WILSONVILLE — Effective parishes embrace shared leadership, create ample opportunities for spiritual growth, offer a compelling Sunday experience and a live by a spirit of evangelization.
That was the message April 26 to parish workers from around western Oregon. They were attending the annual Pastoral Ministry Conference for priests, deacons, religious and lay ministers.
“Catholic parishes are the greatest engine of good in human history,” said Bill Simon, a former California gubernatorial candidate and businessman who has turned to helping parishes thrive.
Simon led a research project, interviewing 244 pastors from highly respected parishes, seeking the keys to vibrancy. He then wrote a book about the results.
Shared leadership is necessary not only because the number of priests is fewer, but because the laity have a baptismal call to lead in certain areas of faith life, Simon told the crowd of 300 in a hotel ballroom. “Vocations can go hand in hand with the idea that lay people are called to be involved,” he said.
Simon, assisted by local speakers through the day, suggested that priests turn over as much as possible so they can focus on preaching, the sacraments and reasonable self-care.
Father Mike Walker, pastor of St. James Parish in McMinnville, told the crowd that an authoritarian model fails in both business and parishes. “The collaborative, team-based model is what works,” he said. “That way, you are not relying on your insufficient knowledge.” Betsy Willing, a staffer at St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton, told the story of how parishioners stepped up after the pastor had to leave just before a big event; it was possible because the priest set a vision and fostered leaders.
Simon said effective parishes offer opportunities for spiritual learning, which tends to get more people involved in other areas of church life.
“We need to see how we can take these people who are engaged and then send them to go make more disciples,” added Jason Kidd, director of marriage and family life in the archdiocese.
Simon said the Sunday experience becomes vibrant and valuable by what goes on all week before Mass — faith formation opportunities, small groups, plenty of time for the pastor to work on his homily. In addition, music needs to be “top flight” and should be varied, since different forms inspire different people. Vibrant parishes are responsive to parishioner need, speakers said, suggesting meals, child care and a schedule of events that won’t conflict with family time.
Pondering evangelization, Father Ignacio Llorente, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Corvallis, suggested that parish workers consider how their liturgies and other events will seem to newcomers. Don’t speak to everyone as if they are insiders, he said, adding that, “The best method of evangelization is friends inviting friends.”
Willing, who runs the Sunday preschool and nursery at St. Cecilia, said it sounds strange, but parish staff must offer “great customer service” to parishioners. “That will soften hearts and let Jesus in,” she said.
Betsy Taylor, youth and young adult minister at Resurrection Parish in Tualatin, explained the success and potential of a parish young adult Facebook page.
Archbishop Alexander Sample reminded parishes that they are not just about chasing numbers.
“We are not a social service agency,” he said, echoing Pope Francis, who has famously said the church is not a non-governmental agency. “We proclaim Jesus Christ risen from the dead and our mission is to take that to the world.”
At their tables, pastoral ministers sought to apply the ideas to their concrete situations.
Father Dave Zegar, pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland, said that on any given topic, there is likely a parishioner with passion and expertise who can be invited into leadership. Norma Ouellette of St. Alice Parish in Springfield realized a problem: Most millennials at her parish are Hispanic, but the website is in English.
The gathering received updates on pastoral priorities of the archdiocese, including a push to celebrate vocations and a new center that will help parishioners do works of mercy and charity. “Faith and charity complement one another,” said Deacon Richard Birke, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon.
Rolando Moreno, director of catechesis for the archdiocese, unveiled a new adult faith formation initiative, the Institute for Catholic Life and Leadership. It will begin with a pilot program at St. Edward in Keizer. “We want to provide for you the best of the best in formation,” Moreno said.