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Parish transformation

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Father Mallon contends that parishes change when people are changed and it is through participation in their local plan that he has seen lives changed!

Sister Pat Boyle,

As more and more parishes realize that the work of evangelization and discipleship requires a change in the way we are Church, pastors and staffs are looking for new ways to engage people in the life of faith. Several times in the last few years our articles have talked about ways to make our parishes places where evangelization is done with intentionality. We describe evangelizing parishes as places where people encounter Jesus Christ, where the sacraments are celebrated with joy and where people begin to see their personal lives as a mission field. The question always comes back to: How do we bring about the changes necessary to achieve that goal? Is there a "fail-safe" program that brings people back to the faith and to an encounter with Christ?

Last week, a conference entitled "Parish Transformation" was held in Nashua, New Hampshire. The speaker at the conference was Father James Mallon. He is the author of the book "Divine Renovation: Bringing your parish from maintenance to mission." Because of the popularity of Father Mallon's book, the recognition that change is needed, and that we must use new methods of attracting people to the faith, more than 300 people gathered for the conference. Among those gathered were staff members from the Pastoral Center as well as priests and staffs from 18 parishes/ collaboratives from the Archdiocese of Boston.

Inspired by the work Father Mallon has achieved in transforming his parish, parishes throughout the country are incorporating some of the methods he used. At this conference, Father Mallon spent the morning speaking mostly on the benefits of using a program called Alpha. This program is directed at drawing people back to church and to an active living of one's faith. Each Alpha session is conducted in small groups. It includes the sharing of a meal, a video presentation on some aspect of faith and the opportunity to raise questions about the faith and to get to know others. Alpha is an international program that was designed for everyone, but the primary audience is the unchurched, those who are not Christian and have little or no familiarity with Jesus. However, Alpha can also be a good program for parishioners who are regularly in our pews without ever having been evangelized. Father Mallon describes Alpha as a tool for drawing people from the outside and the inside to a change of heart.

In the afternoon session, Father Mallon spoke about the time and importance of building and strengthening a balanced leadership team for his parish. This team worked on creating organizational health as well as a plan for mission. He described the plan as needing to be something that the team could implement into the everyday life of the parish, not seen as something separate or disconnected from wider parish life. Even parishioners who openly disagree with their plan are able to explain it to others. What is interesting to the team is that despite the critiques they offer, those people are still spreading the word about the content of their plan.

Once they set their plan in action, they looked for a tool that fit into the context of the plan. It was then that they decided to incorporate Alpha as a first step. After participating in Alpha, parishioners follow the steps of their plan by receiving catechesis, then engagement in small discipleship groups and lastly people would be asked to put their growing faith into action by serving in the ministries of the parish. Father Mallon contends that parishes change when people are changed, and it is through participation in their local plan that he has seen lives changed!

So much of what was shared at the conference had the familiar ring to what Disciples in Mission is attempting to achieve in our collaboratives. It was encouraging to hear Father Mallon stress, as we do, the importance of creating organizational health, first with staff and then more widely within the collaborative. Our collaboratives are not urged to use one set program to enhance their pastoral plans. What will work in one parish does not always work in others. What is most important when implementing a local pastoral plan, whether in the collaboratives/parishes in Boston or anywhere, is determining what will help people to lean toward the fulfilling of the mission -- "Go and make disciples of all nations..."

- Sister Pat Boyle is associate director of the Archdiocese of Boston’s Office of Pastoral Planning.

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