Welcoming newcomers, change: Parish leaders get tips at workshops


By Celine Klosterman

Rita Cunningham, a member of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, shares a hospitality-related story during a workshop on creating welcoming parishes. The workshop and a presentation on spirituality in times of change were held at St. Patrick Church in Iowa City Nov. 20.

IOWA CITY — Truly welcoming parishes may end up with more active parishioners, religious vocations and donations. But getting such results isn’t the main reason churches should practice hospitality, according to Richard McCorry. Welcoming our neighbors “is God’s fervent wish for us,” he told about 100 people from 20 parishes Nov. 20.

As parishes in the Diocese of Davenport continue collaborating amid the parish planning process, McCorry led two Annual Diocesan Appeal-funded workshops at St. Patrick Church on Sunday: “Creating More Welcoming Parishes” and “Spirituality During Times of Change.”  A national  presenter, he is an author and the founder of   Embracing Change, a Church change management consulting firm, and the Center for Parish Hospitality.

Most parishioners think their parish is welcoming because they personally feel a sense of belonging, McCorry said in his first presentation. But guests might feel invisible. He has visited churches where greeters averted their eyes from him, a stranger, and parishioners gave him dirty looks for sitting in their preferred pew.


Recounting a homily she’d heard at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, workshop attendee Rita Cunningham shared how one parishioner claimed no one spoke to him at Mass for a year until the Sunday he wore an attention-getting “crazy hat.

“Don’t wait for the crazy hat,” McCorry told Catholics.

He recommended that parishes form a team to assess the parish’s current state of hospitality — perhaps by having strangers visit and share their experience — and surveying parishioners. The team would then come up with and implement a plan to improve.

But welcoming isn’t the job of just that team, McCorry said. All parishioners can share a smile with Catholics who sit next to them for Mass, or move toward the middle of the pew to make it easier for others to find a seat.

He challenged workshop participants to visit a new church and learn from how they’re treated as strangers. Evangelical churches welcome guests well, and many former Catholics end up joining those congregations, he said.

Those churches and others embrace a tradition of hospitality dating back at least 4,000 years. Scripture includes numerous examples of generosity, such as Genesis’ account of Abraham welcoming angels and Jesus’ parables of the prodigal son and Good Samaritan.

Today, improving hospitality creates fertile ground for lapsed Catholics and the “unchurched” to be brought back into the fold, McCorry said. A sense of welcoming also eases the transition of parishioners displaced by church closings.

Understandably, people resist transitions such as the loss or merger of a parish. In his second workshop, McCorry noted that change can challenge a person’s personal identity and sense of being in control. Some new ventures may well be harmful. But God may have something new in store — something that may turn out to be good.

He said transition plans that are well developed, communicated and implemented reduce the risk of significant blowups. Leaders should realize that not all conflict arising from change is created by the change itself. People are prone to transfer their frustration onto moving objects, and some personalities are naturally more resistant to new things.

He suggested reflecting on how Jesus handled different types of conflicts: fundamental (with the devil), unavoidable (with religious authorities), essential (with his disciples, with whom he used conflict as a teaching opportunity), and incidental (conflict Jesus avoided because it wasn’t relevant to his mission).

McCorry also offered a “LEAP of Faith” model for responding to change. Learn (the reason for the transition), experience (the stages of grieving), action (try at least once to cooperate), prayer (which can help people make even the toughest adjustments) and faith (God will provide what’s needed to adapt).

Sister Laura Goedken, OP, diocesan director of development, said workshop attendees shared excellent questions and positive feedback. For her, a highlight of McCorry’s presentation was “the idea that being hospitable and welcoming is the responsibility of every parishioner. But a team of parishioners needs to be the leader.”

Sandi Frericks, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Blue Grass, said his presentation was a reminder of parishes’ need to renew attention to the needs of strangers and guests. She proposed expanding the hospitality-related duties of ushers at her parish, simply sitting closer to the center of her usual pew to make space for others, and reviving a wine-and-cheese tasting event to welcome new parishioners.

For resources, videos and more information, visit www.catholichospitality.com or www.embracing-change.com.

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