Parish Growth Summit’s goal is to help Florida parishes “grow the church”

LUTZ, Fla. — For Charmaine Carter, director of adult religious education at St. Jude the Apostle Cathedral in St. Petersburg, the Parish Growth Summit “was transformational.”

“Day to day, we can fall into the daily life of the ministry. But this workshop reinvigorated my heart, mind and passion for ministry and doing it as Christ called me,” she told Gulf Coast Catholic, the online media outlet for the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

Leaders of parishes and pastoral centers from across the St. Petersburg diocese gathered for the recent summit at the Bethany Center in Lutz with one goal: to grow the Catholic Church.

The theme for the gathering came from Luke 14:23, the parable of the great feast. In this parable, Jesus speaks of a dinner that was prepared, but those who were invited never showed up. The Master then orders the servant to find new people to invite so that “my house will be filled”.

The summit provided 32 hours of praying, learning, dreaming and making plans to fill our churches.

Carter said she felt called to be more courageous in her ministry and to invite more people to follow Christ.

“The Lord has spoken to me and told me that you must grow in courage and believe that I will be with you to accomplish what I have called you to do,” Carter added.

The Parish Growth Summit, held April 25-27, was an initiative of Living the Gospel Courageously, the vision of the Diocese of St. Petersburg which calls on the faithful to proclaim the Gospel and invites all to meet the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.

National speakers from Casting Nets Ministries, a Kansas-based lay ministry, spoke on the seven pillars of effective evangelism: prayer, invitation, hospitality, inspiration, sacramental, formation, and “mission.”

“We have to get out of our comfort zone. Greatness comes from pushing boundaries. Our culture is no longer a Christian culture. It’s a hostile culture,” said speaker Chris Stewart of the inspirational mainstay.

“We need more inspiring people to inspire others and to love others no matter who they are,” he added.

Speakers also reminded attendees that the greatest Christian calling is to be disciples who make disciples – that inviting others with a personal invitation, as Jesus did, is essential to that calling.

“We have lost the art of the personal invitation. We have to look another person in the eye. It’s hard to do because it makes us vulnerable. But our personal invitation means something to someone,” Stewart said.

Chris McBride, parish superintendent of St. Jerome Parish in Largo, Florida, led parish representatives through very detailed, parish-specific reports with demographic information about people living in their mission field, which covers a 20 minute radius of the church.

The reports also provided ministry preferences, religious beliefs, communication styles, and other useful information about people living in the neighborhoods around each parish.

Father Mike Smith, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Temple Terrace, Florida, and certified Dream Manager Coach, led the parishes through a visioning session of their “dream parish”: what the parish would look like if the “house of God was filled”.

“We heard many times during the synod process people’s deep desire for others to develop a close relationship with Christ and his church. They expressed concern and disappointment that many were not practicing their faith and hoped they would return,” said Lois Locey, Diocesan Chancellor for St. Petersburg Administration.

Currently, Catholic dioceses around the world are engaged in listening sessions in preparation for the 2023 synod of the Catholic Church on synodality.

“Instead of just lamenting, we as a united diocese are taking action,” Locey said. “The summit was an opportunity for parishes to partner with other parishes and diocesan ministries to move the church forward in concrete ways.”

She said diocesan and parish leaders “are inspired by the American Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Stewardship,” first published in 1992, which said, “Jesus’ call is urgent. He is not telling people to follow him at some point in the future, but here and now — right now, under these circumstances. There can be no delay. Go proclaim the kingdom of God.

“For the parishes and the diocese of Saint Petersburg, there will be no delay. We are going to go out and proclaim the kingdom of God and invite others into a deeper relationship with God and others,” added Locey, who is also an adjunct professor at the Center for Church Management at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Twenty-nine parishes participated in the Parish Growth Summit and most of them brought a pastor and a team of parish leaders comprising a combination of staff and volunteers.

Kathy Brasseur, office manager for St. Scholastica Parish in Lecanto, Fla., said it was one of the best diocesan events she has attended.

“It was instructive and it touched my heart. This experience pushes me to do more than I have done and to overcome my fears. It starts with me. I need to be more prayerful and more formative to be an example for others,” she said.

Father Jonathan Emery, pastor of St. Matthew Parish in Largo, attended the summit with three parishioners.

“It’s good to be reminded and cheered up about evangelism,” the priest said. “It reaffirmed my view that evangelism should be relational, and that involves walking with small groups of people.”

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Peterson is executive director of communications for the Diocese of St. Petersburg and writes for Gulf Coast Catholic, the diocese’s online newspaper.

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