The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: May 14, 2004
Reviewed by PAIGE BYRNE SHORTAL
Theres a story about a Jesuit who, forgetting the proper formula as he was imposing ashes, recited over and over again, Cant do any harm, might do a little good. I confess thats always been my attitude about those efforts roughly categorized as parish renewal programs. I served for 28 years in parish ministry: 19 years in a Jesuit-staffed city parish on a college campus and the rest in a small-town parish where the parishioners are more likely to be farmers or businesspersons than academics or vowed religious. Over the years, Ive participated in and helped organize RENEW, parish missions, ministry fairs and various adult education efforts, usually offered in Lent. New Beginnings is better than most, I think.
The video New Beginnings is essentially an attempt to reinvigorate the parish by promoting an awareness of individual abilities and inspiring the use of these gifts for the common good through the faith community of the local church. Participants are led through three sessions of reflection (referred to as 101, 201 and 301) on the topics My Parish: From Membership to Ownership; My Spirituality: Steps to Spiritual Growth; and My Ministry: My Parish-Based Vocation. Through personal testimony from parish leaders, questions for reflection, guided discussion and ritual actions, participants are encouraged to discern their personal call to serve within the parish or surrounding community.
Our parish deacon, who is charged with adult formation in our parish, just finished reviewing several other parish renewal programs, so I asked him to take a look at the New Beginnings Curriculum Kit and offer me a comparison. Deacon Leon was favorably impressed, particularly with the emphasis on stewardship (time, talent, treasure) and the possibilities for jump-starting the marginalized. He also said it was less expensive than he would have thought.
I am familiar with Paul Wilkes books, and meeting him via the video was a delight. I like this guy. Id like to know him. I wish he lived in my parish. Hes an enthusiastic, down-to-earth believer with whom many folks in my parish would identify. He respects peoples time -- a factor often missing in parish offerings -- and so this program is packed into three one-hour sessions, to be conducted on Sundays before or after Mass. If anything, there is too much to think about in such a short time.
Though Wilkes doesnt emphasize it, the secret of the success of this program -- perhaps like all programs -- is the leadership. Those who will lead this effort are to be called by the pastor, although Wilkes admits that in his parish, he did the calling and instruction of the potential leaders with his pastor sitting right beside him. The successful leadership team will give many hours to preparation and follow-up.
It is important for the parish leadership to be clear about their goals. In Wilkes home parish of St. Marys, where this program was developed, 256 people out of 1,100 households signed up for the course and 80 indicated interest in specific ministries, half of whom had not been previously involved, according to the Leaders Guide in the kit. If the purpose is to gather more people who are uninvolved into existing parish ministries, New Beginnings could be more work than its worth. A parish ministry fair with representatives from each ministry staffing a booth and doing their own follow-up with those who inquire would be far less work and might accomplish the same thing.
However, one beneficial outcome of New Beginnings could be the identification of the need for new ministries within the parish and surrounding community, and the development of those ministries. The Catholic pastor has become almost a caricature of the overextended minister, and the parish staff is often busier doing the work than empowering others, so it happens that unusual ministry opportunities are often overlooked. In my mind, the most exciting possibility of New Beginnings could be that parishioners with similar strengths and interests, as identified in the TAP (Talent, Aptitude, Purpose) Survey, will sit down together and talk about the gaps in the parish ministry effort and about those who are falling through the cracks. If the pastor is the sort who can let others run with the ball, these folks might come up with something that reaches people who have been otherwise untouched. New Beginnings is not designed to create leaders, but it does facilitate a setting where an undiscovered leader with a good idea might rise up.
The New Beginnings Curriculum Kit, including the Leader and Participant Guides, DVD, CD and video, create a complete multimedia presentation that is affordable, thorough and easy to comprehend. It cant do any harm and might do a whole lot of good.
Paige Byrne Shortal writes from her home in rural Missouri.
National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 2004
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