I spent the last two weeks driving the back roads of Indiana and Illinois farm country. I saw a lot of corn fields and soybean fields, and I hate to admit it took me longer than I’d like to admit about how to tell the difference. (It helps that corn is a lot taller now than soybeans!) I couldn’t help but think about these small rural parishes in farm country that I’m traveling to though. Most of them feel ignored by big city parishes, wealthy suburban parishes, and even the Diocese. They’re hard to travel to when there’s not an interstate in site for miles and even finding a gas station can be rather complicated on a long trip!
They’re vibrancy and potential are both so underestimated by priests in their diocese, their bishop, and even myself at times. I spent one evening at a parish that is struggling because most people are looking to leave their county, not move there. The following evening I heard about a small parish (not too much bigger in household count) that’s thriving and is looking to expand their Church because Mass is typically standing room only. Their youth ministry program draws as many as one of the larger parishes in the diocese each week. They’ve had 20 baptisms this year and 30 weddings in the past year.
This parish is alive and well!
So why are we all underestimated them? Maybe it’s because we do the opposite of this quote from Walt Whitman I learned from watching Ted Lasso: “Be Curious, not Judgmental.”
We often jump to conclusions. Often may be an understatement. It seems to be in our nature – and even part of the way we’re wired. We jump to conclusions because with the amount of information that we’re inundated with, we need to make decisions quickly so we can manage our lives. If you had to take a long discernment process for every single email, conversation, headline, interaction, and physical encounter you’d still be working on the first 5 minutes of your day at lunch!
However, we can choose curiosity first and work to alter our worldview from “I know what’s going on here” to “Let’s see if we can find out what’s going on here.”
An example of how we can do this in our parishes in the coming weeks and months is regarding people who have not come back to Mass on a regular basis. Rather than saying, “All of these people have just gotten comfortable with virtual everything and lounging on their couch in their pajamas with their coffee watching Mass like it’s a TV show. They have no respect for the Eucharist.” You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’ve heard this more than once. Just last week we were talking about the lack of community in a parish and the reason given by a member of the team was “Kids these days – those in your generation (he looked right at me) are always on their phones and care more about social media than the person right in front of their face.”
Whew – talk about jumping to conclusions! A mindset of curiosity might look instead like this. Calling and speaking to some families you haven’t seen in a while to see what’s going on. Can we help in any way? Is there something you’d like to talk about?
When looking at community building events and lack of attendance, is there something else going on? At this parish one of the contributing factors was a pastor who for the previous two decades who didn’t value these types of events, was an introvert so he didn’t crave them, and they just fell by the wayside. Two decades of the community behaving in one way isn’t going to be overturned with a single BBQ – no matter how good the food is! It’s going to take time to change habits.
Another parish in the area is thriving in this area. Why? How? The reason given was “In that town, the Church is the center of social life. Everyone does everything together, they know each other, and want to be around one another.” Can that happen in the other parish? Maybe, with time and effort.
So what am I offering as a solution? Curiosity when addressing the issues, concerns, and opportunities. Time to help the culture change. One moment of curiosity doesn’t change us – neither does one event. It takes time to change our mindset, the way our parishes operate, and the conversion of people. Be prepared to invest the time.