Discipleship and Mission

June 24, 2016


Fr. Don Thimm and members of his parish leadership team at Holy Apostles Parish in New Berlin, Wisconsin, wanted to be more deliberate in their approach to discipleship. After participating in one of Parish Catalyst’s Leaning Communities focused on Dynamic Discipleship, Fr. Thimm had a sense of how Holy Apostles needed to move forward. The team had already identified characteristic traits of a disciple, and had further refined them during their discussions in the Learning Community. Now it was time to implement their insights in the parish life and organization. However, Fr. Thimm observed, the question of discipleship “had been on the agenda for the last two years, but no one ever seemed to champion it or move it forward.” He had previously met with various leaders in the parish and asked them, “‘How do we begin, with one voice and one movement, to work on this thing called discipleship?’ And it was really clear that very often we’d get distracted. There was no common focus for it.” Holy Apostles’ participation in the Parish Catalyst Learning Community reinforced for him that concentrated action was needed. “If we were going to make it a transformative part of the parish, we would need to put some resources into it,” he said.

The experience of participating in Parish Catalyst’s Learning Community reinforced for Fr. Thimm and his team the necessity of reallocating resources in a deliberate way. They moved forward with a plan already in place, and after one of the parish’s priests was reassigned, Fr. Thimm created a new staff position: Mission Director for Discipleship. This staff position does not hold any specific program responsibilities, but rather is dedicated to help parish leadership to retain discipleship as their guiding focus for all their activities. The position is meant “to give us a clearer purpose, a process, an alignment and focus on mission,” said Fr. Thimm. “Her job is to help us realign our resources — of people, time, and programs — around discipleship.” This realignment will not necessarily involve any additional resources in funding or time, and in fact Fr. Thimm hopes it will not: “We’re all way too busy, doing good things, so we have to realize that we’re not going to be able to work harder. If anything, we have to cut back what we’re doing and work differently and focus on the one purpose that we’re here.”

Along with the creation of the new staff position for discipleship, all staff will have their job titles amended to better reflect the mission focus of the parish. For instance, most heads of ministries will now receive the title of “Mission Director” for their specific area, such as “Mission Director for Charity and Justice.” This change is not meant to be merely cosmetic or rhetorical. Fr. Thimm hopes that it will not only reinforce the primary focus of all parish activities and ministries, but also unite the parish’s many staff and ministers in pursuit of a shared mission. As he explained, “The first thing we’re doing here is to be primarily mission focused. That’s part of what we brought back from Parish Catalyst, to say to everyone on staff, ‘You may have come here to do your thing, but now mission is primary.’ That means that the spiritual life and being willing to have your heart open to being on fire for Christ Jesus is a primary piece of our culture that we’re introducing as an expectation of staff. It focuses less on silos and more on one common goal.”

Holy Apostles was the first parish in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to create a staff position specifically dedicated to discipleship. Since then, however, two other parishes in the diocese have done the same. While the new Mission Director for Discipleship has not yet arrived at Holy Apostles, Fr. Thimm is optimistic regarding the success of the new position and the parish’s renewed focus. He and his staff already have a robust plan for forming and sending parishioners as disciples in their communities, and look forward to seeing it implemented and flourishing as they live out their mission as a parish.

By: Katherine Brown, Los Angeles, CA

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