From Programs to People

I am humbled by a conversation with a pastoral leader this week, and feel compelled to share it here, because it really isn't about me. 

I was talking with a woman I met a few years ago. I was invited to speak to her parish's leaders, and had a wonderful dinner in her home. Our conversation this week was about engaging young adults, and about increasing participation in a retreat process her parish offers annually. On the surface, the topic was participation, but there was a deeper concern just under that surface: one third to a half of the retreat participants are new. The remaining participants have attended multiple times. How might the parish increase attendance by new participants, especially younger adults?

As we talked, I began offering simple ideas about building on the young adult participation that is already happening in parish programs: encourage the younger adults who are involved to invite their peers, recognizing that this is not always easy for any of us, and especially for those whose larger peer group often shuns religious involvement; never ignore the importance of personal invitation; help people to understand the potential impact of involvement on those they touch, and on themselves through witness and sharing of previous participants. 

The woman said something that struck me so powerfully I have not been able to shake it: "You have given me so much more than what I expected! I thought we would chat about ways to increase participation and in, what? 20 minutes, you have changed my whole way of thinking about the Church!" 

As I said, I share this not because it is about me. It is not at all. It is about how we often focus on programs rather than people. Do not get me wrong. Programs and processes are important. However, we often forget the importance of the people we hope to evangelize, and how people touch people. People build bridges to people. As we connect, one person to another, we build an environment in which people's hearts and minds will be more open to the grace of God, more compelled to participate in the programs we spend so much time developing and implementing, more open to conversion. That is the point of our programs, is it not? 

There is one more thing to offer here (and so many more things to think about in the future!). Our programs and processes offer many opportunities to build those bridges we want to build -- connecting people to one another, connecting faith to daily life, connecting open minds and hearts to the word of God, to the Word of God. How have you experienced this sort of bridge-building? How has a focus on people informed or transformed a program or process in your parish?