By Lorene Hanley Duquin
(OSV News) — Today, parishioners are expected to feel a true sense of ownership in their parish. That means looking at your parish as more than just a place where you go to Mass. A parish can be a sacred place where the human and the divine meet, where people of all ages grow in the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It can be a place where people receive spiritual nourishment, guidance, inspiration and strength — not just from the priests but from other members of the parish as well.
It can be a spiritual home where people share in each other’s joys, support each other in times of sorrow, offer encouragement to those who are struggling, and help to heal anyone who feels battered or broken by life’s trials and tragedies. Or it can be a social place where people make new friends, reach out to those less fortunate, and invite others to become part of a community of believers who try their best to live the Gospel message.
Maybe your parish is already all of this and more, but even the best parishes can become even better when parishioners take an active interest in making the parish grow and prosper. Here are six ways to do just that.
1. Think of yourself as part of a parish family. Family members share a common heritage and history. They are grounded in the same beliefs, values, and traditions. They embrace new members of the family with a spirit of love and acceptance. Family members don’t always agree, but they do feel a strong commitment to one another and to the family as a whole.
2. Be welcoming. When you come together on the weekend for Mass, think of it as a large family reunion — with people you know well, know slightly, and don’t know at all. Introduce yourself to people you don’t know, especially if they are sitting alone in church or standing by themselves at the coffee-and-donut hour. If they’re new to the parish, offer to give them a tour, introduce them to other parishioners, or simply tell them why you love the parish. Enthusiasm is catching! Watch your nonverbal communication, too. If you’re sitting on the end of a pew, for example, don’t make others crawl over you to get to middle seats. Remember to smile; take the time to compliment the people sitting around you on everything from their singing ability to the cuteness of their kids.
3. Use your gifts and talents for the good of the parish. God has given each person unique gifts and talents that are intended to be shared. Like public speaking? You might get involved as a lector. If you’re friendly and outgoing, you could be an usher or a greeter. You can share your deep devotion to the Eucharist by becoming an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion or an adult altar server. If you play an instrument or sing, the music ministry might be the place for you. Maybe you’re a teacher and could help in religious education; if you love children, you could assist in the babysitting room. Any expertise — business, finance, public relations, photography, grant writing, engineering, carpentry, building maintenance, or even such skills as cooking, baking, cleaning, or gardening — can find a place in the parish.
Maybe your greatest gift is time; if you’re already an extraordinary minister or instituted acolyte, you can take Communion to the sick and homebound. Or you can help with your parish outreach ministry to the poor. You might even have an idea for a new ministry, support group, organization, or event, and your enthusiasm and energy can help other people get excited and involved.
4. Attend parish events. Although Mass is our central focus, other parish ministries, activities, and events help to increase spirituality and build community as well. Whether it’s a mission, a lecture, a lawn fête or a spaghetti dinner, take advantage of opportunities to meet new people, feel more connected, and affirm your fellow parishioners who work hard to plan and execute these events. Invite family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers to join you — especially those who are not Catholic or may have stopped practicing their faith. These folks may not be ready to attend Mass, but they might enjoy coming to a parish event, meeting other parishioners, and seeing some of the good things that the Catholic Church has to offer.
5. Support your parish financially. You know how expensive it is to run your own home. Parishes face even higher costs — and depend on parishioners to help meet them. Take a serious look at the money you give to your parish each week. Do you increase your contributions each year as the cost of living rises? Giving to the Church is more than just a financial obligation. Once you recognize that everything you have is a gift from God, you see that giving generously to continue God’s work in the parish is an essential part of your spirituality.
6. Pray for your parish. Keep your pastor, parish staff and fellow parishioners in your daily prayers. Praying a rosary, spending time in Eucharistic adoration, fasting or offering up any suffering, annoyance or inconvenience you experience for the well-being of your parish will bring rewards not just for the parish but for you personally. You will begin to see yourself as spiritual support for all the good work being done in and through your parish. Pray also for the return of Catholics who have strayed from the practice of the faith, people raised with no faith, and people searching for meaning and purpose in life.
No parish is perfect, and even the best parishes can improve. Imagine what would happen if every person in your parish did one little thing to make the parish better!
Four Things that Hurt Parishes:
• Negativity. Negativity usually starts with a few disgruntled people who complain about virtually everything, then can spread like wildfire. The best way to deal with negativity is to address it head-on by asking some key questions. Is what this person saying true? If yes, what needs to be done to address the problem? If no, the person must be confronted and the negativity exposed.
• Gossip. Gossip is negativity directed at a person or a group of people in the parish. Every parish has gossip-mongers whose own insecurity drives them to put others down as a way of feeling better about themselves. The best way to deal with them is directly: ask why others really need to know the things they share, or how others can help the person whose reputation is at stake.
• Cliques. Sadly, people involved in a clique usually don’t think of themselves as “cliquish.” They’ve just been running things for so long that they automatically rely on the same people over and over to help. Sometimes they just need a friendly reminder to invite others. Newcomers also often benefit — and help the parish — by starting their own new ministries, organizations and events.
• Refusal to change. Tradition is good, but when parishioners become rigid about the way things have “always been done,” a parish can quickly begin to decline. Change is never easy, but talking about it will help. Try to find a balance that will maintain some time-honored traditions, while incorporating new ways of doing things and involving new people in doing them.
Lorene Hanley Duquin is the author of Catholic books, pamphlets, and articles on a variety of evangelization and ministry topics. She has conducted workshops in parishes and at diocesan conferences in the United States and Canada.