Occasionally I like to take a step back and look at my ministry as a whole. I’ve served as a pastor (two parishes), an associate (two parishes), and a university chaplain. I’ve taught college and graduate-level, been an instructor in the diocesan Pastoral Formation Institute, led retreats in various forms for teens and adults (lay, sisters, and priests). I’ve been invited to speak in monasteries, at diocesan gatherings in various parts of the country, and even once in Europe. I’ve written one book, multiple articles and book reviews, and a monthly homily-guide newsletter. Diverse activities, but there’s always been a core theme: helping people to become mature disciples, to take what the late Fr. Benedict Groeschel called “the next good step” toward genuine love of God and effective service to others.
That’s the core of what I’m about in Our Lady of Grace, too. Now in my twelfth year of service to you, I’d like to put some of the things I remember about the past years into that context. When I arrived the parish had had a series of transitions in leadership: from Fr. Jim to Fr. Tom to Fr. Larry to me in just a few years. At the time Catholics were reeling from the sex-abuse revelations that had come to light a few years earlier, and then soon after I arrived the parish was shocked to discover that we had been touched by it here at home. It wasn’t a pretty time – and my job in that was to help people to deal with the complexity of their reactions, and to use the struggle as a time to deepen their faith.
I also discovered when I arrived that were scores of ministries and activities, but the organizational foundations on which they rested were shaky and unsustainable. Internal systems – information management, computers, etc. – were unreliable. (Fr. Larry asked me to bring my own laptop when I arrived, so he could give his office computer to the religious ed. office, theirs was so bad. That should give you the picture.) Sacrificial giving levels in the Sunday collection were, I thought, shockingly low – probably because people had little awareness of how far their contributions were being stretched, and at what (unseen) peril to the parish’s continuing activities and mission. I suspected people felt little need to give more because there was little awareness – so another part of the work of making mature disciples was to be sure information, and with it responsibility for the parish’s activities and mission, became widely shared.
Fortunately parishioners stepped up – we formed a wonderful Pastoral Council; the Finance Council did its part; and parishioners responded to the renewal activities the Council designed. (Do you remember the wall of parishioners’ notes in the lobby, describing what they believed God was asking of them and of us together?) We began to invite Gallup to measure parishioner engagement, so we’d have objective standards to see how we were doing. And all that information was available to every parishioner.
The national financial crisis of 2007-08 and its continuing effects hit parishioners, and thus our parish, hard. Except for the two years we offered space to South Bay School after the fire there, we still barely met our bills. Finally things had to change. We had to reduce our paid staff and modify some programs. It was difficult, but I’d like to think that we’re now doing pretty well in our new shape.
Throughout, my goal has been as I said above: to help you to become mature disciples of Christ. The parish is a key place that happens, so it has to be healthy and function well. I believe we now have a solid foundation on which to continue our parish life and activities. What we build on that will be up to us, together – I can’t do that alone. Our parish will be more dependent than before on the generosity of members – financially, with time as volunteers, and even in the everyday conversations that either build us up, or tear us down. (Did you know that one sourpuss undoes the good effects of four positive parishioners?) This is an invitation to you to step up in each of those ways.
Take some time today to look at the big picture of your life as a parishioner here: Do you want to be part of helping others to grow in Christ’s love? Will you let others help you to become a more mature, effective disciple? That’s what we’re about, together. Until next week, peace.