Pastoral planning: One parish’s framework for making disciples

February 28, 2017

THE WOODLANDS — Tucked into the tall pines of The Woodlands north of Houston is Sts. Simon and Jude Catholic Church (SSJ). It’s the smaller of the two local parishes, but not by much. About 3,500 families call SSJ home; there are about 4,000 families at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. 

SSJ is difficult to find without GPS or a map, as is nearly everything in the township of approximately 105,000 souls hidden in the trees. Getting lost is a common complaint of non-residents.

“It’s not lost on me that one church is named for the patron saint of the lost and the other for the patron saint of lost causes,” chuckled Father Patrick Garrett, pastor at SSJ.

When it comes to charitable giving, community and church involvement, social advocacy and volunteering, Woodlanders’ levels of engagement trend slightly higher than national averages, the independent research firm MissionInsight reports – which makes the parish of Sts. Simon and Jude fertile ground for the missioning work of the Church.

In September 2016, Father Garrett told the Texas Catholic Herald about a pastoral plan to reorganize how ministries served the parish, based in the baptismal mandate that each Christian, without exception, is responsible for bringing others to Christ. SSJ’s “short-term” goal is an initiative the parish calls “50-50 by 2020” — having half of the registered parishioners actively involved in ministries, serving the other half of the parishioners within the next three years.

To put that 50 percent goal in perspective, research conducted by the non-profit Dynamic Catholic Institute reported that on average:
• 6.4 percent of registered parishioners contribute 80 percent of the volunteer hours in a parish;
• 6.8 percent of registered parishioners donate 80 percent of financial contributions; and
• There is an 84 percent overlap between the two groups.

Father Garrett is aware of the hurdles.

“Our mission is to make disciples,” Father Garrett said. “So ‘make disciples’ has become the heart of what we’re doing and we want parishioners to become co-responsible for that.”

Structure and process
SSJ’s “long-term” goal is to create a lasting framework that will perpetuate:
• Engaging parishioners;
• Creating formation plans for them “in their faith, but also in being leaders;”
• Helping them discern the call in their life; and
• Getting them to “go forth and proclaim the Word.”

But for any of the goals to succeed, Father Garrett said it was necessary to rethink how ministries get people involved and how to get parishioners to step up to positions of responsibility. It requires structure and process. The subjects aren’t unfamiliar to him. Before he became a priest, he had a long and successful career in information technology at ExxonMobil. He also has a master’s degree in business administration.
For the past three years, his staff, lay leaders and he have been tweaking a strategy that they hope will overlay more coordination between ministries and organizations.

“Ministries and organizations tend to work in silos. They’re each doing their own thing,” he said. “The first issue was that I wanted to develop where the parishioners have all the ownership of everything we do here. The staff serves as coaches and support for that. That was the first goal.”

He gave the theoretical example of parishioners whose specific ministry is preparation of the Sacrament of Baptism. They would tap the support staff for the list of baptismal candidates and other office support. The “coaches” would schedule the Baptism events and provide other administrative assistance. The parishioners would provide classes for parents and godparents and coordinate the rite, not unlike how a sacristan coordinates Mass. In this scenario, “the parishioners in this ministry are for the training, are responsible for the rite, are responsible for the overall activity, are responsible for everything,” he said.

The second goal, he said, was separating coaching from support operations. Support ops are split into two organizations: one that handles facilities and maintenance and one that manages financial and administrative process. Support staffers handle day-to-day operations. Coaches make the tactical decisions that support the parish’s strategic goals. Another important ingredient is having staff who support the strategic processes. “They do the development work. They do communications and help us pilot new strategic programs. They’re similar to the coaches but more on the strategic level. We’ve got it structured operationally, tactically and strategically.”

To improve communications and with an intent of silo-busting, Father Garrett’s third goal was to create parishioner-led “commissions” that grouped similar ministries and organizations together.

The five commissions are:
• Worship (prayer and liturgy, in charge of the Sunday experience);
• Know (faith formation and witnessing);
• Love (fellowship, family life, in charge of the daily experience);
• Serve (outreach, pastoral care and similar opportunities); and
• Administration (finance, facilities and the facilitation of parishioner stewardship and discipleship).

“The commissions each have a two-fold mission. The primary responsibility is to develop ministries within their commission. To develop those skillsets that are within their area,” he said. “So worship would follow liturgical ministries, spiritual support, devotion leaders, things like that. Love is hospitality, Sacrament sponsors, family life ministers, event coordinators.”

Ostensibly, each commission recruits its co-chairs from the ministries and organizations that form it. When no leaders emerge, they are recruited from other parishioners. Splitting each commission’s leadership between two chairpersons solved the problem of meeting absences, work obligations or unforeseen events. 

Also, each commission manages one or two of seven strategic priorities:
• Resources management;
• Sunday experience;
• Daily experience (all non-Sunday activities, including meetings, events, festivals, etc.);
• Formation opportunities (classes, seminars, etc.);
• Witnessing opportunities (group meetings);
• Service opportunities (outreach); and
• Discipleship. “The ultimate commitment to being a disciple is stewardship.”

Evolving role for pastoral council
A new change to SSJ’s strategy is placing the co-chairs of each commission on the Father Garrett’s pastoral council, which has resulted in increasing the size of the council as well as making changes in its existing membership.

“We had representatives on the pastoral council that coordinated with each chair. We had a lot of miscommunication in that,” the pastor said. “We elevated the chairs to the pastoral council so that we’re all working together more as a team.”

Father Garrett said that originally they were going to keep the pastoral council independent of the commissions.

“Now we realize that presented problems,” he said. “The pastoral council would be doing strategic stuff and the commissions would be doing tactical stuff and there was no connection between them. We recognized we had to improve that. We had to elevate the commission chairs up to the strategic level and get the other pastoral council members more involved in the operations.”

Father Garrett said the change resulted in a few resignations from council members who couldn’t commit the necessary time, or operational experience.

Set to begin this month, 11 parishioners will be seated on the council. One person serves as chairperson. The other 10 are divided into five teams of two that will be responsible for the five commissions.

“There’s no staff on the council. With the exception of one deacon, the rest are lay people,” Father Garrett said. “We used to have where there was a staff person — a director — in each of those [commissions]. What I found was they had too much authority. It was too easy to just let them do everything and for the parishioners not to take ownership.”

“The problem we’ve been having was the separation between the thinkers and the doers,” he said. “The model was, you had a pastoral council that was a bunch of thinkers, not doers. A lot of pastoral councils operate that way. They advise on policy or on other things. But when we got into the pastoral planning, we realized the pastoral council had to be the doers. We didn’t have anyone else. You’ve got to be willing to come up with the strategy. You’ve got to be willing to connect that strategy with operations. Your main role to make that connection — to figure out how to take that strategy and actually implement it down in the ministries.”

Going forward, the pastoral council will meet for four hours on the second Tuesday evening of each month. Each commission will be asked to meet at least once a month on a Tuesday to discuss ministry development.

“And then at least one Tuesday a month, we’ll meet to talk about those seven priorities and how we are executing against those priorities,” Father Garrett said. “The basic requirement for a pastoral council member is that you set aside your Tuesdays to meet in the parish.”