Challenge of Change
A Case Study
St. Ambrose has had the same pastor for the last 15 years. When he first came he was creative and innovative. “Change” was his middle name. All but a few parishioners welcomed his initiatives and embraced the lively liturgies, the openness to all comers and the new groups that started to materialize. Fifteen years later some of the same groups are still functioning but their members have gotten older and are stuck in a routine. This suits them to such an extent that they have become closed to new members, something they would never admit to themselves. The liturgies have the same music and patterns of attendance as when the pastor first arrived; the planning for feast days and seasonal rituals are repeated each year with little or no variation. The pastor wants to remain in the parish for another four years until he reaches retirement age. St. Ambrose, in other words, is on a plateau, facing the prospect of decline if something doesn’t happen soon. Then the Spirit did something amazing that came from an unexpected source.
Change From the Bottom-up
A small discussion group, numbering ten middle-aged and older people, had been meeting on a monthly basis for many years, even before the current pastor had arrived. Close friendships had been forged over the years as it became more and more self-sufficient. But without realizing it, this group, like the parish, had reached a plateau. That changed when three of its members attended a day-long conference on Racism. They returned to the next meeting with new information and insights, determined to do something about racial discrimination and inequality. Their enthusiasm infected the whole group and the meeting was spent brain-storming ideas of how to translate this new awareness into concrete actions within the parish community.
A Focus on the Weekend Liturgies
“The question of racism is a vast and complex issue,” one person admitted, “but what if we concentrate on just one topic, the growing violence in our city?” The idea caught fire in the group. By the end of the meeting, each person was committed to returning to the next gathering with ideas of what they could do to raise the issue in the parish as a whole. People came to the meeting with excitement and fresh energy, something they had not experienced for a long time. By the end of the evening they had formulated a plan. Focusing on the weekend Masses once a month, they committed themselves (once they received the okay from the pastor), 1) To putting up signs along the walkway to the church that included facts about racism in the city gleaned from the conference that three of them had attended. 2) On this “Awareness Weekend,” the Prayers of the Faithful at all of the Masses would include a petition asking for prayers for a victim of violence that took place in the city over the previous month. 3) Both the bulletin and the parish website would contain a prayer that people could recite on their own or with their family over the coming week. Prayer cards would be put at the doors of the church so parishioners would be able to take it with them as a reminder.
This simple action by this small group of ten people reverberated throughout the parish. When the discussion group brought their idea to the pastor, he was enthusiastic about it and pledged to preach on the subject for the monthly “Awareness Weekend.” Volunteers came forward to help put up the signs outside of church each month. The staff person responsible for outreach ministries asked to attend the discussion group’s next meeting in order to hear how their actions could bring new life to some of her programs and groups as well. The momentum, in other words, was shifting from “we have always done it this way,” to “let’s try out something new like we used to do.” Change one part of a system and it eventually changes the whole thing.
Debora Elkins, Tom Sweetser, SJ