Building With Francis—Missions in the Franciscan Tradition

October 20, 2016


St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, MD is a parish with a mission, on a mission.  One of their key components is dedication toward providing transformative mission trip experiences at the local, national, and international scope.

Father Mike Johnson, OFM, discovered his passion for missions during his formation period as a Franciscan Friar, which included a number of years living in Peru and Bolivia serving in prisons and parishes.  Over his fifteen years on staff at St. Camillus, eight of them as pastor, Father Mike has attended most of the 23 mission trips the parish has sponsored, making it one special area of pastoral focus.  As he moves on to his next assignment, he is most proud of the program’s sustainability after he is gone.

A Culture of Mission

 A strong mission culture requires a clear and sustainable structure.  The strength of and sustainability of St. Camillus’ program is structured under the parish approach called St. Francis Builds, which is designed, according to Father Mike, as part Franciscan retreat and part serious service opportunity.  The whole process is imbued with an authentic Franciscan spirituality, which Father Mike summarizes in two questions throughout the experience: “What have you been stripped of?” and, “What have you been opened up for?”

The parish’s missions program is organized into four categories that help participants of various comfort levels, calling, and experience:

  • Francis Inn—A unique Franciscan run soup kitchen in Philadelphia
  • New Orleans—Where parishioners have served every year since Hurricane Katrina
  • Pine Ridge Reservation—Especially popular with high school students, Pine Ridge is a Lakota Native American Reservation
  • International Mission—A more intense, 9-10 day experience when missionaries turn off technology. Over the years, the group has made trips to Peru, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Jordan, usually spending a few years with each location.

Creating a vibrant missions program like St. Camillus is an investment over years, decades, for a parish.  Father Mike laid out a few tips to keep in mind when it comes to building a program that is impassioned, yet sustainable and resilient.

Build More Than Houses

 Sustainability thrives on a robust spirituality.  What truly inspires continued investment in missions and to invite others is the opportunity to build relationships through prayer and interaction with the people being served and the other missionaries.  Leave time at the end of each day to unpack the day in silent prayer and group conversation.

Start Smart

If you are just starting out, Father Mike advises to begin by connecting your small group of future mission leaders with a more seasoned program as participants.  Have leaders attend closely to the planning and execution.  Suspend any preconceived notions or desire to intervene or offer much input.  Then, when your leaders have returned, invite them to talk and discern their experience—what things they liked and things they would change.  Move outward in size—first try something shorter term and state/local, then national, then overseas.

Have a Clear Plan and Motive

Always be clear why you are serving and more specifically, why you are serving where you are.  Don’t lose sight of your calling and purpose.  It will sustain you when planning is tough or things go wrong.

Send the Right People

 All are called to serve in some capacity, but not all are called to serve in the same way.  In fact, the parish conducts a heavy screening process with a Lay Board of members who also oversee the entire planning process for the trips with the pastor and any missions staff.  It’s not grueling and it’s not exclusive—it’s about providing people with the best opportunity to exercise their gifts.

By Evan Ponton

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