When Jesus called his first disciples, he did not immediately send them out to evangelize. He took time to form relationships, which is the idea parishes need to follow when it comes to helping parishioners grow deeper in their faith, more active in their parish and the ability to one day be missionaries.
“In a parish setting we find the willing and launch them instead of stepping back and saying, ‘OK, what kind of formation do you need to bear fruit for this?’” said Father Erik Pohlmeier, diocesan director of faith formation. “If we follow the model of Jesus, the first thing he did was call people. The second thing he did was bring them close to him, and only then did he send them out. So we’re calling people and sending them out, but we’re skipping the step sometimes of bringing them closer to Jesus.”
In recent months, Father Pohlmeier has presented his 14-page “Report on the State of Faith Formation” to priests and faith formation directors in each region of the diocese.
The report stemmed from his meetings over the past two years with every pastor, faith formation director and several parish leaders throughout the state to discuss the positives and challenges of their parish’s current adult faith formation programs. He has also attended national conferences and researched several programs regarding evangelization.
In the report, the most common issue in parishes is reaching people “disconnected from parish life,” which can mean those who attend weekly Mass, but nothing further, those who want their children to complete their sacraments, but do not attend Mass regularly or those who have stopped going to Mass. While there’s not a single solution to dealing with those who are disconnected, the report gives a framework for understanding more about individual needs.
It lays out three classes of discipleship, as presented by Deacon Keith Strohm, executive director of leadership academy M3 Ministries, during continuing education for priests in 2018.
• Making of disciples, those who lack a faith foundation or connection to parish life. The focus at this stage is about an encounter and coming to know Jesus.
“At this stage we are focused on helping them feel a connection to faith that will begin to shape decisions they make about their time and energy,” the report stated.
• Maturing of disciples are those who have a commitment to Jesus, growing in faith and are a part of parish life. The report states that providing a “richer understanding of Catholic faith and practice” is key. Father Pohlmeier pointed out that the majority of faith formation programs in the state are set at this level.
• Missioning of disciples means that personal, private faith is ready to move toward sharing, showing that Jesus “expects fellow workers for the Kingdom. They are in need of both motivation to act on Jesus’ grand commission and training in the skills that make them competent evangelists.”
Father Pohlmeier said although parishes may become frustrated when only the same people show up to every program, those people are often in the maturing stage and need to be nurtured toward missioning, which will then reach those who are disconnected.
“What we’re going to have to do is take our core who’s working to grow in their faith and move them toward being more missionary-minded because they have to be the ones to engage the disconnected. So that’s kind of the cycle,” he said.
He encouraged each ministry and parish leader to plot out what they’re doing like a baseball diamond, with the keywords “engaging, evangelizing, establishing and equipping” to understand the progress being made along the way.
Because people of faith are not a one-size-fits-all group, Father Pohlmeier said it’s important that parishes understand what the goal of a faith formation program is, who in the parish (not just the priest) will accomplish this goal and how to invest time and energy on those accomplishing the goal, meaning those key volunteers under the main coordinator.
“I think we’re trying to invest in everybody to the neglect of the people right in front of us,” he said.
For example, instead of a DRE’s goal of connecting better with families, the focus should instead be that their catechists are growing in their relationship with Christ, which will then have a greater impact on families.
Implementing this new way of thinking is meant to be a years-long process. Father Pohlmeier emphasized that parishes must first “test the foundation,” making sure leaders are “really rooting our key volunteers in personal faith not just in knowledge of the Church” before starting new programs.
At St. Joseph Church in Conway, a team of 10, consisting of priests, staff and key leaders, have been meeting every couple weeks to discover their faith story, unpack it and will then hold a daylong workshop becoming familiar enough with the Gospel message to “speak about it in a personal and compelling way,” referred to as the Kerygma Experience in the report. They are using recommended materials from the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis.
“We’re getting to know each other by sharing these very personal details of our lives and how God has come into our lives and helped us and healed us and called us to live out our Christian faith and help others,” said Christy Trantina, director of adult faith formation. “Once we’re able to articulate our own story and Jesus’ story, those are two primary components of a solid foundation.”
Under each stage level — making, maturing, missioning — in the report, materials and faith formation programs are recommended, though Father Pohlmeier emphasized it is not “an exhaustive list” and more will be added to the report on dolr.org on a continuing basis.
Father Pohlmeier said Father Norbert Rappold, pastor at St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Mountain Home, has been focused on moving the parish from maintenance to mission, even before this framework was presented.
Father Rappold said the report emphasizes “out of the box” thinking, “how do we get our joy back,” to make sure the younger generation stays active in their faith and that the older, sometimes homebound Catholics also do not lose their place and feeling of worth in the Body of Christ.
“Scripture says to go forth and proclaim the Gospel and that’s the part we kind of quit doing. We started to maintain the Gospel instead of proclaim the Gospel,” he said. “… Church isn’t just Sunday Mass and community, it is a way of life that invites everyone around us each day to partake in and we need to recapture that.”
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