Five Ideas to Engage Your Parishioners

By Fr. Jeff Lorig

I have been working with the St. Philip Neri/Blessed Sacrament Parish Council since December 2019. After countless hours of discussion, they identified two objectives that they want to pursue: Evangelization and Engagement. Now that they have their objectives, they need a strategy. Objectives set a direction; strategy explains the steps to take.

While I expect the Holy Spirit to speak hopes and desires into the hearts of the council members, I don’t expect everyone to have strategic gifting. I don’t expect them to know how to complete the objectives they set. So, I gave them a reading assignment. One of the books that I recommended is called Growing an Engaged Church by Al Winseman.  Now that they’ve completed their study, they are ready to create a strategy to increase engagement in their parish.

What is an engaged church?

An engaged church is made up of engaged members. “These members are loyal and have strong psychological and emotional connections to their church or parish. They are more spiritually committed, they are more likely to invite friends, family members, and coworkers to parish events, and they give more, both financially and in commitment of time.” (Al Winseman, Growing an Engaged Church).

When there’s a vacuum of spiritual leadership from parish leaders, it’s quite possible that many parishioners will still give a lot of time. However, this time is typically given to certain clubs, ministries, and fundraisers that are good but do not actually help the parish accomplish its mission – to make disciples. Busyness does not equal engagement.

Engagement means being involved in the actual mission of the parish. In order to move parishioners in this direction, a pastor, with the help of his parish leaders, needs to over-communicate the mission and purpose of the parish. And so, the first step to growing an engaged parish is to clarify expectations.

Clarify Expectations

When expectations are fuzzy, you get fuzzy commitment. When people do not know what is expected of them, they will often wander and drift, and eventually, as Al Winseman says, they’ll “drift right out the door”.

On the other hand, when people know the purpose of their parish, when they know their priorities, and when they have examples of what excellence looks like, they will be focused.

What does this look like in practice? How does a parish clarify and communicate expectations?

  1. Define what excellence looks like. In other words, define what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and what it looks like to be the Church of Jesus Christ within the world we live.
  2. Over-communicate the mission using the homilies, meetings, and other communications like the bulletin, weekly email, and an occasional video. Testimonies of parishioners that point to the mission and purpose of the parish are also very powerful of communication what’s most important.
  3. Discontinue or deemphasize clubs, ministries, or fundraisers that confuse what the priorities of the parish are.
  4. Create a membership class for all new parishioners. Use it as an opportunity to talk about your mission, vision, and values.
  5. Invite current members to annually sign a “Membership Covenant”. The Covenant is like a job description for church membership. It’s basic, “no duh” stuff like praying, tithing, and serving. Some will grumble and not sign it. That’s okay. The worst that can happen is that they will continue to be disengaged. But, others will sign it, and with them as good soil, you can grow a pretty fruitful church.

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