“Yes” parishes, on the other hand, promote faith and imagination, address needs with alertness and urgency, and feature a sense of excitement, he said.
Wilkes discussed parish vitality during the second day of Team Days 2009, March 19-20, at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center. Author, speaker and consultant Leisa Anslinger was the presenter the opening
day of the conference, which featured the theme “Revitalizing Parish Ministry.” The annual event attracted its largest ever number of participants.
Wilkes wasted no time, offering a humorous, yet poignant, warning to parish staff members during his first presentation.
“Spirit suckers will strike,” he said. “They are in your parish. They are in Grand Central Station.”
Wilkes shared a story about the large elevators at the historic New York terminal. Like in many elevators, most people tried to avoid eye contact. Music was added, which changed the atmosphere on the elevator. People began to engage in conversation. Artwork was later displayed on the walls to make the space even more welcoming. Unfortunately, spirit suckers deemed the paintings fire hazards and had them removed, said Wilkes.
“Even if you’re told that your ideas and talents are appreciated, people in the parish feel it when that’s not actually the case,” said Wilkes. “You must be fire hazards and not let the spirit suckers win. Why can’t enthusiasm and excitement be part of our parish life?”
Wilkes offered other defining characteristics of strong parishes, including deep spirituality and prayer, and a desire to help others by “doing the next right thing.”
“I have two sons graduating from college who are not interested in church, even though here I am ‘Mr. Catholic,'” he said. “When we are sitting around the dinner table, even though I realize that they are not interested in the church, I always tell them, ‘Do the next right thing.’ That’s what we need to do in our parishes. We need to be mindful of the needs of others.”
Throughout his presentations, Wilkes jokingly made what he described as “shameless plugs” for his new book, “In Due Season: A Catholic Life,” which was available at Team Days. A recent review in National Catholic Reporter identified the autobiography as the first 21st century Christian classic, ranking alongside Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain.”
“There were a lot of failures on my journey,” said Wilkes. “I hope readers recognize that the triumphs in my life are a result of allowing God to lead me.”
Wilkes included a few excerpts from the book in his talks. In addition to providing an overview of parishes, he offered ways to make parish communities come alive. Empowering the laity is essential, he said.
“This is the age of the laity,” he said. “My apologies to the priests in the room, but there are more of us than you. Many of the laity are well-educated and talented. I don’t know if we are motivated or not at this time, but we have the potential.”
Wilkes supports parishioners giving reflections at Mass.
“Have someone talk for two minutes about ‘What my faith means to me?'” he said. “We need to hear from each other. Those testimonies are so powerful. The parish is the clubhouse. When we come to the clubhouse, we want to hear what membership means.”
When seeking someone to lead a parish group or activity, don’t ask for volunteers, said Wilkes. The best person for the job will not step forward.
“You know the people, so choose your team,” he said. “Invite someone who you know can make things happen.”
Other suggestions by Wilkes include nametags at Mass, people telling the eucharistic minister their name and having it repeated back to them, free meals for funerals, staff members working the crowd before liturgy, a monthly dinner with the pastor, a real person answering the phone at all times and welcoming ushers.
The more social events at parishes, the better, he added.
“Dinners are good and holy gatherings,” he said. “Coffee after Mass is really, really important. Don’t underestimate it.”
Wilkes closed by assigning homework. Participants were asked to identify three major action areas for their parish or ministry and three “easy fixes” to implement change.
“I didn’t want to bury them with a lot of information that they never look at again,” said Wilkes. “By focusing on three things, hopefully they can get started right away.