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Community Engagement: Thoughts and Reflections to Date

Here are some common themes, observations and perception of challenges faced from the parishes I’ve had the opportunity to visit and engage in dialogue:

We need more youth: Often congregations want more young people involved in their churches. Spirituality, and therefore, 'church going' for today’s parents and their children, has changed drastically. It has moved away from the traditional 'Sunday obligation' to something else. The dilemma is that scheduling time on Sunday mornings may not fit the busy schedules of young families who are engaged in dual careers, organized sports and more hands-on parenting. As a result, if we want to increase church attendance and membership, we have to consider stopping trying to change the people to fit our package and start changing the package to fit the people. That we need to do this in almost drastic ways, and sooner rather than later. It is not about changing the message—just the delivery system. And yet, there is no magic construction or manual by which to do this, you just have to find something that strikes a chord in your particular community and do it.

One suggestion is that there are organizations in the community who work with youth, likely they would be a good place to start in learning what needs there may be. Sometimes we take on activities that could appeal to youth (eg: tree planting, seniors dinners, spring clean-up to name a few) they may offer an opportunity to participate, gain community service, learn about others by meeting them first hand. Ask, what youth can we invite to join in this activity?

How do we know what needs may exist in our community?: Critical to success is finding ways to engage and forge relationships with community organizations who are service providers and/or know about needs within the community. Be careful not to make assumptions about who or what is needed. Given that actions speak louder than words, this activity in itself also demonstrates genuine interest. Offer to host events, make your space a community hub and make your agenda to listen and learn.

People today tend to be more cause oriented in how they support (with time and money) the things that they believe in and feel make a difference. Our challenge is to connect what we are doing to meaningful causes and potential outcomes.

It is almost not so important what we do but rather how we do it that can make a difference...back to actions speaking louder than words.

How and where do we form partnerships?: Partnerships can represent a huge opportunity to leverage our strengths such as hospitality, compassion, pastoral care, fund raising, with partners who can open doors, provide complimentary resources, connections to other organizations and resources.  

We can’t expect to engage in these relationships with a clear picture of how it will work or what benefits we will gain or indeed expecting a guarantee of outcomes. If we share a common sense of purpose, take the risk and work together. Obstacles and challenges can be addressed when they arise.

Many of our parishioners may be feeling burnt out and frustrated because we don’t seem to be making positive progress. And we are not getting any younger. Partnerships can let us concentrate on what we do well and use our energy for that, then we find partners with complimentary strengths. They may be other faith groups, social service agencies or service providers for local community programs.

We are already doing lots: Activities that are part of our current outreach and community engagement can be both a blessing and a curse. Blessing for all the great things so many parishes shared about the benefits of their efforts. A curse because they can lead us to the comfortable place where we are reluctant to try new and perhaps uncertain activities. Be sure to follow the Outreach column featured in the weekly Diocesan of Ontario eNews newsletter, find out what other parishes are doing, look for, be open to investigate and discuss new ideas within your parish.

We have signage and openness to our communities: the extent to which our buildings, signage and things like how quickly telephone and internet inquiries are addressed speaks volumes. Do you have a Facebook page where events are posted? Does your message taking system offer numbers to call for emergencies? How welcoming is our signage? Are service times clearly posted? Do you offer time for quiet reflection during the week? How important is your space for community gatherings and how well is that information shared in the community?