Matthew Sewell is the author of the popular “Popes in a Year” daily email series, and hosts The Popecast, a podcast about papal history. Matthew writes about intriguing stories from Church history, the messiness of the Christian life, and (occasionally) insights into Catholicism through Denver Broncos football. By day, he works at Flocknote to help parishes and dioceses build a more connected Church. Matthew, his wife, and their unborn child make their home in Spokane, Washington.
On a Sunday morning not long ago, I was having breakfast with one of those friends you don’t see often enough, despite living in the same town and attending the same parish. He’s a single guy, mid-30s, on fire for the faith, but – working in the private sector – doesn’t have much time left over in the day to keep up on the latest news in the Church.
As we enjoyed our diner bacon and eggs, he asked at one point what I thought of all the turmoil we’ve been wading in over the past several months, knowing that I’m a bit of a junkie for Church happenings. I shared some thoughts, but the more memorable part of the conversation came when he shared a story of his own from late last summer.
Our diocese was conducting its annual fundraising appeal at the time, and my friend mentioned how he’d decided not to participate. With the clerical abuse scandal raging afresh, why, he wondered aloud, should he make a gift to an organization that seems hapless in its care for souls, and is so guilty in covering up the crimes of evil men?
Not two days later, he received an email from Bishop Thomas Daly, sent directly to all Catholics in the Diocese of Spokane. In the email was a new, 4-minute video of the bishop speaking (with his usual frankness) about the diabolical nature of the abuse crisis and the degeneracy of the clerics responsible, and ultimately about our need to face the scandal head-on.
That combination – a direct message from a Christ-centered, plain-spoken bishop, to whom my friend’s soul was (and is) entrusted – was enough to make him reconsider. He changed course, and happily supported the work of his bishop.
Of course, the end goal of preaching the Gospel is not to make money (though some may disagree). Rather, this is a real example of a bishop connecting with a member of the Church, and through this one instance likely galvanizing my friend’s faith in his local Church far into the future.
It isn’t rocket science. The same steps Bishop Daly and his diocese took to be able to directly reach parishioners are the very same that any successful organization takes when transforming a normal mode of operation.
1. Be committed to the mission.
Bishop Daly is a man of great faith – both in Jesus Christ, and in His Church. His defining phrase has continued to be “Compassion always, compromise never.” As he began his tenure in Spokane back in 2015, I wrote then that his words show, “at the same time, a softness of heart and a rich and abiding integrity of mission that’s both all too uncommon and desperately needed in our world today.”
The end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount exhorts the Christian faithful, “do not worry about your life … But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:25;33) This applies equally to the individual as well as the whole.
The first step in any successful project of renewal in a diocese or parish is understanding and staying true to the mission. A parish or diocese that isn’t on mission in service of the Gospel in every fiber of its operation and zealously in pursuit of winning souls for Christ is doing nothing but managing its own decline, waiting for its inevitable death.
2. Make a smart, informed decision.
Long before my friend’s story occurred, Bishop Daly recognized that he desired a way to reach more of his people directly, and recognized the same need in his pastors & parish leaders. Better than the bulletin, better than having pastors read a letter at all the masses, and better than simply posting something on social media. Though all three provide benefit for other reasons, none were remotely efficient at reaching parishioners directly, at a moment’s notice. Bishop Daly needed something better.
Several of his parishes were already using Flocknote, an email & text messaging tool built for the Church, and sung the praises of this tool for keeping the parish and all its ministries connected to their people and with each other. Flocknote leverages the reality that email and text messaging – with 40-60% and 98% open rates, respectively – are the two most common uses of the average person’s smartphone, and requires little effort on the part of parishioners to connect. No downloads, no passwords.
Bishop Daly polled the priests of the diocese after presenting them with the same information. Seeing an overwhelming majority interest, he made the decision to equip every parish with Flocknote and unite the diocese on a common platform. With the new diocesan setup, Bishop Daly not only gave his pastors a way to reach their people quickly, but opened up a vital avenue for parishioners to hear from their bishop, and for him to hear back from them.
3. Endure opposition.
Change is inevitable, but so is the aversion to it.
Heck, it’s written in our very bodies, when as children we constantly grow, and in so doing we experience literal growing pains. We see the same phenomenon playing out in the Gospel, particularly in John 6, with Jesus’ Eucharistic teaching and the reaction of horror on the part of many disciples.
But Jesus also gives us the method of responding to such opposition. He doesn’t soften the teaching, nor does he change his course in an effort to win everyone over, because he knows that the path He’s chosen will lead to the greatest flourishing for those who follow.
If we’re dedicated to the mission, and we’ve come to a smart, informed decision, why should we care what other people think?
Earlier in the Gospels, Mary didn’t sit around wondering if she “had it in the budget” to travel to the hill country of Judea, nor did she hem and haw wondering if it would fit into her busy schedule. When the Lord called her, she “arose and went in haste.” (Luke 1:39)
4. Expect transformation.
In his most recent book, The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity, Matthew Kelly notes “our dirty little secret” as humans and as Christians “that we don’t want our lives transformed.” We’re comfortable with the way things have always been done, at least compared with the prospect of letting our lives be transformed by God.
Related to this, Kelly writes, is the reality that:
“We also don’t really want our local church communities transformed. We have become comfortable here too. We would like to change a few things around here and there, but these changes are borne from our own selfish preferences, not from a passionate desire to change the world.”
The story of my friend is but one example of a diocese trying something new.
For other examples, look to the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Unleash the Gospel evangelization campaign, or the new More Than You Realize project currently being championed by many dioceses and parishes around the country.
The Diocese of Wichita, with free Catholic education and 30 years of their tithing model of stewardship in place, has enjoyed the rich fruit of ordaining 27 new priests in the last three years alone.
There are many great stories out there. But there aren’t enough.