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These pastors are learning how to create an “Amazing Parish”

Shutterstock / XiXinXing

John Burger - published on 03/03/21

It's a movement, not a program, says the business leadership "guru" who cofounded it.

Except for a few cynics, pretty much everyone accepts the fact that a church is not a business. But Patrick Lencioni wants to bring to Catholic parishes the principles he’s been sharing for years with businesses like Southwest Airlines.

The key difference is, when visitors walk into a church, they shouldn’t feel like visiting a big box store or some government office. For many people, the first contact they have with a church is the parish secretary. They shouldn’t feel like they’re approaching a window at the DMV office, Lencioni says.

Rather, visitors should think to themselves, “There’s something very different — there’s a tangible culture of prayer, of supernatural trust in God,” Lencioni says

A Catholic priest who ministers to the student body at Tulane University feels the same way. “In many cases, you go into the parish office, it’s a very toxic place: the nasty receptionist, who doesn’t want to deal with your problems; the pastor who is always busy and doesn’t have time to talk to the people he is supposed to be leading,” said Dominican Fr. Thomas Schaefgen, chaplain at the New Orleans university. “They don’t pray together; they don’t want to pray together. They go to Mass at other churches.”

Both Fr. Schaefgen and Lencioni, a best-selling author who has been called a business leadership guru, are working hard to carry out the Great Commission of Christ and spread the Gospel. Lencioni, author of books such as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Five Temptations of a CEO, and Death by Meeting, co-founded Amazing Parish toward that end. 

Established in 2014, Amazing Parish asked the question, “What can make the greatest impact in the Church today?”

“And our founders felt that the parish is that great spot where there is such a great need but also not a lot of help,” Amazing Parish executive director Kevin Cotter said in an interview. To date, more than 1,500 pastors and members of parish “leadership teams” in the U.S. have participated in Amazing Parish conferences. About 150 pastors and teams are currently receiving monthly coaching by phone or video conference. Others receive instruction, guidance, and tools, free-of-charge, at Amazing Parish Online. The group recently introduced a new Pastor Page

Amazing Parish charges a parish a one-time $1,500 registration fee, but ongoing coaching is free. 

A movement

Leaders of Amazing Parish emphasize that it’s not a program but a “movement” to change the culture of the parish. To get there, change has to begin with the pastor, spread to his leadership team — an inner circle of dedicated parishioners who help him implement the mission of the parish — then to the parish staff, ministers and organization leaders, and finally to the people in the pews. 

Cotter said that Amazing Parish, through its conferences and coaching, helps pastors and their teams develop leadership, a culture of prayer and a culture of discipleship. 

“For a lot of our parishes, there’s not a culture of discipleship,” Cotter said. “They know they’re supposed to make disciples, but they themselves as staff workers of the church often don’t always see themselves as disciples; they don’t talk to each other as disciples; they don’t talk about their faith or pray with one another. It’s not common to discuss how they’re doing in their faith life. But we really think that if they’re not doing that — and they’re getting paid by the Church — how can we expect parishioners to walk through the doors and have that experience, and that culture, and live that out with our families?”

From administrator to pastor

Fr. Monte J. Hoyles, former chancellor of the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, came to the priesthood from an accounting background. He’s also a canon lawyer who worked in the chancery for seven years. 

“So my mind works administratively, and sometimes administrative mindsets can come off as a little cold, a little stiff,” Fr. Hoyles, now pastor of St. Mary’s, SS. Peter and Paul and Holy Angels in Sandusky, Ohio, said in an interview. “I love Jesus Christ, I love my parish, I love my parishioners. But an administrator probably doesn’t show that as great as he should. With me, that culture of active discipleship, that culture of prayer and teamwork is a bit tight. … I kept everything close to the vest.”

He and two associate pastors oversee a parish consisting of three churches, 4,000 families, and a school with 630 pupils. So if anyone had a good excuse to lock himself in his office and just “run” things, Fr. Hoyles would. 

But his participation in Amazing Parish has redirected and refocused him, and having a leadership team has helped. 

Amazing Parish defines the leadership team as a small group of people who help the pastor “align the parish to what’s most important for its mission. A parish leadership team exists to assist the pastor in leading the direction and priorities of the parish and bringing the rest of the staff, volunteers, councils and parishioners on board. This involves creating clarity of the mission of the parish and aligning the entire parish, staff, and ministries to that mission, which includes everything from strategic decisions and inspiring people to operations and finances.”

A pastor is a better leader when he surrounds himself with good leaders and opens himself to their input and influence, Amazing Parish says. 

“What attracted me was it was very clear that the people at Amazing Parish knew that a pastor of a modern parish can’t do it on his own,” Fr. Hoyles said. “In order to be a good, holy and effective leader he’s got to surround himself with people who understand he can’t do everything by himself and just really want what’s best for the Church and also for the priest himself. They become his closest confidants, and they know his mind, and they know they’re with the Church. I can bounce ideas off them — I don’t have to hold anything back from them — and they give me their honest opinion. They ultimately know that the buck stops with me. I have to make the decision. But they’re not opposed to stretching me and pushing me and making me rethink things.”

Fr. Hoyles sees the pastor and leadership team model emulating how Jesus related to his apostles. “He prayed with the people around him; he taught them to work together with him,” the priest said. “And then he said, ‘Now you’ve got to share how I’m working in your life.’”

Vulnerability

According to Amazing Parish, a healthy working relationship requires that the pastor and the team members be vulnerable in dealing with one another. 

“Pat [Lencioni]’s approach is vulnerability based — vulnerability and trust,” said Fr. Schaefgen, of Tulane. “Real trust. Not just like ‘I know you’re going to do what you’re supposed to do,’ but like ‘If I share with you my failures, fears and wounds, you’re not going to use them against me, attack me, or fire me because of it.’ But to be able to say, like, ‘Yeah, I really messed up there,’ or ‘I’m sorry for what I said yesterday’ and not be afraid it’s going to cause like this huge trauma or rift or gossip. It’s where people are really honest with each other.”

“That vulnerability enables me to go to [the leadership team] and say ‘I’m having a terrible day. Here’s what happened. I’m crushed,’” Fr. Hoyles explained. “And they’re there to immediately surround me and say — and it’s not just me; we’re all doing this for each other — ‘Okay, we’re going to pray for you, and we’re going to pray for you right now.’ We’re telling each other, ‘Listen, you do what you’ve got to do, and we’ve got your back. We know this is the right decision to make for this. You go and do it, and we’re supporting you. We’re behind you.’”

“The idea is that there’s a core group of people who are missionary disciples,” said Fr. Charlie Garza, pastor of St. Albert the Great parish in Austin, Texas. “They have to be someone who is a committed parishioner, has a good, strong prayer life, has to be a team player (so they’re able to engage with vulnerability and healthy productive conflict), and someone who has a missionary heart and is parish-oriented — not kind of siloed but focused on the more overall vision. … They help to spread the culture of discipleship in a parish.”

The team models for parish staff members certain practices, such as readily praying together on the spot or sharing with others what God is doing in one’s life. Staff members, including that front desk secretary, in turn model that behavior for parishioners and the wider community. 

Learning to lead

Like Fr. Hoyles, Fr. Garza found that he too needed to change. He admits that before he got involved in Amazing Parish, he was “kind of an amiable, Charlie Brown individual by nature.”

“To have a good team, I have to be willing to have difficult discussions with individuals and keep people accountable. Six years ago I wasn’t as good at that,” he said. “Amazing Parish helped me. … People do say now, ‘Father, you’re clearer on expectations. You hold me accountable in ways you didn’t before.’”

For Fr. Schaefgen, like many pastors today, who have quickly been thrown into leading parishes without much preparation, Amazing Parish has provided the kind of training he says he did not receive in school.

“Nobody taught me in seminary how to be a leader,” he said. “That’s been one of the frustrating things for me. I know how to do priestly things, but I don’t know how to help people grow or how to really direct them, counsel them, challenge them.”

In explaining how a greater emphasis on vulnerability, prayer and discipleship can transform a parish, he offered an example: “The pastor comes in and sits down with the team and says, ‘I want to ask you to pray for me, and I want you to pray for me about these things … ‘ It’s an invitation to be vulnerable. ‘I need prayer because right now I’m really angry at the archbishop, and I’m having a hard time with that. I’m trying to let it go; I’m trying to not be resentful about it.’ 

“And then he’ll say, ‘What do you guys need prayer for?’ Everybody shares, and then they pray for each other,” he continued. “The whole point is just to begin the conversation around prayer, that people actually feel vulnerable with each other about their prayer lives and sharing what they need. And then learning how to do that for others, so that like the secretary realizes, ‘Oh, I don’t have to just answer the phone and get people what they want. I can ask them if they need prayers, and I can pray for them when they come see me.’ And that’s what a Catholic parish just might want to do — to minister to people and not just be a business.”

The same thing happens with conversations about discipleship, he explained: “What is your experience being a disciple of Jesus? How do you in your role see yourself bringing people closer to Jesus? So the teacher, the janitor, the receptionist, really has to re-envision what their job is. What I do either does or doesn’t bring people closer to Jesus.

“That’s where a lot of lights come on for a lot of people, they realize that they’re part of the whole mission of the parish, not just in some sort of support role,” Schaefgen concluded. 

The new emphases have created a “huge” shift in Tulane’s Catholic campus ministry, he said. “To have a freshman sit down and tell her peers: ‘I have these fears, that no one likes me, that I’m a failure. Will you pray for me?’ And then to have one of her peers actually do that right there on the spot, those kinds of moments, I think, are really important. That’s what changes a culture in a parish.”

What began with a transformation of a pastor and spread to his leadership team, staff and parish, then ideally goes out to the next circle.

“It’s not just ‘Okay, we’re doing these things when we’re here on the church grounds,” said Fr. Garza, “but ‘How are we doing this in the supermarket, in the workplace, among family members?’”

And that, ideally, is how an “amazing” parish becomes an evangelizing one.


Friends, Christmas,

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general audience

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