By Mark Haney
The Catholic Weekly
BAY CITY — If you are among the 900-some member families of Holy Trinity Parish, then Fr. Robert Gohm wants to know what you think.
In fact, he’s sending people to your home to find out.
Through a new program, “Church Touches Home,” the Bay City parish is trying to find out what its members think and what it would take to get some of them back into church more regularly.
This was inspired by a stewardship session with Bishop Joseph R. Cistone at the Center for Ministry in Saginaw, where he spoke to those in attendance about some programs being used in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which he served before becoming Saginaw’s leader.
“One of the parishes there did something similar to what we are doing, but their focus was on fund-raising,” said Leo Staudacher, a member of Holy Trinity’s stewardship committee. “I didn’t want to do it for fund-raising, I thought it was something we could do at Holy Trinity only take the approach of how can we, as a parish community, become more relevant to our parishioners and how can we encourage the parishioners to make Holy Trinity a bigger part of their lives?”
He brought it back to the stewardship committee and began an eight-month process of figuring out just what this program would do and how.
“In our first round of thinking about it,” said Fr. Gohm, “we looked at some other programs — Blessed Sacrament (Parish) had done something and, of course, other parishes across the country have tried to reach out to the folks who are kind of on the fringes or on the margins — and then the more we thought about it and talked about it we said, ‘we don’t want to just target those people that aren’t coming. Why not try to meet everybody, or at least as many as we can?’ We thought it would be a great idea, first, just to visit people in their homes basically to find out what they enjoy about the parish and what ii is good about the parish for them and different ways we can serve them. Because how often do we actually do that unless we are going there to ask them for money.
“In fact, when we first launched the program some people thought that underneath it there was going to be some kind of a fund drive. I had to assure them that there is no hidden agenda. We simply want to see you.
“The more we talked about it,” he added, “we realized it would be of value simply to have people visited in their homes. To show that, as a parish, we are concerned about them and we care about them. And we also want to find out from those who are coming (to Mass regularly) the concerns that they have and also they may have some ideas for how to bring people back. Why just go the people who aren’t coming?”
Mary Dierich, the director of faith formation for the parish, joined the pastor and Staudacher worked with the stewardship committee to hammer out some of the particulars. She helped come up with a list of questions the visitors would ask She also wanted to make sure the people making the visits did not get wrapped up in questions of theology and such.
“I wanted our outreach to be good evangelization,” Dierich said. “We have been doing Disciples in Mission and that has the whole evangelization aspect to it and I felt Church Touches Home fits right into the end of Disciples in Mission.”
The pastor then asked the people when was a good time for a visit.
“Of course, the other very real fact is that some people don’t want us to visit them in their home,” said Fr. Gohm. “And that is true anywhere. So what we said was if you don’t want us to come to you, would you come to us? Either to come to the visitor’s home, or to come to the parish center or to even meet at a neutral place?
“Some people said, ‘we’re content, you don’t need to come.’ Well, we still might want to touch base with you anyway,” he added, saying he plans to call those people himself.
The parish then asked 35 people to be visitors, breaking them into 20 teams — most of them paired but some single visitors — offered them some training, including role-playing sessions; armed them with a script and a brief list of questions to ask and sent them out into the field with lists of people to contact.
Each visitor or pair of visitors was asked to spend an estimated hour at a minimum of 15 homes in the coming year — they set their own schedules, however. Some will visit far more, upwards of 100. Staudacher wants to do five visits a week, blocking out Mondays and Tuesdays for them.
“I hope to do 200 visits in 12 months,” he said. “I don’t know if I am going to hold up doing it, but right now that is what I want to do.”
So far he’s completed seven such visits and gotten some interesting results.
“The reaction has been interesting,” he said. “I have gotten more of an older, senior crowd so far, though I’ve also had some people in their late 50s to early 60s. The reaction to the visit has been very positive, very welcoming. The course of the conversation has not been surprising from some of their concerns, but surprising were a couple of older people’s concerns or the attitude.
“I was talking to a woman in her 80s the other day and you would have thought I was talking to my 20s granddaughter. ‘Oh, church is there if I need it but I paid my dues so who wants to get up on Sunday to go to church? So I just stay home and read the paper and drink coffee.’”
He ran into people recently widowed who thought the parish could have been there with something for them more immediately after their loss. The vicariate offers something but it doesn’t kick in until four months have passed. Others remarked that something needs to be done to attract and keep young people involved. Others wanted something for the divorced and separated, or for alternative lifestyles, and other issues.
“I don’t think Holy Trinity or any parish can cover all of the bases,” he said, “but maybe as we go forward we can cover them in the vicariate or in the diocese.”
The early results also have been interesting to Fr. Gohm. One couple reported back about some issues in a family that has not been attending Mass.
“These were issues that I was not even aware of,” Fr. Gohm said. “How do I become aware of it unless we go to them? The visiting couple thought this was an initial breakthrough and that we need to follow up on it right away.”
Though the process should take a year, the results will be shared sooner. A colorful chart posted in the church will let people know how many visits have been made. The pastor will make regular reports to the parish at weekend Masses and information will be posted in the parish bulletin.
In addition, the visitors will leave a brief questionnaire behind at each home. The people are asked to fill it out and return it — anonymously— to the parish. Those responses, plus the information gathered at the visits, will be gathered, collated and used to provide a plan of action for the parish.
“I hope our parishioners will have a sense that the church really does care about them and value their opinions, concerns and insights,” said Dierich. “I hope they will come to a greater understanding that we are the Church — the people of God, the body of Christ — that we are all in this together. We are our ‘brother’s keeper’ in a sense. What affects one affects all. The Catholic Church doesn’t have much of a reputation for being good with hospitality. I hope this program will change that. I hope that by asking the questions and providing an avenue to be heard, we can help to build each other up as disciples who bring about the reign of God. I hope, as well, that Holy Trinity Parish will grow and thrive even more vibrantly than we already do by having more of our parishioners actively involved in the life of the parish. There is always room to grow and do better, even when things are done well. That is why we chose to contact all parishioners, active and inactive alike. I hope this will radiate the light of Christ, embrace with the love of Christ and bring a new enthusiasm to what it means to be Catholic in the world at this time.”
“The hope is the program will instill a greater involvement in the parish, even if it is among those who are already coming,” said Fr. Gohm. “Another hope is it will help us respond to some needs out there that we may not be aware of. Another thing I hope is that people will feel more welcome and included in the parish.”