About nine days ago I promised to pick up a discussion about making use of the long hot summer in your parish. In reading that entry today, I realized that I should have emphasized your own vacations. There has been a great deal of news coverage this summer about the very limited vacation time allotted to American workers vis-à-vis the rest of the first world; even more surprising is the reluctance of Americans to take the vacations they actually have coming to them. Church personnel are no exception; many over the years tell me they need to work intensely throughout the summer to be ready for the fall onslaught of parish programming. Surprisingly there is a body of research indicating that the harder you work, the less you get done. (I’ll bring it up shortly for the doubting Thomases.) But another point to consider, too, is the need to reflect upon and evaluation what you did this past year or longer. In a study of the tragic Apollo I fire in 1967, investigators found that one of the causes of the fire that killed three astronauts was NASA’s failure to examine its test data, in its haste to overtake the Russians to the moon.
I have yet to meet a church minister who told me there wasn’t more to do, so it may be that one good parish summer project is recruiting and auditioning new talent. I am always nervous about wholesale recruiting from the pulpit, because, to be honest, many will come forward who quite frankly are significantly deficient in people skills. Then you have the unpleasant task of telling them they aren’t cut out for the work (e.g., they have little sense of boundaries, propriety, confidentiality, etc. or they bring too many offbeat religious agendas without a willingness to work within the parish mission The strategy for success here is more subtle: the parish staff takes the initiative and goes after the best potential ministers of faith formation or other significant person-to-person church apostolates.
Let’s start with the folks who have been specifically served by the parish recently—convert, newlyweds, parents of baptized babies or initiated minors, those who have gotten annulments and/or had their marriages “blessed” as they say. These are individuals who in some way, shape or form have gone through a conversional experience. Also, they have had some close contact with the pastor or a parish staff member, and in one sense the vetting has already begun. Given their recent histories there is the opportunity to give back to the parish what they themselves have received; they, more than many, understand the good effects of ministry and the need to sustain it. Talking with these folks in informal socials at the parish or follow up home visits would give you an opportunity to assess with them the parish’s needs and their own capabilities. Remember that this is long range planning; there may be young parents whose home responsibilities make a commitment to teach right now very difficult, but you can introduce them to reading, on-line learning, diocesan training programs that may be doable now in preparation for faith formation work, say two or three years down the road.
Another group to look at is your body of parish members who have trades or professions that may be valuable to your parishioners. Many, I think, would be willing to speak to groups of parishioners while the children roasted marshmallows or played sunset volleyball on the church grounds. I have given talks on mental health issues to varieties of groups; in fact, I still keep a “public speaking rider” on my malpractice insurance for health advice given in a community setting. Parishes form a safe haven for individuals to discuss parenting and the care of their children, care for declining parents with dementia or Alzheimer’s, basic fiscal planning, home safety, etc. If you have multiple professionals of the same expertise, you can propose a panel format. On top of that, you are developing a pool of useful advisors for planning and professional needs as they arise.
Needless to say, carefully chosen religious experts would make fine summer guests, including folks from the Chancery For example, a professional from the diocesan Tribunal can come out and address both the realities and the myths of the annulment process. One year a team of nine of us from the staff and the medical community did a two-night presentation, in age appropriate clusters, on sex education and matters of sexuality. My own assignments for that workshop included a very frank and open discussion with our teens about sexual experience, and another the next night with the parents on incest. (When I was an intern psychotherapist, I was assigned child abusers and “junior fire starters,” i.e., middle school arsonists. Always the short straw.)
I heard of a pastor who would invite small clusters of parishioners to his house for dinner during the summers, usually just a cookout off the back porch. As it turned out, the families would end up bring covered dishes without being asked (perhaps as an alternative to the nitrates in hot dogs). There was no agenda other than the camaraderie of breaking bread (or hot dog rolls) with a pastor they rarely get to talk to, particularly as their numbers decline. Such gatherings (with parish staff and senior volunteers attending as well) give you personal contact with people who are ripe for richer evangelization and perhaps eventual positions of ministry.
And finally, every parish has what the late President Nixon famously referred to as “the great silent majority.” These are your folks who people your rolls but have little other institutional connectedness. While space and time does not allow here for substantive discussion here of connecting with that population, they are out there—in many cases, waiting to be asked.