Saturday, June 4, 2016

Pastoral Plan Listening Session

The parish I've been visiting the past four weeks had a Pastoral Plan Listening Session a few days ago.  This was a meeting in which lay parishioners could give their feedback to a pastoral council about things they like about the parish and things they want changed.  I haven't been there long enough to contribute in great detail, but since I have the freshest impression they wanted me to communicate it with them.  They requested an email, as long as I wanted, and I thought I would share it here (edited to leave out personal details):


I attended the Pastoral Plan Listening Session at St. ... the evening of Tuesday, May 31st.  I had to leave early, but the facilitator at my small group table encouraged me to email my feedback.  

Firstly, I'll introduce myself and give you some idea of my background.  My name is K, I am 30 years old, I am both single and childfree and have no intentions of changing that.  I earned my bachelor's degree at an all-women's Franciscan college in Milwaukee, I graduated from a Jesuit high school in a Chicago suburb, and I attended a so-called Catholic K-8 school in Chicago.  It was only when I graduated from this K-8 school, when the Church sex abuse scandal was beginning to hit the mainstream news, that I discovered that this school was not alone in its abuses and that it wasn't part of the Chicago Archdiocese.  Because the school was so cruel and extreme in both doctrine and practice, the Chicago Archdiocese refused to include it among its parishes.  Although I left the Church personally when I left that school, the Jesuits and Franciscan nuns worked very hard to help me heal and to understand that the cruelties of the abusers were not the acts of God.
Roughly four years ago I began returning to the Church very gradually.  Initially, my reasoning was that if there is going to be a certain amount of my life spent in Mass, I don't want the majority of that time to have been spent under the control of those abusers.  I began returning to Mass in order to tip the scales, and through that healing process the priority became ... finding a community that is spiritually connected.  This has proven to be very difficult.

At the Pastoral Plan Listening Session, I both explained to the facilitator and wrote on my worksheet that what has stood out most to me at St. ... is the hospitality.  Although I have lived in Austin for a little over a year, ... I attended Mass at five or six churches in the Austin Diocese before going to St. ....  At those other churches, either nobody spoke to me or I was given a book/pamphlet and told "this will tell you everything you need to know about X parish" and that was it.  My first time at St. ... was morning Mass 5/2/16 and as soon as the service ended and I walked through the narthex, a parishioner introduced herself and shook my hand.  Before moving to Austin, I explored parishes in Nashville and Milwaukee as well as Quaker meetings and American Catholic churches - St. ... was only the third place in which anyone extended this hospitality, and the first Roman Catholic parish.  
After this parishioner introduced herself and asked me a few polite questions, she invited me to Connections and emailed, from her own personal email, me information about the group.  I came the the next night and about half of the participants welcomed me in a similar manner.  I've attended every Connections meeting I could as well as Sunday Mass.  Intellectual discussions pertaining to theology and service are very appealing to me, and I enjoy the exchange of ideas at Connections.  

Hospitality has been a remarkable strength of St. ..., as well as its diversity of ministries and the comprehensive information about them provided both on the parish website and at the parish itself.  Church life is evident there every day of the week rather than just on Sundays, and that is very refreshing.  The one specific thing that comes to mind that St. ... could work on immediately is the website's page about Spiritual Direction & Mentorship.  Who are these three directors/mentors?  What's their availability?  What are their foci?  How much do they charge?  The webpage says they are trained, but where and through what programs?

A less easily-defined area for growth that I see is St. ... is a very common issue in the Catholic community as a whole in America.  Although both the parishioners at Mass and the group at Connections have been very welcoming and friendly and nonjudgemental (save for one lady's claim that the devil uses disloyal Catholics to tear down decent Catholic communities, but there's one sourpuss in every crowd), I am among the youngest participants and I think the only unmarried and childfree women.  I am a "Millennial," alone as far as I know in the community I've found at St. ....  Forbes, the NY Times, Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and dozens of other distinguished publications have all connected several trends among my generation.  We postpone marriage and parenthood, many rejecting both altogether, and view chastisement for these decisions as disingenuous, unsolicited judgements.  We also participate the least in religious communities, by the widest margin yet recorded.  Most of these listed publications have noted connections between these trends.  The overall pattern thusfar is that we reject the idea of following tradition for tradition's sake - this is evident in home life, business, economics, and religion.  The phrase "spiritual but not religious" is a concise summarization of "I want a connection with God but don't want to blindly follow arbitrary rules set by authorities who don't listen to their flocks."  While some of the biggest reasons my peers have given for leaving the Church are political, I will not get into that.  The political disagreement, anyway, is part of a bigger issue.  The average middle-class Millennial who got good grades, participated in extracurriculars, had a good GPA at a good college or university, and followed the prearranged track to marriage + mortgage + children, ultimately graduated during the Recession.  Following prearranged rules "for your own good" ended up in debt and worthless degrees.  And on top of that, the average middle-class Millennial raised Catholic was Confirmed right around the time of the mishandling of the Church sex abuse scandal.  The 2000's were a terrible time to come to adulthood, and most of those who had that misfortune have now come to reject what they see as unfounded authority altogether - the Church being at the top of that list.  
Religious communities, especially Catholic and Mainline Protestant as they have lost the most followers among Millennials, have been trying to figure out why so many 25-35 year olds have been leaving and how to get them back again.  Those who do stay tend to be very passionate and active, the Easter/Christmas church-goer may well be on the way out with older generations.  Although my K-8 experience was a very extreme example, most of my peers have experienced similar painful disillusionment with their childhood parishes.  They also haven't had my Jesuits and Franciscan nuns to show them that both compassion and sincerity are still present in the Church.  Were it not for those two groups in my life, seeking out a parish community and discovering St. ... never would have happened.  
The author Kaya Oakes has perhaps done the most comprehensive journalism regarding the Millennials' split with the Church.  I highly recommend reading both her books Radical Reinvention( and The Nones Are Alright( with an open mind.  Very many churches, particularly Evangelical Protestants, have attempted commercial advertising in order to bring in the missing generation - this has backfired, as advertisements are typically viewed as insincere.  Do not assume that poor hospitality is a deterrent, as most Millennials don't even make it to the step of parish shopping.  Because most "recovering Catholics" my age see the Church as a cold, monolithic authority that gives its services only unreasonably conditionally, more subversive tactics may be needed.  Be active in needy communities, listen nonjudgementally, and display compassion modestly.  Matthew 6:1-8 and the Beatitudes in action would make a greater impression that could open an intergenerational dialogue.  Most of my friends think I'm nuts for having any interest in the Church, especially considering my childhood parish, because they haven't experienced the compassion and listening that I have.  I've already seen the potential for this at St. ... and while it's maybe a little unreasonable (maybe not, God works in mysterious ways!) to expect this parish to overcome the generational trend of the western world, helping even a few individuals heal the right could mean the world to them.

Something else that I would like to see both at St. ... and in the Austin Diocese as a whole is more interfaith networking.  Whether this takes form in discussion forums, visits from neighboring pastors/priests/monks/rabbis/imams/etc, joint community service events, etc.  I'm acquainted with the Society of Friends Meeting of Austin and while Quaker and Roman Catholic doctrine could not be more different, both communities seek to spread Christ through service to the needy.  Not to mention that connecting members of different faith traditions decreases the frequency of hate crimes, which have been on the rise in the past few years nationally.  I see interfaith networking as a wonderful bridge to a larger, closer, more compassionate community.

I realize that my background is very unique to St. ..., my parish ideals are individualistic, and that I am in many ways unlike the St. ... community.  It would be unreasonable to expect any parish to change to fit the needs of one person, especially one without children and who doesn't plan to stay in the area for more than a couple years.  But what both welcomes and keeps quality parishioners above all else is sincerity.  Thusfar St. ... seems sincere in its efforts and values, as highlighted by holding the open Pastoral Plan Listening Sessions and asking for this kind of feedback.

Thank you very much, and I hope to hear back from you,