Best Practices in the “New Normal”

May 24, 2021 |

While in-person religious attendance has begun to rebound, it still is far from pre-Covid numbers. We sat down with Kris Fisher who is the Director of Evangelization at Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Lake Ridge, VA to see how they are navigating the changes to church services, ministries, and mission that will be required over the next few months as we all struggle to find a “new normal”.

What does your parish look like right now? How is this a change from before the pandemic?

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton looks pretty close to how it did pre-Covid. The numbers are slightly down, but they’ve been creeping up slowly as people get vaccinated.

Early on, our pastor, Father Brian Bashista, and leadership took the lead to remain active in evangelization and discipleship. At every stage of the pandemic, we’ve modified our parish offerings to fit CDC and diocesan guidelines – but we keep on going!

We always say, “Let’s not just do ‘stuff.’ Instead, what can we do to bring about a meaningful encounter with Jesus and with each other?”

Finding solutions

In action, this means that we meet regularly as a staff to collaborate and brainstorm. We listen to the needs of parishioners and engage them in finding solutions.

For example, we knew it was essential to provide in-person Mass as soon as possible. To do that, we needed volunteers to clean the church before, and after each Mass. Father Bashista even had the idea to come up with a catchy name, the “Seton Sanitizers.”

We communicated the need clearly to our parishioners. And let them know that if in-person Mass were what our parish needed, it would not be possible without their help. Sure enough, volunteers stepped forward! 

To our surprise, we found that a number of the volunteers were often those most concerned with Covid. Participating in the sanitation process gives them a sense of peace that they are proactive, and they can personally ensure proper precautions are taken. 

What do evangelization and discipleship look like right now?

In many ways, we still approach evangelization and discipleship the way we did before. We’re just doing it differently. As a leadership team, we’ve taken the approach, “Let’s just try it and see what happens!”

Evangelization in Action

During Covid, we recognized that we need to get back to basics. A significant portion of our parishioners are in a “pre-evangelization” phase, and it is our responsibility to offer them the richness of the Catholic faith. 

We had wanted to try out Symbolon: The Catholic Faith Explained for some time. And we  decided: ‘Why not go for it?’ The sessions were socially distant and took place over 20 weeks. We were very intentional about forming a community – calling people by name and following up with them. 

What we found is that participants started to follow up and check in on each other! Another important finding was that although the faith formation was good, what people need right now is connection.

Discipleship in Action

Another example of what we are doing is our Discipleship Training. Before the pandemic, we offered training to small group leaders, ministry leaders and volunteers – anyone looking to go deeper in their relationship with Jesus. Instead of shutting it down, we’ve modified it to include face masks, social distancing, or virtual meetings when necessary.

At first, I was afraid the inability to see faces (due to face masks) and read body language (for Zoom meetings) would hamper my ability to read and engage participants. Instead, I’ve found I now rely more on the Holy Spirit. And you know what? It has been fruitful!

Small Groups

At the beginning of the pandemic, we knew there was no guarantee that we’d be able to “get back to normal”, so our pastor and leadership decided to do whatever was necessary to keep people engaged. This included keeping the parish open for prayer (with proper precautions in place), offering Confessions, and calling people at home to check-in and offer support. 

We also didn’t want to lose momentum on what was already going. For example, small groups are a core part of our discipleship and evangelization efforts; after all, that’s the way Jesus started! Rather than hit “Pause”, we gave small groups the opportunity and help to continue to meet online or in a socially distant setting when permissible. Not every group continued to meet, but they know the option is there when they’re ready to begin again.

What has been successful regarding evangelization, discipleship, and the overall engagement of your parishioners and guests?

Something we’ve been thrilled with is the engagement of families in faith formation.

It would have been almost impossible to run faith formation in our former space due to Covid capacity restrictions. We also knew we didn’t want to offer it only online.

As an alternative, the Director of Faith Formation had the idea to host everyone in the church sanctuary. She even came up with a trivia game to engage families in the space!

Engaging Families in their Faith
There are 26 weeks of faith formation and 26 letters in the alphabet – each week, families had a clue to identify an object in the sanctuary that starts with the letter of the week. For example, week one was “A” for ‘ambo.’ Once a family correctly identified the mystery object, she would provide a short teaching on what it was and why it was important. Families loved it, and It became another way to incorporate fun while still being informative!

All grades began to meet together – the students and their parents. Sessions were intentionally fast-paced, mixing education with interactivity. For example, each session started with the trivia game, followed by three separate 20-minute sessions – often by three different people.

What we found is that parents were engaged and learning alongside their kids! We also saw that, especially for families attending in person, families began to get to know each other and connect.

A huge bonus? We’re now seeing families attending Mass that we’ve never seen before!

What are some of the obstacles you have faced recently, and how are you overcoming them?

There is a lie that says, “If it’s not like ‘X’ (i.e., how we did it before the pandemic…), we can’t do it.” Instead, we need to ask the question: “What can we do? How can we change it enough?” In reality, the only obstacle is the times we don’t try!

Addressing Fears
Whether it be anxiety about re-opening or anger with safety measures, our Pastor is usually the one who takes the brunt of people’s fears and frustration.

During this time, our consistent challenge is to listen with compassion, to let people know that we hear them – while also not making promises or letting fear have the last word. We found that fear is most often overcome with proper communication. Sharing information is key.

Staying Focused
The real obstacle is not being willing to try, experiment and make mistakes. The anecdote is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus – not on the storm.

We ran into this obstacle when we decided to run Alpha, an evangelization experience centered around a meal and discussion of life’s big questions. We were ready to go when the pandemic hit. At first, we weren’t sure that we should continue – can an experience that centers around a meal and small group discussion really be fruitful online? But we decided to give it a try, and you know what? It worked!

Supporting Each Other
To meet the challenges of this time, we intentionally support each other as a parish staff team. We even “go to bat” for each other when it is needed. For example, if someone is criticizing a particular staff member, we might respond with: “We (the staff) are collaborating on this…we (the staff) are doing the best we can…please be patient; this has never been done before…” It’s essential no one be “thrown under the bus.”

Following the leadership of our pastor, we actively work on creating a supportive, collaborative environment for parish staff. Our pastor made it clear that he does not want information silos. Practically, this means we regularly meet together to work through challenges, brainstorm and share ideas. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said, “This sounds like a crazy idea, but…” and then we try it – and it works!

Supporting each other means we operate as a team. There is no such thing as “your” work and “my” work – if someone needs help, we all pitch in! We are intentional about praying together and are looking at doing spiritual formation as a staff soon.

The result is that we love it – we love the work, and we love each other!

What suggestions would you offer to parishes looking to make the transition to a new normal of evangelization and discipleship?

I would say: ‘It’s a crapshoot, just try!’ You’ll see if it’s not working. The most important thing is to trust God.”

Also, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We’re creatures of habit; we need to get used to change – because it’s going to keep changing!