By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT — While recuperating from surgery several years ago, Father Jay Davidson wondered what he could do to help raise his parish to a new level. The pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Evansville, Ind., came across Paul Wilke’s book “Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices.” It inspired the creation of St. Anthony’s Excellent Parishes Project. As part of that project, a five-member team recently visited the Davenport Diocese to exchange ideas about providing and promoting excellence in parishes.
Visits were made in mid-November to four parishes, three of them profiled in the book “Servant Leadership Models for Your Parish” by Dan Ebener, the Davenport Diocese’s director of Stewardship and Parish Planning.
St. Anthony’s representatives — Fr. Davidson, C. Justin Clements, Lisa Covington, Paula Lattner and Gayle Uebelhor — visited St. Mary parishes in Solon and Iowa City and Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton. Uebelhor represented the Evansville group in a separate visit to St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Bloomfield.
Fr. Davidson said the group witnessed a lot of energy during parish visits. “People are looking at moving their parish forward — very impressive.”
The visits “validated the things we’re doing. We’re not operating in isolation,” said Clements, who authored the book “Stewardship: A Parish Handbook” and gives workshops on the subject.
Bloomfield parishioners inspired Uebelhor. “It’s a small parish and they know it’s a small parish. They are committed to it and help out each other.” He pointed to the religious education program as an example. Students and catechists meet one Sunday a month for three hours because that schedule works best. “It’s their way of ministering to their particular needs,” Uebelhor said.
Covington noted the “importance of spiritual renewal among the people.” At St. Mary’s in Solon, for example, more than 125 adults are participating in small community sharing groups to study Father Robert Barron’s DVD series on Catholicism. “We have eight different adult groups — five meet here and three meet in people’s homes on Sunday nights,” said Julie Agne, the parish’s director of religious education. One group’s members have grown so close they took a vacation together, she added.
The Solon parish appreciated the Evansville parish’s efforts to lift up parishioners and welcome newcomers. “It’s always great to get together with others who are passionate about making their parish come alive, sharing ideas and hearing what works and doesn’t work,” Agne said.
A concern for St. Anthony’s — like so many parishes around the country — is a dwindling population of parish priests, and providing ministry that keeps parishioners engaged in their parish. St. Anthony’s, with about 600 families, can’t afford to hire all of the people needed for various ministries. Parish leaders have concentrated on hiring a few key individuals, such as Lattner, who has implemented strategies for welcoming newcomers and encouraging volunteers to step forward. Among the welcoming techniques: introducing newcomers before Mass and taking their photographs so that greeters, ushers and other parishioners get to know them. St. Anthony’s places a high priority on hospitality, beginning with the pastor, said Lattner, director of ministries.
“I get to church a half-hour before Mass roaming the pews and greeting people,” Fr. Davidson said. He listens to what’s going on in their lives, which helps him feel more connected to the congregation as he begins Mass.
“Our goal is to share what we’re learning not only with the parishes in our diocese, but throughout the U.S. with training sessions and workshops, which we’ve already begun to do,” said Clements, who plans to publish another book based on the group’s research and experiences in providing and promoting excellence.
Ebener said the Evansville group “fed our parishes as much as we were feeding them information and ideas. They shared great stories about what works and doesn’t work in an excellent parish, and I believe St. Anthony’s has an excellent parish.”