This past week, the vast majority of our deacons and priests gathered in Casper for the annual clergy institute. This year, we had Sherry Weddell for our presenter. She is well known in the Church for her book, Forming Intentional Disciples and the follow-up book of Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.
Sherry has a commanding knowledge of cutting edge statistics on the life of the Church, and even more importantly, she has a vast experience built from personal conversations with people of all walks of life. She has led workshops for the majority of dioceses in the United States, and is working with others around the world.
The first session on Tuesday evening could have been quite depressing. Many present statistics tell us we have much work to do in our parishes. The number of Catholics who have left the Church in the last decade is greater than the numbers of those entering the Church. The number of people claiming to have no religious affiliation is also on the rise. But, there are some encouraging factors.
People describe themselves with greater liberty today. This means that they use language that ‘means’ something to me, but may not mean the same thing to them. This was for me one of the great ‘take aways’ from this training session. We must enter into relationships and conversations with people. We must invite them to tell us their story about their lived relationship with God. Then, we must listen, listen, listen, and ask lots of clarifying questions.
One mistake I made as a pastor years ago was making far too many assumptions about why people did what they did, or were not doing what I expected them to do. The only way to get accurate information is to ask people to tell you their story. Then, we must listen in a way that respects their story, does not impose any of our presumptions or judgments, and does not try to answer questions they are not yet asking.
Then, once we build some trust in this relationship, then and only then can we accompany them in their journey of faith. Once we are allowed to accompany, then we can begin to share our own story and our relationship with Christ. Our desire is obviously to lead people to Christ, and through him to the Church and the sacraments. From there, we help each person discover their gifts and how God is calling them forth to produce some fruit in others.
It is always good to get the clergy together for ongoing formation. Equally important are the opportunities to pray together, celebrate Mass, and enjoy some fraternity. For me, there were also many meetings, trying to make the best use of having all the priests and deacons together in one spot for a few days.
We are blessed with a great presbyterate, with many gifts and generous hearts in serving the needs of the People of God. It was a fruitful and enjoyable couple of days together.