Last week I spoke about my personal journey and how it informs much of my interest and strategy and passion for parish renewal. This week, what at least some people have been waiting for, is a discussion of our experience at the Church of the Nativity in Baltimore. (Most of the following comes from the book Rebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter by Michael White and Tom Corcoran (2013). The Church of the Nativity is a typical parish built in an affluent suburb of Baltimore called Timonium. When Fr. Michael White arrived as pastor in the late '90s, it was, as he describes it, "A languid community aging in place," Here is what they found:
When they did a survey of what they liked most about their church, 90% said "convenient parking;"
The was no youth ministry, teenagers and young adults were no-shows;
The congregations level of giving was not paying the bills, some recent years had seen small deficits;
The small staff was divided and completely dysfunctional;
Signs posted everywhere from some unidentified authority issued emphatic instructions always populated with exclamation points - "keep these doors closed at all times" " do not move this table" and "no lemons in the garbage disposal;"
Bulletin boards and posters everywhere tried to attract parishioners' attention to everything from lost puppies to the latest fundraiser;
there was a weekly bulletin but it was widely acknowledged that nobody read it;
The volunteers were a law unto themselves; - Clergy and staff were treated by parishioners as employees;
A new non-denominational church in our neighbourhood was meeting in a warehouse. It was half our age, twice our size and growing. By their own acknowledgment, something like 60 percent of their congregation was former Catholics, including their pastor. As such they were drawing more baptized Catholics than any catholic church in north Baltimore.
By the time we arrived on June 11th, 2023, the day before my 24th anniversary of ordination, this is what we saw:
A large new 16 million dollar sanctuary that seats 1500 worshippers, has a huge vision cafe and a state-of-the-art broadcasting facility with 7 live camera's two large active video screens and a team of volunteers coordinating the live and online feeds. This entire structure was built in 2016 with no debt;
The old church was transformed into a large conference facility and the host to their children's liturgy program - making use of the ENTIRE old church as a children's liturgy auditorium and a whole children's liturgy centre with several separate classrooms which can also be used as meeting rooms, a separate cafe;
An active and well-organized volunteer ministry of over 1000 ministers, all of whom went through their equivalent of responsible faith ministry with police checks;
A ministry lounge separate from the sacristy or any of the other meeting rooms used exclusively for volunteer ministers;
A well-paid staff complement of 35, including an on-site coordinator for the Sunday Mass and a full-time coordinator of all their children's liturgy programs;
A highly capable and state-of-the-art music program;
A very well-designed and very catholic liturgy which flowed beautifully and was inspirational
A very active youth program
A very well-financed operation with no collection - 75 percent of their giving was online. There was no collection, by the way. During the offertory, a pre-recorded video talked about all the wonderful things that were happening with a "text to give" option.
I asked Fr. White how long it actually took him to build this amazing creation. He said for sure God built it, but he also said that he looked at it in 5-year increments:
The First Five Years:
The first five years resulted in utter failure. They just wanted to do more and do it better. This was based on a series of false assumptions, paraphrasing Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran:
We assumed that if they did more and did it better, people would grow in their maturity and commitment.
We thought that if we did more and did it better, people would automatically give more.
We thought that if they did more and did it better, people would automatically get involved and help out.
We looked to our stalwart church-goers (senior citizens) as our natural allies as we tried to move forward ("Boy did we get that wrong")!
Little did we appreciate how detached the second and third generations of demanding consumers had grown.
We didn't understand how marginalized the whole enterprise of faith and religion had become in the lives of our parishioners.
Despite our efforts, we were not reaching our student population.
We didn't understand how completely irrelevant we were to the lives of young people and how cynical they could be about organized religion, how distrustful of any outreach efforts.
And finally, and most importantly, we were not turned toward God. We were not relying on His leadership, And we were not looking to go where he was a blessing. We just kept pushing harder on the systems and procedures that had always been in place even though they were no longer working."
And so they just burned themselves out and things got worse instead of better. This led to the second phase - learning from others. They came to the same conclusion that I did when I finished my tenure as pastor of Our Lady of the Scapular parish - the strategy they were using to run their church was not working. They had to change their strategy. There has to be a better way of doing this. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
The next five years:
The second phase of their journey was learning from others. I can highlight a moment of confrontation they write about when they went to a pastor's conference with Rick Warren of Saddleback Church. He called out pastors but the same applies to us as clergy. We have become Pharisees. Pastors are forgetting their core mission, which is to make disciples.
The third five years and their ongoing efforts to rebuild:
So the third phase of their own rebuilding actually happened very quickly. How? They changed their approach to focus on making disciples. They crafted a new and simple mission statement - love God, love others, and make disciples. Out of this basic mission statement, which comes straight out of the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 28:19-20) emerged four strategic anchors
- Grow wider - welcome outsiders
- Grow deeper - create a clear path to discipleship
- Create a profound weekend experience - ministry, message and music
- Create layers of empowered leaders.
I think what really set this congregation apart from what we saw in Baltimore was the sense of growth. Not just growth in numbers, but growth in people's hearts. People were there because they wanted to grow in their faith, and there was literally nothing that would stop that from happening. Despite the size and complexity of the whole operation, it was all so simple. This is what I experienced in the Baptist church I spoke about last week. People were there to support each other and to get re-energized to face another week in the world.
So, what did I learn from this? It comes back to an observation that Fr. Michael White made a second ago and it is worth repeating:
We were not turned toward God. We were not relying on His leadership, And we were not looking to go where he was a blessing. "we just kept pushing harder on the systems and procedures that had always been in place even though they were no longer working."
If we are going to transform our parish of St. Alexander's, we need to change our approach, not by pushing harder and doing more things, but by turning to God and asking him to guide us and follow His will.
Next week I will speak openly about how we can do that here. Spoiler alert: It has everything to do with holiness. So please pray about this, ask where God is calling this parish, and feel the excitement that comes from a rebirth of the Holy Spirit.
I conclude with another passage from Ezekiel 36.24-29, in the same chapter as the verses I quoted last week:
"I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God."