“Ask a Priest: Frustrated With My Parish – What Can I Do?”

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Q: Recently I have been frustrated with my parish of 15 years. I also work at the Catholic primary school as a family and faith educator. In that role I am the link between the school and the parish. I encourage families to explore and strengthen their faith. I am active in the parish as I offer initiatives and I also put my hand up to support and nourish the community. My recent group was leading the Consecration to Saint Joseph, making palm crosses for Palm Sunday, and managing the Facebook page, just to name a few duties. In recent weeks, I have begun to feel distant and undernourished spiritually and am considering leaving my parish or “shopping around.” There is a lack of support groups, faith formation and youth ministry; and a disconnection with the school and the parish is becoming more apparent. The secretary, sacramental coordinator and other selected people have become an exclusive group and are keeping distant from people who have worked hard and in providing a supportive community such as me. I have felt unsupportive and unappreciated. I actually didn’t go to Mass last week — I never miss Mass! I felt disconnected from the community and the pastor. And when I am at Mass, I can’t be spiritually there as I am busy with COVID protocols. I am also bothered by the hymns, music choice and the disorganization of the pastor. I have spoken to other parishioners and we are all feeling the same. I am not sure whether I should make a complaint to the archdiocese. Families at school are no longer attending Mass nor interested in the sacraments for their children. I feel left out and used where the community should be unity, welcoming and inviting. What advice would you suggest for my hardened heart? I know I should be attending Mass for Jesus! – S.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I’m sorry to hear about the situation at the parish. Secularism in the wider culture is taking its toll on Catholics, and disunity could be a sign that the devil is up to his tricks.

One thing is for sure: If you are missing Mass and experiencing a hardening of the heart, that isn’t coming from the Holy Spirit.

Before we can evangelize others or be peacemakers, we need to evangelize ourselves. This won’t come from activism and loading up our schedule with lots of events and projects.

Nor will switching parishes address the root problem. Besides, a new parish that looks good today might be prone to its own types of problems in the future as new pastors and personnel come in.

The first thing you might consider is stepping back from the volunteer work at your current parish. This might seem counterintuitive. But the idea is that before there is any chance of “fixing” the parish, you will want to have your own spiritual life in order.

You might want to dedicate more time to prayer. Try to get to Mass and confession often; if it helps to go to another parish to do this, that’s fine.

You also might want to consider doing a retreat at a solid Catholic institution, such as a retreat center or an abbey or monastery. The basic idea is that you want to connect with Jesus at a deep level. For Our Lord warned us, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Once you reconnect with a solid life of prayer and sacraments, you will be able to approach the problems at the parish with more serenity and in a spirit of charity.

Now, the situation you describe sounds complex and has probably been in the making for a long time. As such, there is probably no quick fix.

As the culture has changed and faith declined, many parishes have struggled to adjust and to find effective ways of evangelization.

It might be good to re-evaluate where your group has been dedicating its time. It’s nice that folks were making palm crosses, for instance. But might there be areas where the parish needs something deeper and longer-lasting? A house with a leaky roof doesn’t need more plants in the living room; it needs serious work on the shingles.

You mention that other folks at the parish notice the same problems. Try networking with them, and ask them to pray about the situation. Better yet, see if Eucharistic adoration could be scheduled once a week, and invite the group to participate.

Ask the group to discern what are the two most problematic areas in the parish. Then, try to have the group come up with two or three concrete steps to help remedy each problem.

For instance, if there is a lack of faith formation, consider whether there is a parish-formation program that would be appropriate for your area. Or perhaps the parish could benefit from a Bible study group or a theology-of-the-body course.

If there is a lack of youth ministry, look around and see who might help to start a youth group.

Here, it will be good to be realistic. Don’t try to tackle every problem. Just focus on the things might have the most impact over time.

At that point you and a few parishioners might consider approaching your pastor at an opportune moment. It will help if all the people who approach the pastor are or have been active in the parish. This helps their credibility.

Two books that might be helpful to read are Forming Intentional Disciples and Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter. The latter has a related program and website.

As a last resort, if you and your fellow parishioners hit a dead end, you and they might consider asking for a meeting with the bishop.

This can actually be a special moment of grace for you and the parish. Whatever you do, keep the love of Jesus as your main motivation.

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