“70 percent of parishioners say they are growing in their faith.” This encouraging data report was part of a conversation with a parish leader who is helping us review the Discipleship Indicator, an offering from ACS Technologies to help parish leaders gain insight into the impact of their ministry on the faith of their parishioners. “We see a need for more fellowship, so we are starting up small groups that support fellowship during Lent. We also need to be clear about what we are doing and why we are doing it.”
“The good shepherd walks with the flock: sometimes ahead, to mark the way; sometimes in the midst, to encourage them and sometimes behind, to accompany those who may be struggling.” “Always remember how important it is to walk with the flock, never apart from it.” … “listening to God and walking with others bears fruit in our becoming living signs of Jesus present in the world.” -Pope Francis
Clearly, our faith journey is personal. Our encounter with Christ is personal. Only we and God know where we stand. Everything depends on us to be so filled with the joy of our faith that we become examples to others who want to understand and experience that joy. And our parishes are the primary place for learning about and celebrating our faith. The USCCB Communities of Salt and Life state: “The parish is where the Church lives. Parishes are communities of faith, of action, and of hope. They are where the Gospel is proclaimed and celebrated, where believers are formed and sent to renew the earth. Parishes are the home of the Christian community; they are the heart of our Church.”
In a recent conversation with Edward Herrera, Executive Director of the Institute for Evangelization in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, we talked about the meaning of evangelization. He indicated that we must continue to evangelize the people in our pews, along with turning outward. “The parish leader or pastor may have a strong outward focus, but then there may be only 4 or 5 parishioners who are ready to do this ministry,” he said, “that is not enough people to sustain the ministry for the parish.” Parishioners need an encounter and relationship with Christ as the starting point. Parishes are tasked with forming this in all parishioners.
In parishes like the one referenced above, leaders foster an environment that enables and equips parishioners in their personal faith and supports the Church through the parish. Most often, parish and diocesan leaders rely on the observable behaviors and outward signs that serve as proxy indicators of faithfulness to indicate that ministry is working in the hearts of parishioners. Indicators such as generous giving, Mass attendance, participation in groups and events, faith formation, and education classes become the metrics we use to guide our efforts. These are all valuable ways to inform leaders about parishioner engagement and are validated through research and the subsequent development of models like the ME25 (a measurement of engagement based on levels defined by Al Winseman in Growing an Engaged Church) from Gallup. Models of engagement provide meaningful insight regarding how to define deeper levels of engagement, culminating with “Am I growing/where are we going?” Parishes whose leadership has a consistent definition of parishioner engagement have a structure to help define priorities in their ministry efforts. They also have a way to see if their ministry is working to draw people into a closer relationship with the parish and its mission work.
Parishioner engagement is a vital aspect of fostering a culture of discipleship and creating opportunities for the Holy Spirit to act in the hearts of parishioners but stops short of providing any insight into whether or not parishioners are growing in their faith. It’s also likely that most parishioners have not done much self-reflection on their faith. By gaining some indication of how parishioners view their faith and if the parish is supporting them in that growth, leaders can further prioritize ministry efforts. By creating a planned time to reflect on their faith experience, parishioners are encouraged to think about their experience and what they might need. A resource like the Discipleship Indicator from ACST Catholic affords an opportunity for parishioners to reflect on their faith through anonymous feedback. It also provides parish leaders with information about what is working well and identifies opportunities for change at their parish.
In Summary: Stewardship, Evangelization and Discipleship
Stewardship is our expression of living as disciples of Christ. As disciples, we are called to mission, and through our missionary impulse, we evangelize others. These all come together in the lives of faithful Catholics. There are a number of things parish leaders can do to help:
- Identify a model for parishioner engagement – Define the behaviors you agree demonstrate both participation and evidence of faith. Where possible, document and track them to be used to strengthen ministry.
- Equip parishioners to grow in faith – Use some indication of discipleship or personal faith. Help parishioners to reflect on their faith and provide leaders insight into growth. Use the information to refine and strengthen ministry
- Foster an outward focus of evangelization – Highly engaged parishioners who are filled with the Holy Spirit become examples to others who will want to be part of the joy!
May the Holy Spirit fill all of us with the fire of faith! Build a culture of engagement, discipleship, and action. With a focus on priorities and encouragement for parishioners to be active both in their faith and in the parish, we can bring the Good News to the world.
Terry Poplava serves as General Manager, ACST Catholic. As a cradle Catholic, his faith was lukewarm until he was confronted by the intense challenge and commitment he heard in the message about Stewardship. “What do I own and what owns me?” which led him to executive roles at Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic Leadership Institute before his current focus on serving the Catholic Church at ACS Technologies. Terry has extensive experience working with churches across the U.S., supporting their planning, stewardship, and engagement efforts