Mary Lehr, director of faith formation for Mater Dei Parish, Sioux City, is using The 99: A New System for Evangelization, to help parishioners get involved in parish life in new ways. We spoke with her to learn how The 99 is transforming Mater Dei’s faith community. Here’s what she shared.
How are you using The 99, and what in what format?
Our parish just finished The 99 Experience last night and now we’re moving on with The 99 Handbook. We chose format one [in The Masterclass Guide] and we did it in the church. It was a large group with small group discussion, which I really really really liked.
I was a little nervous about it at the beginning, but we have the large screens in the church and so we did it with confession on the second day, and Adoration on the third, so it felt very appropriate to be in the church.
How did you find your leaders for The 99 Experience, and did you use The 99 Masterclass to train them ahead of time?
I went to our Thursday morning men’s prayer group, and I had someone else that was in that group help me present the vision, and we had our pastor come in and say, basically, we really need you guys to step forward to help us with this.
So we got a lot of our group leaders from there, and then I went into a Tuesday night Bible study group of men and women, and we got a few more volunteers out of that. Then I went after some of my go-to people, but there was part of me that didn’t really want to use all my go-to people because we’re trying to grow, right? So we’re asking people to kind of step out in faith and lead where they’ve not led before, and that was to me a total success!
That’s great to hear!
Absolutely, I was worried about getting the guys to help out, because a lot of them were very hesitant or skeptical. Some said, “I don’t know how to do this,” but at the mission I was so excited because I was just watching these guys lead that normally would have stayed within their small group environment. They reached out and started serving. It just doesn’t get any better than that!
That was the idea of The 99 as a system for evangelization. The idea is to take people through a master class and then put them into a leadership position for The 99 Experience.
Yes, it works. I really couldn’t take my eyes off of those guys serving for the first time like this. It was a very cool kind of moment, and then the other was that for the mission, The 99 Experience, we just didn’t hear anything but positives from people.
One woman shared with our pastor that The 99 Experience came from a different place. She said, “You know when I was young we learned this is what you’ve got to do, this is when you do it, and that’s it. Period. End of story.” and she said “This came from a totally different approach. It’s about a relationship.”
My response to hearing that was, “Yes, that’s what it is! That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.” Some of the questions were pretty intimate at the beginning, but watching the people that came to the mission start sharing right away. I saw the relationships happening.
How many people did you have at The 99 Experience?
We ended up having about a hundred. A lot of people think more is better, and I remember calling up Ascension and I said, “I’m not selling tickets so this is a little spooky because I’m trying to get all these small group leaders, and I have no idea how many people are going to show.” But the customer service representative told me that about a hundred is a good number, and so when it did happen I was so happy we were spot-on.
What was the reason you chose The 99? Was there a problem you had that you were looking to solve?
Well for one thing we started small groups, but I was finding that the small groups were just staying within themselves. There wasn’t this idea that you create other small group leaders so they can break off and start their own small groups.
So everything was staying in those little safe boxes. The 99 helped get people to look beyond that, which was awesome. Not only that, some of these guys that were very skeptical experienced that feeling of being a disciple where they would not have done that before.
And because they went through The 99 Masterclass beforehand it really validated that. We weren’t just handing them something and telling them this is what we’re going to do. They had to work for it. They were meeting extra time to do this, and they were able to see the fruit of that.
The other part of it is that we’re trying to move from the maintenance to the mission. Or another way of putting it is that we’re trying to move from playing side-by-side to face-to-face. I’m a preschool teacher and I see three-year-olds play side-by-side and when they developmentally reach four or five they start interacting with one another. Parishes are often more of a side-by-side—teaching knowledge without relationship. With The 99 I was watching the relationship happen. I felt like it was a very uplifting family environment for the last three days, and I was amazed how people were just willing to share right off the bat.
The discussions kept on going. I would go up to try to do a transition to the next video, and people would say, “sit back down, we’re still talking.” which is awesome.
I’m not a person that has a candy-coated view of things, so I’m sharing this to be able to say that God is truly working in this, and sometimes it may not get us where we want to be at this moment, but at least we’re not where we used to be.
I see The 99 as a stepping stone, and I’m praying that we’re building a momentum that we can work with to move forward.
I have to say that there were parts in the videos that were very touching, and they really drew from the heart. When I was going through everything I said, “OK, if it’s touching me, and I’m kind of a tough egg to crack, I really feel that these videos are going to touch other people.” And that is what ended up happening.
So what are you planning to do now that you have run The 99 Experience for your parish mission?
At the mission we gave clipboards to each small group, and on the clipboard everybody put their name and their contact information. We’ll create an email or a text messaging group from those contacts.
We also had them write which day of the week would work best for them for a small group. Moving forward the ideal will be if the small group leaders for The 99 Experience will continue on for the seven weeks of follow-up with The 99 Handbook.
If we have trouble forming small groups we’ll continue to meet in a large group and break up into small groups using The 99 Handbook, and see what forms from there.
So you are hoping that the small groups that you’re forming with The 99 Handbook will eventually be able to do other things as well?
Right, and the idea would be the same if we did a large group that breaks up and discusses The 99 Handbook. The whole idea would be to kind of get them involved in more small groups from there.
I would also like for the leaders from The 99 Experience, many of whom are guys, to go into our different already existing groups at the parish like the Knights of Columbus. Why can’t we do a mission just for them? We’ve gone through the Masterclass already, so we could go into different groups within our parish and run The 99 Experience for them as well.
We are also thinking that if we run The 99 Experience in the summertime we could go to a couple of other groups in the parish and have them go through the Masterclass, and just do that same thing until we run through all the existing small groups that we have right now.
I like the way it worked with this mission, and I would like to continue doing that but involve other groups like the Knights, or our ninth grade confirmation kids. Now that we have the package deal and we know what we’re doing we could easily run this again. One of the guys that helped me out from the men’s group said he thinks we could possibly run it three times a year.
Wow. Many people might say that they couldn’t reach enough people to run The 99 Experience three times a year.
One thing that I really liked, and I didn’t realize how valuable it was right away, is the power of the personal invitation. We could do Catholic radio or put posters up and all those things. Yes, that’s an aspect, but the main reason we saw success is because people invited others personally. We had a strong initial team that went out there and took on that task.
It’s difficult to get people on that because they always slide back to, “Well did we announce it?” Well yeah we did, but I’m just telling you, what if your team invites, let’s say, six people each? With the twenty leaders that we had, we have a mission already. And not only that, we have people that would not normally be there and those are the people that we’re really focusing on. Even though there’s also a renewal for the people that we’re seeing at Sunday Mass.
You know how much we just love when we invite somebody who has a good experience. Especially if that’s that one person that you know has fallen away, or that one person that has just one “Oh, I get it!” moment.
We’re getting to that paradigm change that admits we have to do this, not that our pastor has to be the one. No, you have to invite people. That’s where the success of this comes from, so we’re still learning that.
So you’re hoping that maybe The 99 could be an avenue to start creating an invitational culture in different groups within the parish?
Yes, I had my own son-in-law who came and hadn’t been to confession in ten years. He went during the second session. I mean that was a touchdown!
Our pastor said, “We call this a big fish night.” When I asked him why, he said it was because there were a lot of people that hadn’t been to confession in a long time.
Thank you so much for sharing all of this, Mary.
I’m just going to add something here. I started in parish life a couple years ago and [we had some big events with some big Catholic speakers] and they were awesome, but there was nothing afterwards. I didn’t get anybody back for the book, and I thought to myself “something’s wrong here.” Somehow people have to be submerged a little bit longer than one night. A one-night event doesn’t cut it. If you’re trying to grow your faith then those could be wonderful moments, but to try to get somebody to come out of what their lifestyle is at this point to enter into something different, it wasn’t reaping a lot of fruit that way.
So I thought, “We need to do a mission.” And all of a sudden the emails were coming in [from Ascension] saying The 99 is a three-day mission, and I thought it looked outstanding. I don’t have to pay to bring a speaker in. I have the greatest speakers, several of them, within this mission.
I don’t have to put all the emphasis on just doing that one event, and then wonder what to do when the event is over. With The 99, I have master-class trained leaders, and they started to have relationships in the small groups.
This is really well done, which is so amazing because I try so many things. To have something that actually worked like this just added to the wow factor.
I just wanted to add that part because I wanted you to understand the journey to the point where I am sitting here, and I’m no longer throwing things up against the wall to see what sticks.
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Matt Pirrall is a filmmaker and photographer based in West Chester, Pennsylvania and has been producing video series for Ascension since 2015. The programs he has produced include The 99, the Rejoice series, The Ascension Lenten Companion, Joy-Filled Marriage, and numerous videos for Ascension Presents. Matt is passionate about sharing the truth through the lens of beauty, and has been blessed to be able to collaborate with many gifted people in that pursuit.