My “Five Books” List for 2013

Every year in January I post a list of some of my favorite reads from the past twelve months. So without further ado:

  • Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus by Sherry Weddell (2012) – I don’t need to belabor this one. Suffice to say that it was the most important book I read last year and anyone involved in catechesis and evangelization needs to read it. If you want more info you can read my full review of the book.
  • Holiness for Everyone: The Practical Spirituality of Josemaria Escriva by Eric Sammons (2012) – This books was a great introduction to the “everyday” spirituality of this modern saint. Focusing on the universal call to holiness, Sammons walks through St. Josemaria’s spirituality in a  simple  and enlightening way.
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (2011) – I learned  so much about myself through this book. By focusing on the physiological  underpinnings  of introversion, Cain has helped me to understand my physical reactions to certain situations — which in turn has helped me to become more comfortable with myself and others. A great book for introverts or anyone with an introvert in their life.
  • I Wasn’t Dead When I Wrote This: Advice Given in the Nick of Time by Lisa-Marie Calderone-Stewart (2012) – I’m not much for self-help or advice books, but this volume touched me in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. Written literally in the last few months of her life, this book is a gift of stories and insight to young people from a dedicated and loving youth minister.
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (1972) – I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t read nearly enough fiction in 2012. Fortunately my sister got me this great story from a sci-fi master for Christmas and I devoured it. Ostensibly about an alien spacecraft making it’s way through our solar system, Clarke focuses on humanity’s capacity for wonder at the suprises that await us throughout creation.

Did you have any books that touched you in the past year? Recommend them in the comments!

Building a Better Catechist Formation Workshop

This month I have an article in NCCL’s Catechetical Leader magazine reflecting on our diocese’s experience in catechist formation on the Roman Missal, Third Edition. The text of the article is presented here:

In the fall of 2011 our diocesan Office for Catechesis, in cooperation with our Office for Worship and the Catechumenate, sponsored a series of regional workshops helping Catholic school teachers and parish catechists to understand the (then) upcoming implementation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition; examine the changes in the English translation; and prepare the faithful to embrace these changes through their catechetical programs.

We knew that this would be a challenging workshop, due both to the inherent pain and grieving many people experience when their mode of worship is altered, and a history of poor reception of such large, regional workshops. With those considerations in mind we made a conscious effort to change our approach from past workshops.

  1. We dumped the single-speaker approach. In the past we’ve hired individual presenters to lead our regional catechist workshops. This year, because we increased the number of workshops and spread them out over the course of six weeks, hiring a single presenter from outside the diocese didn’t make logistical sense. Instead, the members of the sponsoring offices took responsibility for pieces of the workshop. As a result participants heard from five different people over the course of the session.
  2. We kept things moving. At three hours long the workshop could have dragged on for participants. Instead, as we broke down the agenda for the workshop, we intentionally kept the individual sections short and to the point. No individual section was longer than 30 minutes and some were as short as five minutes long. Combined with the multiple speakers, participants were always being presented with something new to hold their interest.
  3. We utilized interactivity and multimedia. To help participants come together as a group we began the workshop with a 15-minute Liturgy of the Word. We also had a reflect/pair/share exercise early in the session and presenters asked feedback questions throughout the workshop. In addition, besides using traditional PowerPoint slides, we played short clips from ICEL’s Become One Body, One Spirit in Christ DVD in between major agenda items to either highlight ideas from the preceding presenter or to set up the next one. These short clips gave participants an opportunity to stand and stretch or just œreset  before the next part of the workshop.
  4. We eliminated technological variables. As we went around our diocese we brought our own laptops and projector. Even more importantly we invested in a portable PA system that allowed us to forgo using unreliable and outdated sound systems in the parishes. This ensured that, regardless of the setting or size of the room, participants would always be able to hear the presenters clearly.
  5. We gave them resources to use. In the past the biggest criticism of our formation workshops was a lack of resources to œtake back to the classroom.  This was especially true of school teachers, but parish catechists also expressed a desire to have relevant materials that they could take back and use in their programs. Because we didn’t hire a presenter, our budget allowed us to purchase booklets and other materials to give to catechists to take back with them. These were handed out in folders by grade level (K-6 or 7-12).

Implementing these changes meant working outside our established patterns, but in the end it made for a more effective and engaging catechist formation experience. Our future workshops will build on and refine this model.

4 Tips for Choosing a Parish Social Media Coordinator

In our diocese’s new social media policy we recommend that pastors delegate the day-to-day management of institutional social media accounts. This is both because a) pastors’ time is best spent on other aspects of their ministry, and b) most pastors are not interested in the day-to-day management of institutional social media accounts.

But how should they choose who to coordinate social media on their behalf? What characteristics make a person a suitable social media manager for a parish?

  1. Choose someone who uses social media. This should be self-evident, but I’ve learned not to take these things for granted. You don’t want a social media manager who will be doing all their learning “on the job.” Make sure that the person you choose has an interest in and some experience with social media — at the very least they should be on Facebook. Ideally they should have accounts on multiple sites and a good sense of what works on each.
  2. Choose someone with connections.  The hardest part of managing a social media account is finding out what’s going on that could be shared. Picking someone with strong connections around the parish increases the chances that they will hear about events and other content to share.
  3. Choose someone trustworthy.  Again, this probably goes without saying, but your social media coordinator will be speaking on behalf of your ministry, so you want to choose someone that is well spoken, a good writer, and who knows how your parish markets itself and communicates with both internal and external audiences. This will help ensure that what they put out on social media platforms is in line with your parish’s character, mission, and goals.
  4. Choose someone who isn’t scared of math.  To make the most of your social media accounts you’ll need to keep track of various statistics such as reach and interactions. The good news is that most social media platforms do a good job of tracking these for you. Of course, your manager will still need to check the stats from time to time to see what impact your social media outreach is making.

What other traits make for a good social media manager?

5 Things Your Parish Web Site Should Include

Recently I’ve had the privilege of judging contenders for Catholic Tech Talk‘s Parish Web Site of the Year award. Some of the entries have been outstanding; others demonstrate just how far Catholic parishes have to go in understanding the importance of a well crafted, professional-looking web site.

Still, looking at so many parish web sites has been instructive. In particular, I’ve been amazed at how many sites still lack some basic elements that would help them go from “poor” to “useable”:

  1. Contact information for parish staff and programs. Many of the sites I looked at had incomplete or even non-existent  contact information for parish staff. Your site should include a complete list of staff including name, title, phone number, and email address. The same should go for volunteers who serve specific programs! I’d love to come to your weekly bible study, but if I don’t know who to contact or how to get hold of them if I have a question, it’s less likely that I’ll make the effort. Speaking of which…
  2. Locations of regular events. Lots of parishes are doing lots of great work providing catechetical and social events.  Unfortunately, if I was  a parishioner, I’m not sure I would be able to find them! Remember, if I’m new to your parish I don’t know where meeting spaces are. If you have a regularly scheduled program or gathering, be sure to list exactly where it is held. If I’m on your site I don’t want to have to take the extra step of calling you just to get that information.
  3. Pictures! It’s disheartening how many parish web sites don’t incorporate graphics and pictures into their designs. One of the advantages of new media is their ability to incorporate text and images to tell a story and convey information in a meaningful way. Even if you just have a banner image on every page that incorporates a picture of your church, ditch the text-only look. (It’s so 1998).
  4. Easy to find Mass schedule. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of parishes that did do this, but I still can’t believe we have to talk about this in 2012. Put your Mass and Reconciliation times on the front page of your site. There: you just increased your site’s usability by 100%.
  5. A menu structure that makes sense. This one may warrant a post all it’s own, but just navigating the labyrinthine menu structures of some sites was a chore. From submenus that included 20(!) different items to indecipherable titles to drop-down menus that just plain didn’t work, many parishes seem to be working hard to ensure that their content is never read. Keep it simple, keep it intuitive; menus aren’t the place for creativity. Make sure that items are places under titles that will make sense to the average parishioner. This may mean cutting out some of the “church speak” we use, but web sites are tools — not theological treatises. It’s more important that people can find what they are looking for!

Image by Daniel*1977/flickrCC

My Four Goals for 2012

I’m not typically one for New Year’s resolutions, but there is something about a fresh calendar that predisposes one to changing habits for the coming solar cycle. I’m not sure if it’s cultural (do the Chinese make resolutions for Chinese New Year?) or psychological, but there it is.

That having been said, here, in no particular order, are my goals for 2012:

  1. Continue to refine this blog.  I have a number of items on my “to-do” list regarding my blog. My unstated goal has been to post one substantial piece a week, with breaks during the Easter and Christmas octaves. I haven’t been as  consistent  in that as I would have hoped; still, I’d like to bump it up to two pieces a week. I’ve actually pre-written quite a few posts over the Christmas holiday to get me ahead of the curve. Hopefully I can keep it up! I’d also like to get serious about the non-content end of the blog, especially paying attention to metrics and making better use of my various social media presences. If you have any resources to share, I would appreciate it!
  2. Lose 25 pounds in time for the 2012 NCCL conference in May. This is pure vanity; I’ll be giving one of the TED-style keynotes, and want to look my best.
  3. Grow in my understanding of liturgical catechesis. Liturgy has always been my theological weak spot (my only coursework in liturgy was a single undergrad class my junior year of college), but the lead-up to the recent implementation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition  has whet my whistle for more. This year I want to do some additional reading and study on how the liturgy catechizes and how we catechize for liturgy.
  4. Complete and launch the [secret awesome project]. I’ve got a secret project in the works that will be of interest to all Catholic bloggers; check back here on January 16 for details!

Do you have any goals for the coming year?

Photo by Gordana AM/flickrCC

Five Books for 2012

As I have done the past two years, I’d like to offer five book selections that I read the previous year to “jump start” your reading pile! These books come with my highest recommendation. (Of course, I’ve also been told that I have strange tastes, so your mileage will vary!)

  • Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, by Fr. James Martin, SJ (2011) – I can’t imagine anyone else having written this book. Fr. Martin’s signature wit and gift for bringing spiritual topics to the masses makes this not only a delightful read but a probing search for joy in the faith.
  • Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet, edited by Brandon Vogt (2011) – As I wrote in my full review, I fully expect the next generation of Catholic media creators to cite this book as a powerful inspiration. The essays contained within highlight some of the best Catholic work being done on the web.
  • Practice Makes Catholic, by Joe Paprocki (2011) – Joe’s latest book outlines the Catholic faith through five principles:  sacramentality, community, justice and the dignity of human life, reverence for Tradition, and a disposition towards faith and hope. A great read for any Catholic looking to deepen their practice of the faith.
  • Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, by David Lindley (2008) – I actually listened to the audio version of this book. It’s a fascinating exploration of the struggle to understand and accept the mathematics and implications of modern physics.
  • The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara (1987) – I first heard about this book when it was referenced as inspiration for the TV show Firefly. It is a fictionalized account of the Battle of Gettysburg, with intriguing portraits of the major figures involved in that pivotal moment in US history.

If you have any recommendations that you’ve read in the past year, share them in the comments!

Photo by Thomas Hawk / FlickrCC


5 Books for the New Year

Last year I offered five books I had read in the previous year that I recommended for the new year. If doing this two years in a row makes it a blog tradition — well , so be it!

Here are five books that come with my highest recommendation:

  • Doers of the Word: Putting Your Faith Into Practice, by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan (2009) — In this wonderful little book Archbishop Dolan offers short reflections on Christ, the Church year, the saints, the Church, the Blessed Virgin, and other topics. His short, pithy stories are a great example of his ability to explain the faith clearly and concisely — an ability also reflected in his excellent blog.
  • The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter, by Jason Kersten (2010) — OK, this isn’t a Catholic book per se, but it is a fascinating (and true!) tale of a young man from a broken home who finds joy in becoming a craftsman of a dying art: counterfeiting money. In perfectly replicating the new $100 bill he reunites with his estranged father, with terrible consequences for both.
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford (2009) — Crawford offers a profound treatise on how the “useful arts” — work that requires real skill and practice to master — combines the best of both manual and intellectual engagement. This book has made   me want to learn some real manual skills, starting with some basic woodworking.
  • Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer, by Thomas Dubay, SM (2006) — This “required reading” for our Totus Tuus team last summer has helped me deepen my prayer life and better appreciate the deep wisdom of the Church’s spiritual traditions.
  • Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen (1992) — This book was recommended to me by a friend and colleague after he saw A Canticle for Leibowitz on last year’s list. Hansen’s portrayal of the disruption of a religious community’s orderly life by a young novice prone to trances and visions is haunting, gripping, and strangely moving.

Scripture Resources for School Teachers

Today I concluded my five-week class on Sacred Scripture for Catholic school teachers in Springfield. I really enjoyed breaking open the Bible with this great group of catechists!

The following are a few of the resources I recommended to them:



Class Handouts (PDFs)

Tomie DePaola’s Book of Bible Stories

Five Reading Picks for the New Year

There has been much written in the past few years about the œdeath of the book.  Certainly with the advent of the Kindle and new ways of conveying writing online we are changing the way we read. But I think it’s premature to write the book’s obituary yet. Instead I think we’ll see a shift in the way books are published “ away from large publishing houses to smaller niches publishers. In addition, print-on-demand solutions will allow anyone to publish a book quickly and cheaply.

To ensure that the book has a few more years of life, I’d like to recommend the following books that I read in the past year:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter J. Miller, Jr. (1960) “ This Hugo award-winning novel traces 1200 years in the life of a monastic order following a devastating nuclear war. The monks seek to preserve scientific and cultural knowledge against a world that has descended into barbarism.
  • Five Loaves and Two Fish, by Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (1997) “ Cardinal Van Thuan spent 13 years incarcerated by the Communist government of Vietnam before being exiled in 1991. This book is a series of reflections he prepared for the 1997 World Youth Day. It is a simple, profound and moving reflection on suffering and hope.
  • The Clown of God, by Tomie dePaola (1978) “ dePaola retells and lavishly illustrates the story of a poor beggar boy who finds joy and fame in his juggling “ and surprising blessings as well. Sure to delight old and young alike.
  • Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn (2006) “ This science fiction story follows a 14th century German priest as he seeks to communicate with “ and minister to “ a group of aliens who have crashed in the woods outside his tiny village. The priest must ask: œCan an extraterrestrial be a Christian?  and, œWhere is God when tragedy strikes? 
  • From Slave to Priest: A Biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton, by Sister Caroline Hemesath (reprinted 2006) “ Sr. Hemesath presents the life of Fr. Tolton, the first African-American priest in the United States, in a series of fictionalized vignettes (a sort of œspeculative biography ) from his youth in Quincy to his ministry and untimely death in Chicago.