The following is my Pastor's Pen to my parishes. I will expand upon what will be seen in the bulletin (I have to keep it to 2 pages), but it lays out how I see any parish learning to thrive and to expand in its core mission of the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Too many times, parishes get bogged down in a business mentality. We get in the business of offering holy goods and services at bargain basement prices. I do not believe for a nanosecond this is what Jesus envisioned when He founded His Church. As a pastor, I have the goal of developing a thriving parish. Here is my take on this goal. I want to point with hope to the future.
Over the past few months, as a new pastor, I have been doing a lot of listening. In multiple meetings and casual conversation, I have been trying to get a lay of the land and a sense of direction. As a pastor of 17 years, I have learned that there are three trajectories a parish can take. It can decline. It can aim for status quo. It can thrive. Of course, I do not believe anyone wants to have their parish decline. This is never a goal for me. Many, though, do look for a status quo. They look for something that fits like an old familiar shoe. Truth is, though, that if a parish is aiming for status quo, it ceases to grow and the status quo becomes a long term death sentence. The status quo was never what Christ looked for from his disciples or from His Church. Hence, this is not my goal either. I do not wish to be a placeholder until someone comes along to set the parochial tombstone . That leaves option three: thrive.
What does it take for a parish to thrive?
First it takes God. All of our human efforts will fall short. Human enterprises, by their nature, run a course. They begin, they peak, they decline, and they die. Whether it be commercial or political, sooner or later they fade away. Jesus knew this and hence promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit to sustain and guide His Church. Independent of God, we would have collapsed under the weight of our own sin and selfishness millennia ago.
The sacraments are not just things we do, lifeless rituals that have no real effect on who we are. They breathe into us the life of God. They are avenues of God’s grace. Exempting ourselves from the regular practice of the sacraments is the surest way to strangle one’s faith to death. Furthermore, the sacraments themselves should be celebrated in such a way that we understand we are there to give thanks to God. Too many times we treat them as forms of entertainment or hoops to jump through so as to appease God.
These sacraments are given to us to draw us into a lifelong and eternal relationship with Christ and His Body. They are not all that we do. We are to have a life of prayer. We are to exhibit a life of Christian charity. I am a big believer that a healthy devotional life, both personal and communal, is a sign of a healthy parish. These are not to be empty actions, but intentional contact. The Church has a veritable treasure chest of devotions, from the Bible to novenas to processions to Marian devotions and so on. Our parish needs to be a house of prayer before all things. The more we do this, the more the other efforts we engage in as a parish thrive.
Second, a parish must be aware of its mission. A few decades back, mission statements became all the rage. It was meant to keep us on task. I have seen mission statements so convoluted as to need a hit from an oxygen tank to read it aloud. For any parish, the mission is simple. It is the mission Jesus gave to the Apostles at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. We are to go out to the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We are to teach all that Christ taught. There you go. That’s it. Everything we do from sacraments to education to prayer is to enable us to get about the mission of the Kingdom of Jesus. Our mission is the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ so as to draw others into that kingdom. The Church is evangelical by nature.
Every program we do in education, be it school, PSR, confirmation, adult education, and so on, is aimed at creating disciples who will engage in the mission of the Church. When we are baptized, we are anointed with Sacred Chrism and told that from that moment on we share in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly role of Jesus Christ. His mission becomes our mission. This underscores again the danger of divorcing ourselves from the sacraments. We cannot do what we were anointed to do without Christ actively a part of our lives.
Our job is twofold. First we must reach out for the lost sheep. We must work towards the return of our non-practicing members of the Body. We have groups like the Legion of Mary to spearhead this effort. But a handful is not enough. It takes each of us. Second, we must look to those we know who have no spiritual home; the unchurched. In doing both of these, we must realize the Church is a lifeboat and not a country club. The message of Jesus Christ is meant for all. Jesus commanded us to go out to all the nations, not just the ones who are like you. To do this requires knowledge of the faith, which is why we educate and make programs like Formed available to you. To do this requires a developing spiritual life as well.
This mission must produce fruit. That fruit is measurable. Are people coming to faith? How effective are we at bringing the lost sheep home? How effective are we at calling to conversion those outside of the faith? Recall, God gives us the grace to do this. Is the parish producing men and women who will answer God's call? Is the parish producing priestly and religious vocations? Are our youth so fired up by our parochial life that they can hear such a call? Are we seeing an uptick in marriage and family life? Are our youth answering the call to live chastely and seeing marriage and family as desirable and holy calls?
Do we have the reputation of being a friend to the poor? Do we come across in our community as alifeboat for those seeking refuge to find hope? There is no room for being the frozen chosen in the Body of Christ! there is no room for the country club mentality! Our mission is to be that city set on a hill, a beacon to the wandering and weary.
Third, a parish must have the resources to do this! To do all these things does takes stewardship of resources. We need space to worship and teach. We need people who will make it their duty to engage in the mission of the Church full-time so as to help all learn how to be evangelists. There are the brick and mortar things. There are the tools needed to make this work. There are the items needed for worship. Those items need upkeep and replacement. Those who work to this end should have a just pay for their work. How well a parish can do this is dependent on what is given not just by God but by our stewardship as well.
In the Old Testament, the thanksgiving offering was done to address these needs. As the priests and Levites could not own businesses or lands so that they could dedicate a 24/7 service of God and His people, part of the thanksgiving offering went to them. Part of it went to the upkeep of the temple. Part of it was given to the needy. While the sin/peace offering came to its climax with the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus (which is why we do not sacrifice bulls and sheep anymore), the thanksgiving offering was still in play. Our task is to be sure we are giving that sacrifice. I have an additional task to make sure that the offering is used to the ends for which it was given. I do not look at giving records. You are not answerable to me. You are answerable to God. To withhold the thanksgiving offering, the prophet Malachi reminds us, is theft from God.
As I look at the finances of our parish, I want to build for the long run. I want to build for us to not survive merely, but to thrive. Too often our mission is truncated by our stewardship. Our stewardship needs to be a ready and abundant fuel to fire up our mission. Part of this is long range planning. Are we a parish looking to grow? I hope so. To do this is to be prudent with what we have and what we think we need. To this end, I am proposing we do the following with finances. First, it is wise to have 3 months operating budget in the bank at any given time. That is just sound financial planning.
Second, we must look to the plant. There are a lot moving parts. We know many of those parts need to be replaced over time: HVAC systems, electric, concrete, roof, tuckpointing, roofs, and so on. The maddening norm is to wait for critical mass to occur and then do a massive capital campaign. I purpose we start what are called sinking funds. If we know that we eventually are going to have to replace or repair, why not take up the needed funds bit by bit, month by month and set it aside to that end. This way when something needs repair, we can just do it without all the drama. The Administration, Finance and Stewardship committees will be working with me to set this up,
I wish to do this because too many times you would think the third task listed, resources, was our first priority. IT IS NOT. God and mission come first. We do the third as an investment to enable us to do the first two. Let’s get about, then, the mission and do it well, knowing we need God to do it!
Parishes don't exist to maintain their own ends. They serve at the pleasure of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Whether we thrive, survive, or die is up to each member. So, let's do this...let's get about the business of Kingdom.