I had another conversation recently that opened a window on another pastoral reality: the number of highly committed, orthodox, and well catechized Catholic leaders who leave because they and their families are drowning without a supportive culture of discipleship at the local parish level.
As I wrote in chapter 12 of Forming Intentional Disciples:
“ . . . what few people seem to understand is how debilitating spiritual isolation can be even for highly committed Catholics who are disciples. Many priests and lay leaders who are disciples and long to evangelize experience a devastating isolation. At least half of the leaders who attended one Making Disciples seminar a few years ago expressed profound loneliness. They were from twenty-two dioceses all over the United States and Australia. They told us over and over again how isolated they were back home and how incredibly healing it was to be able to talk to other Catholics who cared about the same things they cared about. Just as discouraging was the fact that five deeply committed, orthodox Catholics had spontaneously used the same ominous language while talking with me during the two weeks prior to the seminar: “If I left the Church….” The reason for their despair was always the same: the lack of a community of spiritual friends with whom they could walk the path of discipleship.
I know that the idea of leaving the Church because you are grieving the fellowship of other disciples can be utterly mystifying or seem whiny and self-indulgent. How could you leave the Eucharist? Much depends upon whether or not you have ever experienced being part of a group of intentional disciples who were actively supporting one another. If you have, it can be extraordinarily difficult to live without it, for even the most committed.”
Last week I heard it again from a woman on staff at a very successful, orthodox, and well respected Newman ministry. Their highly committed, well catechized alumni - even their former staff - were struggling terrifically once they left college and entered the world of the ordinary parish. She even told me that her best friend had recently left the Church for the evangelical world.
This leader sounded like another friend whom I quote in my book:
"Friendships were key in Seattle. I want to be able to speak of what I truly hope for and the things that appear to thwart those hopes—and I could do that very easily in Seattle. People came to you for help and we did our best. It gave you a sense when you participated in something like that it was holy and this was what God wants us to be about.
Here I’m a father on my own with my wife and kids. So far, we’ve gotten by spiritually. God help us if we had a real crisis because there is nowhere to go here. I find that a hell of lot worse than not having insurance. I know what a true community “insurance” policy looks like and I know what it can provide. It feels like I’m bleeding. How can you accept this? How can you expect so little of God?"
Most adults will not and cannot spend their lives in campus environments. At some point, 98% of practicing Catholics in this country will find themselves left with one spiritual alternative for them and their families: the local parish. In the US, we have to grasp that the impact of our most dynamic and effective campus ministries will be blunted and sometimes even strangled by the reality of our actual lived parish culture - which is hardly ever one of intentional discipleship. The irony is that the more spiritually mature you are, the harder it is to endure - much less flourish - as a disciple without the support of a community of disciples. It is harder because now you know what is possible. It is harder because now you know what ”Normal” is supposed to look like.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. And it doesn’t take that long to see real change begin. We know of parishes where really significant changes occurred in five years or less because parish leaders did these four things:
I. Break the silence!
- A. Talk openly about the possibility of a relationship with the God who loves you.
- B. Talk explicitly about following Jesus. Drop the Name!
- C. Do Ask: As others about their lived relationship with God.
- D. Do Tell: Tell the “Great Story of Jesus” (the kerygma)
- II. Offer multiple, overlapping for baptized and nonbaptized people to personally encounter Jesus Christ in the midst of his Church.
- III. Expect conversion. Plan for conversion.
- IV. Lay a spiritual foundation through organized, sustained intercessory prayer.
Obviously, I can't lay this all out in a blog post. I spend 8 chapters of Forming Intentional Disciples on the four beginning steps above. Read the book. Join the conversation.