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Program builds shared ministry in parishes

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
St. Paul, Minn.

Maybe the average parish never was the quiet place suggested by Catholic nostalgia, but it’s clearly not so today. At most places, demands for ministry outstrip existing resources. From running soup kitchens to providing day care, so many burdens befall today’s parish that quite a few seem on the verge of being tapped out.

Where will the energy come from to meet all the new needs?

According to Minneapolis-based consultant Jean Morris Trumbauer, if the answer were any closer, it would stand up and say hello. The solution to a parish’s struggles with ministry, she believes, is right there in the parish.

Most Catholics, already part of a parish community, are willing to take on greater levels of involvement and responsibility, Trumbauer contends. Parish leadership just needs to understand how to elicit and nurture this participation through shared ministry.

“Few parishes understand the ‘how-tos’ “ of developing effective shared ministry programs,” Trumbauer said. “Systems that can make it easier for volunteers to step forward and stay committed and energized in their ministry” are possible, she said, but most parishes need help getting them up and running.

Providing that help is the goal of Trumbauer’s Parish Volunteer Ministry Program. Developed under the aegis of the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese, where Trumbauer lives and works, the program has enabled nearly 40 local parishes to contract with a consultant to analyze, develop and implement individual plans for restructuring their volunteer practices. Trumbauer has developed a comprehensive set of shared ministry materials, and the program customizes and adapts them to local circumstances.

Many experts believe that Trumbauer’s efforts in the Twin Cities offer a model for other dioceses around the country, as the effort to tap the human resources of parishes grows more pressing.

One who has seen the fruits of Trumbauer’s program is Holy Names Sr. Louise Bond, executive director of the Chicago-based National Association for Lay Ministry. Bond said, “Once people are in touch with their gifts, they need ongoing support and training, they need evaluation and recognition. Jean touches on these so well in her materials. It’s the most unique program of its kind I’ve seen. Parishes attuned to these goals and working on them are so alive. There’s no stopping the energy of the Spirit.”

Volunteer management

The nearly universal need for shared ministry in parishes is driven by a host of factors. These include the decreasing numbers of ordained leaders, the increase in types of ministries offered to people within and outside the parish, the busyness of parishioners’ lives, the lack of parish resources to train and support volunteer ministers and, in some cases, the parishioners’ lack of understanding that they are even called to or capable of ministry.

The Parish Volunteer Ministry Program is a collaborative effort of three archdiocesan entities: the Center for Ministry, the Office on Pastoral Planning and Catholic Charities. The Twin Cities program is unique in its integration of the theological basis for ministry -- based on gift discernment and the baptismal call -- with practical, hands-on tools of volunteer management.

These tools include the use of ministry position descriptions, techniques for discovering gifts and for doing parish-wide and one-to-one recruitment, record-keeping methods, ideas for giving recognition, for evaluating effectiveness and job satisfaction, and risk management.

Trumbauer’s program covers these materials, but the trick is how to apply them, in what combination and to what end, in an individual parish. Thus, custom consultation forms the heart of the Parish Volunteer Ministry Program.

Parishes contract for 60 hours of a consultant’s time over a two-year period. There are four phases: assessment of current parish volunteer ministry practices; training for leaders; development of a two- to three-year plan for shared ministry; and implementation.

Leo Heimerl, parish administrator at St. Peter’s in Mendota Heights, Minn., had a chance to test-drive the model. Upon attending a National Association of Church Business Administrators conference on shared ministry led by Trumbauer, he was convinced that what he had learned could work at St. Peter’s. With the pastor’s support, he seized the chance to apply shared ministry techniques to what he described as a “high-profile building project” -- the replacement of the lighting in the main worship space.

The project involved recruiting volunteers to work with a hired architect to build and test prototypes of the new lighting system and the wooden beams designed to hide the electrical conduit.

“I used Jean’s book and system to the letter,” Heimerl said. “We laid out everything in detail. We wrote job descriptions and designed it so volunteers couldn’t do it wrong.”

One Sunday he presented the project and its anticipated benefits to the parish, had a sign-up sheet and got 25 volunteers -- more than needed.

But, he said, the wonderful thing was that when he identified and approached a couple of individuals from the group to take on a project management role, “They were willing to accept responsibility because they had clear goals and expectations and a set time commitment. All I had to do was supply the materials. They ran the whole thing.”

Heimerl terms the project “a raging success.”

He reports with some amazement, “Volunteers actually had withdrawal symptoms when they couldn’t meet any more!”

Having seen shared ministry in action, the parish staff and parish council agreed to seek a contract with the Parish Volunteer Ministry Program. “It took this kind of example to really bring home how great it is.”

“Jean’s program is a blueprint,” Heimerl said. “What works for bricks and mortar may not work in exactly the same way for worship or finance. But in the long run it’s likely to benefit all areas of the parish.”

The 1,270-household parish recently hired a shared ministry coordinator, is forming a seven-person shared ministry committee, and will ask each ministry committee in the parish to develop a for mission statement and position descriptions for each of the parish’s estimated 60 ministry opportunities.

Transformed parish

The Parish Volunteer Ministry Program tailors a customized approach for each of the parishes it works with. It takes leaders step-by-step through the process of soliciting, nurturing and empowering the laity. It also guides parish staff members through the necessary “letting go” that empowered lay leadership necessitates. The goal is not just another roster of volunteers but an utterly transformed parish culture.

Fr. Patrick Brennan, pastor of a 3,500-household parish in the greater Chicago area and noted author and speaker on parish ministry said, “Most diocesan-sponsored programs are formation and training. What I’ve heard is that some people go through this training, maybe for a year or two years, and then go back to a parish that doesn’t want them or doesn’t have the system in place to put them to work.”

The difference with the Parish Volunteer Ministry Program, Brennan said, is that it’s “a systems change model.”

Trumbauer said that many parishes and dioceses offer formation programs to help people understand the theology of ministry. But the long-term test of success, she said, is whether parishes are able to build structures to allow lay people to live out that theology.

Fr. Bob Schwartz, pastor of St. John Neumann Parish, Eagan, Minn., said, “You need systems that support people’s sense of what their call is -- gifts discernment, interaction with people who will help them sharpen their gifts, the need to be accountable, the need to be affirmed.” St. John Neumann Parish was a pilot participant in the Parish Volunteer Ministry Program.

“Now a greater number of people in our parish have a sense that it isn’t just about going to church. It’s about being church. There is a more active sense of responsibility for the parish and the world.”

Judy Urban, shared ministry coordinator at St. John Neumann said the parish has been working on shared ministry for seven or eight years. “This year we’ve finally seen a major breakthrough. We have experienced a quantum leap in the number of ministry interest forms that have been returned -- over 700 in the one month since we’ve started our fall recruitment campaign. That compares to 730 in the entire previous 12-month period. This tells me that this piece of the program is now embedded in our culture. Parishioners now know that this is how we do things. Every fall we fill out ministry forms.”

Urban, who is chairperson of the archdiocesan advisory committee for the Parish Volunteer Ministry Program, said that the experience of her parish shows “how long the process takes to get deep down into the church.”

“And this is not even the most significant aspect of the plan!” Urban said. “But it’s a good beginning. What Jean keeps saying is, ‘It’s not a quick fix.’ It takes a lot of perseverance -- changing and perfecting, keeping that vision alive.”

Urban said the archdiocesan program had served a “seed-planting function” for her parish.

“If you believe the handwriting on the wall, the parish of the future will be more lay-driven,” she said. “Lay ministers will be doing the bulk of the ministry. Though this is not why the program was formed, a by-product of the program is that it makes this transition spiritually based, manageable and planned.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 1997