Parishioners learn to evangelize

Answering the call to evangelize, Kim Dreesen is stepping outside her comfort zone to share her faith with others.
She is among nearly three dozen parish leaders and others at St. Bonaventure Parish in Columbus who are rolling up their sleeves, making plans and learning how to help others encounter Jesus through “leveling sessions” conducted by the archdiocese’s Office of Evangelization and Catechesis (OEC).
The program is part of an effort to implement the archdiocese’s pastoral vision, “One church: encountering Jesus, equipping disciples and living mercy,” as the OEC works with St. Bonaventure and other parishes to help them develop cultures of discipleship and evangelization.
Dreesen said the four-session program inspired her to make an extra effort to reach out – such as offering to sponsor a coworker’s attendance at a Christians Encounter Christ (CEC) retreat weekend as a birthday gift.
“And I want to invite her to more activities at our parish – just offering that personal invitation and giving her someone to go with,” Dreesen said.
She also appreciated tips for approaching people about the faith, and how to be prepared to answer their questions.
“By reaching out to just one person, that could turn into 100 people – by just being welcoming and inviting, and being a community,” she said. “We want to fill the pews at every single Mass.”
As a first step toward that goal, leveling sessions help parish leaders and pastors develop a common understanding of the current state of their parishes, the pastoral vision and priorities of the archdiocese, and the meaning and methods of evangelization, said Jim Jansen, director of OEC.
In addition to various self-assessment games and exercises, the sessions are “punctuated by significant levels of prayer and reflection,” he said.
“As we think about the process of parish renewal and evangelization, it isn’t just about changing our thoughts, but changing our hearts,” Jansen said.
“And, it’s about relationship, not theology – just meeting people where they’re at,” said Father Michael Swanton, pastor.
“It starts with pre-evangelization,” he said. “People need to know there is a God who loves them – back to the very basics.”
Opportunities to evangelize abound, Father Swanton said.
“Out of 22,000 people in Columbus, 10,800 claim to be Catholic, but only 5,000 go to Mass, so just within our own numbers, there’s a lot of evangelization to be accomplished,” he said.
“We’re really excited to grow our parish through discipleship, and to get people involved and on fire for Jesus,” Father Swanton said.
And that applies to the parish members leading the effort – helping them understand and develop their own evangelization skills and plans.
“The Office of Evangelization is helping us figure out where our parish wants to be, what we’re doing well and not doing well, and how to improve,” said Belinda Keiter, pastoral ministry and stewardship coordinator for the parish.
During the sessions, participants played a board game – an assessment tool developed by the OEC – that helps parishes determine the best evangelization strategy based on the unique characteristics of parishes and pastors, she said.
A questionnaire also asked participants to rate the parish’s effectiveness in evangelizing inactive Catholics and people with no religious affiliation, and take stock of one’s own aptitudes and preferences.
The last session was a “dream session” where participants were encouraged to imagine what their parish could be like and how it could grow through evangelization, Keiter said.
“The program really got us on fire about what we can do in our parish,” Dreesen said.
It can be simple things such as saying hello, showing kindness, asking people how they are and really listening, Dreesen said, which means “being silent and being present with that person.”
As the program concluded, participants didn’t want the sessions to end, Keiter said, so they are eager for the OEC to return early in 2018 to continue developing strategies and determining individual people’s strengths and potential roles.
In the meantime, participants are putting into practice what they learned to develop a deeper spiritual and prayer life, and to reach out with a patient and a welcoming spirit to others.
“We’re hungry for guidance,” Keiter said. “Most of these people have encountered Jesus, but they don’t know how to share that encounter. How do they go forward and equip disciples?
“There’s so many who want more – they want to be able to share what they have,” she said. “There was such an energy and excitement about where God is leading our parish.” 
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