Gathering Lost Sheep
By Janet Memerich
One of the problems plaguing old and established parishes is that of continuing in the same old routine. There are the ever present concerns of finances, building maintenance, perhaps updating some properties, and basically doing things just as they have always been done.
A dozen years ago, our parish had the unique opportunity to send a few delegates to a Viable Futures Project sponsored by the Twin Cities Metropolitan Church Commission and funded by the George Dayton Foundation. The program outlined various concerns that could influence the continuing existence and stability of a parish. These concerns were pertinent to the continued existence of our parish as well.
For the first time, we had to make a hard, in depth, objective study of our parish. We noted that it, like many older parishes, had a fairly high percentage of members who were aged 65 and over. The obvious conclusion was that if this parish was to continue to grow, and with the same zeal as that put forth by the handful of immigrants who established it nearly 100 years ago, then we had to identify who was going to carry on and perpetuate what the faithful had built to this point.
First Target: Our Youth
We started by looking at the various age categories of our parishioners and decided that the future of the parish as well as its present was with the youth. We took a hard, scrutinizing study of what our parish had to offer its youth in the way of programs, i.e. events, sports, study groups, social functions. We also had to look at who was leading our youth.
We proceeded to spend much time working and upgrading our youth program. One successful activity that continues is a youth night once a week. It includes Jr. choir practice and then varied planned events, i.e. singing at a nursing home, gym nights, having rapp sessions or a tutoring session in some difficult school subjects. Presently one of our priests and our choir director share leadership of the group.
When we felt fairly confident that we were doing quite well in this area, we went back to the church statistics to delve deeper. To our surprise, when we checked out past baptismal records, we found that the number of active participating youth was much lower than the number of those who had been baptized at our parish. What had happened to those young people who had been baptized but then dropped out of sight, or who came around just once or twice a year?
This led us to consider another group, the parents of these children. Children usually cannot come to church if the parents do not bring them. We went back to the statistics. We looked at all the marriages that were performed at our parish within certain years, noting how many of these married people were still members and active parishioners.
We also researched past records of baptisms, marriages, Sunday School attendance, organization members, as well as parish members listed on our books, but inactive. This was not something done overnight. It took many tedious hours, calculating statistics, making lists of various categories of parishioner involvement, and finally coming down to the hard cold facts of the number of people who were married in the parish but with no further record of involvement on their part. We had people listed as parishioners who never attended church, but who, for whatever reason, felt compelled to maintain membership in name only.
Presenting the Statistics
Loaded down with all this data and, perhaps for the first time, actual statistics, our small group presented its findings to the parish via inserts in our Sunday messenger and a special presentation at a coffee hour following Divine Liturgy. We wanted to establish parish awareness through graphs, facts and figures, past and present. Then we projected statistically what our parish membership would be like in the next 5 years and 10 years respectively, if we continued the status quo.
These presentations had the desired effect upon the parishioners. They began to show concern and a willingness to help in various capacities. People who never before had any desire to actively participate in church programs, offered themselves as resources that could be tapped.
The questions in everyone’s mind were: Where were all these people that everyone took for granted as still active? Why had they left? Where did they go? Why did not someone notice all this before now? Were these people simply lost? Thus our “Lost Sheep” campaign started.
“Similar Interests” Approach
A core group of people met to discuss various ways of setting up this program. We kept the people of the parish informed by publishing our intent in the Sunday messenger, asking them to turn in names of those they felt should be added to our list of lost sheep. With the guidance of the priest, we exchanged ideas on how best to approach these people. One way would be a one-to-one contact, some being contacted by the priest, others by lay people. But our core group felt insecure with this approach. We decided instead that our first efforts should be that of bringing together groups of people with the same interests.
The priest, who had been seeing many young couples in preparation sessions for marriage, initiated a group for young marrieds. The young marrieds would have much in common in their everyday pursuits. It was decided to let this group set up its own activities so that they could be structured according to the desires and needs of the young couples. Some “get-togethers” were pot luck suppers followed by a religious discussion; other gatherings centered on purchasing a home, budgeting, etc.
Looking into the statistics once again, our core group found that the baptisms performed at our parish during the preceding two years, listed a sizable number of babies who had not really been seen again at the church services. Having more confidence in a group effort, with the help of the priest, we decided to have a “Baby Sunday.”
Written invitations were sent to all families whose children had been baptized at St. Mary’s during the past two years. We invited them to come and share a special Sunday with us. Invitations were followed up with a call so that we could arrange seating area in church as well as at coffee hour. Highchairs were brought in for the coffee hour, name tags identified the people, and then pictures of the baby and the families were taken. When the pictures were developed, a bulletin board display was put up, showing off the newest members of St. Mary’s family. Special refreshments were purchased to carry out the theme.
During the Divine Liturgy that Sunday, many baby cries gave the choir some competition, but they also called attention to the fact that our parish did have a large group of people whose needs had to be met. Our committee made use of coffee hour fellowship to talk to those people as well as to introduce them to each other. Again, we had brought together a group with similar interests and needs.
Church School, Young Adults, Senior Citizens, Non-Orthodox
During the summer months a vacation church school was held. Invitations were sent to children and their parents. Names were taken from baptismal records. Our efforts proved fruitful for they brought back many parents and families to take another look. The response was favorable enough to show that we were heading in the right direction. When church school resumed in the fall, baptismal records were also utilized to invite new students to participate.
For those who were growing into young adults, a monthly Youth Sunday was started. Personal phone calls were made to church school graduates (our church school ends with the 11th grade) who were asked to help out in various tasks during the Divine Liturgy. Others were asked to help out at coffee hour. We again saw some new faces. We wanted this age group to know that it was important both for them and for the parish that they grow in their spiritual life, church friendships and add their time and talents to St. Mary’s parish.
Senior Citizen activities became yet another focus. Get-togethers which were held a few times a year, are now being held monthly.
We also initiated “Share Your Faith” Sundays, asking parishioners to bring to church with them friends and relatives who do not attend (or no longer attend) St. Mary’s. At the coffee hour, we were able to give them a special welcome. Literature on Orthodoxy is distributed and a question-answer period is held, giving an opportunity for asking questions about the parish and about the Faith.
The above are some of the efforts that have proved to be effective. Though statistics charting our results have not been gathered, we do know that some families have come back to the parish. Other families have become more active, and hopefully, the needs of many are being met.
Using the group approach, no one felt uncomfortably singled out, and yet in many ways each had been. Each was made to feel a part of the parish, and needed. Various new programs were added as the need arose, not the least of which were classes on Orthodoxy, and Bible Study on a regular basis, so that our own committee as well as other parishioners could gain knowledge and confidence. Since St. Mary’s is a large parish, group efforts may lend themselves more readily than in a small parish. No parish, whatever its size, can afford to neglect the individual.
Just as our parishioners found it such an eye-opener to see actual statistics with projections as to where our parish was heading 5 years hence, so should there also be a point of examination to see how the parish has done with its goals. A re-evaluation took place for us just recently through the parish Stewardship Committee. Again, names of people on the books, but inactive, prompted us to new action.
In 1987 we will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the parish. We invited the inactives to a “kick-off” of that celebration, an evening of “Looking Back,” presenting a historic view of the church’s development with memorabilia, balalaika music, refreshments and especially fellowship. The inactive members were contacted by letter and then by phone. A couple dozen actually came that night, which we felt quite good about. Beyond that, we noticed that many more, though they did not make it for the event, were in church the following Sunday. We plan to continue to use the anniversary year to reach out to our inactive members.
Of all the efforts mentioned, the one thing that stands out is a greater parish awareness and concern for one another. In order to keep growing, the parish must periodically take time to re-evaluate itself. It must recheck the records to see if all parishioners are being reached. This is time consuming, but the effort is rewarding.
Check List - To Develop a Lost Sheep Program
1. Form a core committee.
2. Familiarize the committee with the concept of a “Lost Sheep Program” through
- written resources, i.e. Church Growth And Evangelization, The Basis and The Basics, published by the OCA Office of Church Growth.
- attending a seminar on the topic if one is available in your area.
- inviting a knowledgeable person in to do a workshop or lecture on the topic.
3. Make an in-depth study of the parish, gathering the pertinent statistics from various records kept by the parish.
4. Study the statistics to identify the “lost sheep.” Note the age categories and the interest groupings.
5. Determine the best approach(es) to reach out to the “lost sheep” for your parish.
6. Share the statistics and plans for gathering the “lost sheep” with the rest of the parish.
- Seek their input.
- Keep them periodically informed on program developments, on ways they can be of help
7. Put into motion the approach(es) you have decided on.
8. After an approach has reached a certain completion, gather as a committee to evaluate its success. Share results with the parish.
9. Encourage the parish to periodically re-evaluate itself, to note what goals have been accomplished, what new goals need to be set.
Janet Memerich, a member of St. Mary’s Parish, Minneapolis, Minnesota, served on its Council for many years. She was a member of the “Viable Futures” Committee at its inception and has continued to work with the Lost Sheep Program to the present.