It would be nice if restarting pastoral ministries after the coronavirus shutdown was as easy as flipping a switch from off to on. But ministry is never that simple. Restarting is going to be a process that will take time, thought, planning, patience and prayer. Here are some things to consider as we transition back into parish life:
- The normal way parish ministries operated in the past might not be possible now because of safety concerns.
- The parish volunteers who always made things happen in the past might not be able to participate because of health concerns.
- The needs of people in your parish and in the broader community might be different now because of illness, deaths, unemployment and emotional fallout in the wake of the shutdown.
When parishes reopen, things will be different. But different does not necessarily mean bad. Different could mean that we have the opportunity to breathe new life into parish ministries. Different could mean that we explore new ways of doing things. Different could mean that we find ways to involve more parishioners. Different could mean that the Holy Spirit will lead us in ways that we never would have imagined.
At this critical point, the important questions we must ask ourselves are:
- Do we really believe that “all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28)?
- Do we trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us?
- Are we willing to do everything we can to make sure something good can come from this?
Your first step in formulating a plan for restarting is to make an inventory of your parish ministries and the people who make those ministries happen. For example:
- Who are the parishioners that serve in evangelization ministries such as the RCIA team, welcoming lapsed Catholics or sharing the Gospel message in the broader community?
- Who are the parishioners that serve in sacramental ministries by coordinating baptism classes, marriage preparation, Eucharistic adoration and funeral planning?
- Who are the parishioners that serve in pastoral ministries by visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, reaching out to the divorced and separated, coordinating adult faith formation or leading prayer groups and Scripture study?
- Who are the parishioners that serve the cause of justice by working on food and clothing drives, assisting refugees, helping the homeless or taking an active role in the Respect Life committee?
- Who are the parishioners that serve the social needs of the parish by welcoming new parishioners, organizing the parish picnic, hosting the coffee-and-donut hour after Mass or coordinating the senior citizen group?
Your next step will be to contact the leaders of parish ministries by telephone, email, letter, text, social media, etc. It might be possible to do this by yourself in a small parish. In a large parish, you can recruit a few volunteers to help. There are several important questions you need to ask:
- What happened to their ministries during the shutdown?
- What have they learned — the positive things as well as any mistakes that were made?
- Are they willing and able to continue in their ministry?
- If not, could they recommend another volunteer who could assume a leadership position?
- What modifications must be made for this ministry to restart?
- If this ministry must remain suspended, what insights can be shared about the needs of the people they serve and alternative ways that those needs might be met?
Chances are you already know the answers to most of these questions. But it is still essential to ask for input. When you seek opinions, you recognize the importance of the role these fellow parishioners play. You give them the opportunity to recommit to this ministry, or the opportunity to step aside gracefully if they cannot continue. You gain their insight on parishioners who might be willing to step into a leadership position. You also open the door to new ideas that could make a particular ministry operate in a new and better way.
During this information-gathering process you will find that some ministries continued without interruption during the shutdown. For example, ministries with no face-to-face contact, such as a prayer chain that operates via phone and internet, or volunteers who make phone calls to shut-ins, or committee members that send bereavement cards to grieving families were probably not affected in a significant way.
This article is included in “A Pastoral Guide to Opening Your Parish,” a new booklet from OSV. As our parishes begin to reopen following local guidelines, the Catholic faithful have many questions and legitimate concerns about what life will look like post-pandemic, and we hope this booklet helps give parish leaders a playbook to welcome back parishioners following the shutdown. For more information, or to order, click here.
Some parish ministries may have successfully shifted to virtual meetings online and could continue to meet in that way if social distancing is not possible. Some hands-on ministries such as a food pantry or a religious goods store may have transitioned to curbside pickups or another way of operating.
There are other ministries — especially those that involve large group gatherings and social events with food and beverages — that stopped and may have to remain suspended for a while. Ask the leaders of these groups if they have suggestions on how to adapt their suspended ministries. For example, it may not be possible for Eucharistic ministers to the sick to safely take Communion to hospitals, nursing homes, and the homebound, but their ministry could be transformed with telephone calls or handwritten letters. It may not be possible for the welcoming committee to have a new parishioner orientation, but they can make welcoming phone calls or plan a virtual orientation. The evangelization committee might have creative ideas on how to reach out to lapsed Catholics or how to encourage parishioners to share their faith with neighbors.
The only constant in all of this is that everyone in the parish will have to come to grips with change. Some of the changes will be made in compliance with government guidelines on social distancing and safety precautions. Some will be made in response to the needs of the people involved. Some will be based on moral imperatives because making a change is the right thing to do.
Change involves letting go, moving through a transition and eventually adjusting to some new reality. There will be people in your parish who think change is exciting, and they will jump on board at the very beginning to make it happen. Many of the people in your parish will need to work through change at a slower pace. You will also encounter parishioners who dig in their heels and try to fight change.
The reason changes in a parish are so difficult is that people turn to the Church, and especially their parish, for comfort and stability when their lives are in turmoil. When the parish undergoes a change, people feel unsettled. They want to cling to the familiar. They fear the unknown.
But there are things we can do to make the necessary changes in parish ministries a little easier. Our parishioners may even find that change — as much as they may not like it — can actually lead to spiritual growth.
One of the best ways to implement change is to involve your parishioners in the process. Use emails, your parish website, social media, livestreams, calls, bulletin announcements, letters or all of the above to alert parishioners to the reopening of your parish.
Ask them to pray to the Holy Spirit for inspiration and to share with you any ideas they might have for restarting existing ministries. Explain that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in many different ways — in something we read, in something someone tells us, in dreams or in flashes of insights.
Pose the questions: Are there new ministries or new ways of doing things that need to be considered? Would you like to be involved in this process?
You may be surprised at what parishioners tell you. There are probably a number of people who have wanted to get involved but did not think there was any place for them in parish ministry.
Keep track of every suggestion. Don’t automatically dismiss what appears to be a crazy idea. Sometimes, with a little tweaking, the craziest ideas turn out to be good solutions to previously unrecognized needs and can lead to the start of a new ministry with new volunteers.
As your plan for restarting parish ministry evolves, be sure to communicate the plan with parishioners. Let them know what ministries will remain suspended. Describe the new ministries that will be introduced. Reinforce that changes are being made in order to protect everyone’s health. It is also important to explain:
- When the changes will happen,
- How the changes will be implemented,
- The good things that are expected,
- The new opportunities the changes will bring,
- And, most important of all, what each person can do to help.
Whether you are restarting a ministry or forming a new one, make sure volunteers receive all the help they need to be successful. Virtual training online, scheduled conference calls or simply printed instruction sheets can all contribute the assistance they need. In addition to whatever technical instructions you are communicating, it is important to reinforce that the Holy Spirit will guide them. Assure them that you will be praying for them. Ask them to pray for you and for the other people involved in parish ministry.
Offering ongoing support
Your time commitment to these volunteers does not end with training sessions. Let them know they are appreciated through thank-you notes, praise and affirmation.
Ongoing spiritual guidance is also essential. Remind them that they are instruments of God’s love to other people. They may not be able to touch people physically, but they can allow God’s love to flow through them and touch people spiritually.
Tell them to expect miracles. The little miracles we experience in parish ministry are proof of God’s presence and fill us with a sense of awe and wonder. They help us to savor each moment, to be thankful for small acts of kindness, to welcome new insights and to know that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide us. Encourage them to share these profound spiritual moments with you and one another.
At some point this pandemic will end. What we learn during this process and the ways we adapted to this challenge will make our parishes, our ministries and each one of us stronger, wiser, more insightful and more compassionate, with a deeper appreciation of God and one another.
Lorene Hanley Duquin writes from New York.