The small gaggle of parishioners shuffles into a cold hall. The overhead projector clicks on, and after the opening prayer, the first of a series of reports is delivered ranging from parish finances, to pastoral council and ministry news for the year. It is an excellent exercise in transparency and accountability, yet too often shunned by the faithful as a dreary gathering of those in the inner hub of parish life. If this is to be a vibrant gathering of the community, what are some ways parishes have sought to enhance the quality of the event, and offer a hope-filled new dawn for the coming year?
- What’s in a name?
Titles such as “Parish AGM” or “Parish Assembly” do not do much to inspire attendance. “Community Gathering: Celebrating 2017 and Looking Ahead” sounds more enticing, and perhaps hints at what one might expect if they attend.
- What’s the purpose of the assembly?
Annual General Meetings abound in corporate, volunteer and religious life, and can suffer from becoming purely a reporting exercise. The following points offer a range of other uses for the gathering.
- Offer a Time for Formation
Many pre-packaged short, inspiring Catholic videos are available, or perhaps it is an inspiring presentation from the parish priest or a parish member sharing how they have been transformed in faith over the last twelve months.
- Celebrate and Give Thanks
Summarise the successes of the past year, and if possible, celebrate these in images and short interviews to create a short inspiring video and/or booklet. Give thanks in prayer (with scripture and music) for all that has been achieved.
- How to Offer Information? A key question is how is information delivered? Inviting various committee and ministry representatives to offer a two to five minute report can absorb the whole gathering time. Can these be better incorporated into the above celebration and an annual report? Can this report be made available prior to the meeting so that the meeting becomes a time of questions and comments rather than a litany of verbal reports?
- Inviting Feedback
Offer a time for people to gather in small groups to review planning for the coming year and offer feedback. This offers the pastoral council a key chance to share upcoming draft goals and have these endorsed by those gathered. Again, far better for people to have received these goals weeks prior, and to capture feedback prior to the assembly. This seems a critical point. If people believe their voice will be heard and valued, they will be more likely to return next year. Transparency can be offered through reports, but accountability is strengthened through openness to critique and reshaping of pastoral goals through community engagement.
- Hold within a Ministry Fair
Incorporate the parish assembly in a wider ministry fair, where ministry groups are invited to host a small stall (eg table made up with the core components of their ministry) and invite the local parish primary school to sing some songs, and offer food, face painting and a raffle. A brief report can be offered to the larger gathering – so that school families and others can be inspired by parish life – and perhaps the planning time can then take place later in the morning.
- The Lead Up and Follow Up
As intimated above, rather than advertising the gathering and have everything happen in the short time people meet, ensure that all information is circulated as widely as possible several weeks earlier. Set up a feedback portal (such as survey monkey) to collect and summarise responses, and have these shared on the day itself, perhaps via a question and answer sheet.
Following the gathering, offer a summary of the time together, and note key questions or comments offered, and how planning has changed due to feedback.
- Don’t forget about Environment
Are chairs are arranged in rows with a table at the front where the parish priest and committee chairpersons sit? Space may dictate this style, but it is somewhat disempowering and does not suggest collegiality. If possible, be centred on a sacred space. Ensure good hospitality, a comfortable environment and the possibility of a crèche.
Parish Assemblies are such an important part of the life of the community. How might we enhance their effectiveness for the coming year to move them from being a big yawn to a new dawn?