The Beacon — Beacon_March 16 2017
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Making Parishes Great
Michael Wojcik

Parish Catalyst founder suggests four practices that will build vibrant faith communities

MADISON For parishes that are searching for ways to build more vibrant faith communities that thrive, Parish Catalyst has some tips.

The non-profit organization has conducted extensive research that points to four essential practices of dynamic parishes throughout the U.S. These include what the organization calls the “Sunday experience”: a worshipper’s encounter of a parish that starts with a warm greeting at the door; continues with a spiritually rich Mass that features powerful music and homily; and ends with a social gathering after the liturgy.

That’s what Bill Simon Jr., Parish Cata - lyst’s founder and presi dent, told priests and lay people from the Diocese on March 11 in his talk, “Great Catholic Parishes,” at St. Paul Inside the Walls: the Diocesan Center for Evangeli - zation at Bayley-Ellard here. He spoke about a study that Parish Catalyst conducted, interviewing pastors from 244 of the greatest U.S. parishes and, from that research, identifying four practices of thriving parishes: leadership, spiritual growth, the “Sunday experience” and evangelization. Simon also talked about the ongoing work of Parish Catalyst, which builds vibrant Catholic faith communities through research and collaboration among parishes.

“Parishes are important places in the lives of Catholics and of our cities, states and country. My friend, Rick Warren [author of the book ‘The Purpose-Driven Life’] calls the local church the greatest engine of good in human history,” said Simon, author of the book, “Great Catholic Parishes.” “I think that the future of the Church in America is very bright thanks, to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. My hope is grounded in both optimism and realism,” he said.

The 18-month study — conducted by Simon and a team of researchers — discovered that the four practices of thriving parishes include leadership. Increasingly, pastors have been sharing leadership of the parish. This approach has given them more time for “self care”: exercise, participation in priest support groups, prayer and thinking about the Mass and “what’s best for their parishes,” said Simon, co-chairman of William E. Simon & Sons, an investment firm, which he cofounded with his brother, Peter, and their late father, William E. Simon Sr., a former U. S. Secretary of the Treasury.

Parishes also should focus on another important practice: spiritual growth, which includes matching ministries with the personalities of their faithful. This approach that ensures that “they get engaged and want to show up at church,” said Simon, who grew up in Summit; attended Holy Family School, Florham Park; and lived in Madison, before moving to Los Angeles.

The best practices of parishes include the “Sunday experience,” which begins on Monday and continues throughout the week with online formation programs, social justice outreaches and small group sharing. Some small groups meet in parishioners’ homes for dinner and discussions of Bible passages, said Simon, also co-chairman of the William E. Simon Foundation and the Cynthia L. and William E. Simon Jr. Foundation, which help the urban poor through faith-based efforts.

“Small groups are a way to invite people in a way that is comfortable for them,” said Simon, who belongs to St. Monica Parish, Los Angeles. “Small groups are a great way to fire up parishioners. Then, they roll into Sunday with momentum,” he said.

The Eucharist remains “the source and summit” of our Catholic faith, but, in addition, the “Sunday experience” should feature other important spiritually enriching elements. These include greeters at the door, uplifting music — although “one size does not fit all” for congregations — and homily and a “table or a meal” after Mass, where people can hang out and meet each other, said Simon, who founded and leads Parish Catalyst with the encouragement of many notable Catholics and Christians from other denominations.

Lastly, dynamic parishes evangelize, today inspired by St. John Paul II’s challenge for the faithful to engage in the New Evangelization: spreading the Gospel largely to the unchurched. Pope Francis has sparked a passion for evangelization among Catholics with his emphasis on social justice, Simon said. “Pope Francis is pastoral. He provides leadership and encouragement for our pastors,” Simon said.

After his talk, Simon answered questions from the enthusiastic audience, which included students of the Diocesan Certificate in Evangelization program. He fielded inquires about the work of Parish Catalyst, which gathers together groupings of parishes from around the U.S. — or “cohorts” — to learn about and discuss best practices to help their faith communities thrive. Simon encouraged local parishes to sign up to participate in a cohort.

Each cohort studies one of the following several specific areas: Parish Leadership, Discipleship Today, Sunday Worship, Evangelization and Mission and Shepherding Millennials. Each pastor brings a team from the parish to travel to Los Angeles for four three-day meetings over an 18-month period. There, they listen to prominent speakers on their topic. Each parish stays accountable to the cohort by announcing its goals relative to the topic and later, reporting the results, Simon said.

Last year, St. Paul’s Young Adult Ministry finished participating in Parish Catalyst with other young adult outreaches in a cohort about Shepherding Millennials. The Beacon reported last year that St. Mary Parish, Pompton Lakes, completed work in another cohort that focused on the same subject.

“Parish Catalyst was one of the most organized and encouraging groups that I’ve ever been involved with. It got us to thinking strategically, theological and pastorally. It has affected not only members of St. Paul’s, who went [to Los Angeles], but also our entire staff,” said Father Paul Manning, St. Paul’s executive director and diocesan vicar for evangelization, who years ago, traveled with Simon and other Catholic priests to Saddleback, Warren’s “mega-church” in California, to examine its best practices. “I thank Bill for coming to St. Paul’s today. He gives pastors encouragement and has an unshakable optimism in the Church, rooted in God,” the priest said on March 11.

Afterward, Jane Delvin of the faith community of St. Paul’s told The Beacon that she attended Simon’s presentation “to better understand what makes a vibrant and great parish.”

“That understanding turns into action to make a more relevant parish that welcomes people home. A parish has to be nurturing and friendly and offer unconditional love,” said Delvin, who agreed with Simon that a Catholic’s “Sunday experience” should include powerful music and homilies.

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