Jo O’Sullivan: Running Community Events in a Parish

There was a time when the Parish Priest oversaw/ ran all activities that had the name “Parish” in their titles. Pastorally-minded priests recognised that church, a COMMUNITY of faith, involved more than instructing parishioners in the faith, ensuring adherence to that faith and administering the sacraments. The community aspect of parish was important too.

They looked to the lives of their flock in their entirety, and found avenues in which they could foster that sense of belonging in a community in which they could thrive. Many’s the good priest set up the weekly Bingo, arranged to have the parish concerts, even saw to it that cottage industries or airports were built to enhance the lives of the people who lived in their areas.

All praiseworthy endeavours, and thank God for those priests and their dedication to the holistic lives of their parishioners. But they could not have succeeded without the lay faithful who came on board with those endeavours, and who implemented the decisions. Where would they have been without the Bingo caller, and the person who set up the Hall every week? What would have happened if nobody would take part in the concerts? Cottage industries and airports needed a lot of willing workers.

But each and every endeavour, big and small, all have one thing in common – a person who drove them – that dedicated priest who was the hub of the project and to whom everyone involved looked to for leadership.

That time is past. Those good, pastorally-minded priests still exist and I believe they still wish to enhance the lives of their parishioners in a holistic way. But the odds are stacked against them. Many of them are just fatigued. I think it’s fair to say that they are not full of the energy and idealistic enthusiasm of youth anymore. And even if they CAN muster enthusiasm to embark on a parish community project, they find that the deep pool of willing workers they could once call on is now no more than a pothole. And those willing workers are also suffering from advancing years and declining energy.

So what’s to be done? Do we just give up on parish being a place where those who wish to feel a strong sense of belonging within a vibrant, active community – not just a place where they nourish their souls as individuals practicing their faith to the best of their ability? I feel it would hasten the tolling of the death knell for Catholicism here if we do that.

As one of the willing workers who suffers from advancing years and declining energy, I’d like to offer my observations and suggestions as to the way forward. I hasten to add, there’s nothing scientific here, and I’m not an expert in anything. But I have been involved in the community life of my parish for many years. That has included many different projects in many different teams. So I’ve decided I might have something to offer. Take it or leave it as you choose.

I need to explain that I live in a parish where the age profile of active members is generally on the wrong side of middle-age. While not wishing to do an injustice to the under sixties and young families who attend liturgies, I  believe it’s fair to say that very few of them take a proactive role in the parish – they are consumers rather than providers. Having attended events run by the diocese which involve bigger gatherings, I don’t think our parish is all that unusual in this. I’d love to be proven wrong.

First of all – my observations re the role of the priest. It’s natural for the community to look to the priest for leadership – it has ever been so in Irish Catholic society – so the onus is on the priest to ensure the correct atmosphere exists within the parish – that atmosphere where people know they are encouraged and supported in the community endeavours they wish to implement. Seems simple enough? Yes, but only if the priest then shows his respect for the community and allows them freedom to get on with things without looking over their shoulders and demanding he has to have the final word. A lot of priests, even those who mean well, seem to have great difficulty in trusting their parishioners. And, from this side of the fence, there is nothing more discouraging than the feeling that Big Brother is watching every move and waiting for you to slip up. We are bombarded these days with the exhortation for the laity to take co-responsibility for the life of the church. That involves the clerics looking into their hearts, acknowledging their need to be in control and removing it every time it rears its ugly head!

What about this side of the fence? What do the willing workers need to do? Quite simply, we need to step up and DO! We need to take responsibility for our parish community development, and stop leaving it to others to meet our community needs. We need to stop griping and bemoaning the fact that there is no life in our parish anymore, and resuscitate it. Again, it seems obvious and a simple thing to do. But it is anything but easy!

First of all, it demands individuals to accept that it is not enough to be consumers in our faith community – our baptism demands active involvement. That is incredibly difficult for us here in Ireland, as those of us who are now well past the first blush of youth grew up in a church where we were TAUGHT to be subservient, not to question our priests but to pay, pray and obey. It takes nothing short of metanoia to move past that. Personal encouragement from the priest, and from those parishioners who already take a proactive role in the parish go a long way.

At this point, I have to point out that the “willing workers” need to look into our hearts too! From personal experience I know that it’s all too easy to become possessive of the parish activities I’ve been involved in. It can be even more pointed when there’s a nice little group of us who “run” a particular activity. We can easily become quite a closed group who, probably without meaning to do so, discourage others from getting involved. So I think the onus is on each and every one of us to keep encouraging others to join us. We need to develop an attitude of open-heartedness and welcome to anyone who takes up our invitation or approaches us proactively with offers to get involved. And we have to go further than that. We have to be willing to let go of “We always do it this way”, and validate others with new ideas. It can be incredibly difficult to do, but when people feel they and/or their ideas are not particularly welcome, they don’t tend to come forward a second time. When we feel welcome and validated, most people are happy to put our time and talent into activities.

There’s one other big pitfall that I’ve observed in being part of parish events/activities. It’s the “I’m happy to get stuck in, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing” phenomenon – another huge stumbling block to continued involvement. Even with the best will in the world, community endeavours fall apart when they’re left to “everybody” to organise. I’ve been at countless meetings to organise parish activities where we agree we’ll do this and that and the other thing. But when the time comes to reap the rewards of this, that and the other thing, we realise that nobody actually did them, because it wasn’t their function! If a name can’t be assigned to a task, forget it – it won’t be done! This results in new volunteers being very uncertain as to what should actually be happening, and that uncertainty can all too easily lead to an unwillingness to step forward again.

As human beings, we need to be affirmed and appreciated. While we might like to claim we don’t expect or need thanks for any contribution we make to our parish community, a sincere word of thanks after our efforts leaves us feeling appreciated and much more likely to continue involvement in parish activities.

For all these reasons, every event/activity run in the parish to develop community needs a coordinator. We can’t expect the priest to take this role anymore – nor should the priest feel that it is his place to do so! There are many, many competent adults in every parish who have more than enough ability to be the person who ensures that all aspects of a project are covered – from the initial gathering to get the ball rolling to the ensuring that everyone is thanked afterwards. The coordinator can see to it that names are assigned to tasks that that there are clear lines of communication where everyone knows whose place it is to do what and when. All communication is directed through the coordinator, so everyone knows who to approach when any confusion arises.

A word of caution for the coordinator. It’s important that the coordinator doesn’t feel (s)he is in charge, and can impose her/his will on everybody else. That is a sure way to drive volunteers away! The role of the coordinator is simply to be the central hub, the person who has the overview of the whole activity and is on the lookout for gaps so that (s)he can request that the gaps be filled (and make note of who is doing the filling!) To that end, a Checklist of every aspect of the activity is the most useful tool a coordinator can have. This is particularly useful when the activity is one that will be repeated. An evaluation meeting immediately after the conclusion of the activity, where such a list is compiled is invaluable to the person who takes on the role of coordinator next time around.

It must be remembered that volunteers in a parish are not professionals who have been trained for involvement in parish activities – nor have they necessarily had training in being part of teams. So mistakes will be made. But with an attitude of mutual acceptance and support, a sense of humour and a decision to enjoy the whole process, working alongside other members of your parish to provide an event which will enhance people’s sense of belonging in a vibrant, welcoming community of faith, can be great fun. Try it!

Similar Posts


  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    Great to hear from you again, Jo.

  2. Soline Humbert says:

    Jo, I endorse Paddy’s comment. Thank you for sharing some of your valuable experience and wisdom from your long involvement in your parish. It’s great you have kept your sense of humour! A very blessed Christmas.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.