What are your spiritual needs?

In previous postings, I've shared how important it is that people feel their spiritual needs are being met within their faith communities, and the connection between deep relationships and spiritual needs. This Lenten season seems a good time for us to reflect on this from a personal perspective and to hear what others are thinking.

How would you describe your spiritual needs?  I asked this question at the beginning of the Spiritual Needs Survey, not really knowing what to expect. I suspected that many of the respondents would simply skip the question, not knowing where or how to begin to describe something so deeply personal and sacred. Yet hundreds of people have answered the question. In many ways, their responses resonate with my own spiritual yearnings, and give voice to the infinite longing we each have to know God's presence, allow it to fill our hearts, shape our lives, and make a difference in the way we live, day-to-day, week-to-week, Sunday-to-the rest of life. Hear what a few respondents have said:

"I feel a need for "more" and I'm not sure what the "More" is..." (Female, 36-50)

"A deep sense of thirsting for Jesus." (Male, 51-65)

"I would like ways to discuss spiritual development as a young adult moving into my 30's and how to have a stronger relationship with God in today's society and fast-paced living." (Female, 26-35)

"I hunger for a body of Christ committed to living the Gospel in all that we do. A community where we can gather and nourish one another intellectually, spiritually, and lovingly. A community that is then sent forth into the world like the disciples to proclaim a Gospel of peace and justice for all, starting with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed." (Male, 18-25)

This one seems to sum up the sentiments of many who have responded: 

"Intimate prayer, intentional community, loving body of believers, ability to ask big, deep questions." (Female, 18-25)

What are your spiritual needs? How are your spiritual needs met? I have given these questions much thought in the past five years, particularly after reading responses such as the ones above. It seems to me that as pastoral leaders, we sometimes forget that many/most/all of the people whom we encounter in our parishes experience spiritual longing. Perhaps we know this in our hearts, yet in the daily demands of ministry, we lose sight of this reality. The responsibility to teach, prepare people for sacraments, respond to their pastoral needs and encourage them to offer service to others is often our focus, and rightfully so. Yet, without attending to these deeper spiritual yearnings, all of the other things we do will fall flat. 

What would happen if our parishes truly became communities of disciples in which we join with others in deep relationship, rooted in faith? What would be the impact of friendships in which the questions, yearning, and longing for "More" is acknowledged and through which we become more attentive to the always-present, abundant love of God for us and for all? Lives would be changed, no doubt. The mission of Jesus Christ would be carried out in new ways. As a young man responded on the survey, each of us would acquire "an everyday willingness and sacrifice to do what God needs me to do."

The Spiritual Needs Survey says...

“I am constantly wrestling with the world around me and my own idiosyncrasies. My faith, family, and friends keep me going but I still feel I need some direction -- something I have to do for God but I don’t know what. I feel something is missing and I am still trying to figure out what it is.” Male, 36-50 years of age.

In working with parishes that are actively building engagement, leaders often focus first on clarifying expectations and helping parishioners discover their talents. These two foundational elements of the engagement process are clear and actionable, and engagement often increases following intentional action in these two areas.[1] When parishes consider the importance of meeting people’s spiritual needs, however, things become more complicated. They often ask:

    What are people’s spiritual needs?

   Do people not realize that our spiritual needs are met within the Mass and sacraments? What connections are they missing?

   Where do we start? If we are to build on something that is already present and working in our parish life, what is that, and how do we do it?

The Spiritual Needs Survey was developed with these questions in mind. The survey is akin to a large, international focus group. The people who participate choose to do so. Knowing this, it is important to recognize that respondents are likely to:

   be an active member of the parish who is interested in spiritual growth, or;

   attend Mass regularly enough to have an interest in the survey, or;

   be among the actively disengaged who want to be sure their negative impressions have been heard.

 With this understanding, the insights gleaned from the international focus group may help us identify aspects of parish life that contribute to spiritual growth among our members. We may also identify trends in participants’ hopes and dreams for their parish for the future. While we do not want to focus on the perceptions of the negative actively disengaged, we are offering them an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings with us. We will focus, however, on what is contributing to the spiritual growth of those who are engaged and on what is leading them to engagement, knowing this will have lasting impact on the lives of individuals and the parish community.

 With over 3800+ respondents to date and with participants from every region of the United States and several provinces of Canada, male and female, ages 18-66+, we may now begin to glean insights and address some of what is emerging.[2] Not surprisingly, some of the first insights from the survey bear out the engagement research. Participants’ responses to multiple-choice and open-ended questions help us to see clearly just how important our relationships with each other are. The quotes included in this posting are taken verbatim from the survey.

In response to the question, “What helps you to grow spiritually?” respondents are given fourteen options and may choose as many as apply. How would you respond to that question? What helps you to grow spiritually?

To date, the responses in rank order are:

1. Participation in Mass

2. Daily prayer

3. Belonging to my parish

4. Good friends who share faith with me[3]

In response to the question, "What helps you find meaning and purpose in life?" The three consistent choices, in this order are: 

1. Family

2. Faith

3. Friends

I have often thought I should write a book with that title! Family, faith and friends! What are we to make of these insights? First, there seems to be a relationship between our prayer (communal and personal) and our friendships within our faith community. When our relationships are strong in faith, at home and within the community of faith, our faith is strengthened. Our life takes on deeper meaning, and we are more likely to live with purpose, as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Not only does being belonging to our parishes help us to grow as spiritually healthy and committed people, our focus group echoes the engagement research: the deeper our spiritual friendships, the more we are likely to grow spiritually. And not only does the research demonstrate the role of deep relationships in the engagement process, leading to spiritual health and commitment, our people recognize this in their own lives and experience.

All of this leads us to consider:

   How do we help one another recognize and appreciate the impact we have on one another in our lives of faith?

   How do we draw people into deeper relationships with one another, in ways that seem natural, begin with varying degrees of formality, and include simple yet meaningful conversations with each other?

   What aspects of parish life might be fertile ground for the cultivation of this holy ground?


[1] The ME25 Member Engagement Survey measures engagement within a parish community. For more on measuring engagement, see http://www.gallup.com/strategicconsulting/148193/Gallup-Faith-Practice-ME25-Brochure.aspx

[2] The Spiritual Needs Survey remains open for your participation. There is no cost to participate. For more information, link here: www.catholiclifeandfaith.net/spiritual-needs-survey.

[3] Among younger adults, age 18-24, the good friends option moves into position #2

About Spiritual Needs, part two

“I love the Lord. I know he is real. I have felt him intimately and deeply but I need an anchor on earth to help me figure out what to do with my talents and how to survive in a secular world and in a job that is very anti-Catholic.” This stunning window into the spiritual life of a woman in her forties in many ways captures the spiritual journey we all share. The desire for a deep relationship with God, felt and experienced, nurtured through the companionship of others, is planted in our hearts by the same God for whom we long.

 How do we help each other to grow in this love of God? How do we call one another to holiness, to a life of self-giving love? How might we be that “anchor” for one another, upon which we may weather the storms of life, celebrate the joys, grow ever closer to Christ, and reach out to others with the love with which we have been loved? 

 The simple response is that we will do this together. We experience and give Christ’s love with others. The deeper our friendships, the more we are called to give of self, beyond what is comfortable, in sacrifice. And the more we experience this kind of friendship with others, the greater our desire to share Christ’s love beyond our friends, to those who are most in need of our care, attention, sharing, and service. Having good companions on the journey of faith, rooted in our love of God, calls us out of ourselves for others. Together we are drawn to sacrifice and to grow in the self-giving way of Christ.

 Let me offer a bit of context through a personal story. Over the last ten years, I have spoken with dozens of groups of people about the process of shaping parish life in order to more fully engage people as disciples. The gatherings have begun with prayer in which we have shared the parable of the sower and the seed. Following the proclamation of the gospel passage, I have asked people to share at table, “Who or what has been good soil for you in your life of faith? What has been the impact of that good soil in your life?” The sharing is invariably rich and deeply personal. In reporting back on their conversations, participants often speak of their parents, early teachers or spiritual mentors, family members, and good friends who have shared their faith in very natural, yet profound ways.

All of the stories “fit” with what we would be discussing as the day progressed: the process of engagement is one of bringing people to a deep sense of belonging within their parish communities, because belonging leads to faith that is lived in very particular ways in daily life.[1] It was not until recently, however, that I began to see this process of spiritual friendships more clearly. When I asked “Who or what has been good soil?” I expected to hear about the many small groups that enrich our lives: retreat groups, small faith communities, ministry teams, and so on. I was thinking on the large scale of parish life, and thought the participants, staff and key parishioner leaders, would as well. Yet most often, the first people who came to mind were individuals. Following the individual relationship, participants spoke of being led to their first retreat, small group or ministry involvement. Rarely did a participant recall the group experience first. Almost everyone spoke first of someone, through whom the participant experienced Christ’s presence and was led to an awareness of God’s love in their lives.

Even with these many experiences of sharing and reflecting on the role of individuals who walk with us on the journey of faith, I continued for a long time to talk with people about the parish as a large-picture entity, rather than seeing the deeper personal relationships that make up our lives and are part of our experience of faith in community. That is, until recently. In January, 2013, I developed a brief survey that parish leaders may share with their people in order to learn more about the ways in which we grow spiritually. I will explain further in a moment, but for the sake of finishing the story, I will simply say that what is emerging from the survey helped me to think about all of those conversations about the people who act as spiritual friends, mentors, and people with whom we share our faith. I thought about this in my own life, and began recalling people who had distinct and powerful impact on me at specific moments. They led me toward deeper faith, bridging me into a new stage of faith development, and for that, I am deeply grateful. As I have talked with others about this, they have shared stories of the people in their own lives. These conversations have had the quality of standing on holy ground. I realize now that our life of relationship with God is best, most deeply experienced, when we have someone with whom to share and grow, within the community of faith.

Most of us are keenly aware of the growing dynamic in our culture of the “nones,” those who respond on surveys that they have no affiliation with a religious denomination.[2] Among what we learn from the studies is the importance of sensing the potential to grow spiritually through membership in our faith community. As St. Augustine so aptly described, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. In our spiritual longing, we not only yearn for a deep relationship with God who is love, in our hearts we know that we need to walk this journey of faith with others.

Dismaying as it is, among those who move to another denomination or into the ranks of the unaffiliated, many, most in some cases, say they did not feel their spiritual needs were being met in the church of their youth. Something was missing for them, a primary connection between faith, sacrament, and life. Further reflection on the studies points to the role of the community in fostering deep faith lived in communion with one another. In a culture that prizes and elevates the individual, drawing people into communion could be perceived as a near-impossible task. Yet, we are called into interpersonal union, created to be with and for one another, and when our need to be drawn into communion is met, we are ready to embrace holiness.

It is not that we expect another to have answers to all of our life questions; we do not really expect to experience and stay on a spiritual “high” all of our lives. We do, however, know in our hearts that having someone with whom we may express our greatest hopes, dreams, doubts, and longings will make a great difference in our willingness to embrace Christ and to be embraced as the persons we are. This is, it seems, a person-to-person thing.

We will continue to think about spiritual needs here. I have things to share from the Spiritual Needs Survey, and things I hope we will think about together. For now, I wonder, who has been that bridge for you, the person who has led to you a deeper relationship with Christ, within the community of faith?


[1] Winseman, Albert L., Growing an Engaged Church, New York, Gallup Press, 2006

[2] The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Religious Landscape Survey at http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations and http://www.pewforum.org/faith-in-flux.aspx

Spiritual Needs: A Missing Piece of the Pastoral Pie?

I read many studies on church attendance and affiliation, looking for trends and listening beyond the numbers to the lives, hopes, desires and needs that people express through them. It is easy to focus on the things that drive people away, things such as disillusionment and suspicion of institutions, rejection of Church teaching, and abuse and scandal. These are, no doubt, real and important things to know and address as we are able.

I think we miss something in the midst of this, however. The majority of the people who move from church to church, denomination to denomination, and those who become unaffiliated say they did not feel their spiritual needs were being met in the church in which they were raised. When I first read the statistics, I was stunned. How could anyone experience the mystery and gift of the Eucharist and not feel his or her spiritual needs met? And yet, something in the statistic rang true. How many of us have experienced moments in which our spiritual lives feel hollow? How many of us regularly encounter people whose daily lives are not touched by their participation in the Sunday liturgy? How many of us know in our hearts that for many people there is a huge disconnection between faith and daily living? 

Add to the above the research on engagement that recognizes meeting spiritual needs as foundational to engaging people in faith. It makes sense. As a young man who was a workshop participant told about 250 of us, "I was away from the Church for a few years after college. I just couldn't quite make myself go to Mass on Sunday. As I began to think about coming back, I have to admit, the question I asked myself was, 'what am I going to get out of this?' It sounds very selfish when I say it out loud, but I had to know there was going to be some impact in my life if I was going to make a commitment to return."

What are 'spiritual needs,' and what can our pastoral response be for those who feel their spiritual needs are not being met? Most of the study on spiritual needs has focused on the dying and the disabled, and point to things such as belonging, finding meaning and purpose in life, giving and receiving love, and finding forgiveness, creativity and hope. Those who have studied the engagement research see these reflected in the causes and outcomes of engagement. Still, it seems to me there are things we are missing within our Catholic parish practice. Are spiritual needs a missing piece of the pastoral pie? This is why we created the Spiritual Needs Survey, in order to ask everyday Catholics about their spiritual needs. In my next post, I will share what we have learned thus far through the survey, which has 3800+ respondents to date. For now, let me ask you to think about and share your thoughts on this. What would you say your spiritual needs are, and how does your parish help you to have those spiritual needs met?


Engaging Young Adults, Part 2

A few years ago, my husband and I moved to a different city. As we were settling in, I saw a colleague at a meeting who asked how the transition was going. I explained that things were going well, but that since I travel so often, it was difficult to get connected in our new parish. A year later, I saw the same colleague who, hearing almost the same response from me about travel and difficulties in connecting at the parish, said, "It seems they are very warm and welcoming but just don't know what to do with you." That seems to me to capture much of what young adults meet in many parishes. We smile, welcome them, and hope that they will stay, but we "don't know what to do with them." 

As Church, we tend not to know what to do with people who come with perceptions or questions that are uncomfortable or not our own. We expect everyone to develop spiritually in the same ways we have, largely through participation in Mass, with an occasional parish mission or retreat as a boost during Advent or Lent. 

As parish practice is now, most young adults (let's face it, most adults, period) find little to honor their stage of life, their unique talents and gifts, and their desire to live an integrated life with little contradiction between faith and daily living. In the words of David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group: "They [younger adults] see spirituality as connected to all of their life, not a compartment within their life. We need bridges between Monday-to-Friday and Sunday."

As I mentioned in the earlier post on engaging young adults, I believe those bridges begin in relationship, or put more plainly, in friendship. We cannot force people to be friends, of course, but we can intentionally find ways to reach out to people, welcome them among us, give them opportunities to be with us and with others, invite them to share their hopes and dreams, their concerns and questions, their desire to understand, without judgment, with mercy. 

One of the things people often miss about engagement is that it is about creating an environment of growing faith. The research points to specific factors that help to build such an environment, and those factors often surprise people (clarifying expectations always seems an uncommon place to begin, for example). The reality is that such an environment helps people to open their minds and hearts to God's love and to Jesus' call to discipleship. Engagement is not an end in itself, but rather the way in which we may grow together as Christian people, leading one another, and all who come to us, toward a deep relationship with Christ, lived out in mission.

There is much more to think about here, but for now, let me close with one last thought. The bridges we build as individuals strengthen the parish community, creating that more engaging and evangelizing environment. It seems simple, and in some ways it is. To whom might we build a bridge today? 


Engaging Young Adults

I recently read a thought-provoking article by a pastor, Father Peter Daly, who shared his frustrations in trying to reach the young adults in his area. He held a listening session for his young members and their friends, some of whom had been raised Catholic and had left the Church, others who come to Mass most of the time, and some who consider themselves Catholic while attending a nearby non-denominational congregation. They voiced their honest misgivings and frustrations, all the while saying it was not that their catechesis had been weak. They know what the Church teaches. They have difficulty in accepting the teachings or the way they are articulated and lived out in local parish communities. His concerns and dedication to meeting the young people with  interest and compassion inspired me, as did his forthright description of the things that are driving many young adults away: perceived discrimination against gays and lesbians; lack of hospitality and welcoming of those who are not regularly present among us; insistence on adherence to Church teaching in order to "belong"; reticence to become involved or to admit to their religious faith among peers. 

As I read his heartfelt article, I listened through the experience of so many parishes that, like Fr. Daly's parish, are struggling to engage young adults. I also thought of the research by the Gallup Organization, Pew Forum, and the Barna Group, and experiences in parishes throughout North America that I believe offer ways we may reach out to them, through the already-engaged people in our parishes and by building an engaging parish culture, and I felt compelled to share some of these thoughts here.

Those of us who have studied and have experience with the Gallup research on engagement know that relationships matter, perhaps more than we might imagine, as we build more engaging communities of faith. Belonging leads to believing! Drawing people of any age, particularly young adults, into the life of the parish is an important step in leading them toward a deep relationship with Christ and with the Church. In the Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis helps us think about this from two important perspectives: the primary place of encounter with Jesus, and the role of the evangelizing community in leading people to that encounter, every day of their lives.

Father Daly's openness to dialogue is a huge and important step in building such a culture of engagement in the parish. He built a bridge between himself, his parish, and the young adults who came to his listening session. One of the steps in building engagement is giving people an opportunity to be heard. In the words of the research, to know that their "opinions count." It isn't that our teachings will change, nor will we change our surrounding culture today or tomorrow, although we are called to impact that culture over time through the way in which we live our lives. What we can do, I believe, is to intentionally build bridges between people, helping them to come to a relationship with us, through which they may fall in love with Christ and over time develop an appreciation for the Church as the Body of Christ.

I believe many might take Father Daly's lead and listen to the young adults among and around us. Build relationships with them. Invite them to share their frustrations, insights, hopes, dreams and desires for a Church and world that live Jesus' loving way. Build bridges to them by linking them to young adults who are already engaged, and to parishioners who are wiling to enter into a searching relationship with them. Many young adults want to be mentored, and eventually to mentor. They want to make a meaningful contribution to the world, and can do so within our parishes and beyond them. 

Thank you, Father Daly, and all who build bridges within our parishes and dioceses. May we learn from you, so that, together, we may build more engaging and evangelizing communities of faith.


Christmas Bridges

In late spring, during the Easter season, our children who were preparing for First Holy Communion had participated in a mini-retreat. One of the activities was to paint their handprint on a piece of clear plastic film. The handprints were placed on a window in the gathering space of the church, framing a large image of wheat and grapes. The children's names and the date of their celebration were noted on the handprint, and at the end of the season, were given to them as a keepsake.

The first year of this practice, I was also serving as an interim coordinator of music and liturgy. I still have great appreciation for the ministry of people who serve in this capacity, the result of the many months of intense preparation for the great liturgical feasts and seasons in the midst of the Sunday-to-Sunday rhythm of our lives of worship. That year, as we moved our way through Advent, the season seemed filled with grace, wonder, and yes, extreme fatigue! 

Friends and colleagues offered their help, and parishioners scheduled themselves not only as ministers of hospitality, extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and readers, but also as set-up, clean-up, and all around helpful people for what was sure to be a week filled with the need for assistance. 

In the early hours of Christmas morning, following midnight Mass (the fourth liturgy of the feast, with three more to go), a friend and I were straightening the church, when suddenly my friend called out. At first, I thought she had fallen, but when I found her, she was looking at that window where the children's handprints had been the previous spring. And there, in the frost of the early Christmas morning, the handprints shown through, a wonderful reminder of the links, season to season, person-to-person, the great story of God's love for us in Jesus Christ which is made manifest in the Eucharist, sacraments and the stuff of daily life. In that moment, we "saw" a bridge connecting Easter to Christmas, the handprints of two hundred children connecting with the handprint of the Child who came to be with us, Emmanuel.

As we enter into the final week of the Advent season, I hold all who serve in parish ministry in my prayers, and invite each of us to think about this: how may we build a bridge to someone else in this season of grace? Will we reach out to someone who needs to know God's love through service and sharing? Will we greet a newcomer with a smile, offering welcome? Will we reconnect with someone who has been away from the parish for some time? How will we leave a handprint in the mind and heart of another as members of the body of the One for whom we wait?

What is Bridges?

What is Bridges? Simply put, Bridges is about forming people who serve in their parishes. Not only parish staff members, but every parishioner who is part of a ministry or organization. Really, Bridges is for everyone, since it is about adopting a common vision for the parish and developing ways to bring that vision about as people and as the community of faith. 

We call this process Bridges because we believe each of us is called to build bridges to others -- bridges to faith in Jesus Christ through the parish community; bridges between Mass and the rest of our lives; bridges from the parish out, in mission, service and love.

Bridges includes many elements:

Bridges Live: a free, monthly live-virtual conversation on one facet of the process of building an engaging and evangelizing community of disciples and stewards;

Bridges modules: self-paced and electronically delivered, including videos, workbooks and handouts, all reasonably priced, with full multi-use copy permission included;

Bridges events: at your parish, diocese, or in your region. Bridges events are live introductions to the Bridges process and often include the modules with event registration;

Bridges resource: developed and offered to diocesan leaders to share with their parishes, the Bridges resource is a monthly piece written for parishioners to help them build bridges to our Catholic life and faith in community.

The vision that Bridges proposes is simple and is rooted in Sacred Scripture, Church documents, particularly those of Vatican II, and the exhortation of Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel. It is a vision of the parish as an evangelizing community, recognizing that it is up to each of us to reach out to others with the love of God and to draw one another closely to Christ as disciples.

While this vision is simple, it is also complex. There are many "moving parts" to parish life, and many facets that need attention if we are going to build this evangelizing community. That is why Bridges is being rolled out month-by-month, module-by-module.

Bridges Live December 9


Join us for our first Bridges Live will take place on December 9 at 11 a.m. PST (2 p.m. EST).

The Bridges Live in December will focus on building bridges to the heart of discipleship. We will reflect together on the role of the community in drawing people to Christ, and will be joined by Fr. Ron Schmit, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Byron, CA.

Register below and receive a link to participate live via Google Hangout. The Live conversation will be recorded and made available on YouTube.

Name *

November, 2014

Coming Soon, Bridges Live!

Beginning in December, we will offer a free live-virtual conversation on a topic related to one of the facets of the Bridges process each month. Our first Bridges Live will take place on December 9 at 11 a.m. PST (2 p.m. EST).

The Bridges Live in December will focus on building bridges to the heart of discipleship. We will reflect together on the role of the community in drawing people to Christ, and will be joined by Fr. Ron Schmit, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Byron, CA.

Register below and receive a link to participate live via Google Hangout. The Live conversation will be recorded and made available on YouTube.

Name *

October, 2014

Each month, we focus on one aspect of building bridges to living discipleship as individuals and within our parishes. In the months to come, we will offer live conversations and have resources to help you become a more effective bridge builder. This month, we begin by inviting you to take stock of all that is part of the life of your parish. Think about the questions below and talk about these with others at your parish. Make note of your responses in preparation for our first virtual conversation and the initial Bridges module next month.

Who or what drew you into the life of your parish?

In what ways does belonging to your parish touch your life of faith, leading you to encounter and be encountered by Jesus Christ?

In what ways does your parish invite, encourage, and expect you and all to actively participate in the life of the disciple as you worship, connect, grow and serve?

What one idea do you have for your parish? What would make a difference in the way your parish reaches others with the love of God?