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Issue Date:  March 5, 2004

Reviving a parish culture

Though not a miracle worker, a new pastor brings us back to life


A year and a half ago, when a new pastor was assigned to our parish, we, the Catholic remnants, held our collective breath. We had a stunningly beautiful parish church and equally stunning was how dysfunctional we had become as a parish body.

After years of a distant, autocratic pastor who, beneath all his surface coolness, had the parish’s best interests at heart and one-on-one could be an effective spiritual counselor, we had then been sent a distant, autocratic man who quickly proved he had neither talent. By the time he was unceremoniously removed from the parish, not only had numbers plummeted at weekend liturgies and parish committees virtually imploded because of his imperious, erratic ways, but we had discovered that we were on the verge of insolvency because of his profligate spending on staff he had added, furniture he had purchased and personal expenses incurred. The offenses were of such magnitude to make the front page of our local paper. The diocese had to send -- so we heard -- a huge sum to bail us out.

We were a dispirited flock, dulled by a “parish culture” that was only more terrible in degree, but sadly enough -- if what I hear from too many Catholics is at all accurate -- not in frequency in today’s church. In my particular parish, one had learned to approach the parish secretary or business manager as supplicant, expecting (and rarely being surprised to the contrary) that the initial answer would be no, regardless of the request. We had become accustomed to a parish culture that assumed we were bothersome, that our ideas were not worth pursuing. And, anyhow, all the hoops that would have to be jumped through to get something going in the parish required more energy and perseverance than most of us could muster.

All this collaboration that we’ve been hearing about? Collaboration in my parish meant doing the pastor’s will and keeping our thoughts to ourselves.

But perhaps unlike many Catholics who might think their dysfunctional parish is the norm and who have simply drifted away from the church, I had recently been leading a somewhat disorienting, even schizophrenic life as a practicing Catholic. For I had, while a member of my own parish and with the support of a Lilly Endowment grant, been able to find and then visit -- but only visit -- some of the best parishes in America. I eventually published my findings in Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices. I had seen firsthand dynamic, open, spirit-filled parishes with an entirely different kind of parish culture.

Also in my travels, I had sat with diocesan personnel directors whose jobs grow more difficult by the month as priests retire and both the number and quality of their replacements leave a disquieting gap. I knew well what was “out there” in terms of priestly talent. I wondered if we would be getting still another pastor who would curtly clip the wings of the Spirit.

When our new pastor arrived a year and half ago, all we knew about him was that he had most recently served a parish so distant from ours that there was no, as we used to say in the Navy, scuttlebutt about his performance there. We were so broken and embarrassed by our previous pastor, that, while we wanted so much of our new pastor, we had rather modest expectations. On the surface, we simply wanted him to stay out of the papers, keep the parish out of debt, perform the standard liturgies with some thought and dignity, and keep our limping parish grade school open. But on a deeper level, we were looking for, if not the Messiah, at least someone who would give us a new vision of what as a parish and individuals we could be. We wanted our parish to thrive, we wanted it to matter in our lives and the life of our community.

In his first weeks, we listened eagerly, but we heard no rousing calls to unity or greatness. Instead, our new pastor started with the simplest of things, such as quietly dropping the notice that had appeared as the first and prominent item in our rather skimpy and tired weekly bulletin. That notice, which week after week advised that only “Catholics in the state of grace and in good standing with the church” should dare to approach the altar for Eucharist, in some ways defined the spirit of the parish. It was not that the statement was outside church norms, but it was an immediate indication that this was a parish that wasn’t as concerned about what you could or should be, but more what you couldn’t or shouldn’t do. An unnecessary slammed door, a curt slap in the face. Hardly welcoming.

As the weeks went on, although he never mentioned this somewhat amorphous thing I call “parish culture,” our new pastor set about to change the tenor and texture of our parish. Some were symbolic acts; others were targeted at rebuilding our shattered community. To name just some of them:

  • He moved out of the rectory, floridly and expensively redecorated by his predecessor, and moved into the smaller, vacant convent. (Later, three wonderful nuns were encouraged to come to our parish and they now occupy the rectory.)
  • He started a “branch” religious bookstore in a vacant office, using the buying power and management experience of a large bookstore.
  • He inaugurated a monthly “dinner with the pastor” where a dozen or so people would bring a meal to the rectory, visit informally, get to know him and each other.
  • He began a Thursday morning discussion of the upcoming Sunday’s readings so that the Word could be a part of our week, not just proclaimed on the weekend.
  • He returned phone calls
  • He thoughtfully prepared his sermons, using contemporary examples while making a salient point or two, not mouthing pieties or mind-numbing exegesis that might have impressed seminary professors but escapes most of us in the pews.
  • He was blessedly open to our ideas. When a group of us approached him with an idea for a homemade parish renewal program, he was immediately onboard with the idea, offered his suggestions, but allowed this group of lay people to steer the project.
  • He revamped and expanded the parish bulletin to include his spiritual reflections, news of the school and other items of interest.
  • He invited outside speakers to address us.

Looking over this list of initiatives, I am stunned by their ordinariness. Yet, they are so refreshing for this parched group of Catholics.

Over the months, he made the tough decisions as well. After trying for the better part of a year to instill a new vision for some of more reluctant parish staff who were quite comfortable with the old parish culture, he replaced them and expanded the duties of new staffers, giving them more freedom to innovate.

Of course, no good deed or good intention goes unpunished. While the majority of the parishioners have applauded him for his innovations and openness, critical letters have been written to diocesan officials. Speakers who are obviously not Catholic enough for some tastes, portions of his sermons with which the doctrinal police take issue, his handling of personnel matters, an alleged “takeover” by newly enflamed lay people have all been duly reported.

I try to stop by his convent home every week or so to see how he’s doing. For the most part, I find him positive, upbeat. Sometimes, though, I find not the smiling, good-natured pastor we have come to know, but a man almost as dispirited as the parish he had found 18 months before. Another letter might have been sent to diocesan officials or people are grumbling about this change or that alleged slight. The parish grapevine spreads news quickly. On those down days, he wonders if it is worth it, if he’s up to the job, if we are on the right path.

All I can do is be honest with him.

Although we might have hoped for the One, he was not the Messiah. He was not a brilliant scripture scholar, he was not an incisive CEO, and he was certainly not a miracle worker.

But it is worth it. We now have a parish that has come to life, where there is a palpable good feeling. Where people linger after Mass, where our once-endangered grade school is now thriving, where the budget has been balanced, where committees are again functioning, where individuals have come forward with fresh ideas and taken on new ministries.

I tell him of our gratitude for what he has done for our parish in such a short time. And that he is a good and reasonable man who has let us see his humanity and treated us as equals. He is a solid priest who never needs to play the clerical imperative card to have his way. He is a model to other pastors, a leader who doesn’t need always to be in control. He has given life to a parish and hope to the parishioners during a very difficult period in a church that at turns welcomes and fights that wonderful Vatican II vision of a truly collaborative community of believers and pilgrims.

And that he was about that most difficult of jobs -- changing a parish culture. It will be continually difficult. But absolutely necessary.

Among Paul Wilkes’s many books are Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices and Best Practices from America’s Best Churches.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 2004

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