What methods, strategies, programs, attitudes, will help us draw people back to the practice of the faith, the sacramental life of the Church, or, for faithful church-goers, into an even deeper, personal relationship with Jesus Christ? "Best practices" isn't just for the business world.
There is something about Advent and Christmas that speaks to the heart. People who have not been with us at Mass for months, are drawn back to their parish church, to the familiar creche, and Advent and Christmas hymns that play in our minds. Crowded church parking lots and pews might be aggravating to some of "the regulars" whose faith, prayers, and generosity keep the parish going week after week when the pews and the parking lot aren't crowded, but woe to us, faithful Catholics, readers of The Pilot, if we do not think long and hard about how we can make the "sometime" church-goers want to worship with us each week.
Enter: Best Practices.
Wikipedia, source of all knowledge and wisdom, describes "best practice" as "a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means,... Best practice is considered by some as a business buzzword, used to describe the process of developing and following a standard way of doing things ... ."
The Church is not a business, but in parish work clergy and parish teams are always looking for and sharing ideas that work. What methods, strategies, programs, attitudes, will help us draw people back to the practice of the faith, the sacramental life of the Church, or, for faithful church-goers, into an even deeper, personal relationship with Jesus Christ? "Best practices" isn't just for the business world.
Best doesn't always mean big. Little things can make a big impact. "Good to see you" is much easier on the ears than "Haven't seen you here in a while." Hopefully no one actually would say this, but the sentiment can be conveyed by expression and body language. Some parishes have greeters or ushers; whatever name the parish calls this group, their work is so important. A trained, welcoming person, ready to answer questions and ... smiling (!) should be at each door of the church. The first best practice for a parish might be a meeting with the greeters or ushers to review procedures and details for Christmas Eve, Christmas -- and weekly. Friendliness and assistance should be the hallmark every week. If some of the regular greeters will be away at Christmas, has someone been recruited and trained in the fine art of welcoming? Advent is the time to remind every parishioner that each person is responsible for welcoming people -- in the church, in the parking lot, and at the social after Mass.
Other Best Practices:
-- Through the bulletin, web page, and parish social media welcome visitors and welcome back out of town family members and students home from college with exams behind them. Acknowledge how enriched and energized the worshipping community is by their presence. Encourage visitors to keep up with parish news when they return to school or out of town home by prominently listing your web address and social media sites in the bulletin.
-- Speaking of your web page, it should be up to date, inviting and informative. Is it easy to navigate? Do you link to other, reliable, sites that have engaging, concise, resources that foster prayer and reflection?
-- Does the parish give a Christmas gift to parish households? What about a gift that comes with homework? The Dynamic Catholic Institute has a book program where parishes can order one of their titles in bulk for as little as $2 a copy (free shipping!) Their research is startling: "32 percent of the people at Christmas Mass only come to Church once a year. It's our best opportunity to re-engage them." Parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston have adopted a Parish Reads book program with encouraging results. Follow up parish discussion groups have been energizing and lively.
-- Advent is such a busy time, people are doing many things. How about giving people the opportunity to just be? An Advent Vespers service advertised through the bulletin, social media, and in the local paper, offers a time of holy respite. This ancient prayer of the Church is built on the Psalms -- the same prayers that Mary taught Jesus. Praying Vespers unites us to the generations who have gone before us.
-- For parishes not yet in a collaborative, December is not the month to form committees and schedule meetings, but it is a good time to include Disciples in Mission in the Prayers of the Faithful, uniting people in prayer and keeping the vision of effective evangelization in our minds. Evangelization is always a best practice.
SUSAN ABBOTT IS COORDINATOR OF PARISH OUTREACH FOR THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON'S OFFICE OF PASTORAL PLANNING.
Susan Abbott is the former Coordinator of Parish Outreach for the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Pastoral Planning.