Renew My Church: Helping leaders transform parish cultures

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, March 20, 2019

When members of St. James Parish, 2907 S. Wabash Ave, attended the Renew My Church Summit in October 2018, they heard a lot of great things about how the church needs to have a culture of evangelization.

The parish had started its own focus on evangelization in recent years, after its old church was torn down in 2013 and many parishioners left.

Those who remained realized that they needed to reach out to their community, said Servant of the Most Holy Trinity Father John Edwards, St. James’ pastor, and the Renew My Church Summit made them even more eager to move forward.

The only problem was the schedule: St. James is in the final wave of Renew My Church, and not scheduled to be activated until 2022.

It became one of 19 parishes that are participating in the Renew My Church Pastoral Leadership Circle, a pilot effort to work with parishes that have not formally started the Renew My Church process.

“We had over 2,000 people come to the summit, having a positive experience and coming away very excited about the idea that we as a diocese need to take a new approach to evangelization and take evangelization seriously,” said Father Ken Simpson, vicar for professional and pastoral development of priests. He leads the leadership circle with Dominic Perri, the priest-development consultant for Renew My Church.

“But except for the parishes who were already in the ‘building a new reality’ phase of Renew My Church, the question was, ‘Now what?’” Simpson said. “Were we supposed to say, ‘Hold on, we’ll get back to you?’”

The Leadership Circle doesn’t really compare to the intensive coaching that is available to parishes that have been through the Renew My Church process, working to realign resources and structures with neighboring parishes and moving forward to build new, vital, evangelizing communities.

It’s completely voluntary, Simpson said, and seeks to address two of the main themes also addressed by Renew My Church: creating a collaborative leadership team and building evangelizing parish communities.

“Where we’re headed as a diocese is a reinterpretation of the vision of parish,” Simpson said. “It really means to be an evangelizing culture, a culture that is radically welcoming, that knows how to have conversations with people on the edge, on the edge of the church and, as Pope Francis says, the people who live on the margins. That’s a huge conversion of mind and heart that has to happen.”

That’s not something a pastor can do by himself, so each parish must build a leadership team that can work together to make it happen, Simpson said.

“My perspective is that this has been very helpful,” Edwards said. “We’re a small parish — about 200 families — and it’s good to have clarity about what we should be doing, and to hear who’s asking the questions about what should be happening as opposed to what is happening.”

The Leadership Circle is designed for pastors and their leadership teams to participate in together, said Simpson.

The leadership teams can include parish staff or volunteers, Simpson said. Much of the time in early meetings has been devoted to understanding leadership styles, what collaborative leadership can or should look like, and helping parish leaders assess their own strengths.

Sometimes lay leaders are more enthusiastic about building a culture of evangelization than their pastors, Simpson said, if only because pastors are wrapped up in the day-to-day demands of running a parish.

As the program moves into spring, it will turn more to what an evangelizing parish looks like, Simpson said.

While Simpson said he isn’t sure if the Pastoral Leadership Circle will continue in its current form after this spring, the Renew My Church team has learned valuable lessons about ways to help parishes move forward before they start the Renew My Church process.

“Some of the pieces we are developing can be helpful to everybody,” he said.


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