May 27-June 2, 2004
VOL 123 NO. 21
Time, Talent & Treasure
By Kristen Fox / SUN Staff Writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Late last summer Father Gregory LeStrange, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Fayetteville, and a core group of parishioners came together and asked what they could do to address the needs of the parish community. What they found exceeded any possible expectations. The question opened the door to many exciting paths, each bringing Immaculate Conception’s parishioners closer to each other and to God. Over the last year Immaculate Conception has become a “Stewardship Parish.” The vibrant parish, established in 1869, initiated a process to invite the approximately 2,500 families in the parish to give their time, talent and treasure to serve God and others. A newly-created stewardship committee, working in conjunction with the parish council and the finance committee, has helped oversee the process.
The genesis of the program was not out of necessity, but rather from a desire to meet the changing needs of parishioners, explained Father LeStrange. “You have to constantly keep an eye on the future,” he said. “Immaculate Conception has been a life-filled and faith-filled parish for many years. We are always striving to do things better.” The National Catholic Stewardship Council defines stewardship as a “complete lifestyle.” It states,”Stewards as disciples of Jesus Christ see themselves as caretakers of all God’s gifts. Gratitude for these gifts is expressed in prayer, worship, offering and action by eagerly sharing these gives out of love of God and one another.” Countless parishes have great enthusiasm for the stewardship movement which has been developing within the Catholic Church in the U.S. and elsewhere for several decades. According to Father LeStrange, “Being a good steward is an essential part of being a disciple of Christ.”
Often, however, there is a negative stigma attached to stewardship. One of the biggest misconceptions is that stewardship centers on raising money. “Some people hear the word ‘stewardship’ and automatically think ‘fundraising,’” Father LeStrange said. “At Immaculate Conception stewardship is far more than that.” Tom Ryan, coordinator of stewardship at Immaculate Conception, and his wife Mary have been parishioners at the church for 20 years. He agreed there is much more to the undertaking than finances. “Finance is not the driver. We said this from day one. If you are driven strictly by what are the needs of the church, then your focus is wrong. It is about meeting the needs of the people.”
The “Stewardship Renewal” at Immaculate Conception focuses more directly on inspiring parishioners to give of their time and talent. In March, the parish sent out commitment cards to families asking each member to make a pledge of time, talent and/or treasure. Pledges of time included actions such as attending Mass, prayer, reciting the rosary and confession. Pledges of talent included lending a hand with a parish ministry. As of May 19, 266 completed commitment cards were returned to the parish. The preliminary results are overwhelmingly positive. There have been 692 commitments to stewardship of time and 375 new commitments and 523 renewed commitments to stewardship of talent. Renewed commitments represent a pledge to a ministry an individual is already serving.
Marian Swanson serves as ministerial coordinator at Immaculate Conception. She is spearheading efforts to contact the new people who indicated an interest in volunteering. “There are lots of people who are already involved in volunteering and many who want to get involved,” Swanson said. “We try to find out what their interests are and match them up with our needs.”
She said a diverse group of people makes up the parish’s volunteers, including parents with small children, elderly and young adults. They all have different reasons for volunteering. “For people like our Eucharistic ministers, it’s a spiritual experience,” Swanson said. “Others enjoy the social aspect of it.” “Some do it to give back to the parish,” she added. The parish developed a ministry opportunities booklet that was distributed with the commitment cards in March. Opportunities highlighted include serving as Eucharistic ministers and volunteering or participating in hospitality, adult faith formation, young adult ministries and a self-help program for unemployed parishioners. The parish also distributes the booklet to all new parishioners. With 60 ministries for parishioners to get involved in, there is a niche for everyone at Immaculate Conception.
“There are lots of ways that people can be involved,” commented Swanson. According to Ryan, the tremendous interest expressed in the commitment cards is reflective of the laity’s growing role in a post-Vatican II church. “The ‘new church’ belongs to us all,” he said. “We have an obligation to respond to this shift in terms of taking on leadership roles and becoming active participants in parish life.” Father LeStrange is pleased with the Stewardship Renewal’s preliminary outcome. But he is just as happy about the new opportunities it will give people to build faith and community. “Our primary goal is to invite our parishioners to use all of their gifts to build their parish,” said Father LeStrange. “I remind people on a daily basis that pastors come and go. Gone are the days when a pastor stays in one place for 30 years. It is the people who stay. It’s their parish.” The Stewardship Renewal is only one part of the continuing mission of Immaculate Conception. Prior to the Renewal, parishioners were asked to complete a 110-question survey. Respondents communicated their views on liturgy, faith development, education, parish life, stewardship and administration. The survey served two purposes, said Father LeStrange. “It was a vehicle for people to express their opinions,” he said. “It also heightened our awareness of facets of parish life.”
The parish office received 601 completed surveys, which is a 24 percent parish response rate. The response rate is twice the average response rate of 10-to-12 percent for similar Catholic parishes. Father LeStrange hopes to take the survey’s results and use them as a foundation on which to build a stronger parish. “The responses give the parish a direction for new initiatives,” he said. “They will help us to constructively address the needs of our parish community.” One ministry he hopes to broaden is Adult Faith Formation. Almost half of the respondents who have never attended an Adult Faith Formation program at Immaculate Conception expressed an interest to do so in their surverys. “This is just one thing we can work on,” Father LeStrange said. Communication between church and congregation is an integral part of parish life at Immaculate Conception. With the help of a small, yet dedicated, staff and numerous volunteers, the parish publishes a monthly newsletter and a quarterly newspaper, I.C. Good News, in addition to its weekly bulletin. They are all tools to facilitate communication, said Father LeStrange. “Sometimes parishioners will tell me that they see the same information in the bulletins and newsletters,” he said. “That’s fine with me. I would rather have them read it twice than not know what is going on in our parish.” The parish enlisted the aid of Catholic Stewardship Consultants (CSC) to help them with the stewardship process. The consulting firm, based in Augusta, Ga., provides customized stewardship services to Catholic parishes. Its mission is two-fold: to help parishes improve parishioner involvement and to increase offertory giving. Father LeStrange believes that retaining CSC “as a guidepost” was right for Immaculate Conception. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘Do we look outside the parish for people to assist us?’” said Father LeStrange. “Sometimes you have to take a risk prayerfully and faithfully.”
There are many different approaches and organizations that parishes can use to help them develop a stewardship program. Valuable resources can also be found in the diocese. Kit Parker, diocesan director of development, worked with Immaculate Conception during its Stewardship Renewal Process. Parker believes that the same results Immaculate Conception has seen — increased parish activity, enhanced worship –– can be reaped by other parishes. He hopes that more parishes will start their own stewardship process, tailored to meet their individual needs. “Parishes can do this regardless of what resources they have available,” Parker said. “Stewardship is as much a mindset as it is anything else.” He added that the Development Office sponsors a bi-annual Stewardship Conference to help church leadership develop stewardship programs. The next conference is scheduled for this fall. Although stewardship is not synonymous with fundraising, there is a correlation between the two. Parker explained that as parishioners become more involved in parish life, their financial support also becomes stronger.
“People tend to support organizations that they have ties to and that impact their lives directly,” he said. “This translates to the church level. Increasing involvement in worship and service does increase the financial aspect.” Undertaking such a large process is not a simple task, but it is one that Immaculate Conception plans to extend. Ryan indicated that what started out as a one-year initiative will continue. “Strength builds on strength,” he said. “When you start something like this, you want it to carry into the future.” Over the last three months, Immaculate Conception’s parishioners have responded very generously with their time, talent and treasure, resulting in a dramatic renewal of the parish. Everyone involved in the process agrees that it is the journey, not the destination, that’s most important. “We have a firm foundation to build a great future for Immaculate Conception,” said Father LeStrange.