In thinking about writing a series for young adults on embracing parish life, I began by informally surveying young adult Catholics in my social networks. The 85 people who responded to my Google survey represent an atypical sampling of millennials (my social networks are exceptionally Catholic-y): 80% attend Mass at least weekly, 80% are registered at their parishes, and 83.5% donate to their parishes at least occasionally. And, yet, only 55.3% of this group can definitively say that they feel like part of their parish communities.
We go to Mass, we’re registered, we donate, but we don’t feel like we belong. What are we missing?
In reviewing my [not particularly scientific] data, I found it interesting to look at the differences between those who are involved in their parishes and those who aren’t. Of the 52 people (61.2%) who are involved in some sort of ministry at their parish, 77% of them said they feel like they are part of the parish community. When compared with the 21% who are not involved in the parish and do not feel like part of the community, this seems striking.
I certainly can’t say whether those who participate in ministries do so because they feel like part of the community or if being involved gives one a stronger sense of belonging. I imagine both are true. Regardless, there seems to be a correlation between participation and belonging.
So, let’s jump in and get involved, right? Easier said than done, unfortunately.
When I worked in parish ministry, I was always looking for new volunteers. Now that I’m on the other side of the pew, so to speak, as a regular parishioner, I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to get involved.
Some parishes will eagerly involve you in anything you’d like as soon as you walk in the door. Often, however, it takes time to get to know the parish community and to allow them to get to know you.
Here are some steps we can take to get more involved and to allow ourselves to become a more integral part of our parish communities.
1. Be Present to the Community
Attend Mass, introduce yourself to people, go to parish events. Other people will involve you if they know you.
Try sitting in the same area at Mass each week. You might slowly get to know the people who sit around you.
Linger after Mass. This might be a good time to strike up a conversation with others who are hanging around and catching up with friends.
Take a bulletin and look for parish events. Invite friends to attend with you if you don’t want to go alone, and don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to other parishioners at the event. Hint: If you tell people you’re a new parishioner, they might be extra friendly and even introduce you to other people!
2. Allow the Parish to Minister to You
It’s true what they say: you can’t give what you don’t have. Or, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux more eloquently says:
“The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself . . . Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare . . . You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God” (“Sermon 18: The Two Operations of the Holy Spirit” in Sermons on the Song of Songs, §3).
Before you give of yourself to your parish, allow your parish to give to you. Remain close to the sacraments and nurture your prayer life. Seek out opportunities for young adult ministry, adult faith formation, or small Christian communities. If your parish doesn’t offer these opportunities, ask for them. (Be careful, this might lead to your first parish involvement!)
3. Take Stock of Your Gifts and Interests
We all have different gifts to contribute to our parishes. Are you great with kids and love teaching about our faith? Do you have a heart for serving the poor? Do you have design and marketing skills? Do you work in accounting or finance? Are you a great event planner? Do you have a strong, clear reading voice?
No matter what your gifts are, you can find a way to serve God and the Church with them. But before you offer your gifts to God, you have to know what they are. Spend some time prayerfully considering the ways you’d like to serve your parish community.
4. Talk with the Pastor, Staff, and Ministry Leaders
When the pastor, parish staff, and ministry leaders know you and are familiar with your gifts, they’ll be better able to help you get involved in the life of the parish.
Introduce yourself after Mass or at parish events, name your desire to get involved, and ask to set up a meeting to talk about possible ways you might be able to serve the parish.
In the meeting, you can share your gifts and interests, but be sure to listen too. You can learn a lot about the parish community and its needs. Ask questions to gather information about opportunities to serve and the commitment that would be required for each opportunity.
Now that you’ve taken stock of your own gifts and interests and learned more about the needs of the parish, spend time prayerfully discerning where God might be calling you to serve. Where do your gifts intersect with the needs of the parish? What type of commitment are you able to make at this time? Where is God calling you?
6. Make a Decision and Follow Up
This might be where most of us lose steam. We like the idea of getting involved in the parish, we talk to the people in charge, and then we get busy with other things and never circle back.
Even if there are many tempting options for involvement, start with one or two areas where you can realistically invest your time and energy for the parish. Communicate your decision with the parish and clarify any next steps for your involvement (training, background screening, reaching out to ministry leaders, next meeting to attend, etc.).
Don’t be discouraged if you’re not able to get plugged into your preferred role right away. There are plenty of opportunities for you to get involved in your parish, and once you’re involved it’s easier to move around into different roles as your time and gifts and the parish’s needs allow.
7. Make a Commitment
This is important. Your parish is depending on you. Make sure you know what will be asked of you before you commit. Some ministries require a weekly commitment with additional preparation time, others are less frequent, and some require intense commitment over a shorter period of time.
If you’re unsure whether you’ll be able to maintain the commitment, ask to shadow another volunteer for a short time before you fully commit.
Once you commit, do your best to stick with it for at least a year (or for a complete cycle/event). If you need to reconsider your commitment, set up a meeting with the ministry leader to discuss your challenges.
We all have busy, complex lives, but it’s important to fully commit to whatever way you choose to serve your parish.
Parish life is imperfect, but that’s what makes it beautiful. It’s one of the rare places nowadays where we can have meaningful face-to-face interactions with people of different generations, people who have different jobs, different education levels, different lifestyles. When we get involved in the life of the parish, we can begin to build relationships that challenge us and nourish us. In the parish, our common desire to know, love, and serve God and neighbor brings us together and gives us common ground on which to stand.
Editorial Note: This is the final article in a series that seeks to make parish life more accessible to Catholic young adults. To learn more, see Embracing Parish Life, Part 1: Choosing a Parish; Embracing Parish Life, Part 2: Registering; and Embracing Parish Life, Part 3: Tithing.
Featured Image: St. Mary Catholic Church by Nheyob; CC-BY-SA-3.0.