Forming Intentional Disciples in the Parish

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to record a video session for the USCCB’s Diocesan Educational and Catechetical Leadership Institute. The video, “Forming Intentional Disciples in the Parish,” is now available.

The session includes a few handouts to download; you can access the slides and discussion questions as a PDF file. The other handouts are available in the video session.

Thank you to Michael Steier and the Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis for the invitation to record this video session. It was a lot of fun to produce!

Parish Employment and Parish Membership

I am sometimes asked by parish catechetical leaders (especially principals) whether they should become members of the parish that employees them when they are hired.

I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule (and in my rural diocese there are certainly circumstances where worshiping at a different parish would be impractical), but in general I am not in favor of working where you belong.

For one, there is a risk of work interfering in other parish activities. This may be my own personal bias, but when I go to Mass I’m not thinking about work. But some people seeing parish workers at Mass view them as “on the job,” even if it is outside of their “office hours.” It would be distracting for folks to come up to me (either before or after the liturgy ) to discuss a work-related issue. Put another way: it’s impossible to be an “anonymous worshiper” at the Church where you work.

Secondly, as Jesus reminds us in a recent Gospel reading, “No prophet is accepted in his own native place.” While I wouldn’t go far as to equate parish employees with the biblical prophets (although would that we all were like them!), that catechesis is part of Christ’s prophet ministry should cause us to reflect. I sometimes wonder if it is harder for people in my parish to take me seriously as a church employee when they see me, for instance, struggling to keep my toddler settled during Mass week after week.

What do you think: should parish employees belong to the community they work for?

What No One Considers About Parish Evangelization (Guest post by Marc Cardaronella)

Marc Cardaronella is the catechetical blogger I wish I could be. His writing is always relevant, snappy, and finely crafted. In a word, it’s must-read material for catechists and I’m thankful for his guest post today.

On the Tuesday after the Easter Vigil, our whole RCIA entourage gets together for a kind of after party to celebrate and discuss what happened at the Vigil.

chicken-wingsWe get a lot of food (Buffalo Wild Wings are the main course) and desserts and reflect on the year. I ask the neophytes to tell me their impressions of the process, particularly how they felt about it before they came, then during, and now after.

I was really struck this year by a comment from one young lady who had no Christian background at all before she came to the RCIA.

She said:

“I didn’t really want to come. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go through with this. But you said to just come and check it out. No pressure. If I didn’t like, I could quit anytime. So, I came to the first meeting and everyone was so friendly and inviting. There was lots of great food and it was so welcoming, I felt like it was family. Then I started learning and I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want to miss a single week. Now I’m so glad I did this. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

I loved hearing this because that is exactly the effect I hope for at that first meeting. The whole RCIA team is primed to be as welcoming as possible in order to make this happen.

I was at a meeting with parish leaders the other night talking about evangelization. Whenever I have conversations like this, it always turns to having the great speakers, fancy venues, and great music. Large group stuff.

That’s good if you can afford it. However, I’d say probably 90% of evangelization is hospitality. At least in the beginning.

Hospitality communicates to others that they have value, that they are welcome. Before you can deliver the saving message of Jesus Christ, you have to establish a connection on a human level. It’s like the human connection becomes, in a sense, a bridge or a conduit on which the divine message can travel.

Hospitality builds relationship and then, from relationship you can build trust. Trust gives you the right to be heard. Once you have that, you can deliver your message and know your audience is listening.

If you don’t do the crucial groundwork of earning the right to be heard, you are just a talking head, no different from any other salesman trying to get them to buy something they don’t want. Earn that trust, and you automatically speak from a place of regard. That’s why hospitality is so critical in evangelization.

There’s many different ways hospitality can play a vital role in parish evangelization. Consider the often beleaguered parish secretary. She’s the first person people have contact with at the parish. She’s the first to answer all the phone calls, the first to greet all the visitors at the parish office, and probably the one to manage all the pastor’s appointments.

Arguably, the parish secretary is the most important person in the parish with regard to evangelization. How often does careful thought go into who is hired for this position? More often than not, she’s just the person who was available…and she’s grumpy.

welcomeAnd what about the parish office itself? Is it inviting? Is it fashionably decorated and furnished with comfortable chairs? Does it say, “We have a comfortable place for you because we value you being here.”

Hospitality is probably 90% of initial evangelization, but it’s not everything. You have to proclaim the gospel too. Once people are open to your message, you have the opportunity to tell them why it’s awesome to be in union with Jesus Christ in and through the Catholic Church.

I think if parishes became more intentional about hospitality, it would pay huge dividends in drawing new members to the Church, and making existing parishioners feel more a part of the parish family.

What are your thoughts about hospitality and evangelization? Do you have a story where it really worked? Or, maybe a story where a lack of hospitality went really wrong? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Marc Cardaronella is a parish catechetical leader in Champaign, Illinois, with a passion for sharing the faith with others. He is also a father, writer, and a blue belt in Gracie Jiu-jitsu. He blogs about catechesis and evangelization at

“Think like an outsider.”

Last week I had the privilege of joining the priests of our diocese during part of their annual Priests Convocation. The speaker for the day was Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP, who spoke on how parishes can reach “inactive” Catholics.

One of the highlights of the presentation was a segment on “thinking like an outsider.” Fr. DeSiano invited the priests to think about coming to their parish as a stranger and to consider what that experience is like:

  • How easy is it for a newcomer to park in your lot? To find their way around your campus?
  • How friendly is your congregation? Your ushers?
  • How well does the congregation participate in liturgy?
  • What impression will people get within five minutes of walking into your parish?
  • What is the registration process like?  Does it involve more than just sending out collection envelopes?
  • Can people with physical handicaps get around your church?
  • Do you welcome different cultures?

As someone who was once a member of four parishes in four cities in a three-year period, I can attest to the fact that how well the parish is suited to “outsiders” can make a huge difference. And it’s not always the large parish that does the best job — my family had the best parish experience when we moved to rural Iowa and joined a wonderfully warm, welcoming parish community.

 How “user-friendly” is your parish? Would an “outsider” feel welcome there?

The Parish Community

A parish is a community of the Christian faithful established within a diocese. The pastoral care of a parish is entrusted to a pastor under the authority of the diocesan bishop. The parish is ‘the primary experience of the Church’ for most Catholics. It is where the faithful gather for the celebration of the sacraments and the proclamation of the word of God, and where they are enabled to live distinctively Christian lives of charity and service in their family, economic, and civic situations. It is ‘the living and permanent environment for growth in the faith.’ The parish energizes the faithful to carry out Christ’s mission by providing spiritual, moral, and material support for the regular and continuing catechetical development of the parishioners.

National Directory for Catechesis (2005), n 60

Book Review: Forming Intentional Disciples

Here’s the short version of this review: If you have any interest in the challenges facing catechists and evangelists in the Church today, stop reading this review and get a copy of Forming Intentional Disciples. You will not be disappointed.

For those of you that still need convincing, read on…

Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus  by Sherry Weddell is the most important book I’ve read this year. That is not exaggeration or hyperbole, but a testament to the research, experience, and insight Weddell brings to the question of evangelization and catechesis in the Church today. Weddell’s book is a synthesis of every deep conversation about catechesis and evangelization I’ve had with my local and national colleagues for the past four years.

Weddell begins with a review of the data that should be familiar to all of us: decreasing Mass attendance, Catholics leaving the Church for Protestant communities, and a general “disengagement” from the life of the parish by many of the faithful. But she doesn’t just leave us with cold, hard facts. Thanks to her work with parishes across the  country  Weddell is also able to weave compelling anecdotes that put a human face on the crisis. Most surprising to me were the number of people who have left the Catholic Church not because they were failing to  moving closer to Christ but  because, as they more fully embraced their call to discipleship, they had no one in their parishes to support them or who understood the sudden fire that had been lit in them. That the Church is losing both unengaged and highly motivated members — leaking from both ends, as it were — should alarm all of us.

Weddell’s overarching question in reviewing the data and stories is this: How many of our parishioners are truly disciples of Jesus Christ? How many are committed to living a life of faith in an intentional way? Her answer, based on conversations with pastors and parish staff across the country, is that about 5% of Catholics can be described as “intentional disciples.” This is shockingly low. And unfortunately many of the leaders in our parishes are not included in that figure. Some of the most heartbreaking stories in the book are the anonymous parish leaders — presumably DREs, youth ministers, and pastoral council members — who describe themselves as having no active relationship with God.

Thankfully Weddell doesn’t tread old arguments by trying to place the blame for this crisis on any particular group within the Church. Rather, she identifies as a major contributing factor the lack of a “normal” understanding of what it means to be a disciple:

As we listened to the spiritual experiences of tens of thousands of Catholics, we began to grasp that many, if not a majority of, Catholics don’t know what “normal” Christianity looks like. I believe that one reason for this is the selective silence about the call to discipleship that pervades many parishes. Catholics have come to regard it as normal and deeply Catholic to not talk about the first journey – their relationship with God – except in confession or spiritual direction. This attitude is so pervasive in Catholic communities that we have started to call it the culture of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Weddell also decries the poor sacramental preparation received by both children and candidates in the RCIA. Weddell delves into the Church’s theology of grace to demonstrate that we are not preparing people to  fruitfully  receive the sacraments. A tendency to focus on the  validity  of the sacraments has blinded us to the need for the recipients to receive the grace imparted by the sacraments and allow it to flourish in their lives. Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catechism of the Catholic Church Weddell skillfully indicts catechists who operate with a “the sacrament will take care of it” attitude towards the spiritual lives of those in their care.

Weddell goes on to offer a framework for understanding the  process  by which a person becomes an  authentic  disciple of Jesus Christ. This was, for me, the most important part of the book, since it is the pivot on which evangelization and catechesis turn. Through her work with the Catherine of Siena Institute Weddell has  identified  five “thresholds” on the path to  discipleship:

  1. Trust
  2. Curiosity
  3. Openness
  4. Seeking
  5. Intentional Discipleship

Each describes the foundational attitude the individual must have before they are able to progress through the stage.  Of course, this framework would be of little use without suggestions for how to guide  individuals  through this journey of faith. Fortunately, Weddell gives us some very concrete ways that we can walk with people at these different stages. For instance, Weddell challenges Church leaders to break the silence in our parishes concerning  discipleship:

Until discipleship and conversion become a normative part of parish life, many [people] will walk in and out of our parishes untouched, and many Catholics who are disciples will continue to feel that they need to hide or minimize their newly awakened personal faith in front of other Catholics. The first thing that must be done is to deliberately and persistently break the code of silence if it is in place. The Catholic norm of silence about a relationship with God, about Jesus Christ and his story, about our own stories of following Christ, and about the need for everyone to decide whether or not he or she will follow as a disciple is stifling the emergence of a culture of discipleship and all that flows from it. One of the most powerful ways to challenge the silence is by making a safe place for others to talk about their own lived relationship with God.

Weddell offers similar advice for each of the thresholds of discipleship; parish staffs would do well to read these chapters carefully and discuss how the suggestions might be implemented in thir local communities.

Forming Intentional Disciples is a book that has appeared at preciously the moment it is needed in the life of the Church. I am indebted to Sherry Weddell for her work in  writing  it, and I believe every bishop, pastor, evangelist, and catechetical leader should have a copy and study it carefully. I know I will be.

Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / FlickrCC

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?

The Value of a Catechetical Leader

Last week my friend Joyce asked some difficult questions on her blog about parishes cutting back on catechesis in difficult financial situations:

Are we becoming an austerity Church rather than one of abundance?  We seem to be abandoning a theology of Christian hope and retrenching as if we are businesses instead of mission-driven agencies of the Kingdom of God on earth.  Have we forgotten the blessing to the Church that lay ministry provides?  Have we forgotten that the Holy Spirit is in charge?

I don’t have a whole lot to add to Joyce’s excellent post; I’m seeing the same  scenario  play out in my diocese as full-time, degreed DREs retire and are replaced by faithful and well-meaning — but often under-trained — part-time coordinators.

In the Catholic commentariat people will ask why the Church needs full-time DREs and other lay ministers working in parishes. Sometimes the accusation is made that these people are “professional Catholics,”  insinuating  that they are merely in it for the money and don’t really have a heart for Christ.

While that may be true in a few situations, the DREs and other “professionals” I know are hard-working, faith-filled people who have made real sacrifices to work for the Church. And their expertise, training, and education is invaluable. In my experience a full-time trained and educated DRE is much more likely to

  • Have read the Church’s documents  on catechesis and have at least a theoretical understanding of their main points;
  • Put an investment of time and resources into adult faith formation;
  • Offer formation and education opportunities for their parish catechists;
  • If they are responsible for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, to at least be attempting to implement a year-round process as called for by the RCIA;
  • Communicate with the diocesan curia and access the resources (including grant monies) that we offer;
  • Work with other area catechetical leaders;
  • Come to  diocesan  catechetical workshops and conferences.

Do any of those things  guarantee  a successful catechetical program? Not necessarily. But from my experience they certainly increase the odds.

Parishes are facing many pressures today — a lack of giving from parishioners being a notable one. But it would be a shame if, as Joyce said, this results in an  entrenchment  and atrophy of the catechetical and evangelizing mission of the Church. Full-time parish catechetical leaders are worth much more than the salary and benefits we invest in them. And if passing on the faith to the next generation is as important as we say, we need to be willing to put our resources there.

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