Monday, July 8, 2013

Building a Family Friendly Parish

Li'l G's baptism...we look so young! ;)
It seems a little crazy to write about building "family friendly parishes," because after all, isn't that the basic building block of a parish? The fact remains, though, that not all parishes welcome the young family well. Joel and Lisa Schmidt of Practicing Catholic have a fantastic article out that has been generating some discussion about things parishes can do to stop losing young families. They build their thoughts around the new encyclical by the Holy Father. It is well worth the read. I'd give you a long synopsis, but I really think you should read it straight from them! I'll give you a hint - topics of baptism, childcare, and NFP are involved.

At the end of their article, they were kind enough to invite discussion and thoughts, which I left at length in their combox - mea culpa... While I won't bore you with all of my agreement with many of their points, including everything about childcare and baptism, (who am I kidding!) Here were some of my thoughts on their article and additional things parishes can do to engage young families. (While some of this might be a strong indication of their suggestions, please...go - read! Joel and Lisa have done a wonderful job of tying all this into the Holy Father(s)'s latest and greatest! And being fellow Iowans they automatically earn a gazillion cool points.)

I...agree with you about the Sacrament of Baptism belonging in the liturgy. Having had both experiences (the one outside of Mass due to scheduling conflicts at the parish), I am even more convinced that Baptisms should be part of the communal liturgy. The child is baptized into a community and to remove that felt like an essential part of the rite was missing, especially with a smaller family.
Also, I couldn't agree more about keeping children, even noisy ones, in the Mass. I recently was writing about how to reduce stress with toddlers, and my first point, and one I have learned slowly and reluctantly, is that we simply have to change our mindset as to what we expect from Mass. It isn't a place of quiet solitude and reflection, but rather a communal gathering where we encounter Jesus in the Word and the Eucharist together, learning as a community which includes small children. How will they ever learn what the community is about if they are not welcomed even at a young age? Not that they can't pick it up, but I do believe it is a dangerous mindset to get into, and one that is not at all welcoming to young families with children. The adult expectations of Mass in my experience is not designed for young children, so pastors who encourage families to keep their children there despite outbursts can be a great witness and encouragement. We are very lucky in that our pastor is quite outspoken about his expectation that our parish be a life-affirming parish which means children are always, always welcome...and that the cry room isn't an alternate sanctuary. 
A few things that would also help from our experience are intentional events, activities, ministries that target newlyweds within the community. We found, that although we know our pastor and are active, we don't know that many couples who were married around the same time and in the same state of family life. I think too many pastors and parishes continue to stay in the frame of mind that young people will come back after marriage and again, after babies. This just isn't true anymore. When 40% of our young adults or more are in ecumenical/interfaith marriages, and getting married in spades outside the church, and the ones who are married aren't necessarily connected, we just cannot assume that anymore. Kudos to the pastor who recognized that any point of contact is a point of welcoming and evangelization. 
In terms of welcoming, the other complaint I have often heard are about the hurdles one has to jump to do anything within the parish - sacraments included. While education and catechesis are important, I think it is also important not to include so much red tape that it becomes a hindrance to participation. Do you really need envelopes for a year from a couple before marriage or baptism? Couldn't that be the point of outreach and welcome where they are invited to become committed members? Church isn't a club, and sometimes it begins to feel that way. 
Along those lines, I think it is also important to honor the stage of life young families are in. Take into consideration timing of events. Something late in the evening, even with childcare, is not likely going to attract young families, nor something during the day for working families. While drawing families into the parish is important, why not also, to acknowledge that the home church being built will be the primary faith builder, offer take home activities or better yet, take advantage of social media and technology to offer home based studies and gatherings? Skype and video chat have been used quite well for this option. It should never be a substitute, but it offers an option for families that may otherwise not ever make it to events due to their family obligations or situations.

One last point that I missed in my second typing of these comments due to technical errors (oh, iPhone, why you do me that way?) is that I think it would be helpful for parishes to form small communities within geographical regions. Though not everyone will click simply because they are Catholic, in a similar stage of life and go to the same parish, it does provide an opportunity to get to know our Catholic neighbors. We happen to belong to a parish that draws families from a fairly wide geographic range and we travel in from about 20 minutes away ourselves. It would be great to know if there are any young families who live down the street from us who attend our parish. Some parishes do this well, and if we went to our geographic parish, perhaps this wouldn't even be an issue (though neighborhood clusters of families would still be a nice idea). I still think intentional efforts to build community outside of worship and parish ministry isn't a bad idea in either case and can only strengthen family ties of blood and Spirit. For a gal who was drawn into the Church because of a need to find where I belonged, this is no small matter...

What say ye? What would help you as a young family to be more engaged with your parish? What might draw young families into parish life at greater numbers overall?