I am a parish employee. Campus ministry works in some significantly different ways than geographical parishes, but for practical purposes (such as when people ask what I do), I work in a parish. I’m betting pretty strongly that most of you reading this either currently belong to a parish, go to Mass, or used to go to Mass, so you’re pretty familiar with the concept. The entire world is divided into geographical regions—parishes—and each region is led by a pastor. There might not be a church building if the parish is too new (such as, until recently, St. Vincent de Paul in Austin), and there might not even be a dedicated pastor if you’re in mission territory (such as Queen of Angels Chapel in Emmaus Catholic Parish in Lakeway), but if you are alive, human, and on the Earth, there is a Catholic priest responsible for you.
This is the situation Fr. Michael White arrived in when he became pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, in north Baltimore. He had a territory and a church that was in a sad state: languishing music, incredibly entitled parishioners who were literally dying out of the parish, and no plans for how to improve it. He tried, though, and they’re still trying. Fr. White and Tom Corcoran, pastoral associate, have chronicled their efforts and their remaining struggles in Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter.
Fr. White and Corcoran begin by setting the scene. They knew the situation at Nativity was a problem, but they had to figure out the problem first. They narrow it down to the parishioners’ having become “demanding consumers.” The people knew what they wanted and how they wanted it; they felt entitled and were angry when they didn’t get what they thought they deserved. Parishioners came late to Mass, never sang, didn’t give financially, joined the Communion procession with keys in hand, and jumped into the parking lot jam well before Mass ended. The staff was consumed by gossip and bare-bones maintenance of the (terrible) status quo. Annual events were solely about being served even though they were well-attended. Visitors and newcomers found crowded, dirty spaces with no one to help them. A nearby evangelical church boasted about how many members were former Catholics. I’m from Maryland, so I know it to be a densely Catholic state. Not having many Catholics was not the problem. I read about many things that I have seen in many parishes I’ve belonged to. It’s pathetic.
However, naming the problem is only the first step of problem-solving. Next, you need to generate and consider solutions. For Fr. White and Corcoran, the ideal place to scavenge for solutions was the evangelical megachurch movement. Imagine being a Catholic pastor convicted by Rick Warren! The underlying theme of Nativity’s mission is to be purpose-driven. Do things that have a purpose, make sure they have the purpose you want, and stop doing things if you can’t figure out their purpose. The Church has a mission statement. Jesus gave it to us: “Go, therefore, and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have taught you” (Matthew 28:19–20). Now, Nativity is about making disciples of Jesus Christ. The authors admit to the war that began when they started to shift toward this purpose. The remarkable change they’ve accomplished today did not come without losing staff, parishioners, and major donors, but things are so much better than they once were.
Considering problem-solving again, once you’ve identified strategies, you need to try some of them to figure out what works while maintaining a willingness to change again and again. The meat of the book lies here. Fr. White lays out Nativity‘s strategies with tips about how to apply them to your parish. The best strategy (besides aggressively promoting purpose-driven efforts) is to do everything for “Tim.” “Timonium Tim” is the imaginary person who isn’t a member at Nativity—but he could be. The people who are already in your church must bring others in, just like Jesus’ mission statement says. Your goal is to define the everyman non-parishioner and to do everything you can to turn him into a parishioner; find non-disciples and make them into disciples who make disciples. Fr. White offers various ways to do that, from crafting a “weekend message” given in the homily and programs for children and youth to raising up volunteers to increasing financial giving. Trying something is better than doing nothing and wondering why nothing’s happening.
Rebuilt is a long book, but it tells a compelling story. There are many ideas, all justified by explanations of the theory and the practice, the why and the what. I found a few things wanting, though. There is not much talk of the Eucharist and the sacraments beyond a few statements insisting that these are part of life at Nativity. Those are unique hallmarks of Catholicism, and I feel as though any Catholic parish has to hold tightly to those if it wants to avoid actually becoming an evangelical (Protestant) church. On the other hand, the book ends with a list of ways Nativity is currently not succeeding. That’s a great sign of humility, but some of the struggles are significant: communication with members, use of technology and social media, and efforts with young adults. This is not a cure-all handbook to solving problems in your parish, but it’s a good place to start.
Cardinal Dolan of New York, Fr. Neil Wack (brother of Fr. Bill Wack, pastor of St. Ignatius Martyr in Austin), and our very own Bishop Joe Vásquez offer endorsements of Rebuilt and its message. I add my own to theirs. If you’ve been wondering what you can do to help your parish, you will find suggestions. If you’re a pastor or parish employee, you can do something. If you’re just a parishioner, you can do something. If you’re not a parishioner, you can do something, because the parish that could be yours needs to know what it can do to make you a parishioner. If you’re not even a Catholic, you can do something, because your gifts and talents can enrich the Church by your mere presence (and we hope you’ll become a Catholic someday). Read Rebuilt, and get moving. Jesus was serious. Make disciples, starting with yourself and ending with the whole world.
Many thanks to Ave Maria Press for providing a free copy of Rebuilt for me to review. I received no other compensation in exchange for my review.
Up next: Flight of the Earls, by Michael K. Reynolds, a historical fiction novel of Irish immigrants in the 1840’s