Catholic Herald staff
The co-author of the bestselling book “Rebuilt” spoke at the Diocese of Superior’s 17th annual Stewardship Day Monday, May 20, in Hudson.
Tom Corcoran, lay associate at Church of the Nativity, Timonium, Maryland, penned the book with Fr. Michael White, pastor of the parish.
Corcoran was the keynote speaker at the daylong event, which took place at Camp St. Croix Conference Center at the YMCA camp.
Published in 2013, the book explores how the two men studied programs, methods and marketing at successful Protestant mega-churches and applied those techniques in their faltering Catholic parish in the Baltimore area.
‘Rebuilt’ refers to the process of growing a healthy parish, but the church has now been literally rebuilt as well – its membership has tripled.
After an introduction by diocesan Director of Stewardship and Development Steve Tarnowski, Bishop James P. Powers addressed the approximately 50 attendees in Hudson.
To ease travel for those on the eastern side of the diocese, the event was also live-streamed at Holy Family, Woodruff, where another 54 people from area parishes were watching, Tarnowski said.
Bishop Powers, who has attended all 17 of the diocesan Stewardship Days, said he has always been attracted to the concept of stewardship. He defines the term as “the life Christ calls us to” – the first time he brought it up in a parish, he said it was sadly misunderstood as a call for money.
Stewardship is about sharing gifts of time and talent as well as treasure, the bishop explained, and Catholics are responsible for being stewards of their own gifts, as well as others’ gifts.
The day, he hoped, would help listeners “grow a little bit in that understanding” of the concept, as well as offering “many, many words of wisdom and insight that we can take back” to parishes.
Discipleship is key
“Stewardship is an expression of discipleship,” Corcoran began after an introduction by Tarnowski. “That’s where the need is – to call people to discipleship and to holiness.”
Corcoran talked briefly about his background – he grew up in Philadelphia, went to Catholic school, and attended Mass his whole life.
Despite his Catholic education, “I really wasn’t involved … growing up,” he said.
He studied political science at Loyola University; he’d envisioned a career in Washington, D.C., but after six months working in the nation’s capital, he changed his mind.
“I just decided the ethos of the town was not for me,” he said.
Wanting to propose to his girlfriend and in need of a paycheck, Corcoran interviewed for a youth ministry job at Nativity.
“I like to say that I got into ministry for the money,” he joked.
His intention was to stay until he found something better; now, he likes to tell people, “There is nothing better.”
Corcoran has held many positions in the parish. “I’ve gotten to see all these different aspects of parish life,” he said.
He’s learned a great deal, and Corcoran believes despite the size and style of a parish, many of those principles are transferrable.
“We leave that application to you,” he added. “Nobody knows everything about how to run a parish.” His job for the day, he said, was to take “what’s in my cup … and pour it into your cup.”
Leading off with a question – “Have you ever wondered, ‘Why am I here?’” – Corcoran painted a picture of Nativity before the rebuilding: lot of programs going on all the time, programs and events designed “just to try and get people engaged in the parish.”
“It led to burnout, because nothing was different after than before,” he said. “Nothing seemed to change about the parish and the people.”
Recognizing the need for change, Corcoran and Fr. White went back to the basics: Jesus’ instructions to the Apostles to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
On the parish level, your job is to make disciples of not only the people in the pews, but to make disciples of everyone in the community, he added. By his definition, “A disciple is a student who is growing to love God, love others and make disciples.”
Loving others means serving others, being encouraging, kind, etc. Jesus says we have to love our neighbor as ourselves, he continued, so love therefore depends upon our ability to care for ourselves.
Corcoran and Fr. White began visiting Protestant mega-churches to learn about their methods. They started at Saddleback, Rick Warren’s evangelical church in Lake Forest, California. One of the first things that struck them was the culture.
“The people were so much different from the people at our church,” he said. “They were so nice … and so kind and so happy to see us …. We began wondering, what is going on here? What is different about the people at Saddleback that is not true at our church?”
Despite the discomfort of being undercover Catholics, they continued visiting mega-churches.
“Growth is always outside our comfort zone,” he added.
As they were growing, the parish was growing, and a growing parish will have growing leaders, Corcoran explained. Three strategies have driven the transformation at their church.
First, they changed their focus from church people to the unchurched. Second, they prioritized the weekend for both Mass and programs. Third, they challenged people to take responsibility for their own faith and the mission of the church.
The loss of faith in U.S. culture is a big problem, which Corcoran believes can be solved with a sequence of small solutions implemented over time. The days of obligation – when people felt obligated to attend Mass – are long gone, which he thinks is both good and bad.
While some observant Catholics believe the pastor is supposed to “spoon-feed them” their faith, Corcoran said that is incorrect. Their job is to provide the environment, “but we can’t make people grow, and we can’t spoon-feed them – they need to own it.”
Meanwhile, “the unchurched is our growth market,” he said. They aimed to grow both deeper and wider in their mission – take members deeper in faith while reaching wider for the unchurched.
The process began by defining “Tim,” a hypothetical unchurched suburban man who represented all the people they were trying to attract. He grew up Catholic, stopped going after confirmation, and now, aged 35-45, has a stressful life, kids, tons of debt and may be struggling in his marriage.
“What he knows of Catholicism is a muddled mess” of what he remembers and what he has learned from “The Da Vinci Code,” said Corcoran.
The pastor and staff at Nativity focused on him and created an environment for him. For all marketing, branding, communications, programs, events and more, they asked themselves, “What would Tim think of that?”
Their relational investment strategy was simple; as the parish grew in faith, they asked people in the pews to reach out to family, friends, coworkers and others and invite them to Mass.
Music, message, ministers
The mantra at Nativity was “music, message, ministry.” As they sought to improve the parish, they focused on those three aspects.
Improving music required investment first through prayer and fasting, and then by moving less skilled musicians to different ministries, finding the right people with skill and heart and, in Nativity’s case, paying them.
Nativity has contemporary worship music, but Corcoran advises parishes to give some thought to what type of music will appeal to people in their community, and then implement that style.
The message – the homily – is the best opportunity to share God’s word, provide spiritual direction and teach, he added. It’s how the unconnected are fed.
“Words are powerful,” he said.
At Nativity, the homily is a group effort. A team comes together to discuss a theme (their Easter theme was “brand new”), and they all provide input to help gauge how it will “land” on parishioners of different ages and experiences. Corcoran leads and does research for the team. Then, Fr. White delivers the information in his homilies, often in a series that stretches a month or more.
Recruiting ministers – volunteers – to help with parking, greeting, hosting, childcare and more was a major undertaking. Again, using what they’d seen at mega-churches, they invited parishioners to invest their time and talents.
To encourage hospitality and fellowship, the parish also added an information desk and café. People, especially nonpracticing Catholics, come with baggage, he explained. Through kindness, they hoped to lower the unchurched person’s defenses, so the word of God could get through.
Overall, they focused on feeling over function. Although volunteers were performing duties that people could do themselves, the staff wanted visitors to feel welcomed and cared for; they looked for opportunities to “wow” people.
Consumers, contributors, committed
In his afternoon keynote, Corcoran began by talking about why people come to church, and what that means for overall parish health.
Some are consumers, simply coming to consume and leave. As they experience spiritual growth and take on the responsibilities of ministry, they become contributors. The most dedicated contributors – about 7 percent – rise to the level of committed.
When people start contributing more to the parish and reaching out into the community, the parish will grow, he said.
At Nativity, they have a five-step challenge for church people, designed to build discipleship.
First, serve in ministry or missions. “If you want to become like Jesus,” he emphasized, “you have to learn to serve.”
Second, tithe and give. At first, Corcoran said, he was “greedy” and didn’t want to share. But, he’s learned the more he gives, the more his finances have improved. In effect, God has given back.
Third, engage in a small group. “It is not good for us to be alone,” he said, referencing God’s words in Genesis 2:18 : “It is not good for the man to be alone.” We have both “a God-shaped hole and a human-shaped hole” in our hearts, Corcoran said, and small groups can help fill them.
“We have found that small groups … just build up the church,” he explained. People share more and grow personally.
Four, practice prayer and sacraments – as in actively practice.
Five, share your faith. “This is evangelization for us,” he added.
“We want people to grow as disciples,” he said. “How are we shaping them as disciples?” We want to “build up people’s individual faith, and build up the faith corporately.”
“How do we get people to do this?” he asked, and answered, “pray.”
“It’s gonna require prayer,” he said. “It’s gonna require the Holy Spirit.”
Then, move yourself. Lead by example.
Next, ask them to move.
“Leadership ultimately comes down to asking,” he said. “We are asking them to move out of their comfort zone, and people don’t actually move out of their comfort zone until you ask them.”
How you ask is the important part, Corcoran admitted. People give in to neediness once, not over time. Ask out of vision, not out of neediness.
Then, make movement accessible. “Are we putting rungs on the ladder?” he asked. One of the problems in church is we expect people to go from zero to 60, when they’re not there yet. So, start them out in easy ministries, and they will grow over time.
Also, set them up for success. “if someone joins a small group, we want to make sure they have a great experience,” he added. Invest and invite.
Next, celebrate movement. Corcoran is a big believer in encouragement – give a pat on the back, show gratitude, say thanks.
Finally, he advised listeners to persevere. Changing a church’s culture takes about three years, he estimates.
Two parishioners of St. Patrick Parish, Hudson, were honored with the Diocese of Superior’s 2019 Spirit of Stewardship Award.
Heidi Young and Claire Zajac both worked tirelessly to help the parish explore whether they were capable of taking responsibility for resettling Syrian refugees in the area. After the refugees ended up resettling elsewhere, the two women teamed up to create a monthly volunteer program for the parish. The full nomination submitted by Fr. John Gerritts, pastor of St. Patrick, is included in this issue.