Leadership Convocation speakers encourage outreach to unchurched

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | November 5, 2014

Priest, lay minister offer parish leaders blueprint for making church relevant to all

GREEN BAY — During a free Lenten meal at his parish, Fr. Michael White realized he was going about parish ministry in the wrong way.

Deacon Tim Reilly, general director of the diocesan Curia, carries the Book of Gospels during the opening procession at Mass during the 2014 Leadership Convocation Oct. 30 at the KI Convention Center in Green Bay. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
Deacon Tim Reilly, general director of the diocesan Curia, carries the Book of Gospels during the opening procession at Mass during the 2014 Leadership Convocation Oct. 30 at the KI Convention Center in Green Bay. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“I was serving dinner … and this lady approached me to complain about the food. That would be the free food,” he said. “Something snapped. I knew in an instant that I could no longer do this. It wasn’t just the ingratitude. It was the lack of purpose and the ensuing lack of impact.”

The experience not only led Fr. White, pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Md., to rethink the way his parish should welcome people, it led to helping other parishes across the country do the same.

During the 2014 Leadership Convocation, Fr. White and Thomas Corcoran, ministry associate at Church of the Nativity, gave parish leaders from the Diocese of Green Bay a blueprint for successful parish ministry based on their book, “ReBuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter.”

More than 550 parish ministers attended this year’s Leadership Convocation, held Oct. 30 at the KI Convention Center. Also in attendance were 83 vendors and 21 speakers. The convocation theme was “Parishes: Called to be Holy, Fully Engaged and Fully Alive,” based on Bishop David Ricken’s pastoral letter by the same name.

Day begins with Mass

The day began with Mass celebrated by Bishop Ricken and 10 priests. During his homily, Bishop Ricken thanked parish leaders for helping people to “grow closer to the Lord and to truly enter into the spirit and activities of the new evangelization.”

Bishop David Ricken makes a point during his homily at the 2014 Leadership Convocation held Oct. 30 at the KI Convention Center. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
Bishop David Ricken makes a point during his homily at the 2014 Leadership Convocation held Oct. 30 at the KI Convention Center. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Referring to his pastoral letter published in 2011, Bishop Ricken said there are many signs that parishes are becoming more alive and engaged. He said he is saddened when Catholics “let the opportunities to grow in the love of Christ” slip away.

For this reason he published a six-year plan titled “Disciples on the Way” that will help Catholics grow in prayer, discipleship and mission.

“In order to do that, we need to be deeply immersed in the prayer life of the church and our own personal prayer life in a significant way,” he told the parish leaders. By building their prayer life and sharing it with others, “people start to see you are sincere (and) they will listen up.”

The Leadership Convocation, he said, was one way to help reach the goals outlined in “Disciples on the Way.”

During their presentation, Fr. White and Corcoran described how their desire to enliven their suburban Baltimore parish focused on providing new activities. “We fell into a consumer mentality (in which) people in the pew should be thought of as customers,” said Fr. White.

They launched a variety of new programs they believed would have a positive effect on bringing more people into the church, including Free Family Fridays during Lent, with a free meal as its centerpiece.

“The more we provided, the more was demanded,” said Fr. White. “We never stopped to consider why we were doing what we were doing or what we were accomplishing. The net effect of our efforts was creating consumers.”

The epiphany moment came when that guest complained about the free food.

“Finally I stepped back and asked the question, ‘Why am I doing this?’” said Fr. White.

“When we lose our why, we are adrift on a dangerous sea of disillusionment and disappointment.”

He and Corcoran, who began serving the parish as a youth minister, decided to ask why. Such as, “Why does the church exist?”

Getting back to basics

At left, Fr. Michael White and Thomas Corcoran share their insights of a successful parish during the 2014 Leadership Convocation. They are co-authors of “ReBuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter.” Above, Catherine Orr, diocesan Department of Living Justice director, shares a laugh with convocation speaker Patrick Dougherty before the morning Mass. Orr was a Mass server. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
Fr. Michael White, left, and Thomas Corcoran share their insights of a successful parish during the 2014 Leadership Convocation. They are co-authors of “ReBuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter.” (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Corcoran said it led them to Matthew’s Gospel and Jesus’ words: “Go and make disciples of all nations.”

“That means we have a responsibility from Jesus, a commission from Jesus, to go and make disciples of everyone who lives in the geographical area of our parish, not just people in the church building,” said Corcoran. “We were not making disciples. We were making religious consumers.”

So the two set out to learn how other churches were succeeding in making disciples and reaching out to the unchurched. Their journey took them to evangelical Protestant churches, the megachurches.

Fr. White described Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., as “a Walmart with chairs in it.”

“It wasn’t even primarily the buildings or campus that was so remarkable,” he added. “It was the people. … They were so friendly. They were so happy to be there. They were happy to see me there.”

Three key strategies to change

Their visits led to three key strategies, they said, that were instrumental in transforming their parish.

  • Changing the focus from churched people to unchurched people.
  • Prioritizing the weekend church experience.
  • Challenging people in the pews to take ownership of their faith.

Corcoran said the nondenominational megachurches are successful because “they understood how to present church in a way that was attractive to people who were either unchurched, dechurched or given up on church for some reason.”

He said weekends are the optimal times to evangelize and welcome people to church. “By that we mean weekend Mass and programs and services around the Mass.”

Finally, it’s important to challenge people in the pews to become disciples.

Timonium Tim

In seeking to reach the unchurched, Fr. White said, “we began to focus on the quintessential unchurched person in our community.” They gave that person a name, “Timonium Tim,” and created a profile.

“He’s a good guy, grew up Catholic … after confirmation, he stopped going (to church) and he’s never looked back,” said Fr. White. Timonium Tim leads a stressful life. He has three kids, marital problems, debts and either plays golf, watches football or his kids play sports on Sundays.

With their profile complete, they came to another realization: “If Tim actually showed up on our campus on Sunday, there really wasn’t much there interesting or relevant to him,” said Fr. White.

“If we don’t get this main part of our church right, the main place people experience church, then people are not going to care about programs and services we have for them,” said Corcoran. “They are going to assume that if Mass is boring and bad … God is irrelevant to their lives.”

Pillars for successful weekend

They came up with three pillars to a successful weekend experience: Music, message and ministers.

Music can be the most challenging to improve because it means making personnel changes.

“More than any other element in a parish’s weekend experience, it is the music that can touch and change peoples’ hearts for better or for worse,” said Fr. White. “We like to say music is the water on which our weekend experience sails. Music does what words alone cannot do.”

Music at their Masses ranged from traditional choirs with cantors and organists to a folk music choir. The common denominator, said Fr. White, was no participation from the congregation.

“If you came to our church and sang, we knew you were a visitor,” he said. During a parish town hall meeting, complaints about Mass music erupted. “We had terrible music and it was making people angry,” he said.

Their response was to do nothing.

“We didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings,” said Fr. White. “When we began to get it right, we started making the hard choices, asking the people that needed to step down to step down, to make room for people who should have been there, most of whom were sitting in pews waiting to be asked.”

Improving homilies

Improving the message involved improving homilies, spending more time on them.

The response they heard from former Catholics attending evangelical churches: “I just wasn’t being fed there,” said Corcoran. “Of course they were being fed the Eucharist, but not being fed God’s word.”

Improved homilies have meant better parish stewardship, both in donations and volunteers, he added.

The third pillar included adding welcoming ministers who created “a sense of destination,” said Corcoran. Welcoming ministers can make guests feel comfortable “so God’s word can penetrate (their) heart.”

Adding children’s ministries

Another important part of this pillar was adding children’s ministries. Offering children’s Liturgy of the Word during the entire Mass allows parents to focus on the Mass. “These are not just babysitting programs,” said Corcoran. “They are faith formation programs.”

Fr. White added that children’s ministry isn’t about taking them away from Mass. It’s about preparing them for fuller participation in the Mass and getting them to love church.

The speakers concluded their talk by encouraging parishes to focus on the unchurched, coming up with their own Timonium Tim and taking steps to improve their music, message and ministries.

“What is one thing you can do that’s in your role or responsibility to improve the weekend experience?” asked Corcoran. “Is there something that you can stop doing?”

While Catholics (including those who only attend Mass on Easter and Christmas) make up the largest U.S. religious denomination, former Catholics make up the third largest, said Fr. White.

“That bothers me and you,” he said. “It even breaks our heart. You and I are here because that bothers us and because we want to do something about it.”

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