By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published March 23, 2017 | En Español
ATLANTA—Parish leadership teams from across the archdiocese, the nation and as far away as Canada visited Atlanta March 13 to 15 to learn how parishes can be healthier organizations.
More than 1,080 people attended the Amazing Parish conference, held at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis.
The Denver-based organization, The Amazing Parish, offered the workshop-style retreat with Mass and prayer, presentations, team sessions and question-and-answer periods. Registered pastors each brought four team members. Thirty-three parishes from the Archdiocese of Atlanta participated.
Patrick Lencioni, cofounder of Amazing Parish, led the training. Professionally, Lencioni leads a firm specializing in executive team development, working with corporations from restaurants to airlines. He is the author of 10 books about leadership and organizational health.
In 2013 he and cofounder John Martin, also a businessman, realized they also shared a deep desire to serve and help build up the church. The first Amazing Parish conference was held in 2014, devoted to assisting parishes to become missionary communities. They emphasize three building blocks for a vibrant parish: a reliance on prayer and the sacraments; a commitment to a healthy organization; and a passion for evangelization and discipleship.
At the Atlanta conference, Amazing Parish speakers helped the participants assess their parish team, the working styles or personalities of its members, and how the group meets goals.
Deacon Chris Rosko of St. Peter the Apostle Church in Hoover, Alabama, attended the conference. Deacon Rosko said many don’t consider churches to be businesses, but that business concepts can be helpful.
“These are human tools,” said Deacon Rosko.
Father Joseph Shaute, pastor of St. Clement Church in Calhoun, said Amazing Parish happened at the right time with two newly hired staff members joining the parish team.
Margaret Dutton, St. Clement’s office administrator, indicated the sessions gave her confidence to lead and share what she learned with volunteers.
“And then they can become the leaven,” added Father Shaute.
Emphasis on constant prayer
Presenters included authors Jeff Cavins, Matthew Kelly and Curtis Martin and musician Sarah Kroger. Also participating was Sister Regina Marie Gorman, a Carmelite Sister of the Most Sacred Heart in Los Angeles.
Deacon Randy Ory of St. Oliver Plunkett Church in Snellville found Sister Regina’s gentle spirit and firsthand witness engaging.
“Sister Regina called us to constant prayer, through various forms, to prepare ourselves individually and our parish leadership team to engage the parish in the good work of discipleship and evangelization,” said Deacon Ory.
Amazing Parish helps parishes move from maintenance to missionary mode.
“There were several moments that inspired me and called me and our group to renewed action,” Deacon Ory said.
He noted it’s not about trying to “boil the ocean” with complicated strategies, but to work on one thing at a time. The deacon said Amazing Parish could benefit parishes prone to procrastination as well as those mired in minutia.
“The simple approach, with tight accountability, would be helpful to many parishes of various sizes,” he said.
Having spent 38 years in the corporate world, including time as a leadership coach, the deacon was familiar with the business concepts covered in Amazing Parish.
“However, it was the call to authentic relationship with Jesus, the emphasis on prayer and the reminder that our call is to ‘go out’ that left the lasting impression,” he said.
Look at Mass through visitor’s eyes
Father Michael White, pastor of Church of the Nativity in Baltimore, Maryland, and his pastoral associate, Tom Corcoran, presented a workshop on “The Sunday Experience” at Amazing Parish.
During Father White’s tenure at Church of the Nativity, Sunday attendance has risen from 1,400 to 4,000 people.
Together, they wrote “Rebuilt: Tools for Rebuilding and Making Church Matter.”
The book and “The Sunday Experience” highlight the importance of offering the best in music, ministries and messages, also known as hymns, hospitality and homilies.
Corcoran suggested prioritizing the weekend experience, which includes Mass and programs offered around it.
As followers of Christ, parish leaders should take ownership of the weekend and growth of ministries.
“The weekend can have the greatest impact,” said Corcoran. “For most people, the weekend is their total church experience and it forms the whole impression of church and what place it will have in their lives.”
A graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, Corcoran said leaders should look at Mass and related activities through the eyes of visitors or the unchurched.
“They’re judging the church,” said Corcoran. “If we honor their time, and we honor their effort, they will come back.”
Corcoran advised leaders to stop telling people they only get out of Mass what they put into it. That’s an abdication of leadership, he said.
“What energy and resources are we putting into it as the leaders to make it that experience where they come to know the living God?” he asked.
If visitors see Mass as boring or unorganized, they will come to view God that way, he said.
“The Mass is the source and summit of our faith. It deserves our very best effort,” said Corcoran.
Welcome sincerely, serve children
At Church of the Nativity, hospitality ministries include parking ministers to help people find spaces, greeters, host team members, and a café ministry.
“We want to meet people with smiling faces,” said Corcoran.
Host team members, formerly ushers, help people find seats in the sanctuary and take collections.
“We had to rebrand it and call it host ministers because in our church, usher had come to mean ‘mean, grumpy guy who stared at you’,” said Corcoran.
The changes are simple, but indicate something special is about to happen, he noted.
“They provide layers of welcoming to help create an irresistible environment that people want to be a part of,” said Corcoran. “We’re not just going to church. We’re going to meet the living God.”
Unchurched people are often “expecting to be struck by lightning when they walk through those doors,” he said.
Hospitality ministries help guests and parishioners feel comfortable.
“As they relax and lower their defenses, the word of God can pierce their heart,” said Corcoran.
Offering solid children’s ministries related to Mass is also important.
“When we minister to kids, we’re ministering to parents,” he said. “The children are more evangelical. They are not afraid to invite people to church.”
Music should honor God
Father White talked about the struggles of the music ministry over the years.
“We like to say that music is the water on which the whole weekend experience sails,” said Father White. “Music does what words alone cannot do.”
When he first arrived at the parish, music was a problem. The music was dated and different at each Mass.
“Some of our choir members were more convinced of their skills than they had reason to,” admitted the pastor. “Hymns were simply slaughtered. If you sang in our church, we knew you were a visitor and we stared at you until you shut up.”
A town hall meeting about a range of issues ending up being a complaint session all about music, said the pastor. At first, he avoided the problem.
“We didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings,” said Father White. “It is one of the most difficult things to get right.”
Finding good musicians, choosing the right songs and integrating them prayerfully are not easy tasks.
“First, invest in your program prayerfully,” Father White told attendees. “Our music changed when we began fasting and praying about it.”
Music has the spiritual power to move people, and this must be acknowledged.
“Invest in the right people,” said the priest. “They have to have skill. Desire to do it isn’t enough.”
Music should honor God and serve the liturgy, and musicians need servants’ hearts, he said. A sense of entitlement can seep into any ministry, noted the priest.
“Nobody has a birthright to stand in front of the congregation and sing,” said Father White.
Music directors need courage to move people who are volunteers to opportunities suited for their gifts. Improving music takes investing in relationships and the budget.
“Music in service to God is going to transform your parish,” said Father White.
Lencioni thanked the speakers for sharing their journey and suggested teams not try to accomplish goals overnight. He encouraged teams to make small steps to move in the right direction.
“It’s not about us becoming some other church,” said Lencioni. “It’s about us doing whatever we can where we are today to keep building, so that you’ll have your own story.”
Amazing Parish serves as a sounding board after conferences to parishes and offers free resources and educational webinars at its website, amazingparish.org.