Catholic Free Press

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  • Apr
  • 10

Many flock to hear about parish rebuilding tools

Posted By April 10, 2014 | 1:05 pm | Lead Story #2

By Tanya Connor

AUBURN – Focus on the unchurched. Focus on the weekend. Move parishioners to act.
These are strategies for parish growth, according to Father Michael White and Tom Corcoran who’ve lived through and written about rebuilding their parish.
About 275 laypeople, clergy and religious, representing about 30 parishes, packed St. Joseph Parish Center in Auburn April 3 for a seminar that promised to help them rebuild their own parishes.
Father White and Mr. Corcoran are pastor and lay associate at the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Md. They co-authored “The Story of a Catholic Parish Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter.” Several diocesan offices sponsored their talk.
Father White said many of the things they first tried to boost their failing parish were unsuccessful.
“We fell into a consumer mentality,” he said. “The people in the pews … were consumers, and our job was to help them consume.” So they expanded programs – and created increasingly demanding consumers.
“Jesus does not say, ‘I want you to go and play Bingo … run middle school lock-ins,’” Mr. Corcoran said of the commandment in Matthew 28. “He says, ‘Go and make disciples’” – of all nations.
“A disciple is someone who is growing to love God, to love others and to make disciples,” he said. That includes Mass, prayer, fasting and cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus, he said; “every aspect of our lives – family, financial – giving it over to God.”
Making disciples has to be the focus, he said.
“We went out to learn from growing, healthy churches, even if it meant turning to Protestants,” Father White said. They visited Saddleback Church in California and its founder, Pastor Rick Warren, who had not yet published his famous book, “The Purpose Driven Life.”
“They were so friendly and happy, and happy to be there and happy to see us,” he said. “I have never seen people this happy in church. … What do they know that we don’t know?”
Mr. Corcoran and Father White described three strategies for growth.
The first was to change the focus from church members, those already in the pews, to the unchurched.
Father White said they thought about how to create an environment the unchurched would want to come to. They compiled a description of such a person and nicknamed him “Tim” (after their community Timonium).  Tim was a confirmed Catholic, with three children, a job and spousal tension, who wants to relax on Sundays.
While there are “many shades of Tim,” the parish set out to  designed the music and homily with Tim in mind, figuring if he returns to church his wife and children will too, Father White said.
As a dialogue starter within a parish group, participants were encouraged to developed their own “Tims” based on their unique community experience.
One spoke of divorced people thinking they can’t attend church or receive Communion. Mr. Corcoran said there are misperceptions that need to be cleared up, and that his church announces that visitors are welcome.
“Just to say, ‘Welcome’ is huge,” he said.
The second strategy was to prioritize the weekend. Despite competing events, the weekend is the best time to reach people, Mr. Corcoran said.
If the Mass was “boring and bad and seemed irrelevant to your life, why would you come back?” he asked. Further, if the liturgy is bad, people assume the same is true of God.
To make Mass appealing, the presenters advocated focusing on the music, message and ministers.
“It is the music that can touch people’s hearts, for better or worse,” Father White said, and called for having those who should step down do so, so those with talent can step up.
“Words are powerful and the words of God are even more powerful,” Mr. Corcoran said, speaking about the homily. “You are forming people” in their attitude toward Scripture. It’s an opportunity to provide spiritual direction to a large group all at once. In mega-churches they found ex-Catholics who left the Catholic Church because they felt they were not being fed, he said.
“If you speak God’s word consistently, you can change people’s minds and hearts,” he said. “It will change the dead areas of your parish.”
But the homily is not only preached by the clergy.
“The homily begins in the parking lot,” Father White said, referring to a welcome from “parking ministers.” He said laity can preach; “you’re making that message that your priest delivers believable.”
Mr. Corcoran said parking ministers and other greeters create “layers of welcoming.” This begins to disarm people so they can hear and experience what God wants them to.
Another way to engage a family is by reaching the children with children’s ministries.
“If you do something for kids, you do something for parents,” he said. Children are more likely to be evangelizers, and ministry to them fuels older youth ministry, he said. This allows parents to drop off their children at age-appropriate programs and attend Mass in peace.
Father White and Mr. Corcoran did not ignore those already in the pews, but engaged them in the rebuilding process.
“We needed to move church people to action,” Mr. Corcoran said. “We needed to challenge them to take ownership of their faith.”
He said  it was important to get people to pray, join small faith-sharing groups, give financially, serve in ministries in the church and in mission outside the church, and to evangelize by investing in relationships.
Answering questions, Father White gave a few pointers. He said parish websites must be up to date. He said everything the parish does naturally attracts senior citizens but there are also special groups for them.
He encouraged preaching consistently about money and weaning the parish of needless fundraisers. Their parish began in debt, he said. The money follows, rather than funding, this strategy.
Asked about parishes with Masses for teenagers or different ethnic communities, Mr. Corcoran said they haven’t faced that but recommend unifying the parish around the mission of making disciples. Father White recommended the priests discuss together what they will preach about.
He advocated using seasonal population changes effectively: “If you know nobody’s going to be there in August, don’t knock yourself out with a big, splashy weekend.”
Some local parishes have been responding to the book or are planning responses to the seminar.
Gloria Hand, of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Worcester, said their pastor, Father Chester J. Misiewicz, bought the book for her and other pastoral council members and some staff members.
She said they did a survey and are working on addressing the responses, and have started a greeters and welcoming committee.
Deacon William Shea, of St. Joseph Parish in Charlton, said a group from there plans to visit local mega churches and the presenters’ parish.
A “Rebuilt” committee has been formed from the stewardship committee, he said. For Lent, they set up a table labeled “Information and Welcome” in the center of the vestibule.
Father Joseph Zhang, of St. Anne and St. Patrick Parish in Sturbridge, said they plan to gather those from the parish who attended the seminar.
“And then we hope the church really is going to be rebuilt,” he said, adding that he’s praying for that.