I have been a priest for a little over a month and naturally this makes me an expert on just about everything. All joking aside, I would like to make a small contribution to the voices speaking on parish renewal because this is a topic near to my heart. To do this, I would like to borrow an idea from Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. He explains that if we learn to focus on a few, essential things that need to be accomplished, we can eliminate a lot of time and energy in fixing other details which are nonessential. In this way, the key is not to work harder, but smarter.

I think a real danger with parish renewal is that we can fail to identify those things which are essential and have the ability to truly transform our communities. By addressing these core aspects of the parish, in time the other small details will begin to fall in place. I would identify the following as the 3 essentials:

1) Encounter
If we are leading people to connect with Jesus Christ in a personal way, many of the other details will work themselves out. Experienced Evangelists such as Sherry Weddell (author of Forming Intentional Disciples) have shown time and time again that when people are connected to our Lord, incredible things begin to happen in our parishes. People give generously to collections and to parish initiatives because they “get it.” They are plugged in not because we have crafted our message well, but because they have come to know the Lord.

2) Conversion
The fundamental movement that must take place in every Christian is a renunciation of selfishness and an embracing of God’s will. By helping people to move beyond themselves and their particular interests, we can solve many of the problems that are caused by gossip and division. Of course, there will always be conflict. However, an attitude of conversion helps everyone (including the pastor) to hear the perennial call to deny self and take up the cross.

Our parishes must become places where conversion is cultivated, celebrated, and encouraged at all levels. We must instill in ourselves and each other a constant vigilance in which we are open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

3) Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a powerful antidote to the lies and destruction that sin causes in our lives and in our parishes. Many people are carrying serious areas of woundedness and pain, and helping them is not simply a side project that we engage in with pastoral counseling. We must live forgiveness and mercy in our own lives while inspiring others to do the same. In this way, our parishes can become places of tender compassion in which we support and nurture the path of healing in Christ.

I am convinced that if we focus on these three essentials in our communities, many other details will fall into place precisely because we are opening ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit. These essentials do not replace God’s grace, but rather are the disposition of receptivity in which we invite God to do the work.