Parish transformation: making good parishes better

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Parish Transformation Initiative is a strategy to make good parishes better.

That’s how Father Ron Lewinski described the program two years ago, about a year into the project that will help all parishes in the archdiocese evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and come up with ways to improve both mission and ministry, and, they hope, their financial situations.

The program now has been done at nearly half the archdiocese’s 353 parishes, with a new wave that just started in late February. As more parishes complete the transformation process, they have more innovative ideas that can be shared with their neighbors.

At St. Agatha Parish, 3147 W. Douglas Blvd., the parish transformation team decided to combine the areas of evangelization and community. As a first joint effort, the group decided to encourage parishioners to pair up as “prayer partners” for Lent.

All participants received a Lenten reflection booklet that they can use to guide their joint prayers, although they are welcome to use other resources or pray spontaneously, said Cynthia Boone, one of three co-chairs for the effort. The participants committed to pray together, in person or over the phone, once or twice a week during Lent, although the organizers hope they keep going.

“This is an opportunity to pray with each other, pray for each other and pray for the larger community,” Boone said. “It’s good to share experiences. We all have things that are going on in our lives, but other people do as well.”

Boone said she and her co-chairs, Mattie Dillard and Jacqueline Gray, expected maybe 10 pairs to sign up. Instead they got 39 pairs, or 78 people.

Most partners signed up together, but some signed up on their own and were matched by the parish.

“They are all kinds of people, male and female, seniors and younger people, people from both Masses,” Boone said.

Boone is especially pleased at the way young people have taken to the initiative, because it is something that draws them into the parish as a whole.

“A lot of our plan is focused on young people,” she said. “But this is the whole parish, and they are part of it.”

Ask Father Jason Malave, pastor of St. Benedict, 2215 W. Irving Park Road, how many young families are in the parish. “About a kazillion,” he’ll say.

And all kazillion of them want to come to Mass — a good thing in itself — somewhere around mid-morning on Sunday. Not so early they have to get the kids out the door without breakfast, not so late that they can’t make other plans for Sunday afternoon.

That meant that the first year after Malave came to the parish, most Sundays saw people standing and strollers parked in the aisles, with more of the overflow congregation seated in the upstairs choir loft for the 10 a.m. Mass.

“That’s not the ideal way to attend Mass,” Malave said.

So to meet the parish transformation goal of being a welcoming place for all of those young families, St. Benedict changed its Mass schedule, moving the early Mass to 7:30 a.m. to accommodate a 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Mass, followed by liturgies at noon and 6:30 p.m. Sundays.

Both the mid-morning Masses — at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. — have a children’s Liturgy of the Word to make them equally inviting to families with young children. The monthly “family Mass” is also celebrated at both times.

Since the change was implemented last summer, both Masses have been comfortably full, and the majority of people at both have been those young families who used to squeeze into the 10 a.m. Mass.

“We’re having very, very beautiful liturgies where people are actually participating, and all of them are getting a seat on the main floor,” Malave said.

The change has been very popular among those young families, although some of the older parishioners took a while to warm up to it, Malave said. It helped that the parish spent about a year preparing people for the change, and that parish leaders could point out that the new schedule is exactly what the parish had once upon a time, 20 or so years ago.

At the same time, the parish has tried to improve communications with all parishioners by sending out one weekly email with all the news from its school, church and religious education program.

Sending everything together helps people know when and where to look for information, and reinforces the fact that the school and religious education programs are both ministries of the parish, Malave said.

Walk into Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, 4640 N. Ashland Ave., and prepare to be greeted by a friendly face and a hymnal.

Restarting the parish welcoming committee was one thing that came out of Our Lady of Lourdes’ parish transformation process, as was a new volunteer corps that helps with parish custodial work that the staff has not been able to get to, said Father Michael Shanahan, the pastor.

But one of the biggest initiatives is a series of workshops for leaders of parish groups — including the welcoming committee and volunteer corps — to help them become more effective in their roles and to help them resolve conflicts whether they are within their groups, between groups or simply personality clashes between two people.

“Usually, when we get parish leaders together, we talk about tactical programming,” he said. “For this, we intentionally eliminated all that to focus on the quality of the community, our spiritual character and integration with the call of Christ.”

Facilitators are doing that by focusing on two Vatican documents.

Participants include the leaders of 32 established parish groups, who are required to be there, and group members, who are “strongly encouraged” to attend. Each session runs twice, to accommodate parishioners’ schedules, and each session starts and ends with the whole group praying together. Presentations are offered in both Spanish and English.

Those who come learn how to lead in accord with the parish “best practices” manual, which was written as the parish transformation initiative was going on.

“One thing I would hope to see coming out of this is a commitment on the part of the leaders to come together to open up these principles of leadership,” Shanahan said. “We really do rely on healthy, effective groups for the makeup of the parish. We (the parish) don’t exist for the group; we don’t even exist for the whole parish. We exist for the Christian mission.”

For more about the program, visit


  • evangelization
  • parish transformation
  • ron lewinski

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