Around the ArchdioceseFaith Formation

Fostering a ‘life-changing encounter with Jesus’

Study day speaker focuses on doing this in parishes

By Dan Russo
Witness Editor

WATERLOO — While addressing pastoral leaders of the Archdiocese of Dubuque on the topic of how parishes can offer a life-changing encounter with Jesus, Father John Riccardo didn’t pull any punches.

“Most parish staffs are dysfunctional, and the parish knows it, but the parish staff is what holds everything together,” said the priest, Oct. 17 at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center in Waterloo. “The staff is the spinal cord.”

Comparing a parish to a body, Father Riccardo explained that the pastoral leaders and their support personnel are the brain stem and nervous system that allows the rest of the body to carry out the work of Christ. In order to shift from dysfunction to efficiency, he argued, the staff must become a team.

“Before we can do anything ministry-­wise, (my advice) would be to take a look internally and see what the infrastructure of our parishes looks like,” he said. “So what’s the state of the staff, the team that we work with? How healthy are we? What can we do to become healthy and go from becoming a staff to a team?”

Father Riccardo is pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel, a congregation of about 12,000 in Plymouth, Michigan, that has several dozen paid staff and many volunteers. He offered his perspective as key­note speaker of the fall Pastoral Leader­ship Study Day, a semi-annual event sponsored jointly by The Archbishop Kucera Center for Catholic Intellectual and Spiritual Life at Loras College and the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

“We’re continuing a series on the archdiocesan mission priorities,” said Dan Rohner, director of the Office of Pastoral Planning and Leadership Development for the archdiocese. “Last study day focused on the Sunday assembly. This time is about faith formation.”

About 250 clergy, pastoral associates, other paid parish staff and volunteers gathered for the most recent study day. They represented about 100 parishes. After two main talks by Father Riccardo, participants held table discussions and were then able to ask questions of the speaker. In his morning address, Father Riccardo asserted that there are five “non-negotiables” that are needed for a parish to have the proper “skeletal structure” to perform ministry.

First, the staff must have the conviction that the “Gospel really is power.” The priest said that many churches are still operating under a “Christendom mentality,” assuming that we are living in a society based on Christian values. Father Riccardo said we now have more in common with early Christians who were a minority in their mostly pagan societies, and we need to switch to an “apostolic missionary mode.”

“God wants his world back, and it’s our job to help him, and I don’t know anything more exciting and nobler than that,” he said.

Second, he said parishes must practice eucharistic exposition. Third, the pastor must pray. The priest acknowledged the pressures on pastors’ time, but said making this effort is essential.

“Most pastors I know struggle with praying,” said Father Riccardo. “If that doesn’t happen then all we’re doing is we’re running a company. I don’t want to run a company.”

Fourth, the personnel at a parish must go from being a staff to a team. The priest used examples from his own parish to explain how to do this, including his practice of holding frank meetings on a regular basis.

“Healthy conflict drives things. We’re very open with each other,” he said.

Fifth, the most important element to creating a team is for the staff to pray together. Father Riccardo said he and his staff pray for about 30 minutes a day and engage in eucharistic adoration together once a week.

In the afternoon, Father Riccardo offered some practical advice on best practices in ministry, how to evangelize, and then once people have that encounter with Jesus, how to help them grow and then witness as disciples.

“Evangelization is just proclaiming the Gospel. I can do that with 10,000 people,” he said in an interview with The Witness before his second talk. “The best definition I’ve heard of a disciple personally is somebody who is striving to bring their entire life under the lordship of Jesus. The only way I can do that is one on one. Someone ‘discipled’ me, and we want to be about the work of discipling others. Jesus did that. I can invest deeply in 3, 4, 5 people. You can do that … but I can’t invest deeply in 12,000 people. I’m trying to train disciples to be disciple makers. Otherwise Father does it all, or the parish staff and Father does it all, and we’ve seen what that does, that just gives everybody a heart attack.”

Participants in the study day had discussions at their tables on what action steps they could take to improve their “teams” and parishes. They also had a chance to question Father Riccardo. The discussions and questions were candid and covered many topics including, how to integrate a parish with a school community, how a pastor can best serve multiple parishes, and what to do about discouragement, tiredness and other issues.

“One of the issues that came up for us was discussing a time to get together to pray,” said Denise Uhlenhake, a staff member at a group of linked parishes based in Calmar.

She said serving parishioners with a small staff can be a challenge and that Father Riccardo’s talks and the table discussions offered insight.

“We’re always looking for ways to engage our members,” she said.

Dave Cochran, a Loras College professor who worked on the organizing committee for the study day, said the event helped give him perspective on his role serving as a lay person at a Catholic college. He reflected on one of the key questions of the day, which was that pastoral leaders must ask themselves what their purpose is and keep in mind their mission of helping others encounter Jesus.

“It’s the idea that it’s not just a job, it’s a vocation, a ministry,” said Cochran. “It’s a constant process of reminding yourself why you’re there.”

The next Pastoral Leadership Study Day will be held April 10, 2018, and will focus on the topic of stewardship. The speaker is Leisa Anslinger. For more information, visit


Father John Riccardo, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, Michigan, gave two talks and answered questions at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center during the event for pastoral leaders, one of two study days held each year. (Witness Photo by Dan Russo)