Several years ago, a woman in my archdiocese went through a painful divorce. She was upset to learn that her parish didn’t offer a ministry to help her in her struggles.
A year later, she learned about Surviving Divorce. At first, she was angry. Why weren’t any Catholic parishes in the archdiocese offering this? Then she became convicted. Her parish needed to step up and provide this ministry to divorced and separated Catholics! Finally, she was scared. She knew she had to approach her pastor.
When the time for the meeting came, her heart was pounding. She walked into her pastor’s office and went through her arguments for having a Surviving Divorce program at the parish. When she was done, she was surprised to see that the pastor was smiling. He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a complete Surviving Divorce starter kit.
“I knew as soon as I saw this that we needed this ministry,” he said. “I’ve been praying for months that someone would step up and lead it.”
The Reality of Parish Life
It’s easy to spot what’s lacking in a parish. It takes fortitude to actually take on the responsibility to remedy it.
In this case, the woman actually did agree to lead the ministry and became a blessing to the entire archdiocese. Once she began her program, nearby parishes began to recommend their parishioners to it. Others began to offer it themselves. It’s sad to think how many people could have been left without support if she hadn’t had the courage to talk to her pastor, and then to start the program herself.
Unfortunately, I can say from my own experience that many Catholics (myself included) wouldn’t have started it. We would have been angry that the program didn’t’ exist at our parish, and believed that someone else should have started it. This someone else could have been a priest, another parishioner, a deacon, or just someone with more experience leading ministries.
There are two problems with this mindset. The first is that it assumes priests, other heavily involved parishioners, or deacons have the time to start a new ministry. Many, if not most, are already stretched to the breaking point and simply cannot take on new ministries if they are going to fulfill their other obligations.
The second problem goes much deeper.
Victim or Missionary?
When I notice something that frustrates me in the Church (or in the world, really), I find it helpful to stop and ask myself if I am approaching the problem as a victim or as a missionary.
A victim has no control or power over their situation. For example, a parishioner who wants a ministry becomes a victim when they are hurt and angered by the parish not offering it, and stops there. A missionary will realize that they have recognized the problem, and now they need to be a part of the solution.
There are steps to getting a ministry started, which I have outlined below. However, I think many people would be surprised at how much their pastors want ministries to exist but just haven’t found anyone to help lead them. They need their parishioners to act like missionaries.
That’s the secret to starting a parish ministry: Be willing to start it.
Steps to Starting a Parish Ministry
- Assess the need. Is this something your parish needs, or is it simply something you are passionate about? What is the demographic of people who need this ministry? Are there other ministries that would overlap?
- Check your availability. Do you have the ability to take this ministry on now, or are you maxed out with your current responsibilities? Will it work better for your calendar to meet year-round, or to take breaks? Should you meet weekly, semi-monthly, or monthly?
- Pray. You should really do this the whole way through. Pray for the gaps in your parish, the prudence and wisdom to help in an appropriate way, for those who need to be served, and pray by name for those who could join the group.
- Research. Are there similar ministries in other parishes nearby? Does your parish need its own ministry, or could you join up with them? What are other parishes doing that work well? How much time, money, and resources will the ministry require?
- Approach your parish leadership. Talk to your pastor and ministry team. Get their blessing for the ministry to proceed. Ask about ways you can advertise the ministry, and how to sign up for space (unless you plan to meet off the parish grounds, like in a house or a cafe).
- Create a plan. Make goal dates for having a space reserved, ordering materials, picking a time, advertising, and beginning and ending the sessions (if applicable).
- Explore advertising. Call or email your diocesan communications office and ask to be added to the diocesan calendar of events. Get the ministry on the parish and diocesan social media. See if you can put reminders in the bulletin and potentially do a pulpit talk, or have the ministry added to the intentions at Mass. Use word of mouth with your parish friends. Look into advertising at nearby parishes.
- Start small. Having just a few people sign up for a new ministry is normal. Groups tend to grow as they gain a good reputation, so don’t be discouraged by a low turnout.
- Remember hospitality. Provide some kind of refreshments or nourishment for the first meeting, even if they’re just cheap cookies. Make sure all participants know where to park and where the restrooms are located. If possible, make the space look inviting.
- Never stop praying. If you stop praying once the group starts, then the one at the heart of your ministry is you, not Christ. Praying for your members by name can help you stay attuned to God’s plan for the ministry. For more on the importance of prayer in ministry, I recommend reading Soul of the Apostolate.
There are cases where a new ministry just isn’t going to work, or where the pastor doesn’t want to implement it. You can still be a missionary by praying for that community or perhaps finding another way to put your talents and passion to work.
There are also cases where someone is genuinely hurt and cannot be a missionary yet. For example, the first year after the woman’s divorce was not an appropriate time for her to start a ministry. She needed to experience her own healing before she could minister to others.
Whatever your situation, you can start a ministry with God’s help and patience. If you do want to start a ministry and just need ideas, take a look at Ascension’s wide variety of programs for small groups and parishes. You may just find a program you didn’t even know existed.
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Melissa Keating is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in St. Louis. She has been writing weird things that Catholics seem to like since her freshman year at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where she graduated with degrees in communications and foreign languages in 2012. Melissa then took her oddball talents to the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), where she helped found the Digital Campus. She has worked on award-winning multi-media stories for the Archdiocese of Denver and contributed to The Catholic Hipster Handbook before moving back home to St. Louis, where she helped parishes start support groups for the bereaved and the divorced and separated.