Summer Outreach: It Is What Jesus Would Do!
Summer provides a great opportunity to do intentional outreach to families in your parish and also to families not registered at any Catholic parish. It really should be a part of every parish’s summer game plan.
Perhaps you have noted a drop in the numbers of students in your program in recent years. The aggregate figures reveal a steady and meaningful drop over the last five years diocesan-wide in children participating in parish faith formation. It is a disturbing reality and something we can take action to reverse.
Most programs send registration materials to families who had children in the program the previous year. (Parishes should also be using parish data to connect with families who have children reaching school age, be it Pre-K or 1st Grade.) This is a good core practice for any faith formation program to conduct annually. However, it is not nearly enough to communicate with those already on board.
There is a lot of talk today about the New Evangelization. And Pope Francis is continually raising eyebrows and hopes throughout the Church with his frank critique of a Church that can behave in an insular and self-protective mode. He is inviting us, as Jesus himself did, to see the world as our mission field. He is asking us to reach out.
Well, your ministry is at the heart of the mission field. If you see yourself merely maintaining the status quo, administrating a program that runs children through the sacramental system of the Church and nothing more, I would implore you to see things differently. The greatest evangelizing opportunity the Church has is to make a transforming difference in the faith lives of our Catholic families, fostering conversion in parents and providing a catechetical experience for children that is filled with joyful learning which attracts them to Christian discipleship and Catholic faith.
Quite a challenge, eh? I’d say daunting, in fact. And yet, where else can the Church interact with so many marginal and inactive Catholics. Absolutely nowhere.
I believe most of you, our directors and coordinators of parish religious education, agree with these sentiments. And I believe you desire to build ministries that can make an evangelizing difference in their families. (So much of our leadership formation is focused on how we can accomplish this.) But we have to do more to reach out to the marginal families in our parish and in our area, so that they can experience the good news of Jesus Christ and Catholic faith that is shared in parish faith formation.
Here are the practical suggestions I offer to make this a summer of outreach, where you can grow your program’s size and have more children and parents benefitting from the evangelizing catechesis that the parish is building:
- Communicate once, twice, even three times with families from last year still not registered for next year. This outreach should become personal at some point, with the catechetical leader or effective agents seeking a phone interaction or, even better, a sit-down time to talk through the dynamics of their family situation…and to do some gentle evangelizing along the way.
- Reach into the parish data base to surface families with children coming of school age (not registered, of course, in a Catholic school). I would strongly encourage a personal visitation with each of these families to establish a healthy relational dynamic from the start. Some families will register their child in the program strictly because the parish cared enough to connect with them!
- Use the parish data base to surface families that have come into the parish with children of catechetical age who are not registered in the program. Reach out to them in the most personal way possible. Also, make sure that the new parishioner registration process includes reference to the faith formation program for children. And you should always be alerted to such families as they register…for the purpose of outreach and invitation.
- Go back into your records to surface the families with children registered in the program two or three years back who were not in the program last year. Go after them, reaching out to them in an invitational manner. This absolutely sends the right message to these families (that ongoing faith formation for their children is of value; that the parish cares about their family) and will bring a number of them back into the program…and hopefully, eventually, active Catholic living!
- Put your marketing cap on and figure out ways to get the word out in your local area. There are truly many tens of thousands of inactive Catholic families in our diocese! Probably the majority are not registered anywhere, so your parish data base will be of no use in reaching them. Consider the local papers, other forms of media, posters and notices in shop windows and bulletin boards, etc. And don’t forget a prominent mention on your parish website home page, for those who seek out the parish online. Enlist your parishioners to invite neighbors to explore your parish, both for worship and for faith formation. Help them understand that we are all on for outreach today…it’s part of being Catholic today!
- Develop registration materials and marketing materials that are attractive. Perhaps the first round of communication to currently registered families doesn’t need to be attractive and in color…though it would be nice. But beyond that, everything that is created to bring families into the program needs to be done with a marketing flare, with an understanding that many of our folks will need to be persuaded to stay in, come back or come into the program. (The same, of course, is true for any parish marketing strategy.) For anyone who says “we can’t afford to do things in color” (for example), I really want to say “you can’t afford not to do marketing…attractive marketing…in color”. It’s an investment, an evangelizing investment!
If any and all of this seems like a lot of work, you would be right. But it doesn’t all have to fall on you. Tap some of those really great catechists and parents and involve them in the annual great summer outreach effort. (In truth, the parish staff could also be a part of this vital effort.) It can be fun to connect with people on the margins. You’ll be surprised at the positive engagement that will result with many of the parents. And you almost certainly will find some new catechists this way! Laboring in the Lord’s vineyard is a taxing and highly rewarding experience.Most of all, I want you to reflect upon two things as you consider all this. First, imagine those children (and parents) being positively impacted by the beautiful ministry you oversee next year…families that would not be there but for the intentional outreach you orchestrated during the summer.And second, I ask you to spend some time in prayer, intimate time with Jesus. He gave us his everything, and ultimately his life on the cross, for the salvation of just one soul…each soul. Look into his eyes, listen to his words of love for you and his gratitude that you are acting as his voice, his hands, his heart in the world today.
This is what new evangelization looks like. By connecting with and inviting the marginal you can serve to bring children and parents to Jesus and Catholic faith. There is nothing more important, more rewarding for us to accomplish in our life on this earth. You are in a position to do just that…through summer outreach and in countless other ways. How blessed you are!
Tom Quinlan is the Direcor of the Religious Education Office in the Diocese of Joliet.