Appleton parishes to sponsor ‘Growing an Engaged Church’ workshop April 13

By | March 22, 2013

Pastors see this all the time and “sadly feel obligated to give them what they want.”

That was the case with Msgr. Bill Hanson of St. Gerard Majella Parish in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., in 2002. About 34 percent of his parish was engaged and 22 percent were “the grumblers.” By spring 2008, 53 percent of the parish were engaged and 13 percent were actively disengaged. The positive turn came through the work of Gallup Strengths Center in Washington, D.C., and their StrengthFinders program.

Today, Msgr. Hanson puts his energy into the active members and his parish is thriving. For five years, he’s travelled the country telling other parishes how to do the same.

On April 13, he and his parish director of religious education, John Aleksak, will give a workshop at St. Thomas More Parish in Appleton on “Growing an Engaged Church: Path to an Energized Parish.”

The workshop is sponsored by the eight Appleton parishes as part of a unified stewardship plan their eight pastors began in the fall of 2011 thanks to a grant from the Catholic Foundation’s Advancing the Mission Fund.

Fr. Dennis Ryan, pastor of St. Bernard Parish, said the $10,000 grant “really inspired this to go forward.”

“Before our very eyes,” he added, “we were able to see the work of the Holy Spirit transforming eight individual parishes into something splendid.”

Fr. Ryan explained that the eight Appleton priests took the StrengthFinders assessment and then used the results to discuss how to interact with each other and their parishioners.

“This was a good learning experience and helped us to communicate and listen to one another better,” Fr. Ryan said.

Since then, more than 200 members at St. Thomas More Parish have taken the StregthFinders assessment. At St. Bernard, about 60 parish members have taken it and participated in a six-week study follow-up. St. Thomas More has started similar weekly follow-ups.

“By knowing our own strengths, we can better focus our inherent talents in life-giving ways and in service, rather than wasting energy on what we are not good at,” Fr. Jim Lucas, pastor of St. Thomas More, said. “StrengthFinders helps people work together by better understanding what makes a person tick, and can help round out a team of diverse individuals with diverse strengths and talents.”

What Msgr. Hanson found is that playing to people’s strengths leads to more parish involvement.

“It’s the best investment against burnout,” he said. “If you spend time in your area of natural gifts, it’s a pipeline into eternal life. You don’t get tired doing it.”

So, if you’ve been asked to work on the parish council taking minutes and your natural gifts aren’t for record keeping, you’ll burn out. But if you love to chat with everyone under the sun, you’d probably love to be on the welcoming committee or to serve doughnuts after Sunday Mass.

Msgr. Hanson loves to tell the story of one parishioner who had spent quite some time in charismatic renewal. After taking the StrengthFinders and its follow-up workshops, she realized that “if they had invited me to bake my world class chocolate chip cookies, I’d have had just as much chance of deepening my faith.”

That’s the summary of it, according to Gallup itself. The letter that first attracted Msgr. Hanson to a workshop on forming an engaged parish had one sentence that hooked him: “We know why people join and stay in churches.”

That question is what he calls “an endless record” for all parishes: why don’t people join and stay?

The answer, he learned, was something he already knew: “A feeling of belonging to the community leads to people believing more deeply.” After all, he said, it’s in Acts 2:42-44: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. … All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

When people use their God-given gifts and do what they naturally love to do, they will love where they are as well, he said.

“By knowing your strengths, you can start to understand your own uniqueness,” Fr. Ryan explained. “The God-given innate gifts begin to establish themselves in activities at home, with family and friends, at work, in our parishes and in our communities.”

While it sounds simple, Msgr. Hanson warns that it’s “no silver bullet.” Every year, his parish uses a measurement tool from Gallup (the ME25) “that helps us measure, manage and maximize the engagement of each member of the faith community.”

Those annual checks, he said, are like the difference between driving a car at night with the lights off or the lights on. In one instance, you’re driving blind. In the other, you not only see the road, but can read all the car’s gauges as well — so you won’t run out of gas or oil or end up with a dead battery.

The eight Appleton parishes intend to take the ME25 assessment together in the future, according to Fr. Lucas, both to save costs and to solidify their commitment to working together.

“We have been working collaboratively together for many years, primarily dealing with Catholic school functions,” Fr. Ryan said. “This effort is a new adventure for the eight Appleton priests. After the conference, we will continue to share with each other (the) new learning from those in our parishes who complete the six-week strengths study and their results from individual mentoring.”

To attend the Growing an Engaged Church workshop, from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on April 13, contact St. Thomas More Parish at (920) 739-8172. Cost is $25 after March 22. Scholarships are available.

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