This is the sixth in a series of “Best Practices” posts that is covering various aspects of Life & Justice Ministries. (To see the all the entries in the series, click here.) Today, Pat Slater, pastoral associate for justice and community outreach at the Catholic Community of Christ Our Light in Cherry Hill, shares seven best practices for parish social ministry.
It is a daunting task to think about what makes for successful parish social ministry. However, the task was already done and done well in the Bishops document Communities of Salt and Light published in 1994. So, if major points are missing from this blog post, it is probably because they are already in that document. So, I just share with you some of the insights from my on-the-ground experience of parish social ministry.
1) Have activities that attract both “sprinters” and “marathoners.” While it is wonderful to have people committed to the long haul for activities and causes, the reality of today is that many people are not geared up for the long-term commitment. We are blessed to have a significant number of “marathoners” in our parish, but we have also created opportunities for sprinters. Periodically the parish puts out a stewardship sheet with opportunities for short-term commitments like taking a turn at our community food pantry or helping with driving our Guatemala Mission team to the airport. We also have sandwich making once a month on a Sunday morning which is a great hit with families, especially ones with small children. Once a year we sponsor a parish-wide day of service (we call it Mitzvah Day) and have had over 300 volunteers out and about our community. Presently, we have about 27 ministries which fall under the justice and outreach umbrella at our parish and so most sprinters and marathoners can find a home in at least one.
2) Make sure that the parish staff is united on the commitment to social justice and has some working knowledge of Catholic Social Teaching. If easy to fall into silo thinking and acting in parish staff life. While I am tasked with making sure justice and outreach is done, the whole staff supports these efforts and knows why we do it. Justice is integrated into liturgy and is reflected in the curriculum and activities of our parish school, elementary, youth, young adult and adult faith formation. The message is incorporated into homilies and supported by the leadership when there is the occasional pushback from someone in the congregation. I can also go to our clergy if there is a particular effort we are working on, and if it works well with the readings, ask that this effort on behalf of justice be incorporated into their homily. This may only happen once or twice a year, but it is nice to know it is there. It’s a good idea to furnish talking points.
3) Cover all the bases. Good parish social ministry includes the hands-on activities listed in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, but it must also include education about justice and issues of justice and action around change. We accomplish our educational pieces through articles in the bulletin, speakers and events.
4) Lighten up. Realize that no one is going to accomplish everything around every issue. Enjoy and celebrate the small victories and enjoy the people you are working with in the process. Celebrate.
5) Discern leaders; don’t let people just volunteer to be leaders. It would be a mistake of biblical proportions if our liturgy staff person asked me to lead singing at our liturgy. I am not engaging in some false humility game. It would be a mistake. However, I can set up an agenda, follow up and follow through and those are good gifts to have. Sometimes we ask for volunteers to lead and if the ministry or job needs a manager and the person has skills at management, then it might be a good match. But if the ministry or job requires someone with vision who can inspire people, balance sometimes conflicting opinions and galvanize people for a mission, it might be better not to ask for volunteers. If you are working with the typical mix of most parishes, don’t be afraid to appoint people who are qualified for leadership to leadership positions after discussing it with them. Sometimes some very well-intentioned people volunteer to lead and while they may be gifted in many ways, leadership may not be among their gifts. A good initiative can fail because of not-so-good leadership.
6) Feed my sheep; don’t count them.
7) Let the grassroots grow. I am fortunate to serve in a parish which has a long history of lay empowerment. Many of the ministries and initiatives which are not in the wheelhouse of many parishes but are active here are due to the passion and persistence of certain individuals in the parish. Some of have been inspired by going through JustFaith or a JustFaith module. Some have had personal experiences which motivates them to work for change. We have in place a process for taking the vision of one or a few to springing it on the parish. The people come to our Justice and Outreach Commission with their vision and discuss it. If the commission approves it, then they go to the pastoral council to explain it and I as staff liaison take it to the staff. If the nuts and bolts need more work, then it might be kicked back for more work before it is proposed to the parish, but thus far, these initiatives have longevity because they arise from the committed parishioners.
Interested in chatting with Pat about your own parish social ministry initiatives? Find her contact information here.