Cattle Drive, Fort Worth Stockyards, April 2010

Monday, August 9, 2010

Evangelism and Parish Planting

I have long been very interested in mission work and planting parishes. But I don't think we do it very well, nor do I think that we're terribly serious about it. I have said so to several people privately (hierarchs included) but I thought it might be helpful to say it in a more public venue. I would simply say that there's a problem though, I am going to say what I believe can actually be done about it.

First of all it needs to be understood that establishing missions is a theological imperative. Every Christian is required to be involved in evangelism. Some of that activity will be honed in on one's own parish, and some of it must be for the Church at large. We can't afford to become too myopic and concentrated only on our own parish. This creates an ingrown parish that is concerned only about itself and its own desires (usually called "needs"). It's very unhealthy. The more we embrace the gospel, the more we look out beyond ourselves to others. We move to others because of love. We desire them to receive the fulness of the Faith in Christ, and so we don't simply say, "They go to church already and so we don't need to speak to them about our Faith." Wrong. Do we have the true Faith or not? If we don't, and if ours is only one of many, then I don't care to be part of it. I want the real thing, the genuine article which was established by Jesus Christ on the day of Pentecost. Nothing else will do. My suspicion is that too many parishioners don't really believe that they are members of the Church, but of a Church. Believing oneself to be part of the true Church motivates one to bring others into it because we love them and we want them to have the genuine article. This must be first in our minds.

Secondly, we need to be much wiser about planting parishes. We have been rather lazy about it for some time (this applies to more than just the Orthodox here, but we're standouts in this area). What we have done is wait until some group of nice folks gather and petition to start a parish. Or sometimes we try to see if there are some nice Middle-easterners (or Greeks, or Russians, etc.) and gather them together to start a community. The key here is that we usually wait. This is not evangelism, it's reaction as Fr. Michael Keiser correctly points out. But real evangelism costs money, and I don't mean a permanent staff in the Department of Missions and Evangelism. That doesn't cut it.

Let me share a model that I think does work and can work magnificently if we really wanted to get serious about starting parishes.

We can begin by looking at a map to see where we think there would be a potential place to start a parish. This can be done in a couple of ways. We can look at population sizes of cities that we think can support a community and which is perhaps under served, or we can look at our current demographics and then compare them to places that we don't have parishes to see if there are some common elements. These two ways are not mutually exclusive. This costs a little money. Demographics aren't free, but they can be had relatively inexpensively. We need to be cautious here though. We could easily look at ethnic groups in the demographics, but in the long run there are other far more important indicators such as values. A demographic study can also give the perceived needs and desires of a population which are important as well. It is worth remembering that the US is not homogenous and that one-size does not fit all. The Church must meet people where they really are and not where we want them to be. Knowing these desires allows us to ask if we can answer their desires and remain authentic to who we are. This calls for creativity but it can be a very worthwhile effort.

Once we intelligently and rationally have found a potential target, then we begin doing a little local investigation. There was a time that this was done through the local paper, but fewer and fewer people are reading the papers these days, so it's usefulness may not be as good now. Many of the evangelical communities will have a local focus group study done. This costs about $200-$600, and can give a great deal of information. It can find out what media is the most effective to reach one's target group, thereby saving money in the long run. Radio might be a great tool, but if no one listens to it, then why buy radio time? The same is true of all the various media. It is worth spending a little bit to find out what will be most effective and therefore most cost efficient. These focus groups also help to get a handle on the potential themes that need to be addressed.

 I cannot stress too much that a very special website must be developed for this work. It is not a website that gives all of the business end of who we are. It is not the Archdiocesan or Diocesan website that is wanted here, links can be provided to these, but that doesn't help. A central website that sets forth the vision, and ethos of what the Church is what is needed. It is an introduction, not to a lot of polemics (these should be avoided at this stage) but to a life. It should put our best foot forward in only positive terms, not defining ourself by what we are not. It should not compare us to anyone else, nor should it speak poorly of anyone else. Why should it? It should give a very simply overview of what is believed because it is not the inquirer's/catechumens classes and shouldn't try to be. It is not the place to drill down into things deeply. Leave that to the parish. This positive, evangelical website should be the public face of the mission inquiry. It should not be too difficult to create a local site that gives the local contact information with the specialized site "attached" so to speak. This site should be referenced on every card, mailer, advertisement that is produced. Let this site do a lot of the work.

Why is this so important? When a small mission is planted it is almost impossible to give the sense of what a full parish's life is like. What do the services look like? What is the music like? What sort of things can be done in areas of charity? and so forth. Small beginnings need to be able to point to the larger vision and this site can help with that to a great extent. But it is also necessary not to overburden those who are "sniffing around" with too much of the administrative side of things. This is why one should only link to the Archdiocesan pages and such as references.

Mass mailing is a very effective tool. It is known that it produces about a 2% response rate--if one has written the material to a particular focus that really exists (see the reason for demographics and focus groups?). But it may take as many as four mailings to realize that response because people might not notice the mailing until the fourth time. Let's talk about numbers a second. How many are needed to start a self-sustaining community? 25 families? 50 families? Well, that seems to be a target. Let's say you need 50 families. For a 2% response rate, one would need to mail out at least 2,500 pieces four times. But it isn't quite so simple. One may only keep about 50% of those who come to the "big event" that is planned to start the parish. This means that one needs to send out about 5,000 pieces four times. It would be easy to get the cost of such a project. It will cost some money, but the potential of establishing a functional parish makes this modest cost very much worth while.

Before doing the mailing though, one should have a basic core group of about 20-25 people to begin with. They need to know how to sing the services at a basic level and they should be taught how to greet people and get them plugged in. The skeleton of the full parish needs to be planned so that it can quickly be fleshed out. One mistake would be to create a frame that is too small for growth. One should know how Sunday School and youth ministry will be carried out for example. Will there be a Ladies' group? Choir? Chanters? Get this framework ready to build upon.

There are some resources that need to be produced to help the parish get going too. A CD of basic musical settings that can be used by the congregation needs to be made available. Too many CDs give larger choral settings that are not helpful to a small group. We need folks to record a basic traditional setting that can be learned by everyone, for the Eastern Rite the music from the congregational book would serve best, for the Western Rite the de Angelis Mass would be very effective. Missalettes or service books need to be printed and ready to hand. My mentor told me that one of the most important things that must be done by a mission is to look as large and as established as possible. People don't want to get their religion from fly-by-night groups. Publications must look professionally done. Don't skimp on the Sunday bulletins either. They must look right.

Two other things need to be available and here is where the largest cost is. We need to supply mission plants with a basic "kit" to do the services. These can be used censers (thuribles), chalices, etc. But they need to be at least loaned to the mission plants until they can purchase their own. A list can easily be drawn up and a loan kit provided for a specified time. The next item is that we need to fund the mission priest for at least two years. This means his full stipend and package. After two years, the community should be able to take it over if they have started out as I've suggested above.

Mission priests must also be our best priests, what usually happens is that we send priests who don't do well in larger parishes to them. This is wrong and it is why we should pay them. A priest in a mission must give the entire tradition to a new community. He needs to know the nuts and bolts of how parishes work (from experience) and he needs to know the music, the liturgy, the administrative details, the theology… in short, he has to give everything to the new community since are just beginning.

There is more to say, but this should get things started. I love missions and we need to do much better. God willing we can start.


  1. Thank you for this post, the instructions you give are most sound!

  2. Thank you Father. I love missions and mission work, but we tend to send in priests that are not motivated and underpay them. How much better we could do if we reversed that!