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Renewing Your Parish Staff

Encouragement for parish growth and development

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“There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.” — Thomas Merton

These are challenging times for members of parish staffs, both lay and clergy, who see the empty pews at their weekend liturgies, as well as steep declines in baptisms, weddings and funerals that are all too typical in Catholic parishes today. Not infrequently, pastors and their staff members may be tempted to ask: “What’s the point of all our labors? What’s the point of anything we are doing?”

Such questions suggest we are on despair’s doorstep. But there actually is a grace here, because it can serve as the basis to renew ourselves and our staff, reinvigorating in the process the lives of our parishes and parishioners. Perhaps that’s exactly what we need to be doing now, despite all the depressing trends we see all around us. As St. Paul, who knew a host of difficulties, advises: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2).

When leading organizations, it’s essential to remember that we are dealing with organisms, not mechanisms. St. Paul reminded us more than once, in fact, that the Church is not just any organism, but the Body of Christ. Whatever vision we have of our parish and its staff, it has to begin with that realization. As we think through how to be an effective leader, a true pastor, we can never forget that we are dealing with a living body.


So what do bodies need? They need nourishment, things that provide them with the energy they need to survive and accomplish their purpose. That nourishment begins with a vision, itself fed by energy and resolve. A leader needs to be constantly nourishing himself, feeding his vision, because he cannot give what he does not have.

One of the challenging congruities of life is that the less nourishment a body has, the more it needs. At times, that can seem downright cruel. A body can become too weak to feed itself even if nourishment is present. That’s why God gave us one another. We can find nourishment for one another. We can provide it when another is too weak to partake on their own.

Effective leaders focus on the need for nourishment — to obtain it for themselves and to provide it to others. There is no shame in engaging others to help us. That’s what the Kingdom is all about. We look after us — all of us. If you need some renewal, reach out for it.

Growth and Development

Ken Blanchard, co-author of the classic bestseller “The One-Minute Manager” and co-founder of the Lead Like Jesus movement, says every good organization makes the growth and development of its people a part of its core purpose. Not only do people grow as individuals, but as they grow, they contribute more to the well-being of the organization. It’s called a win-win.

Effective leaders are always looking for win-win opportunities. Developing people — providing them with learning opportunities, materials as well as experiences — is one of the most basic and important win-wins to grace a pastor’s life. It should be a priority, and one that’s reflected in the parish budget.

That said, staff renewal is a larger thing — both broader and deeper than general staff growth and development. It is a focus born in faith and grown in hope. It is an explicitly religious experience, a group process that engages everyone on the staff. When times are tough, a leader keeps everyone’s focus on the vision, the promise: Jesus’ Spirit is with us. We know how the story ends. We just have to do our part and trust in the graciousness of the Lord.


Enthusiasm is contagious. So is a lack of it. As a staff, do we have to address the challenge of enthusiasm? If we don’t model it, we certainly won’t see it. But how, in the face of current trends and data, can we even hope to be enthusiastic? What is the wellspring that refreshes us, renews us and enables us to persevere? It has to be Jesus. As he told the Samaritan woman at the well: “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14).

Any serious parish staff renewal process begins by drinking that water. We do it by getting to know Jesus better, keeping him foremost in our minds, accepting again and again his commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). When we do that, we are not alone. Jesus adds, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

What a huge consolation that can be for us, no matter what the weather is outside. Parish staff renewal begins, then, with prayer and reflection on Jesus, the mission and the promise he gave us. What are we here for? Fortunately, Jesus told us, very clearly. Let’s help one another be mindful of that, no matter what our circumstances at the moment.

Implications of Our Mission

As we explore the implications of our mission in our parishes, Marcel LeJeune, founder and president of Catholic Missionary Disciples, suggests that we ask ourselves four questions:

— How are we reaching out to those who aren’t coming to church?

— Could we call our parish a disciple factory or is it more like a museum?

— For what exactly do we, as a Church, exist?

— How do we stop doing the things that are taking away from what we ought to be doing?

Tackle this last question later in the process, gradually and with lots of patience. Every activity has a constituency of passionate advocates. They can make change messy and painful. Proceed with caution as well as conviction.

LeJeune adds that we should not see contemporary culture as the enemy, but rather as an opportunity. It’s all too easy — and distracting — to see ourselves under siege and turn our focus to finding refuge instead of focusing on the mission. Rather than getting all lathered up about living in a hostile culture, we should remind ourselves that times are always tough. Jesus suffered and died. All but one of his loyal 11 apostles were martyrs. Early Christians suffered unspeakable persecution. For centuries, popes fled Rome at the risk of their lives. And yet, they spread the Gospel. In today’s challenging but much less dreadful times, we are called to do the same. Pity parties have no place in our tradition. Neither do scapegoats.

LeJeune says: “Today, Catholic apathy is a bigger problem than cultural issues, and we need to honestly look at why that is. We don’t want to pay the cost of sainthood, we aren’t very good at relationships, we don’t like change, and we are too comfortable.” The way to address those challenges is to do what Jesus did. Start by building a small handful of faithful, joyful, dedicated, and apostolic leaders — your parish team. Then imagine that group growing slowly to include many more people. The keys: be patient, persistent, joyful and kind — animated by the deep hope of a devoted disciple in a supportive community.


People are attracted — eventually — to inviting and purposeful places. Continue your ministries that truly are ministries. Consider adding more, especially if there’s a reasonable hope that they might attract and engage new people while serving the common good. When was the last time your parish — perhaps a youth group or a religious education class — sponsored a clothing or food drive?

Every Super Bowl Sunday, high schoolers in our parish conduct a “Souper Bowl,” collecting food for our local ecumenical pantry. The kids like the opportunity to make a positive contribution and it tells them who they are: disciples feeding the hungry. There’s a lot of healthy esteem to be found in such efforts. When was the last time your parish allowed parishioners to do good and discover the joy of discipleship in the process? More importantly, when is the next time?

Writer Elizabeth Chase once said: “Hope is not pretending that troubles don’t exist. It is the trust that they will not last forever, that hurts will be healed and difficulties overcome. It is faith that a source of strength and renewal lies within to lead us through the dark into the sunshine.”

Parish staff renewal begins and continues with our pursuit of Jesus’ loving Spirit deep within, giving us life and breath to serve his mission. We can’t do it ourselves. But by the grace of God, we can surely do it together.

OWEN PHELPS, Ph.D., is executive director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of “The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus” (OSV, $15.95).


Pope Francis
CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pope Francis Encourages Vatican Staff

Meeting with Vatican employees and their families during their traditional Christmas greeting audience on Dec. 21, 2020, Pope Francis said, “It is a question of meeting the legitimate needs of you employees and those of the Holy See: We must meet each other’s needs, and we must all strive to overcome this critical moment with good will and patience.”

The pope stressed that “our collaborators and you, who work in the Holy See, are the most important thing: no one should be left out, no one should leave the job.”

He reminded the employees that their call was to “bring the good news to the world: Jesus is our Savior. We must tell everyone!”

Pope Francis said that we must bring the good news whenever possible with the witness of our lives, with the joy and serenity that comes to us from faith and love: joy and serenity in spite of everything. — Adapted from Vatican News, Dec. 21, 2020


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