Teaching Our Faith — Stronger parish communities

Dr. Brian B. Reynolds

In this set of teaching editorials, Church leaders in the areas of worship, formation, service and administration will reflect on what we have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and how that might inform ministry going forward.

At the Easter morning Mass, Father Wayne Jenkins began his homily by stating, “He is risen alleluia,” and the entire church, with pent-up energy, responded Alleluia! No one had a script, and no one directed the response; it emerged instinctively from the joyful hearts of a community glad to be together. No doubt, there were similar experiences across the archdiocese. Father  Wayne went on to congratulate everyone on having made it through 400 days of Lent.

The 13 months or so since COVID-19 took hold in Kentucky was similar to Lenten exercises where we all had to give up some of our favorite things. New forms and formats of prayer replaced celebrations of the sacraments, weddings and funerals. Fasting was required from in-person social gatherings, visits to restaurants and sporting events. Almsgiving was needed to assist family members, neighbors and the community economically impacted by the pandemic.

While we are not ready to declare an end to the pandemic, it is time to begin to name what we have learned during this challenging time. In the previous editorials this month, Archbishop Kurtz and my colleagues from archdiocesan agencies provided insights from various areas of parish ministry. Like pastoral work, church administration has also been through a time of “reconsideration.”

Expanded use of technology has perhaps been the most significant shift in parish operations. Online streaming of weekend and sometimes weekday Masses, virtual access to funerals, parish council meetings by Zoom, online prayer groups and so many more activities made wide use of the internet. To do this effectively, we had to learn the necessity of good technology. Up-to-date equipment, from cameras to video screens, is essential. Likewise, connections to the internet, both to send a signal out and receive signals in, must be up to the task of handling multiple users at once.

Of course, technology is useless if we do not know how to use it. Parish staff and volunteers alike have had to gain new skills. Staff job descriptions, required competencies and in-service training, now include technology. Many pastors tapped the skills of parishioners to teach them and their staff how to use new equipment, software or methods. I recall the first Sunday my parish put QR code stickers in each pew so worshipers could use their cell phone to get the readings and prayers for the Mass. Helpful, often younger members helped less able ones to use their cell phones in this manner.

Equipment also has to be maintained. Service contracts with a technology company or even having a paid technology employee are now commonplace.

These new ways of working require funding. Parishioners across the archdiocese have certainly continued their generous support of parishes. The pandemic, however, reminded us with increasing urgency about how good stewardship education and regular accountability are key elements of parish financial administration. Prior to the pandemic, a few parishes had promoted online giving as a way to assist parishioners in keeping their pledges up to date. As the past year progressed, more and more parishes added this alternative form of giving. Both parishes and parishioners are benefiting from this new approach.

Regular communication with parishioners has always been important. Yet when gathering was limited or even impossible, keeping in touch became even more essential. Some pastors began weekly online “fireside chats.” Many parishes increased use of email. Quite a few divided up the names of parishioners with staff and volunteers taking turns to call every member to check on them. Each of these actions promoted parish identity and reminded each member that he or she still belongs.

I imagine many parishes and individuals are feeling somewhat caught “in-between.” We desire to return to the past, yet we are aware we have learned new things and have been changed over these many months.

Paul Shoemaker, noted author from the Wharton School of Business, reminds us that we are likely to make one of two fundamental errors when moving through times of great unpredictability. First, we may underpredict the amount of long-term change on the horizon. Perhaps we think: “As soon as a vaccine is widely available, we will be able to return to life and ministry as we knew it in 2019.”

Alternatively, we may overpredict the amount of long-term change on the horizon and may be thinking: “Nothing familiar will remain. We are going to have to reinvent everything!”

Underpredicting can lead us to make errors in judgement, leading to stagnation and the inability to make necessary adaptations. Overpredicting often leads to paralysis or self-fulfilling predictions of decline.

As we navigate the coming months, I suggest it is best to avoid overpredicting or underpredicting the future. Instead, be open to how the use of technology, new equipment, improved skills, new funding methods and enhanced communication may actually lead to stronger parish communities. Alleluia!

Dr. Brian B. Reynolds is the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Louisville. 

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