Parish leaders and tough conversations

By Mary Ann Otto | Special to The Compass | July 15, 2015

I am incredibly grateful for my ministry and especially appreciate the opportunity to meet with parish leaders. Over and over again I have seen the face of Jesus in them and my life is changed. It is definitely a remarkable and sacred part of my ministry “benefit package.”

Recently, I had the privilege of sitting with a group of parish leaders as they discussed their church’s history, their many gifts, their challenges and their future. Several generations were present at this meeting and it was an honest conversation and a beautiful dynamic. Needless to say, they prayed, they laughed, they cried, they reminisced and they looked to the future. I think we all knew the Holy Spirit was close at hand.

In the midst of our discussion of their changing parish/neighborhood demographics, the topic of their space and building issues came up. Some facilities which had served them well have now become financially cumbersome to repair and maintain. We know this is an emotional and difficult concern that parishes are dealing with on the national level. It emphasizes the need for the leadership to remain close to God and to each other in prayer.

During this heartfelt conversation, one of the members made the comment that the life, spirit and stories of a faith community live in the people. He said we have to remember that the people are the church. At those words, people paused and nodded. There was an unexpected “aha” moment. Another person with tears in her eyes then piped up and said that honoring our parish’s past does not necessarily mean hanging on to the buildings of the past.

This meeting, over three hours, flew by. As I drove home, I pondered their sincere hope to be good stewards of their parish’s past, present and future.

As Christian stewards, we receive God’s gifts gratefully, nurture them responsibly, share them generously and return them to God in abundance. There is no doubt that the founding families of their parish were good stewards. You can see it in the faith of their family members four generations later and that is remarkable! They are beautiful, intelligent, courageous servants and generous with their time and their treasure. No doubt, their ancestors are pleased and proud. I think the master is as well.

So, grateful for their history and the blessings God continues to bestow upon them, how do they take their current situation and form loving, intentional disciples for the future? They decided that in spite of their challenges, they wanted to be Christ’s beacon of light and hope for their members and their ever-changing neighborhood. Interestingly, that was also most likely the intent of the founding members.

The group shared it was their wish that their parish not become self-absorbed and turn in on itself.

They wanted to open the door to new and relevant ministries that would welcome and engage others. They wanted to maintain their strong emphasis on the Eucharist and help others love it as well. They wanted to nurture and share their faith in ways that made sense for them today. Through their efforts, they wanted to return to God a thriving, loving faith-filled community. They no longer wanted divisions in their parish. Most importantly, in tears they were able to say this all out loud and to each other.

In my religious imagination I wonder what it will be like when we stand before the Master as Christian stewards one day and are asked, “What have you done with the gift of my parish I placed in your care? How did you continue to spread my message, love each other and those I sent you? Were your hearts open to what I asked of you? Were you willing to put your own self-interest aside to do my will? Did you have faith I would be with you?”

As I imagine this particular group of leaders confidently standing before the Master faced with these questions, I also envision their beloved family and parish members who are now a part of the communion of saints gathered around them happily ready to welcome them home.

Each generation has a unique set of challenges in their mission to bring the good news of Jesus to their neighborhoods. This parish is no different. Although they have a lot of “holy” work ahead of them, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit will be smack dab in the middle of it. They remembered they are the church and why they exist.

Otto is Stewardship and Special Projects director for the diocesan Stewardship and Pastoral Services Department.

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