Some 500 Catholic leaders and their pastors from across the United States met recently at the first-ever Amazing Parish conference in Denver to brainstorm and swap ideas about improving parish life. The newly-founded Amazing Parish movement seeks to provide resources to pastors and parish leaders so they can create a thriving parish life. The conference, held Aug. 27-28 at the Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center, featured Catholic speakers and workshops on topics such as parish leadership teams, formation programs and evangelization. For a movement that is just starting out, interest in the conference was widespread and the overall response very positive. “Would it be wrong to say it’s been amazing?” quipped Matt Manion, president of the Catholic Leadership Institute and a speaker at the conference. “But it’s really been an excellent experience of Church, of prayer, and of people who are open to new ideas and new ways of serving God through the parish,” he told CNA. Many of the speakers, like Manion, are Catholics serving in leadership roles for big companies who are adapting tricks of the trade of company leadership to practical ideas for parish leadership. “The church is larger than maybe any company that these kind of guys work with, so we have to be strategic,” said Amazing Parish staff member Chris Stefanick. “We have to have the best practices and good team building skills and so I think what we’re given is really unique here and it’s been received really well.” Stefanick is also a social media evangelist at reallifecatholic.com and helped host the conference, which filled to its 500-person capacity before it was even officially advertised. “Both that and how it’s been received, it just confirms that it’s meeting a very huge need in the Church,” he said. Attendees of the conference represented a wide range of parish experiences, from rural, spread out areas to parishes containing thousands of registered families and several other Catholic churches within a square mile. Father Cory Sticha made the trip from St. Mary’s in Malta, Montana with his parish director of religious education and a member of his parish council. He pastors an area three times the size of Rhode Island but only has around 200 registered families in his parish. The best part about the Amazing Parish movement, he said, is the resources. Everyone at the conference received a binder with guiding questions and planning sheets for each of the seven foundational parts needed to create an amazing parish. There are several formation talks and free resources on the website as well, and attendees of the conference also received a free DVD set of formation talks that would normally be priced around $100. “For us in a smaller parish, having a lot of resources that are low-cost — free or relatively cheap — is a big deal,” Fr. Sticha told CNA. “A bigger parish that has 7,000 families, they don’t think about that, that’s not a big deal to them. It is for us.” For St. Clements in Chicago, the challenges at the parish level look a little different. With about 4,000 registered parishioners, the Lincoln-park area church also sees a lot of young adults that hop around to the multiple parishes in the area. “People are bouncing around all over, not just in our parish, so in a sense we don’t really know anybody,” said Pastor Fr. Ken Simpson. On the other hand, the parish is very open to new ideas. “We’re a place that’s pretty open to change. It’s not like, ‘Why are you doing this?’” he said, “It’s, ‘When are you going to do it?’ which is a real advantage.” During the conference, parish representatives were encouraged to focus on those things that made their parishes unique and how they could work with those characteristics. Tim Weiske, a parishioner at St. Clements, said he thought a good goal to focus on for their parish was forming their large young adult population. “I see our job as preparing these young adults for the next parish they’re going to be a part of,” he said. Fr. Simpson also said that the conference brought to light the regional differences in parish life and presented a chance to collaborate. “There’s a whole different set of resources and experiences west of the Mississippi,” he observed. “It’s very interesting to me how the East and West are developing in different ways, and it’s cool that we’re here together to (experience) this.” For Stefanick, the biggest hope he had for the parishes in attendance was that they come away with a clarity of vision and practice for their parish. “The way we do parish ministry gets so convoluted, so bogged down under tasks, that we don’t even know what we’re about anymore,” he said. “And it becomes so complex for us that it just burns people and ministries out. So we need to put a greater simplicity around what we do, so that we can focus and do the few things that we’re able to do with our finite nature, well.” Because of the huge response, Stefanick said the conference is likely to be split up into 2-4 regional conferences in the near future. Parishes interested in checking out the movement can visit the website at amazingparish.org.
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