Obstacles to Friendship in Parish Life, Part 1
Even becoming "friendly strangers" or mere acquaintances requires effort and infrastructure. What are the personal and parish obstacles to forming these base-level friendships?
This the third in our series on parish hospitality and friendship. The first installment was on the need for greater extraversion among Catholics.
Last week we did an exceedingly detailed walk through the levels of friendship in parish life (or anywhere) and how you move into deeper levels of friendship. If you haven’t finished reading that installment yet, you’ll want to do that before you continue here. This week we are going to start our troubleshooting process, and I’m going to assume you understood and remember what we talked about last week.
—> Subscribers, keep in mind that if you ever have questions, you can reply to the e-mailed version of this newsletter to let me know what those questions are. I can’t always answer individually, but knowing where you’re having problems lets me know where to take the conversation. I will commit to praying for you regardless, and I won’t share any personal details unless you tell me otherwise. (If I address your topic request generally, I’ll do so without indicating any identifying details.)
Something I want emphasize based on some feedback from last week’s post: Start where you are, and do the amount that God is enabling you to do. Believe me, there have been times when I could not physically hold a conversation. That’ll limit your sociability. So I know that you have limits on your time, your energy, your authority . . . so many constraints.
Just because hospitality is integral to the Christian mission does not mean that Jesus died and left you in charge of every single act of welcome or friendship ever. Do what you can. That’s your mission: What you can.
With that essential perspective in mind, this week we’re going to begin identifying the things that make it difficult or impossible to form and maintain friendships in parish life.
Obstacles to Friendly Strangers
You’ll recall that “friendly strangers” are the people you see regularly at your parish, people you might greet or even assist when the occasion arises, but you don’t really know each other.
You might be thinking: What could get in the way of this most minimal of human relationships?
You have to be showing up in the same place at the same time in order to see someone repeatedly enough that they register as part of your friendly-stranger community. Some causes of irregular church attendance include:
Constantly shifting work, social, or caregiving schedules;
Jobs that require working (including commute times) during the available local Masses;
Illnesses that make it unwise or impossible to attend Mass;
Shared custody arrangements, such that the child* isn’t with the Catholic parent (or grandparent, etc.) on the weekends to attend Mass;
Inability to attend Mass due to a lack of disability accommodations;
Inability to attend Mass due to a lack of transportation;
Terrible music, homilies, sound system, etc., such that nobody attends that Mass unless they just have no other choice.
I’m sorry to have to be so frank about that last one. It’s not a very common problem, but sometimes it is a real problem, and we can’t fix it if we don’t admit to it.
I will add here that 100% of Masses I have ever attended in my life are inaccessible to sign-language using Deaf people, and more often than not they are partially or completely inaccessible to the hearing-impaired who rely on some combination of captions/transcript or audio assistance to understand what is going on. This doesn’t mean Jesus won’t show? But it means you can’t understand what is being said. And that qualifies as a lousy experience.
Reminder when deciding what languages prioritize for your Mass: With persistent effort and tutoring, most non-natives can learn a second language at least well enough to understand what is being said, even if they don’t ever speak it fluently, especially if you take the time to be sure you speak clearly. Deaf people cannot magically learn how to hear.
* Why yes, we’re including all would-be parishioners in this one, and children and teens need friendship as desperately as anyone else does.
Sometimes people just can’t seem to settle into a regular Mass attendance pattern, despite having no particular obvious obstacle to attending. I think this problem needs to be examined separately, because it is complex and nuanced, but let’s just say for now: It is an evangelization problem. We’ll be coming back to it.
Inability to communicate.
To be “friendly strangers” doesn’t require very much communication, but it does require knowing and recognizing the other person. Obstacles therefore include:
Any disability that limits your ability to recognize or remember the people around you;
Major distractions, such as caring for your colicky or rambunctious child (everyone knows you, but you don’t know them);
Social anxiety, generic shyness, and Back Pew Syndrome;
Intense prayerfulness (not a problem, just a thing that does happen);
Loss of non-verbal communication due to physical barriers.
In that last category, I’ll observe that masking is a barrier to non-verbal communication, even though, full disclosure: For medical reasons I do mask in crowded places, and if anything I am not careful enough in the level of precautions I take, but this is not a medical blog, we’re talking about communication.
Summary: There are things that hamper communication and relationship formation even at the very most basic “friendly stranger” level of friendship. Your homework for this week is to think about what changes might help overcome some of these obstacles.
Obstacles to Making Acquaintances
An acquaintance is someone you “know” but you aren’t really friends. You either know each other’s names, or you at least feel like you ought to; you speak to each other; you have a clear sense of knowing who the other person is.
This is a fairly broad category on the friendship spectrum. All the obstacles that we mentioned for “friendly strangers” apply here. Additional obstacles include:
This is not a liturgical debate. The reality is that the Catholic Mass is an act of worship that generally precludes greeting and social times during the liturgy.
I am aware there are exceptions to this. I have seen those exceptions happen in a way that did not detract from worship for that community — indeed enhanced the sense of preparing to worship — and to my knowledge did not violate any liturgical norms
HOWEVER: No matter how much you write in to tell me about such exceptions, my experience in many, many different Catholic settings is that this is one we need to treat as a fact generally, even if it doesn’t happen to be a fact in your particular community. —> I’ve known far too many priests whose liturgical formation is spot-on and whose judgement I absolutely trust when they decide that planned socialization during the liturgy, including disruptions to private prayer before and after, is not the right route to take.
What this means is that for most Catholic parishes, opportunities to make acquaintances have to arise outside of Mass.
Recall from last week: It is necessary to break with situation-dependence in order to experience deep and lasting friendship. So this constraint of the Catholic liturgy should not be regarded as the enemy, but rather as your Mother Church gently prodding you to go ahead and level-up a little bit on your socialization game.
No physical space for informal socializing.
If people are going to talk to each other, where is it going to happen? Think about the places your parish currently has available for casual conversations:
Can that chit-chat happen there any time of year, or only in certain weather?
Is there room for everyone to socialize, or only a handful of holdouts after the rest of the congregation goes home?
Is it a specialized space, only suited to certain ages?
Is it physically accessible to all parishioners? Even if it is technically accessible, is it too far away for those with limited stamina? Is there a place to sit down for those who can’t stand very long?
Is it easy to find? Would newcomers know where to go, and know that they are welcome to join in?
Is it locked? Is it only opened for special occasions? Is it often booked for meetings? Or is it available before and after every service?
Are the acoustics good? If you can’t hear each other speak over the din, it’s harder to hold a conversation.
Is it physically safe? Honestly the parking lot really isn’t the best place to stand around chatting. Though the four-lane highway out front is even worse.
General rule on physical space: The harder it is to gather together, the more assertive you need to be about making that gathering happen.
No planned time for informal socializing.
In addition to social times before or after Mass, think about the time before and after religious education, Bible study, or parish ministry events. If there is no planned downtime for people to chat and get to know each other, they won’t.
No culture of friendliness and socializing with strangers.
I would say this is the number one obstacle Catholics face, and it has nothing to do with being Catholic.
It is normal that Catholics enter the nave of the church before Mass, kneel down to pray, and largely focus on prayer until they have finished their after-Mass prayers, blessed themselves on the way out, and rejoined the world. It is not normal that we be uncomfortable striking up conversations with the people we see at church every week.
What can you actually control in all this?
There’s a pretty varied readership here. Some of you are in parish leadership, some of you most definitely are not. No matter what role you play in your local congregation, though, there are limits to that role. You don’t get to control everything. You only control your things, and even then, you usually aren’t as in charge as you’d like.
So in thinking through all this, ask yourself:
What changes can I personally make right now?
What changes might I be able to make down the road?
What changes are someone else’s responsibility, but I could support them in some way?
What changes are impossible, and what can I do to still find ways to be hospitable despite it all?
Some changes are single small changes. You decide you’ll say hello to that nice family who sits in front of you. Maybe it’s awkward and uncomfortable because you are so shy (or they are), but you just do it and then you did it.
Others changes seem small until you think through the details: If I unlock that parish hall so people can gather, now I need to have a staff member stay on site, I need to arrange clean-up, there’s a security concern . . . no matter how much you want to make it happen, you’re going to have to work to make it happen.
It’s important to keep this all in mind in the coming weeks when we’re talking about specific tactics. Just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean it is a good idea for you. But also: Just because it is a daunting idea doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.
Good tactics require good discernment.
Share the wealth of your experience!
As we get into the problem-solving phase of this series, I’d love to hear from you. If there’s something you’ve done to become more hospitable, either individually or as part of a ministry-level or parish-level initiative, and you’d like to let other people know about it, feel free to leave a comment (sponsors) or drop me an e-mail (all subscribers), so others can learn from your experience.
It’s okay if that thing you did really only applies in a few limited situations. There are other people in that situation, and your solution might be the one they are looking for. If you write in with something you’d like me to pass on to the readership, let me know how you’d like to be identified (“pastor of a small rural parish” “Judy from Dallas” “a reader in Canada” “coach of the parish basketball team” etc.) and what parts of the e-mail are for my eyes only and what you’re happy to share.
Have a great week a blessed start to your Lent.
Two Reminders if You Can’t Enough of Me
Speaking of discernment: It’s time for the annual free-download sale on Lord, You Know I Love You! I’ve scheduled the e-book to be free from Wednesday, February 22, 2023, 12:00 AM PST to Sunday, February 26, 2023, 11:59 PM PST. So check the Amazon link and when you see the price go to zero, that’s your opening.
FYI I had scheduled time into the writing calendar this fall to improve the Kindle version, add a paperback option, and throw in some edits that I think will make it a stronger book. Alas, we do not control all that we would like. When I finally get around to those edits, I’ll let you know. But anyway, free is not such a bad deal. Enjoy.
Speaking of Evangelization: Registration is still open if you want to catch my evangelization talk this coming Sunday. I look forward to seeing some of you there!
Photo: Boulder embedded in stone wall by Trevor Littlewood, CC 4.0