There’s a better way to begin revitalizing your parish

Rich Curran, founder of Parish Success Group, to address Convocation of Catholic Leaders

APPLETON —Parishes striving to become active, welcoming communities need to set goals, understand the church’s mission and have a spiritually energized staff, according to Rich Curran, founder of Parish Success Group, a Catholic nonprofit organization that trains parish staff in leadership and management skills.

However, getting there can be a challenge.

Rich Curran, founder of Parish Success Group, will help lead a workshop on parish revitalization during the Convocation of Catholic Leaders, a national gathering taking place July 1-3 in Orlando, Fla. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Basic Parish template

Most U.S. parishes follow a similar path when setting goals, said Curran.

“It’s a basic template. You have a town hall meeting and you invite parishioners to come,” he said.

Typically, three lists are created at these meetings.

  • What do we do really well?
  • What do we think really needs to be improved?
  • What are our top priorities for the next five years?

“I can tell you what’s on the first list without ever being in the room,” said Curran. “We are very generous, very welcoming, we have a great pastor, he gives great homilies (especially if the pastor is sitting in the room), we have outstanding music and, if we have a Catholic school, we love our Catholic school.”

The second list usually includes: “We need more kids. We need their parents. We need more volunteers and we need more money,” said Curran.

By the end of the meeting, parishes decide their top priorities for the next five years will be outreach to youth and parents, finding volunteers and raising money, said Curran.

“For fun, I usually will ask the staff, ‘Can I see the goals from five years ago?’” Curran said. “They are, ‘We need more kids, more money, parents and volunteers.’ It’s the exact same thing and not much has changed.”

Convocation speaker

His experience in training parish staff, as well as his background as a nationally recognized speaker on parish revitalization, led to Curran’s selection as a speaker at next month’s Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando, Fla.

Curran, who served as a consultant and then director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Green Bay from 2004 to 2009, has also been a keynote speaker at national church conferences for nearly 10 years. It was during the National Conference for Catholic Youth Ministry, held last December in San Jose, Calif., that Curran was asked to serve as a presenter at the July 1-4 convocation.

“Specifically, I have been asked to be a part of the workshop on ‘Evangelii Gaudium at the Parish: Revitalizing the Local Community through Prayer and Evangelization,’” said Curran. The workshop title reflects the name of Pope Francis’ 2013 document, known in English as “The Joy of the Gospel.”

“This workshop, and all workshops, are led by two bishops, and I will join them on this topic” of parish revitalization, added Curran.

It’s a topic on which Curran, a member of St. Mary Parish in Appleton, could write a book.

He recalled a conversation several years ago with diocesan leaders during a national conference. “(They) were lamenting that so many ministers have been trained in theology, but we never trained them in leadership and management,” he said. “This is an issue because many ministers know what the church asks them to do, but they have never been trained or shown how to actually oversee and manage a large operation, especially with volunteers.”

Parish Success Group

Curran said those leaders asked him “to pray about developing a solution” and Parish Success Group was the answer to that prayer.

“Our mission is to help parishes and schools grow,” said Curran. “We do that by offering on-site coaching and training of the staff and lay leadership at parishes, schools and diocese throughout the United States.”

During an interview at his home office in Appleton, Curran described his work with parishes around the country and the impact the national convocation can have on the U.S. church.

His message to parishes is simple.

“The idea is that the whole parish has to be moving in the same direction at the same time,” he said. “That’s the key, which requires a common vision of what we are trying to do and a road map of how we are going to get … to where we want to be.”

When discussing goal setting with parish leaders, Curran reminds them that the traditional template is the wrong approach.

“What we try to help parishes understand is: We don’t have any problem with you asking parishioners (for input). The problem is, you started with what the parishioners want, which gave them permission to make the church, unintentionally, into their image and likeness,” he explained. “We never ask the question: What does the church want us to do?”

Church has a roadmap

According to Curran, the church has a “roadmap of areas” that parish leaders can use to develop in parish life. The roadmap includes a document, “Renewing the Vision: A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry,” issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1995, as well as other church catechetical documents.

A better way to begin those parish goal-setting gatherings, said Curran, is to start with what the church wants and then ask parishioners: “How are we matching up against that?”

“Let’s set our goals according to those gaps that we have and not according to more stuff that we think we want,” he said. “Unintentionally, the human nature is to keep doing more stuff we like and invite everyone to come and do what we like.”

In his consultation with parishes, Curran said he has found that almost every parish has the ingredients it needs to succeed.

“They have parishioners who have professional skill sets and experience and background who would love to help, but they are not asked,” he said. “So we tap into those and say, ‘OK, could you saddle up beside the staff here? They don’t have the background in this, but they need your skill set and here’s what we’re trying to achieve. Will you help them?’”

Theological training

While he coaches parishes on leadership and management, there is also indirect theological training, he said.

“We keep coming back to the church documents and pushing parishes and saying, ‘How does this fit into what the church asks us to do? And if it doesn’t fit, why are we doing it?’” he said. “It’s easier for the outsider to come in and say, ‘but that’s not what the church has asked us to do.’”

The other challenge Curran helps parishes to address is reviewing the spirituality of parish staff members.

“For me, the greatest thing is when (parish staffs) report a better working culture and environment,” said Curran. “We insist as much as we can that they learn to become spiritual beings together and so we do a lot of formation for the staff on how to pull for each other.”

He said when parish staff members pull for each other and move in the same direction, “it unleashes creativity. When you go to work knowing your whole team is pushing for you and, likewise, you’re pushing for them to win, it makes it very easy to go to work.”

Curran said he’s worked with parishes where this supportive culture does not exist. “Nobody will talk to each other and, in some cases, very unCatholic behavior is occurring on their staffs. If you don’t fix that first, the rest doesn’t matter — if staffs aren’t absolutely spiritually alive first, any coaching that we’ll do is kind of immaterial.”

Ministries interconnected

Success comes when parishes learn that all of their ministries are interconnected, said Curran.

“The bereavement ministry is integral to the whole. The Knights of Columbus are integral, they are not independent,” he said. “All of those ministries are responsible for the formation of young people and that’s not the practice of most parishes.”

Church documents state that youth “are to be apprenticed into the faith,” said Curran. “They are not to be — and I’m quoting church document — depositories of facts.”

Guiding parishes in this direction is Curran’s task with Parish Success Group.

Curran said he is excited to participate in the convocation because its focus is on implementing Pope Francis’ document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” into parish life.

“Pope Francis’ writings are all about being out in the streets and meeting people, but he talks extensively about what is necessary for the one who is trying to disciple. That it’s a spiritual process,” Curran said. “He talks about making sure that what we share with others is authentic,” which, if not properly presented, can be a spiritual problem.

“When they come to our communities, our parishes, (parish staff) should know that they are introducing individuals to the Lord, not to the way we’ve always done things,” said Curran.

Engaging Catholics

He said the convocation is the start of a larger process “that will engage thousands of active Catholics throughout the United States.”

“If the participants come home and help each diocese, including our own, think through and implement effective, measurable results, then that’s building the kingdom,” he added. “I really feel it is an honor to be asked by our U.S. bishops to contribute in such a specific way to the national dialogue.”