Many lay ministers, clergy, itinerant ministers and parish employees seem to be struggling and groping to find or form a clear statement and direction for their ministry. Perhaps we’ve asked the wrong questions, such as…what is the mission? What is the parish’s priority? In scripture (specifically 2 Corinthians 5:11-21) it is to abundantly clear what the answer to those questions really is. In spite of the clarity with which Scripture preaches its message to us about the priority for our message, we have an almost endless variety of suggestions about methods and means and strategies and styles and programs in ministry. Put a band on the altar or a new sound system in the worship space and all of a sudden we are expected to be the evangelization capital of the Catholic universe. Sometimes we can get so caught up in “ministry efforts” that we miss the main thing. This primary mission or central vision is fairly simple. We are called to reconcile.
We are called to reconcile all the disenfranchised and alienated. This is the violent killer and the disgruntled believer. It is the deceitful businesswoman and the degrading wife beater. We must reconcile with the discouraged homosexual man or woman and the confused teenage mother. We must ourselves constantly seek reconciliation for our own undoings. God does not hate you, he hates not being able to be with you at his table! By you I mean me and by me I mean all of us sinners that love to delve deeply into our humanity and turn away from our creator. Uh oh, now it is sounding hard.
In fact, it’s a very simple passage. It’s not complex. It’s not particularly difficult to interpret, to discern, or to apply. It is definitive in every sense. It lays down for us what the objective and goal and priority of our life and ministry has to be. It delineates for us our responsibility in the world before us, as we represent the Lord Jesus Christ in our ministries and every day lives.
Starting in verse 18…”Now all these things are from God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Five times in those brief verses some form of the word “reconciliation” is used. The text and the term itself forms the heart and soul of our responsibility, particularly those of us who are lay ecclesial ministers. God has called us to preach the message of reconciliation. It is our duty then to tell people they can be reconciled to God. We, in fact, need to be reconciled to God. In the context of parish life, this is an intentional vision of both evangelization and outreach. Our mission is to bring the message of reconciliation to sinners (that’s everybody by the way). We are to preach to everyone the gospel, the transformative good news. That is the gospel. That is the good news. It is possible for sinners to be reconciled to God. And it is our calling to preach that reconciliation.
Parish life and parish ministries then become a haven of healing and community. “Programs” are no longer things we do, but rather, encounters with the unity of the worshipping body designed to constantly invite us back into the fold of healing grace. Its not complicated…its just hard work.
Parish life is a monstrous endeavor. I am a layman and take my role in parish life seriously. I fail many times to meet basic expectations, but I sure do try. A basic expectation is that parishioners recognize and accept their rights and responsibilities as baptized Catholics to full participation in the life of the Church. The pastoral leadership should encourage full collaboration among the People of God by assisting them to take an active, responsible role in the life of the parish. Parishes should have a sufficient number of members in their active years who participate productively in the parish ministry. The number of parish staff and parishioner volunteers, as well as their training and sense of mission, should be adequate to carry out all of the work of the parish.
That being said, in my diocesan youth ministry work, here is the advice that I give to pastor’s…
1. Keep the vision clear. Proverbs 29:18 says—without a vision the people perish. Literally. The Parish will perish. Great leaders attend to every single detail with regard to a vision talk. When a vision lands in the hearts of people in the church, people start soaring in their spirits because there’s a vision in the church worth investing in, praying for, giving toward and becoming stewards of. What is the vision of your parish?
2. Get people engaged. Nehemiah 4:6 says—and all the people worked with all their hearts. Imagine that for a moment, every single person you’re leading is working with all his or her heart. What we have to understand here is the difference between someone who passively agrees to an exciting vision and someone who buys in and has an owning stake in that vision. Ownership comes from involvement and respectful dialogue. Skyscrapers are never as efficient as ranch houses in engaging the work force. There is room for many on the porch of the house. Invite and listen and you will find willing hearts.
3. Make your gatherings memorable. Another way of saying it, do great liturgy, create great worship experiences, service projects and fellowship gatherings. Work so hard to make your gatherings memorable that your people wouldn’t think of missing them. Acts 2:43 says—everyone kept feeling a sense of awe. Awe as in holy transcendent moments where the awareness of the presence of God is palpable. Engaged people invest themselves in gatherings. Invested people invite. Invitation is Evangelization.
4. Pace yourself for the long haul. The key verse here is 1 Corinthians 9:25—Run in such a way as to win the prize. Pastor’s want to finish the race with a community that loves to be together, families that want to belong, and friends that bring joy to the work that is pastoral leadership.
My daughters have chores. Last night my oldest, Mederise, was responsible for setting and clearing the table. She asked if she could make it look fancy. This usually entails additional dishes and a larger mess for mom or dad to clean up. My response was, “not tonight.” To which she said, “why not tonight?” To which I gave in.
Maddi grabbed a table cloth and set our “nice” plates. These are the ones with less chips. She found matching cloth napkins, silverware and an array of oversized wine glasses. Maddi made place setting name cards and poured orange juice in the glasses. We were all heralded to the dinner table by my ten year old daughter’s best british accent whereupon we sat in our assigned seats. Awesome.
It was my night to cook. Don’t kid yourself. Its not like I hollered, “slaughter the fatted calf, for tonight is an evening of dance and celebration ” My cooking is usually a combination of a meal I may have learned to prepare in college and a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. The kids may get Raman noodles with a side of dry toast and maybe popcorn for dessert. I have little skill in the cooking department and am never quiet when it comes to praising my wife’s tremendous gift for preparing a meal.
Tonight’s dinner was a Costco rotisserie chicken and reheated corn with microwaved yellow potatoes that my wife specifically set out for me to prepare. This was fancy for dad’s standards to say the least.
And then something wonderful happened.
We ate. We laughed. The girls did not spill a thing. Their plates were emptied and their tummies were filled. Each one of them rose from the table at the meal’s conclusion and did their chores without any defiance. There was giggling. Smiles. The dinner brought peace into our home and welcomed a community atmosphere of serving and cooperation. What does Costco put in those chicken’s anyway?
This should come as no surprise to any of us. Gathering at a table, especially a warm and inviting one, is part of what we were built to do. The table is an altar in our home as it is in every home. It is a symbol of welcome and sacrifice. It’s importance can be easily dismissed and forgotten in the bustle of life. Sometimes it takes a child to remind us of its glaring value.
Everyday has reason to celebrate. We celebrate at tables because they are the ultimate places of gathering in our homes and our worshipping communities. The table is where we see eye to eye and recount our experiences. It s where Christ gave himself fully to us and we must depart a physically changed people. The table is sacred.
Make the table a place of praise in your home. It is not about the quality of the meal or the day of the week. Just gather. Make a celebration of the ordinary and share in the extraordinary nature of time spent together at the banquet. “Fancy” dining on a Monday night can be a gateway to family joy!
Job offers are funny things. Certainly I am one of those guys that loves the “next big thing.” I like being told that I am good at what I do and I like being invited to do it in a bigger and broader field. The grass is always greener type of person, you might say.
I had a streak of moving forward in my career every two years or so. I worked in a parish, then a larger one, then a multiple-parish ministry and finally a diocesan office. It felt like the proper flow of climbing the proverbial ladder and each departure though laden with challenge, was the right thing to do. So when do we know when it is the right thing to do?
Recently and opportunity to move my family to a larger city and potentially acquire a fairly prestigious position in the field of youth ministry came my way. My decision to stay put did not come easy and here is why.
We love to expand. We like to be praised and invited into greatness. Who wouldn’t? When someone comes calling and tells you that you are the perfect person to do something and that the very thing was designed for your gifts, it is appealing. This is natural. We are built for praise and very few people do not enjoy it at least a little bit. Denying opportunities like this for some is shear blasphemy. You gotta meet the new challenge! You gotta grow! You gotta go! Do you?
Being sought after for a job and being invited into a new working reality can usually seem like a blessing. Much prayer is placed over the process (or at least it should be). Our hearts generally get excited about “newness” and it becomes very easy to see all the down side to our current working situations. We begin to feel like the “new” job simply wouldn’t have these “same” problems and we justify the many changes or compromises that will occur with our pending transition. It becomes easy to dismiss all of the decisions that brought you where you were in the first place.
Money is nice. Don’t kid yourself. We men like to be able to be hearty providers for our families. Bigger cities are pretty nice too given new opportunities and broader economies. So why stay?
It comes down to this…you have to ask your self, “Is there still work to be done here and am I the one to do it?” Something brought you to where you are today. Perhaps you are a pray-er and the Lord truly called you to your current work. When do we justify that the Lord has changed his mind? Perhaps passion for the position landed you where you are, but the position just didn’t turn out like you wanted. When is the right time to throw in the towel?
I sat with 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 for days when making my decision. That passage is a harsh truth. I mean every word of that last sentence. After language about being slaves to other humans, the passage concludes with, “Brothers, everyone should continue before God in the state in which he was called.” Ugh. Really? Now what?
The grass may be greener on the other hill, but where I am, the harvest is ready and the workers are few. Opportunity may be knocking, but the job I am currently doing has a thousand open doors. My family is happy. The money is enough. The surrounding area is breathtaking. The people are holy and longing. The work is hard. My expectations are sometimes dashed. The hours are demanding. The rewards are eternal. My heart is and always will be where I currently live…Montana.
I am not convinced that I have exhausted the Lord’s will for me to be where I am. As if that is even possible. Until that day, however, I will continue in the state in which I was called and admire the view of “greener” grass from afar. For now I will live in the reality that is the Rocky Mountains.
We hiked a lot when we were kids. My dad loved to get out and still does. When I was younger we lived in the Pacific Northwest under the incredible shadow of Mt. Rainer. Nothing like an active volcano to keep you on your toes in early adolescence.
On one occasion, my mom’s cousins came to visit in the early spring. My dad got a hair to go hiking and so the adventure was on. My sister and brother, my dad, my mom’s cousin and his kids (not sure what relation we had) all piled into cars and headed towards Mt. Rainer National Park. Oh, and there was one more participant, a dog.
It seems that my mom’s cousin, Paul, had picked up a dog that they found on their way up to visit from California. He found the dog living near a garbage dumpster by the hotel they stayed at and the family took to it. I was not and still am not much of a pet lover, so the very idea of this still makes me chuckle. There is nothing like adding a dog to an already full station wagon road trip. Chevy Chase would approve.
We arrived near Mt. Rainer a little bit late in the afternoon and set out on a trail covering one of her foothills. The day was beautiful. The Pacific Northwest is like a painted rain forrest in the spring. It was damp and musty. The trail was like a quiet stream from the spring run off and it wasn’t long before we were hiking in snow. Being kids, we loved this.
We hike and hiked. The dog held his own. A few spots on the trail were covered by fallen trees from the winter past. Climbing over the branches and under the tree fall was tough on my little boy frame. Eventually we arrived into a clearing where we could see a close up of Mt. Rainer as the sun began to steadily set. Gorgeous. It was just breathtaking. Did I mention the sun was setting?
We did not time our hike very well. The older kids, my sister and cousins ran ahead and slid down on their butts on the snow. This makes for a much faster descent. Myself, my brother, dad and Paul all walked back down the trail. It could not have been more than twenty minutes and it simply got dark.
By dark I mean pitch black. I remember not being able to see my hand in front of my face. Fear. Let me rephrase that, paralyzing fear was more like it.
I was scared. I don’t remember crying, but I’m sure I did. My dad could tell I was getting upset and proceeded to console me. Paul took his belt off and place it around the dogs neck. “Don’t worry,” he said, “this old dog will get us down the hill.” Great, I am placing my hope in a dumpster dog on its last legs to get me down a trail on a mountain that it has never seen in the midst of exhaustion and darkness. Ugh. But that is just what he did.
We walked in darkness down the trail, over the awful branches through the wetness and cold. We steadily followed the steps of the the dog so as to not fall off the side of the trail. Holding hands with each other while Paul gripped the self made leash around the neck of our guide, we slowly descended.
The spiritual lessons here are quite obvious. First, be prepared for the journey…as best you can. Second, celebrate God’s beauty no matter the circumstances Third, trust in the resources that God gives you no matter how unexpected and silly they may seem.
His plan is sound and his mission is clear. We are stumbling adventurers on a journey that has already been navigated by an expedition master. The way has been mapped and trail is marked. We simply need to rely on the guide in the darkness…even when he appears to be furry and chew on bones. Always remember, sometimes stray dogs know the way.