Parish 'revolving door' syndrome led to creation of Catholic Hospitality Training Institute

Pat Girard, an usher at Sacred Heart Parish in Dearborn and part of the parish's hospitality and welcome ministry, smiles as he greets visitors to the parish during a recent liturgy. Evangelization hinges on a spirit of welcoming, a belief that spurred the creation of the Catholic Hospitality Training Institute, based in Warren. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

St. Paul Evangelization Institute helps parishes attract, keep families through hospitality, welcoming spirit

WARREN — The St. Paul Evangelization Institute in Warren has created a hospitality program to combat Catholic parishes’ “revolving door syndrome.”

Known for its successful street evangelization ministry, the St. Paul team designed the Catholic Hospitality Training Institute to help church leaders and parishioners to be more welcoming, as a “part two” in the evangelization process. 

After street ministry gets people in the building, hospitality makes them feel welcome and, ideally, keeps them coming back, said Sheri Wohlfert, who created the program and is its main trainer.  

“It started to help parishes be more welcoming and inviting to people who were coming back to the church,” said Wohlfert, a Catholic-school teacher, author and speaker who has her own ministry called Joyful Words.

Wohlfert has presented the program all over the United States and in Canada, often to church staff and volunteers, and sometimes to an entire parish. Another trainer offers the program in Spanish. It has been presented about two dozen times, according to Adam Janke, chief operating officer of the St. Paul Evangelization Institute.

A critical component of evangelization

Parishes can get their own “feel,” Wohlfert said, as people tend to sit in the same places and talk to the same parishioners. She stresses that hospitality can be simple — as easy as a “sit here,” “welcome,” or “here is a hymnal.”

“I just don’t think we realize how important that is,” Wohlfert said.

The six-hour training has four parts. The first is the call to holiness, in which participants look at their own journey and effort toward sanctity. Wohlfert said greeting people and promoting inclusion are acts of holiness. The second part covers the call to share the Gospel as well as praying with and for others. Third is the call to serve, help and bring mercy and peace. The fourth part emphasizes that Catholics are called to build God’s kingdom on earth.

The program includes group discussions, Q-and-A and videos.

“Usually, by the time the day is done, (participants) have some time to put some plans in place,” Wohlfert said.

Participants get a follow-up email newsletter with a video each month for 12 months after the training to help them stay on track.

Kevin McCullough greets parishioners at the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak during “Unleash the Gospel Weekend” in November 2018. The parish recently participated in hospitality training through the St. Paul Evangelization Institute. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

“People have a great day, and usually they’ll say it’s not how I expected,” Wohlfert said.

People expect a manual, Wohlfert said; however, hospitality is personal, and everyone brings their own gifts to the effort.

One of the more powerful — and unexpected — parts of the training is a discussion on spontaneous prayer with others, something Catholics are not used to, Wohlfert said.

The goal of the training is “to find a way to help people realize this is Christ’s church, not ours,” she said.

The training is a great starting point, according to Judy Maten, who is on the strategic planning committee for the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak. The parish hosted the training in September 2018.

“Anyone who would be a front face for someone coming to Mass” attended the training, Maten said.

Wohlfert made everyone feel welcome, had good stories to tell, and made good suggestions, Maten said. She drew participants’ attention to places in the church where people have “encounters,” both during and outside of Mass. For example, she discussed the placement of the front desk, offering bottled water or snacks to visitors waiting for appointments, adding signs that point the way to the restrooms, and posting information on how to get involved.

Maten said the training addressed “all those things people know but shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to discover.”

The basilica added improved signage and monitors at entrances that show upcoming events.

Maten and the team at Shrine got to use their new skills when “Reboot,” a program by Real Life Catholic featuring Catholic speaker Chris Stefanick, was hosted at the church in February. More than 60 volunteers of all ages welcomed a crowd of 1,100 people. The group was trained beforehand, and the hospitality started with volunteers holding signs in the parking lot.

The National Shrine of the Little Flower is packed during a Mass celebrating the first feast day of Blessed Solanus Casey in July 2018. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

The event went off without a hitch, and guests said they felt welcome. However, Maten said there is still a lot of work to do overall when it comes to hospitality. The workshop gave people a lot of ideas, but it’s easy for people to fall back into old patterns.

“Sheri gave us the bird’s-eye view and got us all excited,” Maten said.

Maten would like to work out the nuts and bolts for each ministry, outlining specific jobs for ushers, lectors, choir members, the worship team and others. Maten said the parish might schedule a workshop for the fall.

A 'paradigm shift' in parishes

The idea of hospitality stems from a bigger cultural change in the Catholic Church that needs to happen, Maten said. In order to draw people in, parishes should focus less on programming and more on personalized encounters as a form of evangelization.

“When we’re talking paradigm shift, it can’t be business as usual,” Maten said. “It also can’t be 'me and my friends.'”

It’s easy to plan a program for 300 people and hope something sticks, Maten said. However, reaching out, finding needs, walking with people and making people feel that they have dignity and are loved, just as Jesus did, are much more effective methods.

“It’s very necessary to evangelize in our world because it’s all one-on-one,” Maten said.

When Maten joined Shrine as a newlywed, an older woman took her under her wing and got her involved in volunteer work with the parish.

“I need to be able to do that,” Maten said. “Our entire parish needs to be able to do that — to notice people and invite them in.”

Fr. Jeremy Harrington, OFM, eats and talks with diners during a Lenten fish fry at the Church of the Transfiguration in Southfield. The Franciscan friars at Transfiguration can be found working the kitchen and the dining hall, using the opportunity to invite and engage Catholics and non-Catholics alike. 

Her experience was vastly different from that of a young man and elderly woman Maten mentioned. Both felt there was no way to get into Shrine’s culture because they didn’t have children and therefore weren’t involved in the parish schools.

Maten has met many people who left the church because they didn’t feel welcome or cared about.

So, how does one make people feel welcome? That question is essential at a parish like Shrine, which is big enough to register 500 new families each year.

Maten said it starts with everyone. Being caring and open is part of a Catholic's duty.

The other part involves charisms, or gifts and talents bestowed during baptism and stirred up during confirmation. These can be expressed through vocations, ways to be involved in the church or religious education, or just by praying with someone or helping them through a tough time.

It’s important to identify which charisms work for a person and which do not, Maten said. Instead of asking for volunteers, church leaders should learn individuals’ charisms and call them to ministry accordingly. 

This culture shift also comes with a change in the understanding of evangelization, Maten said. Part of the reason people shy away from evangelization is because they misunderstand what it is. 

“Not everyone is supposed to be out on a street corner with a megaphone,” Maten said.

Today’s evangelization encourages Catholics to be conduits and use their strengths to do God’s work.

“You don’t have to worry about what you’re going to say or anything else,” Maten said. “God’s got it. You have to be the vessel.”

Learn more

More information on the St. Paul Evangelization Institute is available here. Check out more information on the Catholic Hospitality Training Institute here or by emailing Janke at [email protected]