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Forming an Easter Parish

Two practices to help us live in Christ’s victory

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In our Catholic culture, we sometimes seem to embrace a losing mentality. There are probably many reasons we do this. One comes from the incredible challenges we face as a Church community. We serve in a time of declining Church attendance in many places, as well as a period in which the Church has less influence on the wider culture than it has had in past generations. The media often takes a negative view of our efforts and our motives. Religious leaders are rarely portrayed positively, and their missteps are gleefully amplified. And the abuse scandal continues to cast a long shadow over everyone from the pulpit to the pews.

We priests can easily find ourselves overwhelmed by the challenges of parish work. We confront personnel issues: recruiting and hiring staff as well as recruiting, training, maintaining and motivating volunteer ministers. There are operational issues: budgeting, maintenance and technology (none of which most of us have any preparation for, or perhaps even interest in). There are legal and canonical issues, record retention, security and suitability concerns. We are in the communication business, and there are challenges in that area, especially clarifying and communicating vision while striving to always better understand the culture we are trying to reach. We are dealing with the public, so there are public relations issues, consumer preferences and consumer complaints.

This list doesn’t even touch on the sacraments, sacramental prep, faith formation, youth ministry, children’s ministry, RCIA, the weekend experience, music, preaching, the liturgy and the liturgical year. Then there are pastoral responsibilities. People rightly bring their pain and loss to us as Church leaders. Funerals wash up on our shores regularly, bringing all the emotion that comes with the reality of death and the loss of loved ones. And, of course, parish life plays out amid the recent disruption of COVID-19 and the ongoing divisions in our country.

faith-sharing groups
Small faith-sharing groups gather in prayer. AdobeStock

These many responsibilities and challenges can weigh heavy on our hearts and leave us sometimes feeling like we’re losing when it comes to what we are trying to do.

But, we serve a God who won and is victorious. Jesus defeated sin and death once and for all, forever and for everyone. While there is Good Friday, there is also Easter Sunday. While there is the cross, there is an empty tomb. The source and summit of our parish communities is the Eucharist, which celebrates Christ’s victory.

This victory is fundamental to our faith. There is human weakness and frailty, but God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. Yes, Jesus told us that we would have trouble in this world, but he also promised to overcome the world. Certainly, we do suffer. We also know it is not for naught, because there is redemptive power to it. We serve a God of power and strength, who gives strength to his people.

Psalm 68 puts it boldly: “Confess the power of God, / whose majesty protects Israel, / whose power is in the sky. / Awesome is God in his holy place, / the God of Israel, / who gives power and strength to his people” (vv. 35-36).

Every Easter, we read about Peter’s providential meeting with Cornelius, in which Peter tells him, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).

A Winning Team

Despite the challenges we face as priests and pastors, we still need to minister and serve in the light of the victory we have in Christ and the power we have received through the Holy Spirit to build God’s kingdom.

Besides, everyone wants to be part of a winning team. When a team is losing, their stadiums become empty. When the team starts winning, the stands start to fill up again. We have seen it here in Baltimore at Camden Yards over the last few years. The Orioles were consistently losing, and, as beautiful a stadium as it is (here in Baltimore, we think it’s the best stadium in baseball), no one went to the games. This past season was a winning season, and the stadium was packed nightly.

People want to go to a game to see their team win. They want to feel part of a winning team. Despite the struggles and trials we face, we must remember that by serving God, we serve on the winning team. We must hold on to this truth in our hearts and raise it before our staff, our volunteers and our members.

Two simple practices can help us live in Christ’s victory so that the larger challenges of the Church and the daily grind of the parish don’t tear us up or wear us down.

First Practice: Clarify the Win

In parish work, we don’t have an obvious scoreboard like in sports. We work in the spiritual realm, so how do we know when someone is experiencing life change? How do we know what is going on in people’s hearts?

It’s tough to know, and we are tempted to not even try, operating instead by instinct or wishful thinking. The problem with that approach is that when our wishful thinking is challenged by reality, it can be deeply discouraging. A negative comment or criticism can be withering. Bad news can call into question our very commitment to the mission and easily lead to burnout.


Books and Resources from “Rebuilt Parish”

Father Michael White and Tom Corcoran have two books that focus on evangelization.

The most recent book, “Rebuilt Faith: A Handbook for Skeptical Catholics” (Ave Maria Press, $18.95), presents five steps to learn or relearn the Catholic faith. Those steps include: serving others and developing a servant’s heart; giving, which reflects the character of God; engaging in a Christian community; practicing prayer and the sacraments; and sharing your faith.

“Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) draws its background from successful mega-churches and innovative business leaders while holding the Eucharist central to the Catholic faith. In the book, they explain how they took the heart of the Gospel to make Mass matter to Catholics. They offer guidance to anyone with the courage to hear them.

Additional resources are available at


On the other hand, the more we identify and understand what represents success, the more wins we’ll see. “Clarify the win,” a phrase we picked up from Andy Stanley, Lane Jones and Reggie Joiner’s very useful book, “Seven Practices of Effective Ministry” (Multnomah, $19.99), is a great principle to help us see more wins. It simply means deciding as a staff and communicating to your team (and then to the parish) what is important and what really matters, both at the macro level and at the micro level of your parish.

It offers a framework to determine what is important and what is not. Part of the problem parishes face is that we can so easily become distracted by issues that don’t matter. We can major in the minors. Clarifying the win means, first of all, setting priorities for the parish and the parishioners. So, for example, at Nativity last spring, we set two priorities for the parish in the year ahead: expand our outreach efforts and grow our small faith sharing groups. In other words, the priorities were evangelization and discipleship.

That’s a good start, but setting those priorities was not enough. We had to clarify what it might mean for us to win with those goals. For example, when it comes to the priority of discipleship, my new book “Rebuilt Faith” (Ave Maria Press, $18.95), co-authored with Tom Corocran, is about the STEPS of discipleship. So, we invited everyone to commit to a small group this past Lent to read and discuss the book together.

We set a goal of getting 1,000 new people into a group, if only just for Lent. Setting a number pinned down what the win was (and, yes, we reached our goal). But it also meant that our core team knew, heading into the year, that more resources and staff time would have to be directed to our small group program, and it meant that other things would not get done, or have to be placed on the back burner.

Measures of Success

So, those are ways we clarified wins at the macro level, but then there was clarifying the win at the micro level. This meant that in our parish communication, at every level, we had to articulate what we wanted people to know, what we wanted them to do, and how we wanted them to feel. And to the extent possible, then measure whether or not we succeeded.

So, the First Sunday of (last) Lent:

What did we want them to know? Lent is a season of prayerful preparation for Easter marked by repentance and renewal.

What did we want them to do? Join a small group, and commit to a daily prayer time/quiet time, completing a daily reading from “Rebuilt Faith” (there are 40 chapters)

Bible study
Bible study in a small faith-sharing group. AdobeStock

How did we want them to feel? Motivated to meet the challenge of the season.

How did we know the win? They signed up for a group, and got a copy of “Rebuilt Faith.”

Another example, when it came to our priority of evangelization, at the macro level, we set the goal of finally getting back to pre-COVID weekend attendance levels (we were tracking at about 65-70%).

How did we propose to get there? Invest and invite is our basic approach to evangelization. Simply stated, parishioners invest relationally in unchurched friends and family and, then, when given the opportunity, invite them to church.

Micro-level Findings

That was also a theme for Lent this year: a recurring challenge in my weekend preaching, part of the focus of our adult small group curriculum and definitely a theme of our children’s Liturgy of the Word (because kids are better at evangelization than adults). At the micro level:

What did we want them to know? There is no more opportune time to make an invitation to church than Lent.

What did we want them to do? Choose a specific unchurched friend or family member and bring them to your daily prayer. Take a paper invitation card we made available after Mass or download an electronic card and, when given the chance, use it to make an invitation.


Psalm 118, The Victory Psalm

This is the day the LORD has made; / let us rejoice in it and be glad. / LORD, grant salvation! / LORD, grant good fortune! / Blessed is he / who comes in the name of the LORD. / We bless you from the house of the LORD. / The LORD is God and has enlightened us. / Join in procession with leafy branches / up to the horns of the altar. / You are my God, I give you thanks; / my God, I offer you praise. / Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, / his mercy endures forever. (vv. 24-29)


How did we want them to feel? Excited to make an invitation.

How did we measure the win? The number of invitation cards we gave away, our attendance count in person and online, as well as the number of first-time guests who presented themselves at our Welcome Desk to claim a free gift (“Rebuilt Faith”) that we gave to visitors. But also, a win here is going to be the parking minister who greeted each car coming up the entrance drive as potentially carrying that first-time guest. A win was a host-team member committed to greeting each person who came through the front door as that first-time guest … to name but a couple.

Make it a habit and discipline to clarify the win before every event and at every level of your parish. Because, the more clarity the win, the more wins you will recognize and experience.

Second Practice: Celebrate the Win

The Bible begins with God at work, that’s how basic work is to the world. In the beginning, there was nothing, and then God literally went to work. He spoke the world into existence. He created the sun, the moon and the stars. He organized the world by creating day and night, seas and dry land.

Other ancient religions depicted the creation of the world as a result of warring cosmic forces, but the Book of Genesis tells us an entirely different story. Genesis reveals that creation doesn’t come out of conflict, but creativity. Creation is the result of the loving kindness and infinite creativity of a master craftsman.

The Hebrew word for work used in Genesis describes ordinary, everyday, common labor, labor that we all undertake every day, thus establishing such effort as a pattern for creation, once and for all and forever.

God shows us that our work is good. But he also gives us an example of the importance of stepping back to appreciate the work we have done.

After God creates light, he stops to appreciate that it is good. After God creates the dry land and the sea, vegetation and trees that bear fruit, the sun and the stars, the fish of the sea, the animals on dry land and birds in the air, each time he pauses to acknowledge that it was good.

Then on the sixth day, God creates human beings, and Genesis says, “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good” (1:31).

Six times, Genesis tells us that God stepped back and looked at his creation and saw that it was good, or very good in the case of man.

Genesis, of course, is telling us that God created the world good, he is also showing us an important example of celebrating our work. Whenever we complete a project, finish a job or accomplish our work goals, it feels good. In some ways, there is no better feeling. And that is not a sign of pride, it’s a reflection of God in us.

If Genesis tells us that God stepped back and acknowledged the goodness of his work, it means he set an example for us to do the same. Pausing to celebrate your work at the end of the day or after the completion of a project guards against burnout and is good and healthy. It keeps us charged and motivated to keep going, or start all over again.

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Consider ways you can do that for yourself. It can be something as small and simple as closing your laptop at the end of the day, putting it away and acknowledging to yourself, “That was good.” Or maybe it could mean hanging on to encouraging emails. Delete the negative emails, but hang on to the encouraging ones and review them from time to time.

It’s important that we celebrate our wins as individuals, and then equally important that we celebrate as a staff, with our volunteer ministers and as a parish community. One of the ways we do that here as a parish staff is through our weekly Wins Meeting. That’s what we call it, our “wins” meeting.

Each Monday, our team gathers together and is encouraged to share what good things they experienced in the previous week and weekend. Where we won, where we fulfilled our values and served our mission, where we saw God show up.

We celebrate our wins and, in the process, underscore the point and the purpose of what we do, and why we do what we do. It gives everyone on the team an opportunity to hear of the good things that are going on in every area of the parish.

Celebrate wins with your volunteers, too. Over the last few years, we have set aside a date in June to invite all our volunteer ministers to mark the end of the year and to celebrate their good work and the good things that happened as a result.

This is nothing fancy, but the effort on behalf of staff to volunteer, or, as we like to say, “member ministers,” is greatly appreciated. During the event, we summarize the successes and wins experienced as a parish over the past year or call out special efforts of member ministers.

But you don’t have to wait until the end of the year to celebrate. Each weekend, we gather our volunteers into huddles. We update them about all the information they need to know about what’s going on. We also share with them, and encourage them to share with us, stories of life change among our parishioners and in our parish. The huddles effectively underscore that they are on a winning team.

Celebrate wins as a staff, celebrate wins with your volunteer ministers, then celebrate the wins and the progress you are making as a parish with your whole community.

For instance, over the years, our Stewardship Weekend has more and more become a celebration of the parish and our wins. And, in the context of celebrating what we are accomplishing together, we ask people to make a financial commitment for the coming year.

We celebrate who we are as a community, and we thank our community for being on this journey with us. And then we ask them to make a financial commitment to the parish.

Celebrate the wins whenever you ask the parish to do anything and they do it. When you invite people to volunteer, celebrate the people who volunteered at all the weekend Masses. Share it in your announcements or the homily. When you invite people to join a small group, celebrate the people who got into a small group. Celebrate the people who move and grow as you are asking them to move and grow, because what gets rewarded gets repeated.

If you have the technology, share photos of parish activities in the announcements or on your website. Think of events not everyone sees or even knows about, like photos of first Communion or confirmation Masses. Share photos of parishioners serving on mission or in ministry. It’s hard when we as staff are immersed in parish activities day after day to remember there are people whose only connection to the parish is an hour on Sunday morning — that’s everything they know about the parish. So we have to bring activities beyond the weekend experience and celebrate them.

We typically do this at the end of Mass, in our announcements which we call “End Notes.” And I can honestly say, rare is the person who leaves before these announcements. In fact, if someone does leave early, they are most likely visiting from another parish. Because the culture of our parish is that everyone stays, they want to hear (and see) what is going on in the parish. They want to celebrate.

We want people in our pews to feel like they are part of a winning team. Because when they’re a part of a winning team, they’ll keep coming back, they’ll give and serve, they’ll want to grow as disciples and share their faith.

Pope St. John Paul famously relayed the message, “We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!” May the joy of our Easter song permeate our parish communities and be a true reflection of the joy of our faith that we’re on a winning team because he is truly risen.

FATHER MICHAEL WHITE is pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, and co-author of “Rebuilt Faith” (Ave Maria Press, $18.95).


Psalm 108, Recalling Our Victories Psalm

My heart is steadfast, God; / my heart is steadfast. / Let me sing and chant praise. / Awake, lyre and harp! / I will wake the dawn. / I will praise you among the peoples, LORD; / I will chant your praise among the nations. / For your mercy is greater than the heavens; / your faithfulness, to the skies. / Appear on high over the heavens, God; / your glory above all the earth. / Help with your right hand and answer us / that your loved ones may escape. / God speaks in his holiness: / “I will exult, I will apportion Shechem; the valley of Succoth I will measure out. / Gilead is mine, mine is Manasseh; / Ephraim is the helmet for my head, / Judah, my scepter. / Moab is my washbowl; / upon Edom I cast my sandal; / I will shout in triumph over Philistia.” / Who will bring me to the fortified city? / Who will lead me into Edom? / Was it not you who rejected us, God? / Do you no longer march with our armies? / Give us aid against the foe; / worthless is human help. / We will triumph with the help of God, / who will trample down our foes.” (vv. 2-14)


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