I heard about the people of Rebuilt for the first time around Christmas 2013. I remember I was feeling a bit unsure of how to minister to my parish, Sacred Heart in Racine.
Sacred Heart was not a bad parish by any means, but I felt something was lacking. My parishioners and I needed something more, a new spark that would produce a new path. Paul, a parishioner, gifted me a book called “Rebuilt” for Christmas. The title of the book and the words on the cover, “Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost and Making Church Matter,” captivated me right away.
I started reading the book that night. It told the story of a priest and a lay associate who did just that: they rebuilt their parish; they woke up their parishioners. It was well-written, combining humor, recognizing the difficulties I had experienced myself, and proposing clear, doable solutions. It resonated with many things I had started to try right around that time, and it did answer the question that was on my mind: how do I make faith relevant for my people?
The book — and three others Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran have written since — have come off of my shelf many a time. Many of the things that are part of the way I minister today — a small-groups ministry we call FaithGroups, screens in church, hospitality teams, a calculated social-media presence, an insistence on cleanliness in our facilities (a never-ending battle), simplicity in our parish registration forms (you should see what we used to have), the importance of mindful parish communications — from the homily to the website, to any flier we produce — including the Two Guys and a Gospel podcast, all started that night.
But all these things are just details surrounding the basic idea I just heard Tom Corcoran preach about at the closing of the Rebuilt Conference: Church is difficult but our mission is simple: just turn parishioners into disciples of Jesus. Simple, but not easy.
I have visited many parishes in my life, but I have never seen anything like the parish of Rebuilt, Nativity of the Lord in Timonium, Maryland. When I heard that in April they were offering again their Rebuilt Conference in their newly built facilities (they literally rebuilt), I knew I had to come. After reading all the books they have written and after watching many homilies online, I was not really surprised by anything they said in the keynote sessions or the breakout sessions.
I also knew the kind of wonderful, motivated people who would attend the conference. What I was not really prepared for was to experience the amazing energy of the place, and to realize that behind the public faces of the enterprise — Fr. White and Tom Corcoran — there was an amazing professional staff. They were confident but humble; articulate; radically honest about their failures; contagiously excited about their shared mission. And they all smiled. Only that smile could teach a lot to many people who work at or attend any parish.
I was not prepared to see hundreds of parishioner volunteers. Even if I should have known better, since it was explained in the books, it was just a sight to see. I should have known that they would park in the streets so we, the guests, would have access to the church’s parking lot. I really was not ready to meet John, an accountant in his day job who told me his volunteering at Nativity (the church of Rebuilt) was his real vocation … and he told me this while he was cleaning the men’s restroom.
There are also technical leads and best practices to learn in several areas. In human resources, we were told that we, in parishes, hire quickly and fire slowly. Meaning, make sure you take your time and use a good process to find the right fit (hire slowly) but also, be courageous when it is time to confront the reality that someone (staff or volunteers) does not fit the vision of what parish leaders may be trying to do. As painful as this can be, and it is, we do not always do this quickly enough and the whole vision suffers greatly. I also attended several of the breakout sessions on religious education.
There I learned the importance of committed volunteers, key to guaranteeing the quality of the programs, avoiding always the temptation to be a silo, something isolated from the rest of the parish. The idea that parishioners are not consumers or clients, but rather people called to a mission of evangelization, is very much part of the philosophy of how children, youth and preparation for the different sacraments is done. The other area of interest to me was technology. The people of Nativity have given a lot of thought and utilize technology extensively. But the first amazing thing I heard when I went to that workshop was that the idea was to make technology as non-intrusive as possible — a simple but powerful concept. Discussing technology, I realized once again that it is about connectedness to the overall mission of the place. Everything is at the service of making disciples, of not letting people become passive consumers of faith.
Still, I could have taken all this from watching online. I would not have met in person Daniel, the fantastic youth minister who would not stop smiling while giving us a great vision for what he does; or Kelly, speaking passionately about how to get, keep, thank and retain volunteers for the religious education program she directs. I would not have met Michael, a youngster half my age who has put together the whole technological operation. Or Brandon, the finance person behind the whole operation who patiently and kindly answered my 86 different questions each time I bumped into him during the conference.
The people of Rebuilt are part of the Amazing Parishes initiative. In October, Amazing Parishes will hold a conference in Milwaukee and all of our parishes are invited to take part. This is an opportunity for all of us to learn and to share best practices that will help all of us as we continue rebuilding our parishes.
At the closing session, Tom Corcoran reminded us of the words of the Apostle Paul about our identity: we are “more than conquerors.” (Romans 8:37) We are called to conquer the many difficulties we encounter as we continue fulfilling the mission Jesus entrusted to us, making our parishes places where people can become and grow as disciples of Christ.