What Can Comedians Teach Us About Ministry?

What Comedians Can Teach Us About Ministry There’s a principle in improvisational comedy called “Yes… and.” The gist is that when someone offers an idea or direction during the game or skit, the other actors should respond with “yes… and” instead of “no” or “but.” By immediately accepting the idea and not shooting it down the energy and action of the game is maintained instead of screeching to a stop:

(NB: The idea isn’t to actually say “yes… and”; it speaks more to a mindset than a scripted line.)

Beyond comedy, this is also a good principle for ministry.

When people come to register at a parish or to ask for a sacrament, they come to us in the midst of their lives: dealing with wounds, asking questions, and searching for the meaning and community that will bring them fulfillment. This process is ongoing. More often than not they have not reached the end of their spiritual journey, ready to “cast down their nets” and embrace the life of Christian discipleship. As a result, they may balk when encouraged to take the next few steps to become engaged in religious education, preparation for marriage, or turn away from some abiding sin.

For example, many couples today come to parishes already cohabitating. This is obviously far from the ideal. Church teaching and sociological studies show that marriages are more likely to succeed if couple live apart until their vows are completed. However, many couples in this situation encounter the blunt message that “until you separate we cannot proceed with marriage preparation.” Many no doubt turn away and simply procure a civil marriage in place of the sacrament.

Adapting the “yes… and” mindset, a pastor or marriage preparation coordinator might instead say:

“Welcome! We are so glad you have come to the Church to celebrate this sacred occasion! However, we note that you are both currently living together. In order to best prepare for your wedding and marriage, we would ask you to consider living apart for the next six months until the wedding. Think of this time as a retreat as you prepare to make your vows. And we would like to help you do this. In fact, we have a couple in our parish who have a spare bedroom that they have offered to anyone preparing for marriage, rent free, so that you can make the most of this time of preparation.”

Adopting the “yes… and” mindset helps to open doors to evangelization by acknowledging the reality of people’s lives while also pointing towards further healing, deeper relationships, and growing faith.

How could you adopt the “yes… and” mindset in your ministry?

When You’re Banging Your Head Against the Ministry Wall

Last week at a diocesan meeting for DREs I gave a short presentation on adaptive leadership and it’s implications for ministry:

The presentation was based on my reading of the book Leadership on the Line (one of my 17 Books Every Catholic Leader Should Read).

The scenarios I gave to the groups to discuss were:

  1. Your parish’s Altar and Rosary Society approaches you about helping them recruit young women. (The average age of the Society is 68.) They meet every Wednesday morning after the 8a Mass and are responsible for keeping the church clean and organizing the biannual parish rummage sale, which supports the parish school.
  2. Your parish is building a new church hall; the pastor asks you to find out what kind of space various groups need and make recommendations to him for how the building should be set up.
  3. Attendance at the annual parish picnic in your rural committee has been declining over the last 10 years. Your pastor asks you to come up with a marketing plan to get more people to attend this year.
  4. The evangelization committee at your suburban parish is concerned about the number of non-practicing Catholics in the area. They ask for your help in organizing a “welcome back” event with the goal of getting these Catholics to return and volunteer in a ministry.
  5. Your rural community has seen an increase in the number of people coming to the parish office looking for assistance with rent, utilities, etc. Your pastor asks you to put together a committee to find ways to get these people the help they need.
  6. Your pastor asks you to review and recommend some DVD programs for adult faith formation in your parish.

“I must establish this firm conviction…”

“If God calls me to apply my activity not only to my own sanctification, but also to good works, I must establish this firm conviction, before everything else, in my mind: Jesus has got to be, and wishes to be, the life of these works.

My efforts, by themselves, are nothing, absolutely nothing. ‘Without Me you can do nothing.’ They will only be useful, and blessed by God, if by means of a genuine interior life I unite them constantly to the life-giving action of Jesus. But then they will become all-powerful: ‘I can do all things in Him who strengtheneth me.’”

Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, OCSO, The Soul of the Apostolate

Photo Credit: KOREphotos via Compfight cc

Ministry is a Marathon

Last year, during a presentation on the New Evangelization to a group of catechetical leaders in our diocese I’ve spoken to before, a startling realization hit me: they were attentive, engaged, and interested in a way I had not seen before.

“Well,” I laughed to myself, “that only took six years. Now to get to work on the catechists they lead!”

I was making a (silent) joke, but upon reflection I realized there was a sizable grain of truth: ministerial leadership is always a marathon, never a sprint, and we shouldn’t be discouraged or disappointed when our efforts don’t produce immediate tangible results. Too often we measure the results of our ministry in the short-term. But our faith reminds us to take a more sustained perspective and aim not just for the immediate, but for the long-term.

Indeed, Sacred Scripture is full of examples of the “long view” of leadership and ministry:

  • Abraham was 100 years old when the Lord’s promise of a son was fulfilled.
  • Joseph endured two years in prison, despite his pleas to be remembered by the pharaoh, before he was released and successfully interpreted the pharaoh’s dreams.
  • Moses tried ten times (and went through ten plagues!) before God’s command to pharaoh to free the Jews was answered.
  • Similarly, Moses had to lead a (at times disgruntled and obstinate) people for 40 years through the desert to reach the Promised Land.
  • The parable of the sower contrasts the seeds that fell on rocky soil and sprang up immediately (but ultimately withered) with the seed that fell on good soil and developed deeper roots.
  • Jesus formed the Twelve Apostles for three years, and they still abandoned him when he was arrested!

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins writes

No matter how dramatic the end result, the good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There was no single defining action, no grand program, no on killer innovation, no solitary luck break, no wrenching revolution. Good to great comes about by a cumulative process — step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel — that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.

We in ministry would do well to remember this and work on cultivating seeds that will have deep, abiding roots in our ministry.

How have you taken the long view in your ministry? How can you build your ministry step-by-step instead of shooting for instant results?

Image by familymwr under a CC-By license.

Webinar Video: How to Write a News Release for Your Ministry

Today my office sponsored a free webinar on writing news releases on behalf of your school, parish, or ministry. The webinar was led by Kathie Sass, director of communications for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, and it includes very helpful tips and advice for crafting releases that will appeal to the secular news media.

Kathie was also kind enough to provide the slides she used during her presentation:

3 Reasons Your Teens Are Not Engaged in Your Faith Formation Program (Guest post by John Rinaldo)

John Rinaldo is one of those people that I would probably never have met if it weren’t for the internet. In fact, I often have to remind myself that we’ve never met face-to-face! But his writing on ministry and leadership have helped me to reflect on my own work as a diocesan director and made me more effective in the work of catechesis.

Imagine this.

You are in front of a large group of teenagers facilitating a session on the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. This group of teenagers are preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation.

You are well prepared for this topic. You have a fun opening community builder that is connected to the theme, you created a dynamic, ritual prayer experience, and you are armed with multiple strategies to engage the youth including the use of a cool video clip, small group reflection questions, and a bit of teaching from you.

You are proud of the session you have created. You delve into the topic with great enthusiasm and gusto! You pour all your energy into the session.

Then, it happens.

boredYou look out at the faces staring back at you. All they do is stare. They are not engaged. They are not excited. They look like lumps on a log.

At the end of the session, you are exhausted! You planned well and you thought that for sure the teenagers would get into the topic.

Yet, for all your planning and energy, you feel like you failed. You begin to wonder if you’re any good at this. Then you start to think that you should quit.

I don’t have enough hands and fingers to count how many times I’ve felt this way! The reality is that, for all the energy you put into any session, there are times that you don’t connect with your intended audience.

There’s a reason for that. Here are 3 reasons your audience is not ready to be engaged in your faith formation program:

  1. Their parents do not engage them in faith conversations or prayer at home. Most parents rarely have a conversation around faith at home or initiate a family prayer. For many, faith is something that happens in church and church alone. Since parents are the primary influencers, the parish needs to give them tools that will help parents. Until faith is a regular part of family life, it will often be difficult to engage your audience.
  2. They are not interested in learning about the faith. This is a readiness issue. Sherry Weddell, in her book Forming Intentional Disciples, suggests that learning about faith comes after two things happen in people’s lives: 1) they have developed trusting and open relationship with other members, and 2) they have had some sort of conversion where they have experienced God in their life in a real and genuine way. These two things lead people to engage in conversations and topics of faith. Growing an Engaged Church suggests, “Belonging leads to believing.” If that is the case, which I believe it is, you and I need to spend some serious time building community. The other statement I believe to be true is, “Faith seeks understanding.” A conversion experience leads to faith. Faith leads to the desire to learn more and understand.
  3. They’re tired. It’s not a surprise to you that children and teenagers are heavily scheduled, especially on a weekday. They’ve had a really long day with school, tests, sports, and they just scarfed down dinner 2 seconds before they arrived. Finding a way to bring people out of their hectic day into a more peaceful place of prayer and focus is essential if you are to successfully engage them.

Question: What changes can you make that might help people become more engaged in the faith formation sessions you develop?

John Rinaldo (RealMinistry.org) is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, chairperson of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, and one of the hosts of the Best Youth Ministry Podcast Ever… Maybe.

What the End of LucasArts Can Teach Us About Ministry

Two weeks ago Disney announced that, after purchasing LucasFilm from George Lucas a few months back, they are shutting down the company’s video game division, LucasArts.

If, like me, you played computer games in the 1990s and 2000s, this is a time of grieving. LucasArts created some of the greatest games of the last two decades and gave me some of my favorite PC gaming memories:

So the news left me somewhat surprised and saddened; another little piece of my adolescence has been parceled off.

That having been said, it was probably the right move for Disney to make. LucasArts’s track record in the last few years has been lackluster (their last published game was the dismally reviewed Star Wars Kinect, a game that actually included a Han Solo dance mini-game) and many of the best games using LucasFilm properties in recent years have been developed by other companies.

In other words, LucasArts was no longer producing games at its former levels, and other companies were doing a better job creating games with LucasFilm properties.

What does this have to do with ministry?

One of the hardest things to do is stop doing good things, especially good things we’ve been doing for a long time. Unfortunately we can’t do it all and sometimes we have to stop doing good things in order to do better things. In the case of Disney, this meant recognizing that they could license their propertieis to other companies who were just as capable of making great games, minimizing risk while freeing up resources for other projects and pursuits.

For parishes, this means recognizing when a program or ministry has come to the end of its lifespan. Usually this means a ministry that no longer serves the needs it was created for or consumes too many resources, leaving nothing for other important pursuits. Knowing when to refocus or even end a ministry is a difficult but task for all catechetical leaders, whether it’s a once-thriving small group ministry that has dwindled to a few members, or a youth ministry that has become more focused on activities and trips than the proclamation of Jesus Christ.

They key in all of this is discernment and regular review of a parish’s activities. We shouldn’t be afraid to take a close look at where we are putting our time and resources. Budget time is the perfect time to do this since it means looking at what is already going on and planning for the future. (As a wise CFO I worked with once remarked, a budget is moral document since it tells us what our priorities are.)  This doesn’t always mean shutting down ministries; it may simply mean restructuring them or scaling them back to more appropriate levels. But it does mean a fundamental shift in how the parish views its ministries.

Of course this process won’t come without some grieving; as I said, it’s always hard to stop doing good things. But as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time for all things, including a time for endings. Our stewardship of the gifts we have been given requires nothing less than that we use them with care.

When was the last time you evaluated the programs you run? Are there any “good things” you should let go of so as to be free to pursue greater things?

Good Catechesis is Hard Work

The director of worship in our diocesan curia is fond of saying that “Good liturgy is hard work.” By that he doesn’t mean that liturgy is onerous or can only be done by professionals. Rather, he means that it takes time and effort to prepare good liturgy. One can’t simply show up and expect it to happen; everything from the training of ministers to the selection of songs must be properly attended to if the  liturgy  is flow naturally.

The same can be said for catechesis. Good catechesis is hard work. Everything from the formation of catechists to evaluating curriculum to lesson planning requires time and energy if it is to be done properly and not in a perfunctory manner.

This is another reason why a trained, full-time parish catechetical leader is the ideal. Good catechesis is about more than ordering textbooks and unlocking the doors on Wednesdays nights. Unfortunately most volunteers — who already have full-time jobs and families to care for — don’t have the time to devote to planning and most pastors are not willing to provide training and support to someone who is “only a volunteer.”

But the question remains:  If we aren’t willing to invest in someone, who will do the hard work of catechesis?

What the Marvel Cinematic Universe Can Teach Us About Parish Ministry

Last week on Twitter I had a short conversation with Marc Cardaronella about the new Avenger’s movie. We both agreed that it’s a great flick and continues Marvel’s string of strong superhero outings.

What I’m most impressed by, however, is how well The Avengers brings together the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For the non-geeks out there, for several years Marvel has been building a complete universe across multiple movies. These films (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man II, Thor, and Captain America) exist in the same continuity — they share characters and settings, and events in one movie affect events in the next movie. The MCU comes to a head in The Avengers, which brings together the main characters from all the movies for one action-packed spectacle.

But that spectacle wouldn’t be as spectacular if the characters and events hadn’t already been set up before in the other movies. By coordinating the movies and taking the time to slowly build up the characters, The Avengers transcends the sum of its parts and becomes something more.

What’s That Got to Do With Parishes?

Parish ministries don’t exist in a vacuum. They share volunteers and participants, use common spaces and are (ideally) centered on the Eucharist. Parish ministries overlap and rub shoulders in a variety of ways. So why do we so often treat them as self-contained entities?

Like the MCU movies we should view parish ministries as part of a continuum — what we do in, say, a Bible study group should inform and be informed by how we train lectors. How we conduct funeral liturgies should jive with what we present in baptismal prep. Parishioners should be able to recognize the strands and threads that run through parish programs, helping them to draw their own connections and insights into their experience of the faith.

This approach recognizes the systematic nature of our faith: all that has been revealed by God has integrity. It does not self-contradict. There are common threads that run through Catholic teaching: the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the centrality of the person of Christ. These threads should be explicit and identifiable in how our parishes are run and in what they teach.

Of course this means that we have to plan our ministries, rather than offering them as one-shot programs, and help people to see the connections between different aspects of the faith. This means more work, but will bear more fruit in the end.

Do your parish ministries exist in a continuity, or are they isolated units? What common vision underlies the work your parish does?

Geek Sidebar: Yes, I know the picture above is inaccurate insofar as Wolverine and Spider-Man aren’t part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the picture was just too great to pass up.

Photo by Dunechaser/flickrCC

Ministerial Identity Crisis

Fr. Z has an interesting post today on the distinction between ministry and apostolate. Fr. Z. makes the traditional distinction between ministers (read: the ordained) and the lay apostolate (which is lived “in the world”), and warns against over-extending the use of the word “ministry.” All good.

A couple of commenters press the issue: What do we call those of us who work for the Church in parish or diocesan positions? We are not “ministers” under the formal definition of the Church, yet neither are we strictly working in the lay apostolate. What are we? And what is it we do?

Lots of people smarter than me have wrestled with this question, but I’ll add my own answers to theirs.

Personally I’m  ambivalent  about the title “lay ecclesial minister.” It’s too bulky, too theological, and too contradictory. (If I’m a lay person, how can I be a minister under the Church’s definition?) On the other hand I don’t have a better term to offer, so I continue to use LEM as a shorthand, even while recognizing its  deficiencies. (Most of the time I just describe myself as a diocesan staff member.)

At the same time I readily identify my work as “ministry,” in so far as it cooperates with the work of my bishop. My role serves to further the teaching office of the bishop (and, to a lesser extent, his sanctifying and governing office); I am, in a way, a tool of the bishop’s ministry. The same could be said for those who work under a pastor in a parish.

I’d be interested to hear how others describe themselves and their work on behalf of the Church. Do you use the phrase Lay Ecclesial Minister in polite company? Do you think you do ministry?