Are you a disciple or a customer?
Father Cheerful knows that if you allow too many customer—I mean, parishioner—complaints to pile up, they might find their way to the regional manager (the bishop). The regional manager knows that his franchise is dying out. The customer base has been dwindling year by year for decades. The last thing he needs is some upstart assistant manager to alienate the remaining customer base. He will almost certainly support the branch manager in doing whatever needs to be done to ensure that the remaining customer base finds the local shop to their liking, that is to say, convenient. And if Father Earnest needs to be sent to a more remote location where he can alienate fewer people, so be it.
Is this depiction of typical parish life as commerce at a convenience store a fair one? Yes—and no. Yes it is, based on what I’ve observed throughout my life as a Catholic. Yes it is, based on what I’ve heard from parishoners and priests—both the contented and the discontented.
But, no, the depiction—really, the caricature—of parish life above, although I insist that it is accurate, is not quite fair. The problem with it are the tacit elements that allow one to infer that if only we applied better managerial solutions to the problems of parish life, we’d have a higher degree of customer satisfaction, a higher degree of parishioner participation in parish functions, and we could arrest the decline in the number of practicing Catholics. The real problem, we face, however, is not a managerial one; it is not a problem of maintenance. The real problem is one of mission and of discipleship.
Three years ago, Sherry Weddell of the Catherine of Siena Institute published a very important book, “Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.” She offers a clear alternative to the maintenance/managerial approach to parish life (i.e., be convenient and avoid customer complaints at all costs). Instead, she says that we are called as individual Catholics and as Catholic parishes to the mission of becoming disciples of Jesus and making more disciples of Jesus. That mission is time consuming, demanding, soul sifting, exhilarating, fruitful, exhausting and glorious—in other words, it is wildly inconvenient. And it is also our only hope for parishes, especially parishes in decline.
The follow-up book is an anthology edited by Weddell called, “Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.” There various authors who have begun the inconvenient and life-giving work of forming Catholic parishes rooted in discipleship and mission tell of their trials and progress. They state that, “The overarching goal of parish renewal is this: to create a community where it is easier for individuals to become intentional disciples and make intentional disciples.”
Intentional disciples of Jesus are much more than merely nice, generous “practicing Catholics” who help out at parish fundraisers and decorate the sanctuary at Christmas and Easter. They deliberately seek to know and love Jesus, in and out of “parish-time” (whether just-Sundays/holy days or more), with other disciples. They seek to prepare themselves and each other to go out into the world of business, education, politics, culture, etc., with a mission to seek, invite, evangelize and form others to be disciples of Jesus. They are at work as lay apostles in the world. (Read Russell Shaw’s, “Ministry or Apostolate? What Should the Catholic Laity Be Doing?” The answer is, “Mostly, the apostolate—laity at work in the world, bringing people to Christ and His Church.” See also his later, “Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church,” whereby he seeks to, awaken the “sleeping giant” of the Catholic laity as apostles in the world.)
Our task of moving from parish-as-customer-service to parish-as-the-place-where-disciples-and-apostles-are-made is one of urgency, fidelity and hope.