John Gillespie

A few years ago, when Paul Wilkes wrote Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices, and later, when he penned Excellent Protestant Congregations, he was not primarily interested in theory, trends or statistics. Rather, he observed the approaches and programs in several hundred parishes and congregations that could be replicated in other places. His focus was on practical application or, in his words, “a sort of survival guide for pastors and church leaders.”

Now Wilkes has created a guide not only for pastors, but also for parishioners, called New Beginnings Curriculum Kit: A New Way of Living as a Catholic. For pastors this curriculum takes the mystery out of how to expand current involvement in the parish and engage new participants. For parishioners, New Beginnings offers a solid program for elevating the role of laity to help them sustain a high level of pastoral and ministerial care. And for parish-shopping Catholics, the curriculum allows potential parishioners a chance to assume immediate ownership, as well as membership in their new house of worship.

Much more than just a Welcome Wagon approach and beyond the scope of a stewardship sign-up, New Beginnings uses a state-of-the-art interactive model: printed materials and electronic tools facilitate the three one-hour classes in the curriculum. Included in the kit are a video, DVD and PowerPoint CD. The templates supplied can be adapted to the level and pace of the parishioners.

Every class is designed to be fast- moving and go beyond the typical approach that uses leader and participant workbooks. And each one-hour presentation follows a logical progression that is easy to customize. The first segment, titled “101: My Parish,spotlights the themes of membership and ownership. The old saying is true: “No one ever washed a rented car,” so unless members have a sense of ownership, they will probably never experience the power of their home parish.

In this opening session, there is also a chance to view the parish in the context of the local community and consider what it means to be Catholic in an evolving church.

After encouraging the individual to reimagine the potential in their local church, the second hour, “201: My Spirituality,” invites the parishioner to become acquainted (or reacquainted) with the traditions available to support spiritual growth in a parish setting. In this hour, the local church as microcosm of the universal church is taken seriously. Also, the individual becomes increasingly aware of the invitation to reach out to God for insight, inspiration and guidance through the rich storehouse of the Catholic tradition.

The third hour, “301: My Ministry,” takes the parishioner to the outward-directed step of living the word through ministry. Here is a chance for the participants to discover their unique ministry in the parish and in the world. The three stages, called discovery, discernment and discipleship, enable people to put their talents into practice in a minsterial setting. The special significance of the third hour is that the individual’s unique gifts are appreciated: there is no “cutting the person to fit the coat,” no filling in of functional roles because “someone has to teach the fourth-grade faith formation class.” Empowering parishioners to embrace a ministry that is truly their own enlivens the entire parish.

Since the parish where I am pastor was the first test site for this new program, I can both attest to its effectiveness and identify some shortcomings.

The effectiveness shines through the scores of good people with previously little or no involvement who have risen to leadership positions. Others have been the faithful followers who serve as bricks in the solid foundation of our parish. Most important, a new infrastructure of supportive, collaborative and sustained volunteerism has grown in my parish. In fact, a dynamic new parish culture has evolved.

The shortcomings are in the follow-up plan, which is quite thin. As the first parish to try this program, we were not prepared to handle the subsequent needs of the laity for organization, roles and responsibilities, and expectations. Historically, our ministries have grown to significant numbers by nurturing new members. But individual mentoring cannot be done with an influx of a large number of new people. So out of necessity we created our own tools for managing the laity. But this would have been less painful if the kit had provided some tools for follow-up.

In addition, it is important to recognize the role that both the priest and parish staff play in all phases of the program. There are a number of logistical, financial and communication issues, for example, that will arise; and it is best to involve the staff early in the game. The curriculum fails to address this.

Also, a little hand-holding of new leaders and new ministers might be needed. In our case, the modest amount of time devoted to oversight, supporting dozens of ministries and meeting the needs of hundreds of ministers proved to be a relatively small investment in relation to the bountiful rewards.

The New Beginnings program, which can be conducted on three successive Sunday mornings, for example, can provide a great jump-start for a parish. The smartly designed curriculum will attract parishioners, even the quiet and “ordinary” ones, to make their talents available and get involved. While freeing the priest for more ministerial work, it offers a new way for parishioners to fulfill their baptismal responsibility, based in the common priesthood.

Paul Wilkes has found a way to make empowerment in a parish practical. Perhaps this will lead us all to be members of excellent Catholic parishes.

Rev. John Gillespie is pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Wilmington, N.C.