Following the success of his March column, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Parishes, Peter Misiaszek, the diocese’s director of Stewardship Development, asked others to write on the subject. This is the first in a series.
How comfortable is your parish with community outreach? Are you able to easily identify ways that your parish is helping people in the community? Has your parish thought about starting an outreach ministry but doesn’t know how to get started? Or is your parish so focused on survival and keeping the lights on that the thought of outreach seems like an absurd idea?
Regardless of where you may find your parish on this spectrum, community outreach can be an integral and spirit-filled part of faith communities. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Community is, first of all, a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive, not for ourselves but for each other.” Effective community outreach is one the signs of the vibrancy and spiritual depth of a parish. It can animate a parish in such a way that the abiding presence of Christ is deeply felt and parishioners’ feeling of belonging deepen and grow.
The starting point for an effective community outreach ministry is rootedness in the community rather than in the parish. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Imagine parishioners decide to run an after-school program to address bullying at a local school. But they quickly get frustrated because only one or two children participate. If the parish had been connected to the community differently, they may have learned that the critical issue facing the community was food security. We serve our community best when we understand our community by being embedded in it.
The Harwood Institute has developed a five-step process for helping organizations turn outward to the community. I have outlined below how this process applies to parishes as they seek to live out their faith beyond the walls of the church.
First, parishes begin by understanding the community in which they are situated. This requires that parishes seek to understand the community on its own terms. Through community conversations with individuals, groups and organizations, parishes will be able to identify the challenges facing the community and understand people’s aspirations and dreams. These conversations require parishes to keep an open mind, be non-judgemental, and listen deeply. This is not a problem-solving stage.
Second, parishes need to be intentional in turning outward to the community. Old habits are hard to break, so parishes need to continually reflect on how well they are listening and responding from an outward orientation rather than from what makes them comfortable. Parishes need to be willing to work with people and organizations with whom they may have never considered working with previously.
Third, parishes and their community partners together need to develop the conditions that are necessary to foster change, rather than waiting for them to develop. This means starting from the community’s current stage of development rather than from where we wish it was. This is the reality-check stage. Ministry outreach will be most successful if strategies are developed based on the resources that are currently available.
Fourth, we can’t do everything. Parishes need to decide where they can make a difference alongside their community partners and develop strategies that align with that sphere of influence.
And finally, parishes and parishioners need to commit. A parish outreach ministry will only be effective if there is a commitment to engage in the ministry together.
Outreach ministry is transformational for both the community and the parish. The community will feel Christ’s love as a healing presence as its needs are addressed and its aspirations are honoured. And parishioners will deepen their relationship with Christ and affirm their vocational calling to act with charity and justice in the world.
Are you ready to turn outward?
Paige Souter is the diocese’s Manager of Annual Giving.