Parishes make welcoming a priority - Catholic Courier

Parishes make welcoming a priority

Notice to Churchville residents: Don’t hang up too fast. It may not be telemarketers ringing your phones in the next few months.

Instead it may be volunteers from St. Vincent DePaul Parish calling to let parishioners know about the parish’s Web site, ministries and other new features.

The calls are part of an effort to make personal contact with every member, make sure they are getting the services they need, and offer to pray for any special intentions the parishioners may have. The calls also will afford an opportunity to tell parishioners about the parish Web site, which features parish bulletins, audio files of Sunday homilies, and a video on the parish’s history and ministries.

Such efforts by St. Vincent DePaul are one example of the many ways parishes throughout the diocese are reaching out to different populations, including active and inactive members, newcomers and vacationers.

According to the 2000 U.S. bishops’ pastoral statement “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity,” Scriptures continually stress the importance of hospitality as they recall the nomadic nature of the exiled Israelites. Similarly, St. Paul’s letters to the Christians in Rome direct them to exercise hospitality (Romans 12:13).

Parish-hospitality ministers note that parishes throughout the diocese are putting that message of hospitality into action. Here are some of the methods they have been trying.

* Making a concerted effort to reach out.

Pastoral Administrator Charlotte Bruney said St. Vincent DePaul’s parish pastoral council borrowed the idea for calling all parishioners from St. Patrick Parish in Victor, which had been talking about doing the same thing.

To get the Churchville effort started, a request went out for volunteers who enjoyed chatting on the phone. The volunteers then gathered for a practice session to figure out what they wanted to say.

Bruney said the hope is that volunteers will call again several months after the first contact, to maintain the connection they established initially.

“Hopefully some people we’ll call will say this is a great idea,” said Dan Noonan, a member of the parish pastoral council and of the Five Saints West Planning Group, of which St. Vincent DePaul is a part. “I did a dry run with my sister, who gave me a really hard time. But at the end, she said, ‘This is a good idea.'”

* Clearly identifying a point of contact for newcomers.

St. Vincent DePaul has tried to do this by having parish-council members, parish staff and ushers wear name badges at Masses each weekend so that people will know whom to approach if they have questions.

At St. Rita Parish in Webster, members of the Newcomers Welcome Committee are stationed at the entrance and exit to greet people before and after Masses and to spot those who may be new to the large, suburban parish. Each week, the parish welcomes about three new families.

Newcomers receive a welcome packet of information on the parish, its ministries and school, and they are asked to fill out ministry/stewardship cards that are then given to the church office, said Betsy McDermott, coordinator of the parish newcomers committee.

Copies of the cards are given to a greeting-card-ministry volunteer who sends welcome cards to newcomers, and to another volunteer who phones newcomers to make sure that they know about the parish’s services and ministries.

* Using food and humor to put people at ease.

McDermott said two key components of St. Rita’s welcome packets are a bit of humor, in the form of 10 fun facts about the parish, and a bit of breakfast, in the form of a free ticket to the parish’s Breakfast Club. The club has been serving a restaurant-style breakfasts to parishioners after Sunday Masses for the past 36 years.

“We give them a free ticket for our Breakfast Club, and encourage them to come to breakfast to meet other parishioners,” McDermott said.

Food also helps form new friendships at the six-parish Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community in Yates, Ontario and Steuben counties, where parish ranks swell by 20 percent to 30 percent each summer due to the influx of vacationers, said Father Robert Ring, pastor.

At St. Michael Parish in Penn Yan, for example, parishioners enjoy refreshments and time for hospitality following Masses, he said, noting that monthly events with food also help the summer population to mingle with the year-round population and have fun.

“Bring the food, and people will come,” Father Ring remarked.

* Helping people overcome barriers.

Even if health or other reasons prevent people from attending church, many parishes try to make them feel welcome through the use of visitation ministries.

Louise Carson, a pastoral minister at Good Shepherd Parish in Henrietta, coordinates visitation ministries at her parish as well as Guardian Angels Parish in Henrietta and St. Joseph Parish in Rush. She said more than 50 visitors at the parishes visit and bring Communion each week to the homebound and those living in nursing homes, hospitals and group homes.

Visitation ministers provide strictly spiritual and pastoral care, but can make sure that volunteers follow up by phone if other needs are identified.

“Lots of times, (those being visited) may feel apologetic because they are not going to church,” Carson said. “It helps them to realize that even if they are not able to come, that we still care about them, and they are important.”

Carson said the visits help remind people that God is still a part of their lives, even if they are unable to attend church.

“Because I am coordinator of the whole thing, it makes me feel good that so many people are made to feel important and not deserted,” Carson said.

* Involving the entire parish in the mission of welcoming.

To illustrate how important it is for an entire parish community to be welcoming, Father Ring quoted a phrase he has posted in his office: “Some people are kind, polite and sweet-spirited until you try to sit in their pews.”

People tend to do things in a certain way or sit in a certain spot, and this can make it difficult for new people to join, he said. After Masses, for example, regulars may focus solely on talking to their friends, whom they haven’t seen for a week.

“That can leave people who are new out,” Father Ring said. “It does take a concerted effort for people to try to reach out to people who are new.”

However, one benefit of having newcomers is that they can help a church community transform, he said.

“It makes the celebrations a lot more energetic when the church is full,” he said. “Our parishes value that people coming from a lot of different places have a different way of seeing things.”

* Making a conscious effort to include newcomers in ministries.

Deacon Dan Williams, chair of the rural-social-ministry subcommittee of the Central Steuben Catholic Parishes planning group, said rural parishes have been successful in welcoming newcomers by involving them in such ministries as bereavement and social ministries, or such liturgical ministries as preparing the church for Mass.

Rather than putting together a program about welcoming, the planning group has found it more fruitful to talk about being welcoming and make an effort to consciously welcome newcomers into the parish, Deacon Williams said.

“It may seem like extra work to train someone to do something that you do now, and they may not do it exactly as you do, but it’s important to recognize the value of bringing new blood into any organization, and especially the church,” he said.

Parishes leaders should model their styles after Jesus, whose ministry was fully inclusive, Deacon Williams said.

“To be inclusive is to bring people into the fold,” he said.

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