Ten months ago, St. Joseph Parish in Mechanicsburg was humming along like most – with a regular schedule of Masses, on-site meetings and events for its various ministries, and some social media presence on Facebook and Instagram pages, among a host of spiritual activities and evangelization efforts.
And then the pandemic came, closing doors to churches and challenging parishes to find innovative ways to continue their mission and keep parishioners connected – and fast.
“The pandemic wound up catapulting us five years ahead of where we thought we would be on the social media platforms,” Father Thomas Rozman, pastor, told The Witness.
The parish’s Senior Leadership Team stepped into high gear. Their initial efforts were rudimentary: livestreaming Masses from the choir loft using an iPad the week before the pandemic began. Within a week of the mid-March shutdown, however, St. Joseph’s was livestreaming Sunday Masses, American Sign Language-interpreted Masses, daily Masses and Holy Hours on Friday evenings.
The parish continued to press forward, furnishing its social hall with a sanctuary for the celebration of Mass with quality livestreams. Swift and generous responses from parishioners led to the purchase of a permanent livestream solution in the church, which has resulted in increasingly-popular weekly virtual hymn-sings with a cantor and the pastoral musician; the celebration of novenas, funeral Masses and Children’s Liturgy of the Word; and humorous yet informative videos from the parish priests.
Recognizing that not all parishioners have access to the internet, parish leadership reached out to its parishioners to establish some form of contact with all 2,800 families in the early days of the pandemic – identifying those in need of volunteer assistance and offering to mail parish bulletins. And when churches across the Diocese re-opened their doors to a limited capacity of faithful in May, St. Joseph’s added distribution of the Eucharist from the church portico for those listening via radio in their cars, and engineered the addition of two outdoor Masses celebrated from the rectory gazebo.
These innovative ideas aren’t an exhaustive list – nor are they exclusive to St. Joseph’s – but these and other efforts earned the parish seven honorable mentions and one first-place award in the recent Parish Excellence Awards.
‘We’re in the Big Leagues’
The Parish Excellence Awards recognize parishes across the country that have exemplified mission-driven innovation, particularly during the pandemic. 702 parishes were nominated across 16 categories, including excellence in ministry continuation, prayer via technology and social media innovations.
The program is the idea of Scot Landry, a noted Catholic author who has worked with the Archdiocese of Boston in new media efforts. Landry was also a presenter during the priests’ workshop, held virtually for priests of the Diocese of Harrisburg this fall.
The awards were announced during the Parish Excellence Virtual Summit, Nov. 9-13, with one winner and two honorable mentions in each category.
St. Joseph Parish earned first place in E-mail Innovations, and was awarded honorable mentions in the categories for the Reopening of Mass, Service Ministry Continuation, Offertory Retention/Recovery, Adult Faith Formation via Technology, Faith Formation for Youth via Technology, Community Prayer via Technology and Social Media Innovation.
Specific examples of St. Joseph’s efforts in those categories include training ushers for the re-opening of in-person Masses; purchasing several Zoom accounts for ministries to meet virtually; utilizing the WeShare online giving program, which has resulted in online donations making upwards of 60% of the weekly collection; transitioning That Man is You and Alpha programs online; offering religious education and the Children’s Liturgy on digital platforms; instituting a weekly hymn sing and Holy Hour on social media; engaging social media followers with frequent evangelization videos from Father Rozman and Father Timothy Sahd, parochial vicar; and contacting parish families for up-to-date e-mail addresses to stay connected.
St. Joseph Parish was nominated by Raegan “Issy” Stence, who was hired to the parish’s new position of Communication Coordinator in October.
“When I started here, the awards were first thing on my agenda,” she said. “Our Senior Leadership Team had heard about the awards, and I wrote nominations for each of the awards. If the awards committee had given a written criteria, I think we could have specialized our responses and we could have probably won several.”
Still, parish leaders are thrilled with the results, especially since the awards presented early on in the summit were given to well-known and significantly larger parishes.
“The first award was given to St. Patrick Cathedral in New York City, and I thought, ‘Man, there is no way we’ll be in this,’” Father Rozman said. “Another award went to the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Md. By then I was thinking, ‘We’re in the big leagues here.’ And then we received one honorable mention, and another, and another, until we had seven plus the award for E-mail Innovations.”
“It was a gift from God to be able to recognized, but again, we don’t do this for award recognition,” Father Rozman remarked “We are fulfilled in the way we’ve been able to go and do the things we’ve been able to offer, thanks to the staff that we have and the support of the parish.”
Opening More Doors
In addition to the awards, the Parish Excellence Summit offers a wealth of suggestions and practical advice for parishes seeking to find ways to open more doors to parishioners and members of the community at large. The information is invaluable to St. Joseph’s Parish Advisory Council, which works in tandem with the Parish Leadership Team when it comes to new efforts in ministry, Father Rozman noted.
“Everything we’re doing here is inspired by the Divine Renovation Network. We’re studying a lot of what’s been coming out through them. We are taking a team approach where we sit down, strategize and plan, and then make sure that our Parish Advisory Council is part of it,” he said.
“We move ahead where we feel God is calling us. The subtitle of Divine Renovation is ‘From Maintenance to Mission.’ We have our doors open, but we also need to make sure that we’re going out in many different ways. We know that during this time, we have to use modern technology in a much more effective way as we continue our missionary approach,” he said.
Rudy Geisler, Parish Manager, said parish structure and leadership has led to the success that St. Joseph’s has found in expanding its outreach.
“The structure in place is a Senior Leadership Team comprised of office staff, and the Parish Advisory Council with a strategic focus. Ideas come from both of those groups, and then you start running with them,” he said.
“When you have solid strategic leadership, it’s a foundation for success,” Geisler added. “We need those 20-some parishioners on the council to offer their suggestions. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what can be done. But you have to think big thoughts.”
Still, balance can be a challenge, as Father Rozman pointed out that not every suggestion or idea becomes reality.
“It’s so easy for people to come to the pastor and say, ‘Hey, we need to do this,’” he said. “But we have to pause. There are a lot of moving parts, so my approach is that it has to come to the leadership team. We have an opportunity to discuss ideas and suggestions, and they have to meet our parish mission, which is to foster the presence of Christ based on the great commission to grow disciples for Jesus. Are all these ideas – as great as they are – going to help us grow disciples? We have to be practical.”
“The analytics also matter,” Geisler added. “We have to look at where we’re reaching people, and who we need to reach. For instance, I remember our first outdoor Mass at the gazebo, we had four people there. But it grew to as many as 170 in the months that followed. That’s a success for the effort.”
“You can’t run with every idea that is suggested, because we are limited with time and resources,” he said. “We make our priorities in respect to the limits in time and people we have. If not, you can quickly get saturated and maxed-out with the possibilities.”
In the constantly-evolving digital world, parish leadership continues to analyze data, consider new efforts and plan for the day when all Masses and activities can be held again in person without restriction. Geisler said livestreaming will be part of ministry from here on out.
“It’s here to stay,” he said. “It’s critical for parishes to find a way to do it.”
St. Joseph Parish, and others in the Diocese, have come a long way in the past ten months, transitioning to online platforms and digital efforts that now seem part of the norm.
“We’re not here to just be an online presence, but to be online and present,” Stence said. “The efforts are sincere and intentional in connecting with parishioners.”
“God offers us an invitation every day to see where He is leading us in the blessings and challenges of life,” Father Rozman concluded. “For me, to do God’s will is the most important thing. I consider, how is everything we’re doing here part of God’s will for the Church and for this corner of the Kingdom here in Mechanicsburg.”
“It’s exciting, but it’s also scary, to be in this era of the Church. There are so many challenges that the Church faces, and COVID certainly didn’t help,” he said. “But it’s exciting to see where God is leading us through doors we never thought we’d have to go through. And we do it with hope.”
(Learn more about the Parish Excellence Summit and Awards at www.parishexcellence.com.)
(Photos courtesy of St. Joseph Parish.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness