Amazing Parish Conference offers ideas, resources for creating vibrant centers of faith
Detroit — If Synod ’16 is the spark that sets the Archdiocese of Detroit ablaze, the Amazing Parish Conference will be regarded as the flint and kindling.
For three bright and sunny days, leaders from parishes across the archdiocese met at the Detroit Renaissance Center, praying, listening and discerning how to reshape southeast Michigan’s parishes.
The conference was high-energy from the start April 18, when Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron welcomed priests and parish staff to the conference, describing it as “part of a larger strategy” that began two years ago with prayer for a New Pentecost, “Come, Encounter Christ!” events and the call to “grow in discipleship to become better witnesses to Jesus.”
“As I’ve reflected on our efforts to ‘Unleash the Gospel,’ to engage in the New Evangelization, certainly everyone would have to admit that the parishes would have to be the centers for this great effort,” said the archbishop, who used his booming “Detroit Pistons” voice to welcome attendees.
“This is not a membership drive,” the archbishop continued. “This is not about simply maintaining the power of our community by having large numbers. I have absolutely no idea what fruit God will draw from our efforts. But we must make our commitment. Christ expects it of us. We make our commitment to share the Good News.”
More than 200 of the archdiocese’s 226 parishes sent leadership teams to the conference, including St. Ignatius Parish in the Cayman Islands, whom the archbishop joked should receive an “award” for traveling so far. It was the first time the Denver-based Amazing Parish organization presented the conference for a specific diocese.
The conference covered nothing short of a complete overhaul of what pastors and parish staff could do to help make their parishes more effective in the task of evangelization.
Renowned business speaker and Oakland, Calif., native Pat Lencioni challenged attendees to give an honest evaluation of the state of their parish, how effectively goals are met and what might be needed to take the next step.
“What is an amazing parish? A parish with a reliance on prayer and sacraments, focused on evangelizing people and being disciples for Jesus Christ, fulfilling our call to be outposts for His mission,” Lencioni said in an interview with The Michigan Catholic.
“Evidence suggests a parish isn’t going to expect a sense of politics, dysfunction, conversation in the hallways and parking lots,” Lencioni said. “Parishioners want more clarity on what’s being focused on. What they will notice is the people running the parish being joyful.”
The leadership team
Lencioni, one of the founders of the Amazing Parish movement, gave the first talk of the conference, discussing the proper role of a parish leadership team.
“A real leadership team isn’t the default ‘staff’,” Lencioni said. “It’s people the pastor shares responsibility with in running the parish. It’s the group needed to have difficult conversations with, where the pastor can vent if something is going wrong, a small group to show Father he isn’t alone. And most importantly, don’t worry about the title ‘leadership team.’ It’s not an award; it’s a responsibility.”
Lencioni highlighted misconceptions about parish leadership teams and their role in running an “amazing parish.”
“Misconception No. 1: ‘The pastor has to be involved in everything,’” Lencioni said. “How many times is it, ‘I have an idea.’ ‘Well, you better tell Father.’ Our parishes will work when there are things Father doesn’t know about. It’s a drain to have the pastor in the know about everything.”
Lencioni said leadership teams should not be afraid to challenge the pastor from time to time and to recognize individuals’ strengths and weaknesses.
Fr. James Bilot of Divine Child Parish in Dearborn said he was encouraged by the 1,100 people who gathered to reflect on such suggestions.
“I agree having a parish leadership team takes away the feeling of total responsibility,” Fr. Bilot said. “The sense that (pastors) aren’t in it alone. As a priest, we sometimes need to be more vulnerable, admitting that we don’t have all the answers, and empowering parishioners to be heard.”
The ‘Sunday experience’
While the conference focused on all aspects of parish life, Fr. James Mallon, Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran discussed “The Sunday Experience” during a Tuesday afternoon panel.
The three men, later joined by Jeff Cavins and Lencioni, said every aspect of Sunday is part of preaching, especially to those who might be walking into a church for the first time in 30 years.
“The homily is the example message of everything the parish is trying to communicate that week,” said Fr. White, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Md., and co-author with Corcoran of the parish-building book “Rebuilt.” “Everyone on the parish team needs to participate in that messaging. What is the message we are communicating in the weekly bulletin, the homily, greeting people in the parking lot? If we can get a conversation started that carries throughout the entire week, that’s a successful homily.”
Other panelists suggested ways for the parish staff to communicate the homily message and to be more receptive, including having parish offices open on Sundays, information events after Mass and people to serve in “jack-of-all-trades” roles.
“We presume too much about the people coming into our churches, even among Catholics that have been catechized,” said Michael Peters, a parishioner from SS. Peter and Paul (Jesuit) Church in Detroit. “There is a need to have good music, welcoming ushers … just basic, common sense stuff we seem to forget. I really liked what they had to say about going out and greeting people and having great homilies that welcome others.
“When you make it a Sunday opportunity, not a Sunday obligation, people want to come back,” Peters said.
The Amazing Parish Conference aims to rejuvenate and revitalize parish life, but it’s not the endgame, as Archbishop Vigneron reminded those present.
Curtis Martin, founder and CEO of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), spoke about the need for parishes to evangelize, noting that the Church’s primary purpose is to save souls.
“Jesus put the Church here not for it to be stagnant, but to get as many people to heaven as possible,” Martin said. “We need you, to follow His way. The Church grew when it was evangelical. Discipleship is the act of accompaniment. Not just about getting to heaven, but bringing along as many people as possible.”
Martin said Jesus’ first disciples weren’t great masters of the law or faith, but rather men who were seeking to know Jesus in order to have a relationship with Him.
“There is power in discipleship; it’s just imitating what Jesus did,” Martin said. “It didn’t require a doctorate in theology. Nobody needs special training to care for two people. If we just cared for two people a year, then did that next year, and those people cared for two people a year, in 33 years, the Church would have the population of the entire world.”
Martin said priests play an important role in shepherding the Church, but evangelization depends on the involvement of the laity.
While other presentations discussed the role of prayer, effective meetings and implementing a plan of action, Martin’s talk struck a chord with many in the audience about what an “amazing parish” could accomplish.
“I really liked all this talk about people taking more ownership of everything in parish life,” said Patrice Abona, a parishioner of Mother of God Chaldean Church in Southfield. “Priests tend to do a lot, because they don’t have the comfort that it will all get done if they aren’t involved in everything.
“This gives parishes confidence to go outside the pews. If you create a good Sunday experience, it makes it easy to tell others about the experience,” Abona said. “You wouldn’t even be able to hide it.”