BOOK REVIEW: Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Tools for Rebuilding

toolsBOOK REVIEW: Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Tools for Rebuilding: 75 Really, Really Practical Ways to Make Your Parish Better (Ave Maria Press, 2013).

In this follow up book to the extremely popular Rebuilt, Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran offer a series of 75 practical ideas for building a better Parish.  These ideas are given in 14 different categories and are geared towards evangelization and Church growth. Many of the topics do overlap with the previous book, but my overall impression is that it is a very helpful book.

In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis notes that many of the baptized faithful “lack a sense of belonging to the Church” and that this may be due to “certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems” or “a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelization” (EG 63).

This new work by Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran, should be approached from this perspective.  In my opinion the goal is not to ‘clone’ or duplicate the experience at Fr. White’s Nativity parish but to seek to live out, in our own unique parishes, a “missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (EG 27).

With this focus Tools for Rebuilding contains a wealth of ideas for reflecting on the life of our own parish in the light of Pope Francis’ call to evangelization.  In the first section on ‘strategic tools’ the authors talk about evaluating schedules and setting boundaries in ministry, establishing a mission, vision and strategies for ministry, clearly defining evangelization, working as a team, the importance of gratitude and enthusiasm, and pursuing excellence.  Under the heading “building tools” the authors discuss the need to set boundaries on the use of parish facilities, the need for the parish to be welcoming and accessible, the need to maintain a clean and inviting space, with a minimum of clutter.

The authors also talk about the importance of minimizing distractions with such things as mobile phones, but even go further with aggressive announcements regarding the use of “crying rooms” for small children and even volunteers who “politely but firmly” ask parents of noisy or unruly children to relocate out of the main sanctuary!  In my opinion the attempt to justify this through an appeal to St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is unwarranted.

The next section involves “office tools.” They authors point out that being busy is not the same as being relevant, they suggest that structuring the workspace to promote collaborative team work is best, and that we should hire those who are willing to humbly do small tasks themselves.

Under the heading “communication tools” they suggest that the parish becomes more focused in its advertising, and that it invests in a well thought out website that is relevant, updated weekly, a destination for visitors and parishioners.  The authors suggest that the parish name and “brand” all of its programs to make them more attractive and understandable.  They also suggest that the parish become known to the community and that the parish get to know your community, especially who is not at Church. Repeating a sentiment from their first work the authors suggest that “vestments are like golf clubs.”  If the focus is on bring in the lost, then the cost of beautiful and expensive “church stuff is a turn-off for many, if not most, unchurched people” (p. 93).  This opinion is far from a universal opinion in Catholic tradition and even seems difficult to reconcile with Proposition 20 “The New Evangelization and the Way of Beauty” from the recent Synod on the New Evangelization which notes that “Beauty should always be a special dimension of the New Evangelization” (Prop. 20).  Pope Francis notes, “Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the ‘way of beauty’ (via pulchritudinis)” (EG 167, quoting Prop.  20). In the final thoughts on this section they highlight making ministry accessible, easy and part of parish culture.  The goal is every member a minister.

The next major section is titled “Weekend Tools.”  The first piece of advice is to have a team of enthusiastic greeters welcome everyone who comes in the door.  The second very predicable piece of advice is the assertion that because you are in the communication business the “most important capital investment you can possibly make in your church is a sound system” (p.  102). Thirdly, the authors urge that parishes invest prayerfully, financially and thoughtfully in music.  The authors then ask, without compromising the proper reverence due to the Mass and observing the normal “good pacing, measured pauses, moments of silence and solemnity” of the Mass is there anything distracting or unusually slow taking place?  Linked to this is a reflection on the sometimes jarring effect of transitions and announcements.  Next the authors discuss the process of change which they are aiming for in the weekend liturgy.  They are seeking to invite people in, to transport them on a journey and then to help them reach a destination—deeper relationship with Christ.  The next piece of advice involves being aware of the secular seasons that the neighboring community is involved in and trying to link these sentiments to the liturgical seasons.

The next major section entitled “Preaching Tools.”  The first piece of advice is that the homily and the pulpit announcement must have a focused and consistent message.  Next they advise that the parish commit to having the same message all weekend long, and that the pastor make the homily a greater priority. They also suggest that a clear distinction be made between insiders and outsiders in the parish. Insiders should be challenged, outsiders should be comforted.  They also recommend that the pastor preach the important announcements giving them the added weight of the authority and power of the pulpit.

The next section involves “Sacramental Tools.”  The authors assert that “the opportunity give to us at Baptisms” . . . is “not for instruction and catechesis” . . . but for “celebration.”  They should have a warm welcoming experience.  They suggest not calling it a ‘class’ and developing a Baptism ministry team who help make the experience personal, beautiful and joyful.  In regard to the reception of First Holy Communion the authors suggest that we not create a barrier to the Sacrament by imposing all kinds of requirements on families.  Punishment and reward don’t lead to discipleship.  Likewise Confirmation should be an initiation not a graduation.  They recommend keeping youth ministry apart from Confirmation and not attaching difficult requirements to the Sacrament.  Some advice to increase the Sacrament of Reconciliation involves preaching on it, making it accessible, and encouraging children’s participation in it.  They also give advice on making the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick move accessible.  The next point warns about what they call “self-righteous super consumers” (SRSC).  This was a group of dissatisfied, grumpy, self-righteous people who contributed nothing but demanded everything.  The authors suggest setting proper boundaries and firmly opposing them.  There is also a lengthy point about pastoral problems related to Mass intentions.  In order to stop consumerism, Nativity Parish first stopped announcing Mass intentions and then stopped accepting personal intentions at all.  All Masses are offered “for the people.” With regard to funerals, the authors suggest recruiting volunteers to help families, and that the pastor set firm boundaries and beware of consumers while still being aware of special situations.

The next major section deals with children’s ministry. The authors recommend having a safe full service nursery on Sundays and a Liturgy of the Word for children.  They also recommend that the CCD/PSR program be set up so that it doesn’t look like a ‘school.’  The program should be content rich but fun. The authors propose a small group model where the leaders foster relationship with Jesus and with one another.  With teens they suggest that we treat students as adults by “acting as if they really desire to know God—even if they don’t” (p. 184).  They should be challenged to get into small groups which cultivate authentic conversations which challenge them to grow.  They should also be given opportunities to serve.

The next section deals with “Money Tools.”  They note that in parish setting “fundraisers always create sideways energy that casts parishioners in the role of consumers and puts the focus on raising cash rather than growing disciples” (p. 190).  They suggest gradually stopping all fundraisers and focusing only on the offertory.  You should stop doing what doesn’t get funded.  They also suggest that parishes “pass the basket as seldom as possible” (p. 193).  In this same manner they suggest giving generously to the poor out of the parish collection and sealing the “poor boxes.”  Rather than letters of appeal from the pastor or pledge campaigns, the authors suggest serious modeling and teaching on stewardship.  One small quibble with the authors is their appeal to an alleged biblical model of “tithing” which is not a New Covenant ideal or a part of Catholic Tradition. In their parish, appeals for money are done very well only once per year, but stewardship is part of the vision of the parish.  In keeping with our modern culture they authors suggest setting up accounts to allow regular envelope users to give by electronic fund transfer, and set up the parish website to receive gifts.  They even suggest a giving “kiosk” in the lobby that allows parishioners to swipe there card on their way out of Mass (p. 207). They also suggest that the parish be responsible and transparent with the use of the funds donated.

The next section is titled “Staffing Tools.”  The authors warn about over-using volunteers and about the danger of some heavily used volunteers gaining an unhealthy sense of entitlement.  They suggest constantly using new volunteers as often as possible. Following best practices in business they suggest that we “get the wrong person off the bus. “ When we recognize that someone is a bad fit for a ministry we need to gracefully get them off the bus.  We should also be patient when we are hiring.  They suggest looking for character, competency and chemistry (p. 218). Linked to this is the idea that we should be on the lookout for talented people and promote them.  They believe that as we promote talent to our team more talent will be attracted. They suggest scheduling the staff around the weekend, so that the weekend is the big event. They also emphasize that leaders must be learners who are constantly reading and reflecting on their task.

In the next section entitled, “Critical Tools.”  The authors warn that whatever you do you will experience comment, criticism and complaint.  Some tools for dealing with conflict include beginning with prayer, communicating with appropriate diocesan leadership (especially the bishop) and neighboring pastors about the transition and change you are planning and finally exercising the appropriate damage control.  On this point the authors warn that if you attempt to promote change you will inevitably receive very stereotyped letters of complaint by those who do not like change.  We can always learn from criticism but we shouldn’t let this criticism stifle our vision.  We should not be upset when the “wrong people”– angry, hurtful, critical, dramatic people leave the parish because they won’t follow our vision.  Sadly sometimes even the “right” people will leave because their friends and family don’t like us. As leaders we also need to be willing to admit our mistakes.  The author note “beside what you actually get wrong you might have to apologize for what you get right” (p. 244).  We may have hurt people unintentionally, overlooked someone, or failed to provide what someone needed.  We also need to be humble and to exercise forgiveness and to move on.

The next section of the book is entitled, “Fun Tools.” We need to celebrate successes by first of all defining what success is in our ministry, then by sharing these successes and celebrating them with our staff.  We must emphasize that any success is a team effort.  Reward success by thanking people personally and publically.  Also thank your staff privately.  The authors also emphasize the importance of “fun.”  They suggest that we should laugh at ourselves, and create a fun environment.

In their final section the authors discuss, “Overall Tools.” The first point is that the pastor needs to be careful not to dominate and to delegate responsibility.  Pastors need to model submission to authority.  “Be an authority by submitting yourself to it.” (p. 275).Change takes time.  You need to be discerning about which new projects you take on and to be patient and positive about the pace of change.  There are no silver bullets.  The challenges we face require consistent approaches, focused intensity and time (p. 280).  We need to seek wise counsel in various ways to improve our leadership by choosing wise advisors and looking for specific skills and points of view.  The authors advocate doing something in a smaller way as a trial and then doing it in a bigger way.  Start somewhere, brainstorm and give yourself permission to fail (p. 290).  We need to focus on the hearts of individual people (p. 291) and stop trying to make people go to church, but instead make church matter (p. 294).

Review © Scott McKellar 2013

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