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Parish Involvement

In 2003 our local parish (St. James, McMinnville, OR) sent an amusing letter to all parishioners instructing them that it was their "baptismal imperative" to be more involved in various parish group activities. One parish staff specifically commented to me that more people should be involved with "sacramental donuts" -- a phrase I've honestly never, ever heard before. This came on the heels of a variety of other unusual communications and requests from the staff. The letter invited responses, so I provided one. Like any such letter I've ever written to the parish staff (or the diocese), it was completely ignored. In the letter I attempt to explain the Church's authentic instructions regarding the real responsibilities of the laity, how that differs from the understanding of the local (and many) staff, and what we can do about it.

September 19, 2003

To the Pastoral Council of St. James Parish:

Our family is in receipt of your letter of September 9, the related letter from the Administrative Council, and other correspondence from the parish over the past year or two. At the end of your letter you write 'The Pastoral Council values your comments, questions, insights and your willingness to step forward in ministry....' Please indulge me as I express ours. I have also discussed your letter with several other families who shared their opinions with me and helped to form this hopefully-helpful response. For those seeking an executive summary: It is all about the Mass.

The parish's present situation is an unhealthy one, for which no individual is solely to blame -- we are all responsible in different ways and to varying degrees -- but which is primarily the responsibility of the parish leadership. Unhealthy situations require change, often painful or humbling ones. For some time we have been receiving written and verbal communications from the parish leadership about how we, the parishioners, need to change; how we need to more fully manifest our faith either through financial donations or by participation in various activities.

While it may be true that the parish is in need of additional volunteers (though the staff implies otherwise in its behavior), and it may be true that the parish is in need of additional funds (as opposed to the mere desire or want for more discretionary funds), I would like to see the parish leadership (1) assume responsibility for the present situation, and (2) lead by example. I'd like to see them lead the parishioners by example in terms of how to live a life drawn ever deeper into faithful and obedient relationship with Christ, life that inspires and is inspired by true worship at Mass, and life that manifests itself in the daily practice of charity and virtue. When we see these traits and actions in others, it motivates the parishioners to emulate them.

FINANCES (the topic of the last three written communications from the parish leadership)

I have no idea what the staff at St. James is earning, and I really don't care beyond wishing that it is enough for them to meet their needs. I've worked for several churches and for the Archdiocese, so I suspect that whatever it is, it is probably not as much as one would like to earn; it rarely is. Everyone, no matter what position they have, would like to earn more money or have more at his disposal. That is life. The difficulty here is that your supporters -- the ones who provide your salaries and pay all of the parish's expenses -- are getting squeezed by the economy. Costs are rising while salaries, benefits and available jobs are decreasing relative to the average cost of goods. There is less discretionary cash to go around. Your parishioners are going to be unhappy if the parish leadership asks for money but is unwilling to make personal sacrifices or changes similar to those expected of their supporters -- which is exactly what it has been doing lately. You need to at least express some sympathy for them and recognize that everything you receive from them comes at their own loss -- anything they give to you means less for their homes, spouses, children, employees and others who depend on them.

There is really very little difference between a purchaser and a donor. Both people expect something in return for their donation of money, time or skill, whether they admit it or not. The purchaser obviously expects a product or service. The donor, at the very least, expects his sacrifice to go towards something that he feels is important and is making a powerful difference in people's lives -- perhaps even his own. If the return -- the product, the feeling, the action, etc. -- is not present, if people simply have less to give, if they feel that their gift is unappreciated, or if they sense that their gift is not going to be used in a way that they wish it to be used, then people reduce or eliminate that spending. For example, if I learn that in the last year this parish received only one catechumen -- only one person out the the tens of thousands in the surrounding area was moved enough to go from being a non-Christian to becoming Catholic -- then I will probably not see this particular community as one in which I would want to 'invest.' If, though, we saw leadership's actions and attitudes having an influence such that many people were being prompted to newly participate in the Church, we would be encouraged to give more generously to this particular parish.

The Church has an immense fiduciary responsibility. When someone gives money to the parish, that money represents time, work and goods intended to be used towards winning more people to the Catholic faith and encouraging those already Catholic to draw closer to Christ. Money should not be our primary motivation, but it is the natural consequence of engaging in right, prudent action; if people aren't giving 'enough' -- whatever that is -- then the leadership needs to look first at how its own actions and communications are motivating or demotivating donations. The customer -- the market -- is almost always right; that is, they provide compensation in keeping with their ability, and the perceived quality, management and necessity of that which they are supporting.


Your letter states that parishioners are obligated to engage in 'parish life' activities: "That baptismal imperative requires us in part to actively participate in parish worship and parish life; at mass [sic] as well as coffee and doughnuts, doing the parish laundry, contacting someone you haven't seen in church for awhile, offering to chaperone a youth event, teaching a class, hosting a faith sharing group, cooking a dish for a funeral luncheon, praying at adoration or for intentions on the prayer chain, breaking bread at a parish potluck, visiting the sick, landscaping the church grounds, sponsoring inquirers, welcoming the youth and the newcomers, working on committees and so much more...." The list ranges from items properly called lay ecclesial ministries to social activities. These are all good things, and anyone who has the time, abilities and compatibility to engage therein is to be commended. However, I recommend referring to the Vatican II Constitutions and Decrees, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Apostolicam Actuositatem, Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium among others, to prayerfully reflect upon the Church's actual, stated beliefs regarding what it means to 'actively participate' in the Mass and in the faith, for to say that the parishioners are obligated in these ways is not correct. You should also review Christifidelis Laici.

There are some on the council with considerable theological training who will attempt to weave a tapestry of reasoning to justify the letter's erroneous assertion (at least they have attempted such in their discussions with me). The great thing about advanced theology is that once one knows enough, he can justify just about anything both to himself and to others with less training. The problem is that the Church, itself, states in the aforementioned documents that it is the necessary baptismal response of the laity to:

  1. Willingly hear the Word of God and to accept God's will as it is communicated to us through the Church and Scripture.
  2. To put God's will into action through --
    1. Active participation in the Sacraments
    2. Devotion to prayer, service to others and exercise of the virtues

Laity and clergy exercise these latter elements in different ways: 'Active participation in the Sacraments' means something different for those in Holy Orders than it does for those who are not (and for the laity, our obligations are further delineated by our status as married, single, etc.). In a similar way, 'devotion to prayer, service to others and exercise of the virtues' are carried out differently by laity. They are fundamentally carried out in what the Church calls the 'Lay Apostolate,' which is the exercise of the Christian faith within the family and the secular realms of work, politics, economy and culture. In other words, apart from the obvious participation in the Mass, it is the St. James parishioners' primary responsibility as Christians to be so transformed by Christ that they change the culture of McMinnville. To quote an excellent book on the matter, 'laity have more important things to do than [ecclesial] ministry.' Christ calls us to conversion, not to church committees.

I'm sorry if it seems I'm making a mountain out of a molehill. I would have had no problem if the letter had just said something like 'these are some areas where we are going to be in need of some help, and we're going to try to do a better job of organizing this stuff. If you have time and can assist, please do.' As the parish staff seems to wish to defend the statement that parishioners are obligated to participate in lay ecclesial ministry and parish socials, it is only fair that someone who has considerable expertise in lay ministry and lay apostolate point out that such an assertion is wrong and generally doesn't lead to Good Things in the long run.

What is really bothering me, beyond misstating that such activities are required, is that they are being so poorly managed. We joined this parish a few years ago; for all we know we'll live out our days here (yes, you are stuck with us). Upon joining and several times since we signed up for almost every parish ministry, saying that were happy to help wherever help was needed. However, despite repeatedly offering to volunteer in writing, in person and by phone, we never received a single follow-up call to actually participate. It is the opinion of many of the parishioners with which I've spoken that, though there is significant 'talk' about participation in this or that ministry group, the groups are actually rather disorganized and systematically unwelcoming. I'm not saying that the people on the committees are mean, but that there is some overriding theme of resistance. There seems no common, shared direction or coordination. Some have gone so far as to articulate a strange kind of passive-aggressive attitude among the current and past leadership that simultaneously verbally invites but actually discourages participation, and then is critical of people for not participating or 'doing their part'; I and many I know have experienced this personally. For these reasons and others I and some with whom I am familiar have simply stopped signing up to help and are both amused and bewildered by the continued requests for assistance. I know of some people who left the parish as a consequence.

Some examples: For a long time we visited for coffee and doughnuts. We've also attended and assisted the 'family nights' from time to time. We bring our children not only to Mass, but also to the Wednesday night children's RE program. While they attend there I have attended the adult education classes to discover that a number of them have been led by people who are sincere and well-meaning, but who (apparently) neither know nor teach what the Church teaches -- something that one would think would be mandatory for such an important role -- or who lack necessary teaching and public speaking skills (I say this as one who has been a minister in many churches, a professional speaker, and who holds a masters degree in theology). Everyone does what they believe is right, but you just can't have as a religion teacher someone who, no matter how intelligent or personable he may be, believes and teaches something other than the Church's teachings. Such a person is not suited to that ministry, and yet, such people are repeatedly teaching on behalf of the parish, participating on your committees, etc.

I've invited people to both the RCIA and adult education evenings. They were disappointed and refused to participate further; one audibly wondered if he was even in a Catholic church. Another person I invited will come to the individual classes, but not to the group time due to its, well, irregularities. I've heard teachers state from the lectern that Hinduism and similar religions are equivalent to Catholicism, and even teach non-Christian prayers to the people. I've heard adult RE teachers teach error about things as basic as the Fall of Man, its consequences and its meaning. I've heard them support groups like 'Call to Action' that openly endorse changes to the Church's moral teachings on matters like contraception, abortion and human sexuality. I don't know if it continues to be the case, but I've spoken with former choir participants who ended their recent participation because of openly practicing homosexual and even non-Catholic people in the choir.

This creates an impossible situation for people like myself. We don't feel right 'elbowing' into the committees -- no one can claim a 'right' to ministry or to such participation. The disfunction already present is a disincentive to join. We don't get invited to participate, no matter how many times we sign up. We see that people who openly teach and practice error are participating and (apparently) encouraged. When we try to bring these things up to the pastor in efforts to help we are ignored, misrepresented, or told we have a bad attitude and are not suitable for ministry. When we ask the pastor how we can help he doesn't have an answer, or actively or passively opposes our efforts. At the same time, we have letters like yours that tell us we are not living up to our faith if we aren't taking part in these ways.

We gradually get demotivated right out the parish, if not Catholicism altogether. Meanwhile, the actual causes of the damage are allowed to just continue doing what they are doing. Not everyone is proper material for lay ecclesial ministry. Proper screening, formation, coordination and leadership are necessary. Without these, asking for more volunteerism (or stating that such participation is an obligation) is a waste of time. You might consider scuttling and then rebuilding the whole system patterned after some excellent (and effective) business committee models. There is no reason that the committee structure, once rebuilt, could not be effectively administered by a volunteer or administrative staff with very little time or effort. But the question really comes down to whether or not the committees really matter, whether or not they are intended to do something.

While some leave the parish for reasons like the above, some are leaving the faith for issues discussed below.


We are all called to be holy, to allow our relationship with Christ to so permeate our lives that it affects and informs all that we do and are. I've listened to hundreds of people over the past few years talk about what does and what does not motivate them to draw closer to Christ and the Church. They always mention one or more of five things; music, homily, prayerfulness/reverence, distractions/surprises and hospitality. To the mature, faithful adults, 'extra-curricular' activities are generally not as important as the Mass. Everything else, as good as it may be, is gravy.

Some St. James parish leaders I've talked to say that people should (or are obligated to) get more involved in the extra groups and activities in the parish, and then they will feel more like a family and be more likely to attend Mass. Implied in this is the mistaken assertion that 'it' is the parishioners' fault. They aren't involved enough. They don't care enough. They don't give enough. But the parishioners I have consulted on this matter have stated, in effect, that they have little or no interest in the additional activities like those that you have listed because they are not motivated or engaged by the Mass. The Mass itself -- the cornerstone of the Catholic faith -- is a disappointment to them, so why should they make an effort to try anything more? If someone finds the Mass a bore or filled with distractions, if he doesn't know from one week to the next whether there is going to be Mass or a communion service (and he's told it doesn't really matter which he attends), he's not going to invite others to come, nor will he express any enthusiasm in his daily life that would otherwise encourage others to explore Catholicism. Telling such a person that he needs to better express his faith by joining a committee or doing the parish laundry is just silly.

'Active participation' in the Mass -- I know that this is not the theme of your letter, but we must tread here -- has nothing to do with being a server, reader, musician, usher, etc. It has nothing to do with participation in these other activities you have listed. It has everything to do with being wholly-present to the service in such a way that the person is able to worship and further open his life to Jesus Christ. As such, we need to put away those things from our lives that distract us from worship, we need to actually show up regularly for Mass, and while present we need to do what we can to focus on Jesus. All of us bring baggage with us that makes worship very difficult. The parish leadership needs to focus upon leading and celebrating the Mass in a manner that invites and encourages such participation by the entire person, that suppresses distractions and obstacles to worship, that helps the person open his spirit to Christ's transforming power, and that motivates the parishioner to live out his faith in the world.

My friends, we are failing at the basics. And as long as we do so, nothing else is going to matter. Take a moment to ask yourself these questions: When was the last time you felt so moved to prayer and worship in the Mass that you were a little disappointed when it was over? ... you wished it could have gone on a little longer? ... you wished that the music worship assistants had played that song another time because it really helped you to pray? ... the priest's homily was so relevant and challenging that it came back to mind and you were able to apply it in your family or work in the following week? ... you arrived late to Mass and people in the pews smiled and made room for you? ... you missed Mass and someone called on you to make sure you were okay? ... your experience of the Mass was so motivating and fulfilling that you felt compelled to invite a non-Catholic to come? The list could go on.

Telling the families of the parish that they must get more involved in parish activities might end up helping, but it won't solve the problems that are foremost in people's minds and hearts. Encouraging or placing superb people in key positions, giving well-prepared, challenging, Christocentric homilies, working humbly and sacrificially to prepare to celebrate the Mass so that people can be converted by Christ's power -- these activities will. I think we will agree that we have room for improvement. We cannot fix everything. We cannot do everything. But we can focus on the basics and support each other in the process.

By 'welcome' at the parish, what is meant is a sense that, when I walk in the door, I feel am desired there. I might not know the other people by name, but look, someone welcomed me at the door, and over there someone is making room for me to sit. Many times we have come to Mass, even while my wife was pregnant, and there was a lot of room in the center of a pew but no one would budge to allow us to sit down. This kind of simple, general hospitality is sadly missing. When we signed up with the parish, we did not receive any welcome call or letter; we got donation envelopes. I have the painful feeling that, were I and my family to stop attending St. James, let alone stop participating in the faith altogether, we wouldn't get any inquiry from the parish leadership; though I know that some families in the parish know and care for us, I have the distinct impression that the parish leadership would not care if we never showed up again. Sure, they'll say otherwise, but we wouldn't get a call of visit; no invitation to return; no questioning of what might have caused the departure, how we might need help, or what could be done different at the parish to encourage us to remain. This is a horrible, horrible tragedy about which something must be done, both in terms of improving the celebration of the Mass so that people are encouraged to come in the first place, and finding ways to reach out to people who have fallen away. In fairness I should mention that this problem is not unique to St. James, nor is it solely the responsibility of the leadership.

I grant that powerful societal forces are at work, pushing people away from the Mass. I grant that we parishioners can be a frustration. But I think that the leadership must recognize its responsibility in terms of celebrating the Mass in such a way that will encourage people to come and participate, well, 'heartfully' (to coin a word).

As members of the pastoral council, I urge you to adopt a new focus exclusively upon how to help the parishioners open their lives more fully to Christ's transforming love, first in the Mass, carrying it out in their daily lives, and only then in other parish-related activities. This should be the first question and underlying principle of parish leadership: What can we do and who should we be so that we draw people ever closer the Jesus? If you wish to invite people to participate in parish ministries, then invite them, but do not erroneously tell them that they are obligated to do so. Christ promises us that if we do this -- if we focus on him -- he will take care of the rest in keeping with our true needs. Fully participating in the Mass and taking the grace of Christ home to my family, into my work, to my employees, coworkers, customers, vendors, etc., will make all the difference in the world. If the parish leadership chooses to focus on ways to improve the Mass and improve the leadership/organization, parishioner participation (and giving) will take care of itself.

If any of you would like to discuss this further, I would be happy to welcome you to our home.....