means by which we can sustain our existence. As disciples of Jesus we are called to use these things to build the Kingdom of God; to make the Body of Christ strong; to change the world. Stewardship is an extremely difficult reality to sustain. However, the concepts and processes we use do not need to be complicated. Simple principles can be the seeds for tremendous growth. This is the mission of Everyday Stewardship.
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
The USCCB’s website is the resource for Catholic teachings and programs to help support Catholic churches build vibrant parishes.VISIT WEBSITE
International Catholic Stewardship Council
The International Catholic Stewardship Council promotes and supports Catholic teaching on stewardship by providing education and resources for dioceses, parishes, and institutions of the Roman Catholic Church.VISIT WEBSITE
Archdiocese of St. Louis
The Archdiocese of St. Louis has a great Stewardship Resource page. Organized and easy to follow.VISIT WEBSITE
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has a Parish Stewardship Tool Box for their parishes to use as a stewardship resource. Take a look at how the Archdiocese has organized their resources.VISIT WEBSITE
Pope Francis @Pontifex Twitter
Not sure what to tweet. Follow Pope Francis on his Twitter page, and retweet the Pope’s messages on your parish’s Twitter page.VISIT WEBSITE