Parish leaders gather for Engaging the Mission workshop, discern God’s will for their community
Mar 21, 2019
More than 200 parish leaders from across the Archdiocese of Washington gathered at The Catholic University of America on March 16 for the Engaging the Mission workshop, hosted by the archdiocese’s Secretariat for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns.
Jeannine Marino, the archdiocese's secretary of Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns, told the parish leaders the secretariat “wants to assist your parishes in reaching out to new and old parishioners and inviting them into a relationship with Christ.”
In his opening remarks for the day, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville said parishes are “the wheels of the Church.” He also encouraged the leaders to go outside of their parishes and into the streets to reach out to those who do not already go to their church.
“You are the present and the future of our Church,” he told the crowd.
Throughout the day, parish leaders had the opportunities to dialogue with each other about their own pastoral planning. Jim Lundholm-Eades, the director of programs and services for Leadership Roundtable, led the day.
Lundholm-Eades said pastoral planning is distinct from strategic planning because rather than just a set of tools, “a pastoral plan is a relationship,” because “the community you belong to in your parish exists for mission.”
“The stronger your community is, the more alive you are,” he said. “…The more intentional your relationships are when you gather around Christ in the Eucharist, the stronger your mission is.”
But the workshop did give the parishes tools to continue their own pastoral planning at their parish, and began a dialogue “to discern the will of God for your community,” said Lundholm-Eades, who throughout the day invited the parishes to reflect on what their parish would look like at its best.
The workshop was broken up into four different sections, beginning with “telling our parish story,” in which the groups were encouraged to reflect upon different factors that were increasing or decreasing in their community, and then to decide how that changing reality impacts their pastoral needs.
To open the session, Steve and Francine Hawkins from St. Peter Claver Parish in St. Inigoes, Maryland, told the story of their parish, which they said was born out of segregation. While their parish is still primarily African American, they said it is growing in diversity.
During the discussion, members of Annunciation Parish in Washington, D.C., talked about some of their growing needs, such as caring for the aging members of their parish and increasing the parish’s ability to serve those who speak different languages. Some of the parish’s challenges include the fact that the neighborhood surrounding the parish is expensive to live in, which turns away young families who would fill the school or bring energy to the parish’s ministry.
Sabrina McCarthy, a parishioner of Annunciation who serves as a lector, Extraordinary Minister and altar server at the parish, said she felt the workshop “is a perfect opportunity to envision and plan our future.” She feels motivated to be a leader in her parish because “the church has been there for me in times of deep need, and I want to give back,” she said.
Members of Immaculate Conception Parish in Mechanicsville, Maryland, discussed “how to ignite the fire” in their parishioners, especially in light of obstacles such as the abuse scandal, said Tammy Hildebrand.
Hildebrand said she thinks everyone in their parish group was at the workshop because “we have felt some sort of calling” and “this was an avenue for me to figure out how to do it.”
The Immaculate Conception Parish group was one of several to tell the Catholic Standard that the small faith-sharing groups they have begun at their parish are one of the parish’s strengths. St. Gabriel Parish in Washington, D.C., also noted the importance of those groups, and the strength of their ability to welcome new members to the parish.
Every Sunday, St. Gabriel has a stand outside of the church where someone welcomes people and helps them with whatever they may need, since they recognize that a lot of people can’t make it to the parish office during its normal weekday hours.
Gwen Sutton, the administrative assistant at the parish, said she has seen diversity increasing not only in the parish, where the pastor has been hiring a variety of different people to the staff, but also at the Engaging the Mission workshop, where different demographics from all over the archdiocese were represented.
The second session invited the parishes to assess their strengths and weaknesses particularly in light of their call to evangelize. A couple from St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church in Landover Hills, Maryland, talked about their journey to find a parish community that would welcome them and their deaf son.
“We both grew up in Catholic families and for both of us it was important that our children will be brought up in the Catholic faith,” said Elicet Rosas.
Though it was not easy for them to find a parish that could offer their son catechesis, they did not give up. After they began attending St. Francis of Assisi, their son told her, “Mommy, this is home.”
“We wanted above all for our child to know that God loves us all…to know that he is a child of God like we all are,” said Rosas.
After listening to this testimony, Lundholm-Eades encouraged the groups to consider, “What’s the quality of encounter your parish offers to new parishioners and visitors?”
During the discussion, the archdiocese’s other St. Francis of Assisi Parish, located in Derwood, Maryland, reflected on their strengths when it comes to encountering new parishioners. They currently invite them to welcome dinners, but decided it would be good to work on the next step of accompanying those new members after they initially join the parish.
Melissa Egan, who has been a member of the parish for 19 years and now serves as its communications coordinator, has a son with autism and praised the parish’s embrace of people with special needs by including them in ministries such as singing in the choir and altar serving.
“In a lot of areas of life, I’ve felt fear and reluctance to engage,” because she did not know how people would respond to her son’s tendencies to vocalize or run away from external stimuli, she said. “I have always felt very welcome at St. Francis of Assisi.”
To open the third session of the workshop about naming the parish leadership team, Ali Rak, a parishioner of St. Joseph in Pomfret, Maryland spoke about different leadership roles, including leading the her parish’s music ministry before she even officially became Catholic. Later, she began a respect life ministry at her parish, and now serves as the parish’s director of religious education.
“I have a skill set, and when I see a need, I take the opportunity to fill it,” she said, noting, “I have a pastor who has been open to allowing me to take those roles on.”
Addressing the parish leaders, she said her hope is “that we find those gifts in others, and we foster those.”
Freddie Mae Poole, a parishioner of St. Joseph’s in Largo, Maryland, said service to her parish has been ingrained in her ever since she was a 6-year-old girl, helping her grandmother put flowers in their church.
“My grandma used to always say, ‘Whatever God gives you, you have to give back,’” she said. “That is what we try to do.”
But even with her long history as a parish volunteer, she had never done anything like this before, and was looking forward to discussing their ideas with the pastor, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell, Jr.
“I didn’t realize that we as parishioners could develop a pastoral plan,” she said.
The workshop also included younger members of the Church, such as 17-year-old Larissa York, who serves on the parish council of St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The parish always has a position on the council reserved for the youth, and York said she likes “to be able to bring up concerns and needs we are experiencing and have them be heard.”
“We think about things a little differently,” she said. “The parish council should represent everyone who is in the parish.”
Her experience on parish council has “helped me to grow in self-advocacy,” and she has enjoyed seeing concrete changes that come from her ideas, such as her suggestion of responding to the sexual abuse crisis by bringing the parish “back to the true source” and having a night of reparation and Eucharistic Adoration at the parish.
“It is so great to know they care about you,” she said.
To open the final part of the workshop about next steps in parish planning, young adult Ogechi Akalegbere, spoke about how her parish, St. Rose of Lima in Gaithersburg, Maryland, has empowered her to serve as a leader since she was 15.
“As a teen lector, I was not the future of the Church, I was the present,” she said. “It was groundbreaking to think someone saw me as a young person; saw gifts in me I didn’t see in myself.”
But since that time, she said her experience in other parishes “has not been as nourishing,” and at times has felt like she was only included because she was the lone young African American in the parish who could check the boxes of the diversity quota. She said she felt, “my presence was all that is wanted to create an illusion of diversity,” when she wanted to be in an environment that really valued her voice and perspective.
“It is important to create an environment where new leaders across demographics feel welcomed to step into leadership roles,” she said.
Father Kevin Kennedy, the pastor of St. Gabriel’s who also teaches organizational development and leadership at Catholic University, said Engaging the Mission provided a simple model of pastoral planning that is “accessible to your average parish.” He also believed it was good to expose people to “a systematic process of discernment.”
As a priest, he said he felt involving lay people in the pastoral planning process “is the only way.”
“By definition, a parish is a community of people who are all discerning God’s will for the community,” he said. “…Discernment takes the involvement of the community to make that discernment authentic.”
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